Sunday, October 31, 2021

Receding Democracy?

I recently commented on an excerpt from the Friendship edition of the Lapham's Quaterly. What I didn't mention is that the edition before that was called Democracy.  At the time, I had left a few markers within the magazine, in expectation that I would comment on them in future posts, but, as you know, I haven't been posting all that much lately.

So, let's get back to two of those marked passages.

First, from "The Dogs Held an Election", by Lame Deer as related to a reporter from Life who was collecting Native American stories and myths.

As the tale goes, the dogs were trying to elect a president.  One of them nominated the bulldog for his strength. But the bulldog was rejected due to his slowness of foot.  After all, what good is a fighter who can't run? 

Another dog then nominated the greyhound who was certainly a fast runner, but when it was pointed out that while he could certainly catch an enemy, once he did he would get the hell beaten out of him, he too was rejected. 

Then an ugly little mutt spoke. "I nominate that dog for president who smells good underneath his tail".

Immediately, all the dogs started sniffing each other under their tails, but as one they realized that no dog smelled good in that area.

And so, to this day, if you watch the dogs in the park, or in your neighborhood, you still see them sniffing each other under the tail, in search for a good leader, as they still haven't found one.

The other item I encountered was a Democracy Index as rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a report issued by The Economist, something which this organization has done since 2006.  See below for a link to the Wikipedia site which includes a chart which reflects the history of this Index.

In a nutshell, the index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories measuring concepts such as pluralism, civil liberties and political culture from which the index ranks each country, while also categorizing each in one of 4 types: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. 

Of course, this is just one index, assembled from one set of criteria.  Still, it has 15 years of data which allows us to look for patterns, whether they be individual, regional or global.  The sad news is that globally, we are experiencing a slight retreat in democracy as the overall grade (from 0 to 10) has dropped for 2 consecutive years, 2019 and 2020. with averages down for all geographic areas except Asia and Australiasia.  

For the United States, our rating since 2006 has fallen from 8.22 to 7.92, which equates to 8 spots on the index, from 17th to 25th.  

Where are the better, full democracies? Western Europe which includes the Nordic countries of Norway (1) Iceland (2), Sweden (3), Finland (6), Denmark (7), Australia (tied  9) and New Zealand (4), Canada (5),     Ireland (8), and the Netherlands (tied 9).  The worst, or authoritarian regimes (assuming you believe that one person in complete control of a government is bad), are spread out mostly in Africa, the Middle East and some in the Asia/Australiasia area, most notably China and North Korea, although Venezuela is classified as an authoritarian regime as is Cuba, in case you suspect some kind of left leaning bias in this index.

Another interesting statistic from this index regards the percentage of world population that lives under each grouping.  Sadly, only 8.4% (23 countries worth) live in a country rated as a full democracy.  While 41% live in flawed democracies (52 countries), that leaves a bit over 50% of the world population living in a hybrid government (35 countries) at best, and under authoritarian rule (57 countries which represent over 35% of the planet's population).  

In other words, over half of those living today, do not have the kind of political freedom that we take for granted, despite the fact that the US rated as a flawed democracy, as is currently ranked 25th in the world.

So, what can we do to improve those numbers, both here and abroad.  First, perhaps we should stop invading other countries in hopes of transforming them.  If you check the chart, you will see many familiar names of countries living under authoritarian regimes; Vietnam, Laos, Libya, Cuba, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Should I add up the number of American soldiers who have died in those places in the last 60 years? 

Leading by example might be the obvious path, but here too we seem to be losing ground.  Rather than creating a national voting day, reducing the effect of money in our campaigns, expanding access to voting through more in person days, and the expansion of mail voting, making the registration process more automatic, eliminating the concept of gerrymandering which has created far too many "safe" districts, and, perhaps rethinking the filibuster tradition in the Senate which allows Senators representing 25 to 30 percent of the population to delay and restrict the passage of policies which are supported by 65 to 70% of the citizens, many of which were included in the Voting Rights Bill that did not have enough votes in the Senate to pass, we are fighting with each other over the right to vote as a partisan political battle.  In essence, we are fighting with each other over whether we want to protect democracy or allow it to falter.

