distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


April 17, 2017

Perceptual Drift

Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess.  Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.

Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.

Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.

Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.

This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.

Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.

This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations.  And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.

I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.

My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people.  College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college.  I remember my father telling that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.

The other thing was the Space Race.

I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way.  Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.

The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR.  Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.

(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)

We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!

And it didn’t happen.

Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.

All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.

Frank calls it the Professional Class.  These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did.  They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues.  Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.

And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.

What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.

There’s nothing anti-American about this, though.  While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out.  We are functional snobs.  Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots.  Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.

A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods.  The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds.  The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.

But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be.  And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed.  We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.

Which has brought us to our current situation.

There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success.  Why?  Because that’s who we wanted to be.  Many of us.  And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital.  We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.

There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on they way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made.  When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained.  When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men.  Today a hundred people can built that same road.  What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have.  Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally.  “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.

In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.

March 27, 2017

About Those Deplorables

In response to the question of why the election went the way it did, one of the reasons given was Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment.  That hurt her, they say. It turned people off.

Really? Which people?  People so close to not voting for her that, once in the voting booth,  remembering that phrase over and above everything else drove them to pick Stein instead? Or people who were already committed to not voting for her? Or perhaps people who were already disinclined to go to the polls anyway—because they had something more important to do than participate in deciding the direction of the country for the next four years—that maybe, had she not said that they might have decided on that day to go vote anyway.

Because I doubt seriously it hurt her among those who had already decided to vote for her, especially since, whether they might wish to admit it or not, they actually agreed with that assessment.

Because really those who were never going to vote for her under any circumstances would likely not have been affected positively or negatively by that remark. They already didn’t like her. Being nice to them would have gained her nothing, because they would not have either believed her or recognized the concession. Not saying something about them would have had zero persuasive impact.

So exactly who then are people talking about when they criticize her for that?

No one.  They’re trying to come up with excuses for either their own poor judgment or the lack of involvement in the process by people who were disinclined for many other reasons to vote.

Hillary’s loss is a case study in the dysfunction of our electoral process. She lost due to a toxic combination of apathy, anti-intellectualism, ignorance, and a media environment that offers little in the way of separating fact from fiction, truth from fraud, legitimacy from exhibitionism.  The markers necessary for people to draw useful coverage from the ocean of feed in which they swim are either absent or so obscured as to be invisible.  If you don’t already have an idea how to judge worthwhile from dross you simply have to guess, and a lot of people guess wrong.

Ah. Why should anyone assume that those who did not vote would have voted for Hillary? A perfectly legitimate question. The answer, roughly, has to do with turnout and dedicated numbers. The GOP seems to have a very solid army of about sixty million voters who vote that way every single time. No doubt the Democrats can count on a similar cadre.  But only if the turnout is below 63%.  Once turnout rises to 65% or more, the vote tends to go against the Republicans.  Those voters who sit at home tend to vote Democrat or Liberal.  (People like to point to Reagan’s “landslide” win, but there was only a 52% turnout.  True, he buried Carter, but had the turnout been 65%…?  Of course, to be fair, Bill Clinton won his second election with about the same turnout, 51%.  His first, though, was 58% turnout and he buried Bush I.)  Where it seems really to tell, though, is in congressional elections and the problem there is with gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has always been a bit of a problem, but the GOP has turned it into a high art.  One suspects they know in a fair fight they wouldn’t have a chance.  All they have is that 60 million block.

But this a very rough calculus.  The question remains, why Trump?

(I suspect another chief reason Hillary lost—and part of the reason for low turnout this time—has to do precisely with her opponent.  Had Cruz won the nomination, I suspect turnout would have been considerably higher, because that would have looked like a real fight instead of the joke this appeared to be, especially with the media putting out all those charts showing how she was a shoe-in because, really, who could possibly in their right mind vote for him?  Of course, where it really hurt was the all-important congressional races.)

So, how is this “new era” working out for the people who voted for him?

We have already seen the dismay of many who supported him when it dawned on them that repealing the ACA meant they would lose their own health coverage. Either this is an example of stone ignorance (a few, we don’t know how many, actually did not realize that their ACA was the same thing as the hated Obamacare) or an example of self-selected delusion—that they thought the repeal would only affect people of whom they disapprove.  They were voting to take it away from Other People.

It was claimed that Hillary didn’t understand lower income and working class people.  That may well be true, but what kind of mental gymnastics is required to convince yourself that a billionaire born to wealth who even in bankruptcy lived a life of luxury did understand, on the kind of intuitive gut-level clearly meant by those statements?

But this is anecdotal at best.

Two questions now dominate concretely.  The growing evidence of collusion with Russia in securing the election and the deals made more than a year ago.  And the efficacy of Trump’s “leadership style” which seems to be nonexistent.  The very first time he runs into the kind of normal roadblocks of Washington politics, namely the lost vote on the ACA repeal, he declares it a dead issue and asks congress to move on.  This is lack of staying power at best, a lack of genuine conviction at worst.

During the campaign, one of things Trump said was “vote for me, what do you have to lose?”  More or less.  It doesn’t matter which group he was talking to, it matters which group heard him.

A recent book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land, takes up the question of the voter block that seems consistently to vote against its own best interests. Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, California, practically lived in Louisiana among people who are both dependent on and victimized by the oil industry. In the course of her study, many contradictions emerged. One example, she met many dedicated environmentalists—who also hated the EPA and wanted to see it gone.  People who knew that the refineries and processing plants were destroying their environment, had poisoned friends and family, were responsible for wild-life die-offs, and yet resisted the idea of regulation, often because they feared it would adversely impact employment. Jobs meant more than the rest, but it was by no means a simplistic metric being applied. Many felt the companies themselves would eventually “do the right thing” and clean up and improve safety.

