Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Intellectual Leprosy

Intellectual Leprosy is the title of an excerpt from Simone Weil's book called "On the Abolition of All Political Parties".  I read the excerpt in the Fall Edition of the Lapham's Quarterly called Rivalry and Feud, which I finished reading a few weeks ago.

Weil was a French philosopher and political activist of the early 20th century.  Although she died young, at age 34, and most of her writings were largely ignored until after her death, she is now regarded as an influential political thinker of her time.

The above except begins with the following quote.

"One recognizes that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets.  One recognizes it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organizations that generate such evils."

Later, she writes:

"Just as within political parties, there are some democratically minded people who accept a plurality of parties, similarly, in the realm of opinion, there are broad-minded people willing to acknowledge the value of opinions with which they disagree.  They have completely lost the concept of true and false  Others, having taken a position in favor of a certain opinion, refuse to examine any dissenting view."

From there, Weil gives examples from science, art and literature and even religion and faith which demonstrate that once an opinion of something is established, the arguments are based on for or against, regardless of facts or data.  The famous line, you are either with us or against us comes to mind.  Weil concludes that rather than ask for or against, we should simply ask what do you think?  What are your ideas?  It seems that this topic remains as relevant today as it was then.  And, let's not forget, that "then" was a time when the citizens of one European country in particular were facing the choice to be for the exclusion of people of certain heritage or against, but not just in writings or polite political discussions, but in real life decisions to identify those undesirables, isolate them, eradicate them.

Some say we are experiencing another round of global nationalism.  Many people, out of fear of all the changes that have occurred in technology and communication which have brought us closer together than ever at the same time as providing us with examples of how we are different from each other, have turned to strong arm leaders who identify for them who is right and who is wrong, making the for or against decision that much easier.  Some of these leaders are freely elected, others accumulate power, slowly, inexorably, until only one thought is possible, and the for or against is predetermined.

One might say that Weil's fears of how this tribalism can be destructive, fears which created an environment which led to the Holocaust, have surfaced again.  Whether they were temporarily suppressed due to the horrors of WW2, replaced by a new hope that we had cleansed our world of such
discrimination, or whether just redirected to appeal to a different base desire, greed, it is all conjecture.

But Wiel's main point, that intellectual leprosy as defined by a willingness to disregard any of one's own thinking or meditations, in favor of what the party or leader has determined to be the truth, is the true danger which results in humanity's complacency at best, brutality at worst.

Weil clearly concludes that political parties, among all the other tribal ways we identify ourselves, whether they be nationality, ethnicity, race or even sports team affiliation, unleashes a for or against mentality that "replaces the activity of the mind".  Her belief is that it is political in origin and that it spread from there to infect the land, "contaminating all forms of thinking."

And so she proposes, and defends in her book, the abolition of all political parties; as if, by removing the head, we eliminate the poison which threatens the body.

The question is, can it be done?  It is clearly ingrained in our DNA to form social groups.  Not only part of our make-up, but a part which has led to our evolution to be, for better or worse, the people we are now.  Is it just a matter of increasing the size of our group?  Stop thinking about us vs them on a skin color or nationality level; instead make it a planetary one?  If we can't suppress millions of years of evolution, perhaps we just expand its definition. 

From that standpoint, does each of us, as individuals, progress the development of the concept of humanity as all earthlings, or do we continue to support and applaud policies and concepts that identify and isolate those among us that we have decided should not belong. 

Perhaps the first step might be to eliminate political party affiliation in the voting booth.  No parties, just names.  Demand that the electorate know something about the person they are about to choose.  And create a national guideline that requires every state to expand voting access, whether it be early voting, extended hours, more voting days, etc.  Nothing says intellectual leprosy to me more than a country that believes it is the best in the world, in history, yet struggles to get 50% turnout in elections.