Folks, it is clear that faith in democracy is receding, both in America and globally.  Some of that doubt is deserved.  Here in our country, we have been bombarded with far too many stories of politicians lining their pockets, and corruption which diverts too many tax dollars into the wrong hands.  Currently, we have a former president whose only platform seems to be that the 2020 election was stolen, a claim without merit, a claim which did not exist until this particular person began fomenting it.  As a result, the example of democracy that shone from our shores, has dimmed.  How can we justify telling another country to create a more democratic political system, when we can't even agree that our own elections are free and fair?

Perhaps it is time to start sniffing under the tails of those who pretend to be leaders while creating obstacles to the right to vote.  Remember, once you allow restrictive voting laws to be enacted to limit those you don't like or whose perspective you don't agree with, you risk the loss of your own right to vote when the winds change, or the new dog doesn't agree with your views.


Monday, October 25, 2021

Questioning the GOP Long View

As any reader of my blog knows, I am a lifelong Democrat.  I support the majority of the party's agenda, from tackling climate change by reducing our greenhouse emissions, to rebuilding the purchasing power of the middle class through reducing the cost of child care and education to providing dental and vision care to our seniors, to protecting the voting rights of all Americans through creating a national voting day holiday to addressing the gerrymandering of our districts which guarantee far too many public servants an easy path to reelection, to rebuilding our national infrastructure, among just a few of the main goals of the current administration.  

Yet, I also know the importance of having a strong 2nd political party (if not a third one if that makes sense) to provide give and take among our elected representatives to fashion the best policies and laws to promote both our continued freedoms and the understanding that we can only move forward together, by cooperating, as opposed to our out of control partisanship. 

That being said, what exactly, is the long term view of the current GOP which is clearly under the thumb of one person, the former president?

For instance, the GOP in conjunction with the evangelical arm of its party, has had a clear goal of reversing Roe vs Wade since its inception.  A long term goal which, perhaps within the next year, will be realized. There were many moving parts which have brought us to this point, not the least being the purposeful manipulation of the Senate rules which enabled an open position on the Supreme Court be held that way for 8 months, purportedly because a presidential election was nearing, which resulted in the confirmation of a right leaning justice, only to have a 2nd justice rushed through the confirmation process within just a few weeks of the 2020 presidential election.  Nothing illegal, mind you, just a bit hypocritical.  But the point is that the GOP had a plan, and worked tirelessly for almost 50 years to accomplish it.  

What is the current long view?

While I know that there are some people who believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax, most people have come around to the view that the current pandemic is real, as over 700,000 Americans have died (more of our fellow citizens than any other event in our history, including both World Wars, the Spanish flu, and, depending on your source, the Civil War), and that we should continue to engage in various mitigation measures, from vaccines to masks. I say most people because almost 220 million dose have been distributed in America, resulting in almost 2/3 of all Americans being vaccinated, which includes the population of children under 12 who are just beginning to be eligible.  And people are still wearing masks, even some who are vaccinated, as I see when I am out shopping in my neighborhood.

Yet, the vast majority of those against masks and the vaccines identify themselves as Republican. There are still many US House Republican representatives who not only actively fight any mask or vaccine mandate, but also promote conspiracy theories about masks and vaccines, deliberately telling their constituents not to follow proven mitigation measures.  In other words, they are encouraging their rank and file voters to take an unnecessary chance with their very lives, which is contributing to the death and long term sickness of those same voters.  What is the long term view of that kind of plan?  

Then there is the recent desire by some GOP controlled states to mandate pregnancy.  Now, let's not kid ourselves, those laws are meant to force those with the least political clout in these "red" states, minorities and other people of color, to have babies, because we all know that the those with means, upper middle class and above, will still get their abortions, with little or no worry of repercussions.  Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but I am not anticipating a bevy of law suits being filed against rich white people who travel out of state or send their kids out of state for an abortion.  Which means that the GOP party in these states is forcing the voters who may lean left, to have babies.  Babies who will one day vote.  What is the long term view of that plan?  

And, of course, there is Donald Trump, a candidate who turned a GOP controlled Congress and White House in 2020, to a Democratic controlled Congress (albeit the slimmest of margins in the senate) and White House in 2024.  Only 4 years, yet a complete reversal of power. I would think that loss like that would inspire the rethinking of a leader, but instead the GOP has bought into the lie that the former president did not lose the 2020 election, despite, not just the fact that there is no solid evidence of mass voter fraud, but that in court, various promoters of this lie have admitted that either, they made it up, or they heard it on the internet, so it must be true. 