Reading this book gives us a tour through funland mirror thinking.  Coming face to face with the blatant contradictions and the ingrained belief in systems that have repeatedly failed them and the rejection of solution because of a belief that failure from them would be even worse.  The conviction that the federal government was the Enemy.  Hochschild tried to find the Narrative.  In anthropological terms, this is the ur-story people tell themselves in order to organize their beliefs, the strategies of their lives, and determine  the principles by which they live.  It’s the Who We Are story and when that is found, then what follows begins to make more sense.  What Hochschild discovered was a variation of the City on the Hill dominant among these people. Instead of the religious kind, though, this one had to do with the American Dream.  They believed in the idea that hard, honest work would get them to their city, where they would finally achieve the comfort and security they see as the promise of dedication.  They are willing to wait their turn.

And it’s at that point that the Narrative becomes the problem.  Because they see, they perceive, in their view undeserving people cutting in line in front of them.  Poor people, minorities, refugees, illegal aliens.  People who, in their opinion, have not done the work, have certainly not waited their turn.  And in service to this, the federal government is to blame, because they see federal programs enabling this butting in.

Meanwhile, their own reward recedes before their very eyes.

Resentment is only natural.

At this point, it is fair to ask, how come the default blame goes where it goes?  There are many reasons for their eroding situations.  The changing economic environment, the increasing population, the influx of legal immigrants, the globalization phenomenon.  Even without the federal programs they blame, it is likely their situations would be just as precarious.

Except they have been told that all those factors are the result of government overreach, government meddling, government—by means of treaties, of regulations, of corruption.  Their preferred media services certainly have told them all this, but they also get it through their jobs, from the companies that are also anti-union, advocates of Right To Work, multinationals often that pretend to be America Firsters but then remove the wealth of communities and put it elsewhere.

The kind of people Donald Trump is part and parcel of.

Their fears are easily played upon because they have them.  Fears.  No one is doing much to educate them out of such fears.  Rather they are told, from a hundred sources, that they are justified in their fears.

And they vote for anyone who tells them they are right to be afraid.

The profound distortions of fact to be found among them is indicative of much of the problem.

A few examples of belief versus reality:

Welfare rolls are up and people on welfare don’t work.  The reality is, total welfare rolls dropped 20 % since 1996, which was the year of Clinton’s welfare reform, the reform that cut welfare to a short time and required work for certain benefits.  As for that work, the poorest 20% only get 37% of their income from welfare.  The rest is compensation for work. You might ask, if they’re working, why do they need welfare?  Obviously because their jobs do not pay enough.  You might want to look at the current debate over minimum wage.  At best, “welfare” is a supplement, and most of the beneficiaries are children and the elderly.  But of course, this is not believed by people dedicated to not believing it and scapegoating the poor.

Black women have more children than white women.  I was startled that this was still current.  I grew up in the heyday of the Welfare Queen, which was a canard even then.  The reality is that fertility rates for white women and black women is just about equal.

Maybe as much as 40% of people work for federal and state government and are overpaid.  This sounded to me like the one about foreign aid.  The numbers are inflated because few people bother to find out, they just want to be angry at something.  Adding together all levels of government—federal, state, and local—total workforce as a percentage of employed people comes up to around 17%.  It varies with which party is in office.  Republican presidents since Reagan have overseen expansions of federal workforce because it’s an easy way to finesse unemployment figures.  Obama oversaw a real reduction in the size of the federal government measured by employees, but of course no one opposing him wishes to believe this.  As for the overpaid aspect, on average private sector workers at comparable levels make 12% more than government employees—government employees, by the way, who often work longer hours.

These are a few of the beliefs held by people who likely voted for Trump.  Clearly, there is a simple lack of fact in this, but it seems just as obvious that there is a lack of interest in any fact that contradicts as belief that helps explain their anger.  Make no mistake, these are angry voters.  They don’t want to be informed, they want to be vindicated.

Trump is representative of all this.  Whether he genuinely believes anything he says, he has played these people.  The rest of the GOP has decided evidently that as long as he’s the president, they’ll play him to get what they want.

How’s that working out?

Not well.  All the myths that have been driving Tea Party and affiliated rage for a decade are now coming onto the front lines and getting an opportunity to play and it turns out that the myths aren’t based on solid anything.  It seems a lot of people voted to strip Other People of things they believed were not their due.  Except these angry voters will lose out as well and that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work.

The small government argument has gotten lost, consumed by a mindless urge to eliminate government altogether.  People are being played by international finance.  Everything in the GOP wish list serves only one end—the unopposed leaching out of latent wealth into capital pools disconnected from any nation.  If Trump and Ryan and McConnell got everything they wanted, all the people who voted for them would see their incomes reduced, their savings (if any) pillaged, and jobs decimated.

For their part, the Democrats are unwilling to tackle this head on because they have become tied to the same teat for campaign financing as the GOP.  They have the rage but they often waffle.  With a few exceptions, they won’t call this out, but would rather work at it around the edges and try to mitigate its worst effects while avoiding being shut out of the flow of money.  Fundamental policy changes are required and once in a while someone calls for something, but then they talk it to death.

In the meantime, that basket of deplorables continues to work at gorging itself at the public trough.