Finally, and perhaps this shows my age, perhaps some type of required course in civics in high school might be a good idea.  How does our government work, what services and benefits does it provide, how is your tax money spent, and why is democracy the worst form of government, except for all the others.  It seems there has been a successful attempt to turn the American citizens away from their  government, to see it as an obstacle, or the enemy.  If our government does not reflect We the People, then it is only We the People that our at fault by not understanding it, participating in its function, and escaping the dangers of intellectual leprosy, when thinking is replaced by following.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Supreme Court Rulings

Quick note; my last post was my 400th.  As I glance through the titles and topics of these efforts, I am struck by the variety, by the persistence in continuing to blog despite the lack of exposure, by the idea that there may come a time when the inspiration falters, and by the fear that I won't make 500 for lack of topics to comment upon countered by the equally strong concern that I have only reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of discussing the events of our time which will create lasting ramifications for the future.

Anywho, I watched the movie The Post a few days ago.  Very compelling story, even though the ending was well known.  Interesting portrayal of Katherine Graham by Meryl Streep, and of Ben Bradlee by Tom Hanks.  As we most frequently do when thinking about historic figures, there is often a loss of humanity, by which I mean we forget these people were human; flawed, insecure, perhaps even unaware of the importance of what they were doing in regards to history.  Streep's portrayal presented Graham as almost a victim of the times, a woman in a man's world where the men were all too aware of that fact, assuming she could not (or should not) be in such a high level position, but also illustrating Graham's own belief that those chauvinistic assumptions were her's as well, at least at first.   Hanks' portrayal of Bradlee however, seemed to indicate that he knew full well the importance of what they were trying to do and had no doubts that they were doing the right thing.

Another interesting aspect of the movie was the depiction of how much the profit motive was part of the argument against publication of the Pentagon Papers.  There is often talk today about how the journalism of the past was unaffected by the need to generate revenue.  That those who ran the big newspapers of the day assumed a loss, but placed their respect for the importance of a strong 4th estate above money.  This movie presents a stark contrast to that assumption as Graham faced a very real effort by the lawyers and bankers who represented the investors, to convince her to delay or refuse to publish as they feared a decision against the papers by the Supreme Court, a vindictive Nixon who might use his power to hurt the paper, and/or a public response that might deem the decision to publish classified documents as anti-American, by themselves or in concert could render the paper bankrupt.

That being said, I spent the next hour or two after the movie ended, researching the Supreme Court justices who rendered the decision, against the United States Government, in favor of both the Post and New York Times, in support of their right to publish those documents.  It doesn't seem that hard to imagine a near future Supreme Court case which might pit either of these news organizations against the current Administration.

So, who were the nine justices and, perhaps just as important, who appointed them.

The decision supporting publication was 6-3.  Those who ruled against publication were Justices Burger (who was Chief Justice) Blackmun and Harlan.  Burger and Blackmun were the most recent appointments, selected by President Nixon in his first term in office.  One might have pause to apply their ruling in favor of the effort by the Nixon Administration to suppress publication of the Papers to the apprehension that the recently appointed Judge Kavanaugh might demonstrate similar loyalty should a decision concerning President Trump come to the Supreme Court.  Justice Harlan, the third justice to rule against publication was an Eisenhower appointee.  In their briefs, all three justices indicated that they believed deferment to the executive branch in regards to the classification of sensitive data must be respected and defended.

Of the six who ruled for the newspapers, there appears to be two different reasons for reaching the same conclusion.  The first group, three of the six, were said to be absolutists in their belief that the First Amendment, the guarantee of free speech, was sacrosanct.  No exceptions.  Those three were Justices Marshall, Douglas and Black.  Justice Marshall was appointed by LBJ.  Both Douglas and Black were appointed by, get ready for it, FDR.  Each had over 30 years on the Court, 2 of the 14 justices (out of 114 total) in history who served over 30 years.

Of the other group of three, Justices White, Stewart and Brennan (two of which, White and Brennan eventually became members of the 30+ years served club), one was appointed by Kennedy, two by Eisenhower.  They believed that only in extreme circumstances should there be restrictions to the First Amendment, and it was their opinion that the Pentagon papers did not meet the heavy burden of that requirement.  For more than a few of the Justices, they regarded the release of the Papers as more of an embarrassment to the current and three preceding Administrations, less as an act which damaged the government's ability to keep secret that which must be kept secret,  or put American soldiers in harm's way.  (Quick history lesson; the Pentagon Papers revealed that American governments under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, repeatedly and knowingly lied to the Congress and the American people about the details and actions being taken during the Vietnam War.)