First, if the basis of your platform is that elections are no longer free and fair, how do you walk that back should you actually win a presidential election?  How does any elected GOP representative currently serving in Congress continue to stoke the false accusations of election fraud, yet claim their personal victory in the last election, or any election, is legitimate?  I remember laughing out loud when I heard a GOP Senator question the results of the presidential election, but, when asked about her victory, said that fraud wasn't a problem in her state.  Right, it only exists in states that vote for the other party.  How is that a long term plan to gain the votes of the independents of our country, or even those Dems that might occasionally vote for candidates across the aisle? 

And, second, most critically, Donald Trump is 75 years old.  He will only be a viable candidate for, at most, a decade, and that assumes he changes his diet.  He is not the future of the party, just like Joe Biden is not the future of the Democratic party.  However, Biden will willingly support some future candidate, just as all current former Democratic presidents have done.  Donald Trump only supports Donald Trump.  He has indicated many, many times that he will not support any GOP candidate that doesn't kiss his ring, just as he has disparaged every former GOP presidential candidate, both winners and losers, who are still alive. Not to mention his own vice president who he was willing to sacrifice, literally, so he could still be president.

What is the long term plan when he is gone?  I know there are some candidates, such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ron Desantis, etc, who think they can inherit the MAGA crowd, but, as I have said in past posts, Donald Trump, for all his psychopathic traits, has mobilized the GOP base like no one else in recent political history, and Cruz, Hawley, Desantis, etc are no Donald Trump.  

Perhaps then, knowing all this, is makes sense that their play is suppressing the vote as we are seeing emanating from state houses all across America.  But even then, eventually, you have to actually gain the trust of the American people, don't you?  Remember, the current growth of our population is mostly a result of non-white people.  Just like 100 years ago when the WASP population of America feared the influx of immigrants from Europe, who claimed that America's blue blood heritage would be contaminated by the culture and religion and bloodlines of the Jews, Waps, Micks, Krauts, Poles, etc from across the ocean, it didn't take long for both parties to embrace various portions of these very same people to increase their voter roles.  How does creating obstacles to voting, especially, via gerrymandering and rules which disproportionately target minorities, going to woo those same people to vote GOP, as they become a larger proportion of the voting electorate?  Again, what is the long term view?

Perhaps, in 20 years, it will be obvious to me that those running the GOP knew all along what they were doing, and I will have to eat crow.  Or, perhaps by 2040, the GOP will have altered its path and adopted some viable long term plan.  Or maybe it just won't exist out of necessity of needing to change its name so as to create a hard separation from that future party and the GOP of today.  Only time will tell, but it certainly escapes me to discern any long term view of a party that encourages its followers to engage in unsafe actions, forces those who vote the other party to have babies, and has tethered its wagon to one man, an old man, at that.  

Wednesday, October 6, 2021


The Spring Edition of the Lapham's Quarterly is entitled Friendship.  Since I am no longer working, oh, that's right, I haven't mentioned that I retired as of last month, receiving my last "employment check" this past Friday, and so I am reading much more than before.  What normally might take at least a month, perhaps even two depending on past work activities, I am zipping through my reading material, the standard monthly Smithsonian, National Geographic, and the Quarterly mentioned above.  I was given 2 books as retirement gifts by my wonderful daughter-in-law, but will soon be into them so I may have to start buying some early Christmas book gifts for Nora, and I am thinking about signing up for a newspaper subscription.

Anyway, I digress.

There are two particular entries in the Friendship edition that I wanted to discuss.

The first details what one author believes are the seven kinds of people who make bad friends.  

- the man of lofty position 

- the young man

- the man of robust constitution who had never known a day's illness\

- the man fond of liquor

- the fierce soldier

- the liar

- the miser

Interesting list, I thought, especially in light of the fact that the author created this list when he wrote Essays in Idleness, in the year 1330.  Yes, almost 700 years ago.  Of course, that explains the fact that he uses the word man to reference men, and, I assume, not because he is using man to represent all people, but because he is only focused on men.  But, putting that aside, the author, Yoshida Kenko, has created a list of people, or perhaps a list of stereotypes, that reflects what he believes are the types of men in his lifetime who most likely are incapable of real friendship, the kind of friendship that, like love, equates the interests, needs and happiness of one's friend with those of oneself.  