Hillary did not lose votes over that comment.  If we’re honest, we recognized the truth.  The problem with it, if anything, is she didn’t specify very well who was all in that basket.  But let’s assume for a moment that saying that did have a negative effect on her campaign.  Why would it?  What is it  about calling something out for what it is that would put off people who, perhaps secretly, agree with her?  We are, those of us who count ourselves progressives, sometimes falsely delicate, it seems.  Like being unwilling to use the word “lie” when in fact that is a perfectly accurate description of what the president has done.  And when someone is so sunk in their own petty resentment that they are willing to dump on everyone out of revenge for what they see as their raw deal and tolerates no counterargument at all and be damned the consequences—well, that really is kind of deplorable.

Whatever the case, let’s be clear about one thing—it wasn’t the people she was talking about when she said that who changed their mind about voting for her.  She was never going to get those votes.

And I doubt it turned very many if any of those leaning in her direction off at the time.  They’re all just using that as a rationalization for the fact that too few of them turned up at the polls.

Come to think of, doesn’t that kind of count as deplorable?

March 01, 2017

Worth Noting

During the campaign, I noted that the GOP was having a difficult time repudiating Trump because he in fact was saying nothing that had not been a mainline Republican position for decades. The question was one of style, not substance—although we’re getting a lesson now in how they really aren’t that different.  Last night’s unofficial state of the union address represents all the evidence needed to make that claim.  It should be noted that he said nothing he had not said before.  The only difference was in his tone and the manner of phrasing.

Now, if you agree with the programmatic direction of the GOP, then you may find yourself quite pleased with the president’s performance last night. But then you will have to eventually come to terms with the harm that direction is likely to produce within the country and among our allies, not to mention the world in general.

He doubled down on his “Radical Islamic Terrorist” rhetoric, despite having been counciled by his new national security advisor to stop using that term, as it serves only to alienate allies and potential allies.  That, therefore, had to be intentional, because clearly he didn’t write that speech.  Nothing new with that, few presidents do write their own, but they all have final say in what is in them.

His use of the widow of the SEAL killed in Yemen is one of the more cynical moves I’ve seen from a public official. That she should receive sympathy is beyond question. That her husband did his duty is clear.  That he used her tears in public to justify a boneheaded action, asserting that we got important and substantial intelligence as a result despite initial reports that we got nothing from it other than a lot of bodies on the ground, is pretty low.  Yemen is going to be Trump’s Fast and Furious (which, despite being a mess, nevertheless produced 34 indictments of drug dealers and gun runners) and he’s trying his best right now to draw the venom and rewrite the reality.

On its face, this speech resembles what we might have expected from Rubio or Cruz, a reasonable-sounding assemblage of soundbites to float in coming weeks as talking points for policy wonks that seem mainstream Republican.

Fine. Let’s look at that.

His cabinet appointees draw a different picture than what people may be expecting.  Betsy De Vos is there to destroy the Department of Education.  She’s all about vouchers and so-called “school choice.”  What could be wrong with that?  Nothing, if that’s what it really is. But advancing private companies to manage what should be a public trust at the expense of the public institutions already in place is in the long run a reduction of choice, because eventually they will all fall into similar business models designed to turn out “product” rather than educated citizens.  This is a viable system only if you have a healthy public education system to set standards and hold the private institutions accountable to those standards.  If you eliminate the source of the standard then you initiate a rush to the bottom and the gradual homogenization of education into two camps—the one for the Haves and the one for the Have Nots, with predictable results.

Scott Pruitt is there to disassemble the EPA.  The horror stories about the mismanagement in the EPA and its subsequent impact are the stuff of legend.  Of course, with something this large and complex, people will run afoul of the rules, but to assert that the mission of the EPA is in any way unnecessary is a thread that has run through the GOP for decades.  The utterly pointless and cynical removal by executive order over coal waste dumping in streams is representative.  Coal as an industry is dying, at least as it has been practiced till now.  The jobs lost have not disappeared because of environmental regulations—that’s just distracting rhetoric— but because we’re in a market that has seen natural gas shove coal aside massively.  With the increase in sustainable and renewable energy technologies, coal is about to be marginalized even more.  Basically, the coal industry that remains is in charge of a growing share of a shrinking market. But like parasites, they will suck the last juices of the decaying corpse of the industry if given a chance, and removing such regulations has the single effect of adding a few paltry dollars to the dividends they pay themselves.  In the meantime, we dump on people who have to live in the resultant mess and will, once the EPA is gone, have almost no recourse to protect themselves.

Rex Tillerson is there to reverse the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Lest anyone think this is sort of okay, let’s review.  Putin oversaw a massive development of oil. The payoff could be huge, both for himself and his country.  However, the pipelines run mostly through Ukraine, and Ukraine was levying a rather substantial use fee on the oil passing through.  Putin wanted them to stop doing that.  Things were getting tense.  Money was at stake.  Putin had no moral or legal grounds on which to stand, though.  Then Ukraine made noises about joining NATO.  That would have made anything Putin did even riskier and constrain his ability to act further.  So he invaded.  All the excuses were made about traditional rights of access to Sebastopol and the rights of Russian citizens living in Ukraine, etc etc, and it is true, historically Russia will do just about anything to maintain open access to the Crimea and the warm water port there, but this also removed both the NATO threat and the tax on his pipelines, at Ukraine’s expense.  And lest the point is still lost, Exxon and Trump both have a financial stake in those Russian oil fields and the potential pay-out will be enormous.  That’s why Tillerson is there, to line pockets.

We could go down the list.  This is all good, solid Republican programming.  If it hurts a corporation it is bad.  If some actual people get hurt, well, collateral damage, we didn’t really mean for them to get hurt.  Doing something for anyone making less than mid six-figures?  Not on the table.