So, for those keeping score, appointments made by GOP Presidents voted 2-3 for restricting the release of the Papers, those appointed by Dems voted 4-0.  Hmmm.
(By the way, of the current Supreme Court justices, 5 were appointed by GOP presidents, 1 by George HW Bush, two by George W Bush, 2 by Trump while 4 were Dem appointees, two each by Clinton and Obama.  Further, while Ruth Bader Ginsberg is the oldest of the current Justices, Clarence Thomas is the longest served).

The Post, and my subsequent research on the Pentagon Papers, the follow-up historic events which led to the Post's famous journalists Woodward and Bernstein who revealed the involvement of President Nixon in authorizing, among other things, the break-in of the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and the attempts to obtain damaging information against Daniel Ellsberg (the inside source for the Pentagon Papers), and the revelations that Nixon used various government agencies as instruments for gaining knowledge about his "enemies", put in perspective the importance of that Supreme Court ruling.  Had the Court ruled to restrict First Amendment rights and hamper the press in its investigative duty, we might live in a different world today, especially in light of President Trump's "the press is the enemy of the people" rhetoric. 

It also underscores just how much power has been migrated to the Presidency, partly as the result of a squeamish Congress more worried about re-election that America, partly as a response to world shattering events which, to many, made FDR as much a dictator as any American President, and partly, perhaps, because of an electorate that prefers the easy answer of putting one person in charge, as opposed to the much harder demand that our elected officials work together despite our differences.

I am certainly not a fan of President Trump.  And I do believe that his philosophy of loyalty (to him) over the respect for law and our democracy is clearly in play.  But, when measured against the fact that part of our First Amendment rights hinged on a 6-3 count (why wasn't it 9-0?) in 1971, the prospect of a Supreme Court ruling that excuses the President from being indicted seems paltry.  We can still vote for someone else in 2020, but there is not as easy a mechanism for reversing a Supreme Court ruling restricting the First Amendment. 

My hope is that the overriding lesson of both The Post, the Pentagon Papers, and the founder's brainstorm of creating the three branches of government, is that we, the people, understand the age old maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th, early 20th century).  We showed some signs of our understanding, or was it just frustration, when we voted to give control of the House to the Dems last Tuesday.  We need to continue to be watchdog and whistle blower when we hear anyone, politician or pundit, use phrases that demean either of the three branches, or the free press as representing the 4th branch of government.  There is no room in our democracy for phrases like judicial activism, fake news, enemy of the people, or unfit to govern, when used by one branch to attack the other.  Disagreement, of course, it is the only way to guarantee that all citizens are represented and their concerns and perspectives valued.  But when one branch works to delegitimize the others, our democracy is weakened.  On a weekend when we celebrated and honored those veterans, living or dead who fought for our democracy, it would be very sad if we ignored the warning signs that might lead to a time when their sacrifice might have been in vain.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

More on midterm aftermath

Bad quarrels come when two people are wrong.
Worse quarrels come when two people are right.
  - quote from Betty Smith, 1948, best known for "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Smith's quote seems to hit the bulls eye when considered in light of today's polarized political mindset.
Of course, in this case, both sides are doubly sure they are right and the other side is wrong, so perhaps bad quarrels have surpassed worse and moved right through to devastating.

Just to review, Tuesday's midterms gave both sides, GOP and Dems, conservative and liberal, reason to claim victory.  In the House, the Dems have flipped at least 32 seats (they needed 25) to gain control of this chamber, with a few results still to be determined.  In the Senate, the GOP gained 2 seats, increasing their advantage.  And, in the states themselves, the Dems realized a net gain of 6 Governor mansions, reducing the GOP advantage from 33-17 to 26-23 with one (Georgia) still outstanding.

What this means, is that, as past history has demonstrated, the party in the White House lost partial control of the Congress, providing a check to the danger of one party rule which can often result in a lack of representation of those who voted for the minority party.  It also means that President Trump can tout his ability to get out the vote, and that he was successful in stemming the blue wave.  Also, that his goal of refashioning the judiciary by infusing it with conservative judges, will continue with an even more GOP majority in the Senate.  It also indicates, that, at least for this election cycle, more voters lean to Democratic candidates than Republican, an advantage that seems to be about 7%, one very similar to the opposite result which occurred during the 2010 midterms.