In other words, I interpret Kenko's list to remind us that many men who have attained lofty positions, consider friends through the filter of whether or how much they assisted in the attainment of that position. That men who are young have not the wisdom or experience to be true friends. That men of robust constitution may lack the empathy to be a real friend.  That men fond of liquor may only seek those who share that interest. That men who are fierce soldiers (and I think he uses the word fierce to be specific) may lack the compassion needed from a friend.  That men who are liars cannot be trusted in any situation, friendship being only one of many.  And that men who are misers, value money and possessions above all else, including friends.

While I would not necessarily disqualify any person for my friendship based entirely on Kenko's advice, I certainly have made choices not to deepen a friendship with people who are extremely money hungry, are liars to the extent beyond most people, or who believe that force and violence is appropriate in most situations.  I can't say I have encountered anyone high in political office, or whose income is in the top 5% of all people, but I will comment on one particular person who resembles that description later in this post. As for young men, I still have one friend from my childhood with whom I am friends, very good friends, so perhaps that one is a caution rather than a rule.  I would have a similar take on the man of robust constitution, although I do see people in high office who show very little concern for those of poor constitution, perhaps because people with little resources have very little influence on our public servants, perhaps because they just lack empathy.

The other essay in Friendship comes from Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, by Etienne de la Boetie.  This excerpt focuses on friendship with a tyrant, or more precisely, why it is not possible to have a friendship with a tyrant, as Kenko alludes to when he refers to a man of lofty position, times a hundred.  

Without going into too much detail, de la Boetie details all the advantages one may gain via a friendship with a tyrant, position, influence, wealth, but then systematically demonstrates how those gains enslave the person to the tyrant, making them subject to any form of whim that may come into the mind of a tyrant which would turn that friend into an enemy.  

Not surprisingly, the former president came to mind as I read this excerpt.  Even during his administration, "friends" of his, campaign managers and handlers, appointees in his cabinet, spokespeople, supporters for his candidacy and agenda, personal lawyers, even, were disavowed, ridiculed, rejected, once they dared to say or do, or even not say or do something that the former president wanted.  While there have always been tell all books released after a presidential administration, the number of "behind-the-scenes" books that have been released in the past year about the former president and his actions, is astonishing, especially those written by former "friends" who were either fired or quit on their own.  

Are you an elected GOP public servant who has gained their position in the last 4 years?  You now have 2 choices, kiss the ring at Mar-a-Lago, or leave the party.  There are no other options, when one tries to become friend, or in this case, fellow Republican, of a tyrant.  Do you believe in traditional GOP values? That's fine, as long as you also believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.  Even former GOP presidential candidates, Romney, McCain, and Bush 41 and 43 are persona non-grata due to their outrageous claims that the GOP should be a party of values and policies, not a cult of one person.

What is really startling, and sad, is that de la Boetie wrote his Discourse... over 370 years ago, when tyrants and rule by birth was the norm.  When gaining favor and power, especially in the area of ruling a country or kingdom, was all about who you knew.  We thought we had evolved over time, had insulated our democracy from the effects of a tyrant, even if still susceptible to autocratic tendencies.  Hopefully, our recent experience is the exception that proves the rule.

Friendship is considered by most as a person to person relationship.  But perhaps we also need to think about our relationship with our country as a type of friendship.  An affinity in which we value the success of our country on par with our own.  We see our country in terms of what we can do which will advance the nation, but which, when you break it down to its basic essence, means what can we do to help each other.  Can you imagine if we, at least considered if our actions would improve, not just our own lives and situation, but those of others as well?  Or more specifically, if you are someone who would not steal from his family, or neighbor, or friend to become more wealthy, or would not purposefully endanger those same people just to make yourself feel better, it might be easier to choose to wear a mask to protect your friends, or get vaccinated to protect your family, or vote for another party's idea if it is good for your constituents.   