This is nothing new.  The argument has been made that restricting corporations with regulations, taxes, and requirements to abide by some standard of fiscal ethics has cost us jobs and that removing all those things will benefit everyone.  Why this is still believed I do not know, because we have now had  thirty years of proof that this is not what happens. Ever.

It may well be that the counterarguments and alternative programs offered by the Democrats will not remedy the problems we face, but we should all by now realize that we are being conned by the Republicans.

The people invested in believing otherwise have given us a con artist for a president.  If on occasion he manages to sound “presidential” it will serve to validate their belief that they voted for the right guy.  When things still don’t improve for them, what will they say?  Who will they blame?

But the con is party-wide.  That’s my point—he was not expunged during the campaign because he did not run on anything that wasn’t good, solid GOP dogma.  He just phrased it with less glitter and less rhetorical obfuscation.  The Republicans have been practicing for decades how to “reframe” their message so it doesn’t sound so bad and so they could appeal to people who are not racists or nationalists or who might actually believe in some kind of a safety net (but only for people who “deserve” it, however you define that), but really does have the net effect if not intent of being fundamentally inegalitarian, divisive, and culturally if not biologically racist.

The con is widespread.  The Democratic Party has more than a bit of this in it as well, though shifted to class distinctions rather than cultural.  It makes it difficult to see an effective difference from issue to issue, but only if you don’t pay attention.

Anyway, as polished and “moderate” as last night’s speech may have been, it’s basically the same old shabby, off-the-rack suit.  Putting a rose in the lapel doesn’t make it a tux.

 

February 28, 2017

Post Election Blues, or Gee, I Wish I’d Voted For Someone Else

I’ve been sitting here thinking about the regret I’m starting to see from many quarters. Like a bad one-night-stand that came with a surprise wedding ring, that face just won’t go away, and all the skull sweat in the world won’t change the reality.  Yes, you did that.

Believe it or not, I have some personal insight into this, one I’d forgotten about.  Mind you, this is minor league, childish stuff, but startlingly relevant.

Long ago, as a teenager, I was a member of the DeMolay.  Junior Masons, basically. Named after the last grand master of the Knights Templar, Jacques De Molay, who King Phillip the Fair (there’s a name for you) tortured and then put to death when he sacked all the Templar temples looking for gold and endeavoring to erase his debt to the Templars.  Legend has it when the raids began, the king’s men found empty temples, no gold, and managed to arrest only a handful of Templars before they could escape, among them Jacques.

Fast forward and we have the establishment of a youth branch of the Masons in 1919.  Anyway, it was cool in a very adolescent way.  Secret rituals, passwords, officer positions, and we got to wear these excellent black satin capes and carry ornamental swords from time to time.  It was one of the rare times I willingly joined something like this and it was fun for a couple of years.

Now, we did do a lot of community service, charity work, and other things.  There was serious purpose to the organization and we did some meaningful things.  Obviously it was a stepping stone into fullblown masonry, so there was grooming and preparation and the assumption of responsibilities.  We pretty much ran our own lodge, although there were of course some adults around to make sure we didn’t get out of hand.

The officer positions were sort of on automatic rotation.  Once you took a position, you ascended as a matter of course.

Except for the top three positions.  Master Councilor, Senior Councilor, and Junior Councilor.  These seats were voted on by the members of the lodge.  Even then, it was almost pro forma.  The only one of the three that ever actually was in question was Junior Councilor.  Moving up from there was just a given.  It was the Junior Councilor seat that was regularly empty when a Master Councilor’s term was up and he stepped down.

My third year, though, an unusual event happened—all three posts became vacant at the same time.  So we had to vote to fill each one from the membership of the lodge.

I threw my hat in.  A couple of others did, too, friends of mine who then proceeded to plan what we would do when we were all in the councilors’ chairs.

Only thing is, I lost every single vote.

Not just lost, but was brutally trounced, receiving two votes for each chair.  I had to sit there and listen to the tallies until it was over.  The other two who thought I’d be up there with them started looking at me in shock, as if to say “What the hell!”

I sat through the rest of that meeting, performed my duties, and left. I did not go back.  I’d been humiliated before, but never so publicly and so thoroughly.

Best I could determine from things later said, everyone thought I would be a hard ass and make them work.  I had ideas, I’d never been shy about criticizing what I thought of as stupidity, and I was not particularly popular.  Naively, I didn’t think that last mattered.  I thought ability was what counted.  I was wrong.

Sort of.

I went back about six months later and sitting around with several of them in the lounge I listened to them moan about how badly things were being run and how this went wrong and that was going south in a big way and so-and-so was an ass, etc etc etc.  I sat and listened with a rapidly vanishing sympathy.  “We should have voted you in,” one of them said.  Heads nodded all around.

I was quiet for a few moments, then stood.  “Yeah, you should have,” I said. “Hindsight’s twenty-twenty. But frankly I’m glad you didn’t.”

Shocked expressions all around.

“Why?”

“Because I would’ve been stuck trying to manage you bunch of morons.”

I left and never went back.

I have joined exactly two organizations since.

Buyer’s remorse can be a real bitter thing.  It looks so shiny, so cool!  It makes those agreeable noises and feels powerful.

Then you get it on the road and find out what a lemon it is.

I have zero sympathy for those who voted for this guy and now are stunned, horrified, shocked, and disappointed at what they got.  Just a reminder, I suppose, that so many people never do mature past someteen, no matter how old they are.  The thing that grinds is, they saddled the rest of us with this mess, too.