And, of course, if you want to hear an endless litany of how your side won, just tune in to your favorite biased news source, and you will be regaled with real and imaginary reasons why you should be happy.

What is missing however, sadly, I might say, is the question; did America win?

Here is my take on this much more important question.

Extremely high voter turnout, almost 50%, is certainly a win for our country.  Sure, it means that half of registered voters did not bother to exercise their civic duty, but it was the highest turnout in at least 50 years, perhaps even 100, if we manage to eek our way over the 50% number.  So, regardless of your persuasion, a big HOORAY for the American electorate.  Let's hope this becomes the norm rather than an aberration.

A record number of women won seats in Congress on Tuesday which will increase female representation in Washington from 107 members to at least 118.  Out of 535 total, that sounds a bit slim, but if 10% more per cycle continues, we might see a more representative profile within a generation, which may also produce our first female president. 

This election cycle also resulted in a more diverse collection of representatives, first Native American Congresswomen, first lesbian Governor, first Muslim representative, even the first person of color elected ever, from one state.  A more diverse composite means more diverse perspectives are presented, and hopefully, acknowledged, even if not always favored.  It reflects one of our core values, the melting pot of various cultures, origins, beliefs, and viewpoints into a working government that respects all its citizens, even, and especially those in the minority.  Try reaching that goal in an authoritarian or oligarchical government.  Again, kudos to us!

A step away from one party rule.  This seems to be a favorite tactic of the American electorate, put all our faith in one party, briefly, then force them to work together by sharing the duties. 

Will it work this time?  Clearly, that will be up to the Dems.  As I said in my last post, this president does not shy away from confrontation.  The new leaders of the House and its committees must certainly press forward to guarantee Mueller's investigation is completed, and the results made public.  But forget impeachment, there is no upside there.   Move forward with bipartisan legislation that the Senate will consider, while sprinkling in some priorities of the left, just to force McConnell to table them, transparently, or Trump to veto them should some emerge, perhaps watered down a bit, from the Senate.   

Also, and perhaps the best way to continue the trend towards electing Democratic candidates, push for immigration and health care reforms.

On immigration, spend some money for border security, even some on a wall if necessary, to provide a path of citizenship for those children brought to this country illegally.  Provide real leadership and ideas that assure middle America that the hyperbole of invading illegal immigrants is nonsense, by countering it with actual facts about immigrants, both legal and illegal, in terms that recognize the angst that some Americans feel about the changing composite of our country, acknowledge that those who engage in criminal activity will be incarcerated or deported, and emphasize the similarities between today's immigrants and our own immigrant ancestors.  Sure, the true racists won't listen, but those in the middle, independent voter and affiliated ones, will.  As will America.

In the area of healthcare, one which the voters seem most concerned about, demonstrate a willingness to listen to those that the Affordable Care Act helped and harmed.  Where helped, via the pre-existing condition rules, maintain that aspect.  Where harmed, perhaps by too high a bar being set on the basic coverage that everyone needed, allow for a combination of catastrophic coverage that reduces premiums while eliminating the possibility of bankruptcy, and/or other types of high deductible plans that give people more choice on what they need to cover in terms of their own health.  Also, without pushing too hard, continue the drive towards a single payer system where all Americans are included in the same pool, thereby spreading out the costs of sickness.  But this time target businesses, especially small businesses which struggle to provide health care insurance for its employees.  If we can get the business community on board by removing their responsibility (and cost) to provide health insurance, we can both free up money for these businesses to use for salaries, investment, capital projects, etc, while providing employees with the certainty that they can change jobs or even start their own company without sacrificing health care insurance.  And America wins again.

In some ways, the voters already indicated their willingness for more government participation in health care by electing those Democrats who ran on this issue, and by electing more Democratic governors who will be willing to expand Medicare for their states' constituents.  The key is too present it as a win-win for American business and all Americans.  Control costs through expanding the size of the pools with private health insurance companies providing the plans while basic coverage is paid via payroll taxes and anything required above that level is "shopped" for, by the customers, providing them a certainty that they will be getting rates which match their situation regardless of whether they work for a huge conglomerate or the neighborhood employer.  When healthcare costs are reasonable, value oriented, and fair, and when health care services are accessible to all, the very sick especially, then we will be able to boast that our health care system is the best in the world. 