Maybe we just need to think about how we can improve our friendship with our country.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Diphtheria and Other Successful Vaccines

Great article in the October edition of the Smithsonian about the devastating effects of diphtheria and the process and eventual development of a vaccine for this deadly disease.  Without going into too much detail, diphtheria appeared in America in the early 18th century and spread throughout the colonies and then southward, almost stripping towns and cities of its children.  Many families lost multiple children, and even for those who survived, there were lasting effects that caused the early death of multiple generations of Americans, as if the disease weakened the body making it more susceptible to future immune system threats.

It was the leading cause of death among children in the world for quite a while as the death rate could be as high as 20% in some areas.  An interesting site to visit for more detailed info about the history of this disease and a timeline for its identification and eventual decline through the use of (primarily) vaccines can be found at:

The actual treatment for diphtheria which was developed before the vaccine became widely available, requires the use of horses, which are injected with a weakened version of the toxin which makes diphtheria deadly.  This causes the animals' immune system to recognize and fight the invading bacteria. When the blood cells from these immunized animals' blood is removed, the remaining serum can be injected into other animals giving them immunity.  Eventually that process was applied to humans, resulting in the first ever Nobel Prize in Medicine being given to this medical innovator.  Interestingly, that is still the primary source for the serum to combat someone infected today. Fortunately, research is ongoing to eliminate the necessity of using animals, and worldwide cases of diphtheria are rare.

Smallpox is another example of a deadly disease that killed millions for centuries, only to be virtually wiped out through the development of a vaccine.  And Polio, which killed upwards of 500,000 people worldwide for 20 plus years, has also been virtually eradicated since the development of the Salk sugar cube then vaccine.  

And then there are the less deadly diseases that cause more discomfort than death, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc, but for which vaccines have been developed to reduce the likelihood of experiencing those maladies.  For those who believe that it is best to make children tough by letting them get sick, or those that believe that if the creator wished their child to die from one of these childhood diseases, well, his will be done, there is some resistance to getting these vaccines, but for most people, one of the rites of passage for children is the series of needles that allow them to navigate the ups and downs of early life without worrying about dying from a preventable disease.  It is these and all those vaccines listed above, that make the composition of local graveyards lean more towards the oldest of our citizens, as opposed to those from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries that include far too many headstones detailing life spans less than 10 years old. 

Even the flu, which still kills tens of thousand Americans each year, is less deadly than years past due to the yearly flu shot.  It is one of those great paradoxes that a vaccine that will reduce the chances of a person getting the flu, getting seriously ill, being hospitalized or die, is only a yearly routine for barely half of all Americans over 6 months of age.  The good news is that almost 7 out of 10 people age 65 or over were vaccinated for the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season and another 50% of those aged 50-64.  One can only hope that that percentage will continue to rise, if even by only a few percentage points, as it has over the last decade. 

Which, of course, brings us to the Covid-19 vaccine.  My gut feeling is that history will hail it as one of the greatest medical efforts in history.  Perhaps even the former president will be mentioned as having encouraged its development, despite his selfish motives for reelection. We will most likely pass the 5 million mark in worldwide deaths by month's end, but the application of the mRNA process to develop, manufacture and distribute this vaccine within 18 months of the identification of the disease will undoubtedly be credited with saving millions of lives, not to mention the world economy which has been recovering, albeit slowly, from the devastating effects of a virtual global lock down.  While we still had to make the calculation of which is worse, loss of economic stability or millions of lives, we've had a powerful weapon at our disposal which has allowed us to sacrifice far less people in the name of the economy.

While we still face the question, how many children (and the teachers, custodial staff, administrators, nurses, etc who operate the learning institutions which they attend), are we willing to sacrifice to the cause of  returning to normalcy, not to mention the misguided belief of some who equate wearing a mask to losing one's freedom, I expect that public health decisions will eventually win the day when vaccines are available to all school age children, and deaths among our children will remain below the acceptable level.  

Make no mistake, that is what we are debating, how many children's deaths to tolerate.  I wish all those who gain You Tube fame through their school board rants, or tik-tok videos, or facebook viral opinions, would preface their anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric with the number of children they are willing to sacrifice in the name of their personal gripe against vaccines, masks, the government, the president, etc.  At least we would know that they understand that resistance to common sense health measures will kill children.  

Thankfully, in the end, we will experience a number far below the level of child deaths that were experienced for most of America's history before the development of vaccines, sparing the children of all of us, even those whose efforts to discourage vaccines is ongoing.