February 03, 2017

Reality Check

The question came up in a recent discussion, “Why are you so sure if more people had voted they would have voted for Hillary?”  Well, I’m not.  I am fairly certain most of them would not have voted for Trump.  I base that on a very simple number:  Trump pulled the base that always votes that way and in fact received fewer votes than Mitt Romney.  You can try to spin that any way you like, but to my mind that says something very significant.  Namely that the GOP in its current manifestation is utterly dependent on two things to stay in office—that base and keeping the rest of the country disaffected from the political process. They do this by a number of strategies, the two most important being propaganda about their opponents and redistricting in key states.  A host of lesser strategies added to these have effectively suppressed votes in some areas while largely throwing the opposing electorate into a bog of ambivalence about their political choices.

For their part, the opposition—Democrats, liberals, so-called socialists, and a variety of smaller categories with perhaps less clearly defined boundaries—have played into this by a combination of solicitude and poor explication of their positions.  As well, it seems that they have failed to connect with the ground level concerns of those who normally would be their natural constituents, namely working class people being displaced by the changing economic and social ecology.

To be clear, when I say solicitude, what I mean is the perfectly reasonable and basically preferable practice of bipartisan cooperation in order to move the business of the people forward.  We have a rich history to show that this always works best and it is natural to assume it is the way to govern most effectively. However, it presumes a two-way street, give and take.  When one side or the other decides that no matter what, cooperation is not on the table, then it behooves the other side to understand the new paradigm and respond accordingly.  When you see the kind of obdurate obstruction on the part of your opponent that we have seen for the last eight years, it becomes frustrating to see your preferred representatives continually yielding in an attempt to “work with” the other side.  That willingness is being used quite opportunistically to undermine programs and run a cynical power grab to their own benefit. The Democrats for their part seem not to be willing to risk losing what seats and positions they have to form a line and push back against this, possibly because what information they get from whatever sources they use tells them people wouldn’t like it.  They might even feel retributions for such resistance could cost ordinary people.  Whatever the reason, they have been unwilling to play as dirty as their Republican counterparts, at least in the public’s view, and this has resulted in continual loss of confidence.

To be clear, “playing dirty” is not something either side should be doing on our behalf, at least not with each other, but it is a reality.  The Right has a plan, or at least a goal, and they have adhered to it with religious fervor.  One thing we should note is that criticisms of that goal based on the undesirability of it play poorly.  Telling someone that what they just voted for will result in a loss of civil liberties for a particular group has no moral traction because that is exactly what the desired outcome is.  When you say to someone who seems to be on this bandwagon “But you’re taking away their rights!” it is as if an imp of the perverse in the depths of their psyché claps its hands in glee and shouts “They shouldn’t have those rights in the first place!”

We must be clear about this.  Legislation based on the notion that certain groups, however they’re defined, should not have certain rights—which in the parlance of the Right comes out as “privileges” instead of rights—we cannot confront this by trying to explain to them how they misunderstand the nature of such things. As far as they’re concerned, they misunderstand nothing.  Their desired outcome is to suppress.  What needs to be done—and is being done by many—is to confront and declare that they are flat wrong.  And their success will bite them in the end when they lose their rights.  Or are they privileges?

It is unpopular and unpleasant to recognize a basic misapprehension about rights.  We have floated for centuries now on the belief that rights are somehow Natural.  The Natural Law argument which informed most Enlightenment thinking, which is the thinking that defined the context in which the Founders constructed our national image, may have considerable to recommend it, and we could have a very healthy discussion about it, but we aren’t talking here about nature but politics.  The reality is, and has always been, that a right is an artificial construct, and is only as true as our ability to assert it in the face of antagonistic forces seeking counter-advantages.  This is why we put such stock in so-called Rule of Law.  If a right were so self-evident, as we like to say, why would we need law to establish it, define it, and defend it?  We may wax philosophical about “natural rights” all we want, but rights do not exist in nature, they are the product of intellect and political will.

This is unpopular for many reasons, but one of the chief in our present era is that it demands responsible participation, and for people who do not wish to be bothered this is burdensome.

Seldom in our history have the consequences of not wanting to be bothered come so viscerally home.

Why do I say that?  Because, depending on which breakdown you look at, the entire edifice of the current Right is in power based on less than a quarter of the electorate. Somewhere between 35% and 50% nonparticipation in regular elections—all of them, not just national, but it is in national elections where the consequences are so dramatically evident—means that a minority always determines the political complexion of the country.  It may well be that the true majority of Americans prefer what we have now, but we don’t know because people do not vote.

Voter suppression is real, however.  Let’s not forget that. In fact, that alone is illustrative of my point above about rights.  The right to vote ought to be a given, so how could it be possible to deny it to so many people?  One example that rarely rises to the surface in such estimates is the approximately six million people denied the vote outright due to felony convictions.  If voting is a “right” then why should that be allowed?  Redistricting—gerrymandering—has resulted in distortions of state elections and subsequently a distortion of the electoral college outcomes.  The Supreme Court overturn of the Voting Rights Act resulted in the closing down of several hundred polling sites, overwhelmingly in the south and overwhelmingly in African American and Hispanic districts.

But this kind of thing has been the case for a long time now and we have seen higher voter turnout even when it has been difficult for many people.  Ninety million people did not participate this past November, which suggests that all the effort to dissuade as well as suppress paid off.  Because Americans have traditionally disdained politics, advantage was taken.

All the major news sources failed to behave ethically, some morally.  Trump received an inordinate amount of free air time and in a culture that values celebrity the way we do, negative coverage can be just as useful as good coverage.  Any careful analysis of what he said on the campaign trail shows he had very little of any substance.  Hillary Clinton demonstrated clear superiority in all three of her debates with him—command of facts, comprehension of the global situation, a set of policy positions—while his entire rebuttal amounted to “She’s a nasty woman.”