If this were a sporting event, I conclude without hesitation that America is winning.  But big leads can be squandered, defeat wrested from the jaws of victory.   Cooperation and compromise will bring us to the finish line, not confrontation and rhetoric.  Great leaders bring people together, through inclusion, not division.  America wins when our leaders quarrel from the perspective that each side is right and wrong, and the debate should be to find the best of both worlds, not focus on the worst of each.  Let's hope that in two years, we look back on this week as the foundation of our turn towards understanding that America does not win until both sides root for all to win, not just their tribe.     

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The aftermath of the midterms

So, today is the day when we find out if President Trump's popularity will keep the blue wave at bay or whether, while galvanizing his base, he has lost those voters who identify as independent or moderate.

Whatever the outcome, I am sure of one thing.  Both sides will claim victory!!

There is a history of an incumbent president's party losing seats in Congress.  Despite the historic nature of Obama's 2008 election victory, by 2010, the GOP via the Tea Party movement and the still lingering effects of the recession of 2008, picked up an astounding 63 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate, a turnaround not seen since 1938 when the Democratic party under FDR lost a combined 79 seats.  The difference however, is that in 1938 the Dems retained control of the Congress while Obama and the Dems lost the House as well as their political momentum. 

In other words, should the Dems gain their 25 seats to take control of the House, it will be hailed a victory.  However, 25, or even 30 is far less than the 63 seats gained by the GOP in 2010, so there will be a reason to celebrate for the GOP as well.  Also, should the Senate remain in control of the GOP, there will also be reason for GOP celebration even if the count draws even at 50-50, as VP Pence holds the tie breaker. 

Additionally, there are 36 Governor elections today which is just as important in regards to gerrymandering.  Should a few key governor mansions change political hands, there will be reason for joy for the Dems. 

All in all, a very exciting time.  Hopefully, there will be record breaking turnout.

Should the Dems take the house, I truly hope that they win graciously, meaning that they don't bog down the government with endless hearings and indictments.  Certainly, I would like to see the president's tax returns, and I would hope that the Mueller investigation wraps up soon so we can
put to bed the Russian connection and incarcerate those who actively sought quid pro quo for voter influence and tampering.  But let the legal system handle those efforts.  Tamp down the politics of it, and present the facts as revealed, without embellishment, without hyperbole. 

I know there is some support for fighting fire with fire, heck, I have even advocated it at times in certain situations.  But there is nothing that can be revealed or implicated that will turn a true Trump supporter into a doubter.  As he has said more than once, he could shoot someone in Times Square and not lose his base.  It is the independent voters, and the moderates of both parties that we need to focus on.  They will determine this election, as well as future ones.  Gain their trust by creating bills that will bolster the middle class, continue to provide economic opportunity, address climate change, encourage entrepreneurship, improve our nation's infrastructure, address our education woes, encourage public-private partnerships when appropriate, underscore the advantages of a more diverse leadership demographic, propose immigration changes that reward American values as exhibited by the majority of the dreamers while also providing border security to identify the small percentage of immigrants who engage in criminal acts.  Most, if not all of these proposals, reflect the majority of Americans' viewpoint, for good reason. 

Pass these bills regardless of whether the Senate might let them die in committee.  Take to the airwaves and newspapers the positive message of the liberal agenda, and win back those who want leadership and progress, not division and stagnation.  And, if the Senate does pass some of these bills, with or without provisions, and the President vetoes them, double the effort to inform Americans that these ideas address the needs of those who are not just the 1%, and reflect the values that built our country.

Finally, above all, let the President continue his rallies without comment or coverage.  Let him continue his use of negative rhetoric in regards to his political opponents, the press, those of color, immigrants, Muslims, the LBGTQ community, etc.  Allow him his time in the sun for it is only in the light that we can distinguish prejudice and malice from equality and hope.  Let him win the rhetorical battle without retort or revenge, while we win the war for America's soul with love and kindness and a smile.