Uncharitably but realistically, one can only conclude that people did not vote for her because they didn’t like the way she dressed.

The argument that she carried a “lot of baggage” is simply another way to avoid the responsibilities of reason and the requirements of citizenship.  During the course of the campaign, as details emerged, and material was made available, it became increasingly clear that most of the negativity about her was baseless, that in fact she proved to be even more honest than her chief rival, Bernie Sanders (a fact which surprised even me), but overcoming well-nurtured antipathies and working through the tsunami of rightwing invective about her apparently proved to be too much effort.

During the campaign one could make the argument that Trump’s opposition was based on the same kinds of detractions—smear—and that once he was in office it would be different.

I doubt any reasonable person, even one who voted for him, in the secret chambers of their own heart, thinks he is doing the job they may have imagined him doing.

On the other hand, maybe he is.  Maybe what was desired was no more than validation in the office of the president of their basic belief that government does not work.  Maybe they put him there purely to prove their opinion—uninformed, ill-considered, often bitter and sometimes malevolent—was right.

Whatever their reasons, what should concern us all is that so many who most likely feel otherwise felt it acceptable to stay home.

But to return for a moment to the current situation.  Trump’s selections for his cabinet demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of the purpose of the office. He is surrounding himself with mediocrities.  Nixon did the same thing, but he also had a few people who actually knew what they were doing.  The conflicts of interest alone ought to disqualify most of these people, but the Republican majority is proceeding to try to rubberstamp them.  To be clear, Rex Tillerson is not a mediocrity—but clearly he has no business being there.  I’m sure some would disagree, but his financial ties to Russia alone argue against him, and right now a bill is being introduced in the Senate to repeal a disclosure law that sheds light on foreign bribes which has been a thorn in the side of Exxon.

Trump did not seem to be aware that Steve Bannon would have to be approved by the Senate before taking a seat on the national security council.  This is basic knowledge.

We can continue, but his supporters will not care.  What is important is that those rights of which I spoke must be recognized as at risk and that relying on the privilege of never having been a target to remain uninvolved is inexcusable.

Lastly, regarding Trump, is the question of moral suitability.  “Giving him a chance” is an empty plea.  When he mocked Serge Kovaleski, he demonstrated a clear absence of moral capacity. How can I say that?  He was just goofing?  No.  This is basic.  This was at the level of courtesy, it is so basic.  We don’t even consider it in the context of moral failing because we view it in terms of good manners.  But this was a powerful man making fun of a less powerful man in public (South Carolina) in order to discredit him.  Rather than attack the news article that prompted the attack, he attacked Kovaleski’s handicap.  That is the tactic of a bully.

No.  Special pleading, “Oh, he didn’t mean it”, attempts at recontextualizing it after the fact, none of that alters the fact that he behaved boorishly, without regard for another human being, attacking—mocking—the thing that had nothing to do with any issue at hand, and then lying about it afterward.  That was a test and he failed.  And if you voted for him, you failed, too.

So, reality check:  Supposedly, you voted to “Make America Great Again.”  How is that working out?  We have a bully in the White House who instead of “draining the swamp” is importing more alligators.  None of them have a thing in common with you unless you’re a member of the seven figures annually club (and most of them probably did not vote for him).  He is threatening to end longtstanding agreements around the world, given verbal approval to Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear programs, annoyed China to the point where a war is at least imaginable, appointed people to his cabinet with zero expertise in the fields chosen for them, thrown hissyfits on Twitter over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, placed gag orders on various agencies, made promises he is either backing out of or revising to fit the feedback he gets from FOX News, has anointed  a xenophobe as his chief strategist, threatened long-settled law with Executive Orders, allowed that a man dead since 1882 is an African American who has done great work that is being recognized more and more, asked for  prayer at the first national prayer breakfast for the new host of one of his reality shows, and has yet to release his tax returns while threatening American businesses and playing with their futures by indiscriminately tweeting about them.  He has given tacit approval to the president of the Philippines for his “program” of murdering alleged drug dealers in the streets without due process and he has gotten into a flame war with the president of Mexico over a wall that would do nothing to alleviate a problem he has no real concept about in the first place.  He has signed an order barring immigration based on religion—no, it is, because we have it on record that he asked several people, especially Giuliani, how he could legally keep Muslims out of the country, so his backpedaling on that is for naught—while not barring immigration from countries we already know have originated terrorists that did us harm.  He is restarting the antipathies with Iran that over two decades of diplomacy was beginning to alleviate and get us to a point of normalizing relations with, in spite of their presumed leadership, what is really is a moderate country and could be an ally given the right moves on our part. He has placed people’s lives in jeopardy over this for no reason other than apparently a lot of his supporters are scared to death of people who dress funny and speak with an accent.  The only reason he has apparently, for now, backed off of attacking LGBTQ rights is that a “friend” of his called and asked him not to.

There is no thoughtful consideration evident in any of this.

While all this is going on, at the state level we have a sea of Republican controlled legislatures and governors who are passing Right To Work bills designed to strip unions of any serious power and although we have seen the consequences of such laws in state after state wherein standard of living and even environmental conservation erode in their wake, somehow the people voting for these representatives believe it won’t happen to them.

My conclusion is that such votes are driven by spite.  The almost volcanic eruption of people who suddenly realized that they might loser their healthcare under the man they voted for is telling.  It’s just probable that they thought it would only affect Those People Over There, the ones they’ve been told to fear and hate, who have been “getting away with things” and “cut in line” and “get things they don’t deserve.”  Along with that, the number of people who apparently did not understand that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were one in the same thing, while marginally amusing on one level, is stunning example of the corrupting power of corporate media.

Next up is the privatization of Social Security and MediCare.  I’m sure some people think doing so won’t change a thing and then maybe congress can balance the budget and pay off the national debt.  I’m sure some feel that way.

I’m sure.

A Note On Standards

I did not watch the inauguration.  This is nothing new, though, I rarely do.  I saw Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I watched Obama’s, parts of it, after the fact. I would rather read the inaugural addresses than listen, but really the main reason I skip them is that for me they don’t mean much.  This is the party after the fight, so to speak.  Parades, lots of glad-handing, important people with lots of money doing a Hollywood red carpet thing.  It’s show.

Show is important in statecraft, certainly, but it’s not important to me, so…

But the aftermath this time has been fascinating.  It’s a show, so why lie about what went on?  Why try to tell the national press corps that what they saw with their own eyes was not the reality? Why start with petty numbers games as if the show was the only thing that mattered?

Well, Trump does do reality tv.

However, I would like to say a couple of things here about some of the images I’ve seen—and some of the vitriol attached—after the fact.

I’m not going to say one damn thing about Melania Trump unless she starts getting involved in policy.  Which from all appearances, she will not.  Likewise for his kids, especially Barron.  I don’t believe in that “Well, your dad’s a so-n-so, so you must be, too!” kind of schoolyard bullying.  I rejected that whole sins of the father argument back when I parted ways with christianity.  I won’t go there.

I will say this, though, about her supporters and detractors:  hypocrisy runs deep.

The so-called Christian Right lent considerable support to this man.  His wife is a former model and sex symbol.  She’s done nudes.  She projects an image which I had thought ran counter to the standards of that so-called Christian Right.  Had Michelle Obama done anything like that, these people would have declared the advent of Sodom and Gomorrah and the End Times.  (Many of them do that anyway, on a regular basis.)  These are people who collectively have made it clear they see the sexualization of culture as a decidedly Bad Thing.  But they voted for him anyway and got in the face of anyone who criticized Melania for being what till now they claimed to oppose.  This is Through The Looking Glass Time for them and I won’t pretend to claim any understanding, other than recognizing the serious two-faced hypocrisy evident.

As to those critics who have held old photographs of her up for disdain, mocking her and her husband thereby, as if the fact that she pursued a career which many of them might have made apologies about (women have so few options, etc) has anything to do with her suitability to be something else.

Lay off.  This is all part of the same bifurcated mindset that places sex in one room and everything else in another and then treats public examples of it as alternately empowering or a disease.

Just because her husband treats her like a trophy doesn’t mean the rest of us get to repurpose her for our own ends.

I have no problem with pointing out the hypocrisy of the Family Values crowd over this, but I will not blame Melania for it.  We just bid farewell to a presidential family that had no sex scandals of any kind and clearly set an example as a solid, loving, neuroses-free family—who suffered ongoing derision for 8 years at the hands of people who have violated their own professed standards in that that regard to elect someone who has pretty much been a poster-boy for everything they claim is wrong with America.  Well, clearly the whole thing was a deep, deep neurosis on their part.  I will not blame Melania for their shallowness, lack of integrity, and evident moral malleability.

Nor will I support attempts to ridicule him by holding her up as some example of unsuitability based on the opposite neurosis attaching to women who—

Well, let me put it this way:  all those who were (and are) madly in love with Hillary and feel the world has ended because she is not the president—would you have supported her fervently if nude photos of her from her college years surfaced?  With all the rest of her qualifications intact, had she taken a year to do something that doesn’t fit with an image of “stateswoman”, would the love have been there?

Food for thought.

But for now, unless she gets involved with policy—and if she does, I will wait to see how and what she produces—I will not credit any shaming that goes her way.

Time To Retire That Myth

I was raised never to blame anyone else for my failures.  If things didn’t work out the way I hoped or intended, well, suck it up and own it.  I didn’t follow through, work hard enough, smart enough, long enough, plan, save, do the necessary, make the sacrifice, or pay sufficient attention.  It was no one’s fault but my own if things went wrong or simply never came to fruition. Blaming someone else for your problems was the surest way to never succeed.  If it doesn’t work out this time, start over, try again, slam your head against that wall until it caves in, but don’t quit and under no circumstances complain that forces are arrayed against you.

Every time I’ve been tempted to do a rant about the unfairness of any situation, that upbringing hauls me up short and makes it difficult, even when I know for a fact my failure was not my fault.  Such things get in deep in the psyché, etch pathways, trenches, ruts that will not let me divest of the feeling of responsibility for a failure I had nothing to do with but still had to suffer.

I suspect most Americans have been infected with some version of that idea.  It has its virtues.  We work hard, we rarely quit, we harbor notions of boundless achievability.  We think highly of ourselves and everyone knows a poor self-image can be deeply damaging.  One might assume this is a component of our much-vaunted work ethic and maybe it is.

On the downside it makes us blind to real circumstances that do in fact hinder people.  Especially Other People.

Congress is about to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  The senate already has.  I doubt the house will fail to follow suit.  Throughout the campaign last year we kept hearing that this was going to happen.  Yet we elected the man who said he would do it.  No no, his occasional “softening” of that position doesn’t count, because in no instance did Trump say he wouldn’t support it.  More than that, we sent back to congress all the incumbents who said they would repeal it.

“Repeal and Replace” has been the mantra, but there is no replacement.  There isn’t.  How do I know?  Because after seven years of listening to them complain we have heard nothing of such a thing.  The GOP has had seven years to get their collective heads together and devise a replacement.  Seven years.  Nothing.  Because they never intended to replace it.  They just intended to repeal it.

You might say this is another give-away to the moneyed interests, but that’s too simple.  The fact is, large segments of the health care industry have figured out how to make money under the ACA.  There are now jobs at stake as well.  It has become a substantial part of the economy.  Just repealing it will raise everyone’s costs, damage parts of a now-working industry, and raise unemployment, and that’s before throwing millions of people off their health care and letting many of them die.  This is sheerest negligence on their part.

Seven years and they could have hired experts to help them come up with a better plan.  Seven years, we could have heard proposals, but all we got was a continual vow, a screed, that they wanted to repeal this horrible law.  Seven years to devise an alternative, air it, meet with the industry that would have to work with it, get the public on their side, have a debate.  Nothing.

This is presumably the way things are supposed to work here—you see something that doesn’t work right, come up with a better idea to replace it.

So why are they voting to repeal something which they have no replacement for?  Something that actually benefits millions of Americans?

There is a video going around of a small business owner talking to Paul Ryan and defending “Obamacare” because without it he would have been dead.  Unequivocal.  Without the ACA he would have died.  Ryan just keeps smiling that vacuous smile of his, like “I hear you and I’m glad you’re alive but it’s beside the point.”

What is that point?

That business owner didn’t deserve it.

Hold on a second, that’s kind of cold.  Didn’t deserve it?

When you dig down deep into the driving myths that we use to define ourselves, yes, you find that in the mix.  It has to do with that upbringing I talked about above.  Your situation is no one else’s fault but your own.

There is no replacement for the ACA because the people voting to repeal it believe, deep down in that vast pool of American myth that informs who they think they are, that people without the means to pay for something should not have that something, whatever it is.  You don’t—ever—give people things.  It is just the nature of the universe that if they can’t find the resources within to step up and make enough money to have what they need, it is their fault, no one else’s, and therefore their situation is no one’s responsibility but their own.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Independent Business Owner Who Had Cancer, but how is your misfortune my problem?  You should have found a way to come up with the money to pay for good healthcare.”

Because blaming others for your failures is not American.

This is the only thing that makes sense.  This is the only thing that explains the visceral and programmatic opposition to any social program designed to assist the less able, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the marginalized, the unlucky.  They don’t want to do anything that appears to “give” something to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Doesn’t deserve it.  What does that actually mean?

If, as many of them claim, they are christians and look to god, then by their own philosophy none of us “deserve” anything.  We should all be slowly dying in a pool of under-resourced misery.  But then, the flip side of that is the charge that the more fortunate should be charitable to the less.

It would not surprise me to learn that most of those voting to take away the ACA support numerous charities and probably do so generously.

Here’s the thing.  Charity like that, though, has never effectively addressed poverty.  Some recipients of the charity manage to clamber up out of it, but most remain dependent.

They get what they deserve, perhaps, which is always less than enough to right their circumstances.

Because their poverty is no one’s fault but their own.  They don’t deserve to be made…

To be made equal.

I’ll let that thought simmer for a while.

The bottom line is, there will be no replacement for the ACA.  Replacing it would mean they accept responsibility for your inability to make enough money to buy your own health care.  They will not accept that because doing so opens the possibility that they are responsible for a whole lot more social inequality than just low incomes and joblessness and the fact that resource manipulation is the primary tool of the wealthy.  Because admitting to that responsibility would mean that a lot of people live in situations which are not their fault.  In fact, are some one else’s fault.

That’s a can of worms they have no intention of opening, because, well, we’re Americans, and we make our own way, taking no hand-outs, accepting no one’s charity, and getting by on our own effort.  Anyone who can’t manage just isn’t trying hard enough and that’s just not our fault.  Or responsibility.

It’s a myth.  It flies in the face of reality.  And it’s time to have done with it.

For all you who voted for these people and may well lose your healthcare…well, in this case, it would seem this really was your fault.

January 11, 2017

…And The Mirror Warps

Strange times.

Fox News is defending CNN in the wake of a Trump insult and possible threat at his first press conference in over 160 days.  In recent years one could not imagine Fox News chastising someone who is in many ways the perfect flower of their mutated brand of “news.”  But since Roger Ayles has stepped down and may now be looking at some very serious problems, there seem to be a few people at Fox trying to reposition themselves in order to gain a credibility that the network actively shunned for  more than two decades.

This on top of a sitting senator actually testifying against a colleague before the senate committee vetting Trump’s cabinet picks.

That rumbling, still faint, may be the severe indigestion coming from one of the worst morning-afters this country has ever had.  The headiness of the post-election high has faded and people who thought everything was going to be “fine” (or some version thereof) are starting to wonder who this is snoring beside them.

It may make for some of the most trenchant reassessing we’ve done for a long, long time.  In that regard, this may turn out to have been to the good.

But only if it doesn’t take too long for the bromo to work

January 09, 2017

A Problem Of Legitimacy

I’ve been trying to compose my thoughts about what transpired last November that has left us with one of the most uncertain political situations we have faced in so long that I find it difficult to make a comparison.  Possibly Rutherford B. Hayes.  Possibly Harding.

The aspect of this that has baffled me most is the fact that sixty million of my fellow citizens cast a ballot for a man they do not trust.

An odd statement, I know, but in all the rhetoric I’ve seen, both before and after the election, I see very little that suggests anyone actually trusts Trump. That’s not to say there weren’t many reasons for those who did to vote for him, but I don’t believe trust is one of them.  Maybe it’s opposite. Certainly a good dose of cynicism was involved.

I’m not going to rehearse here the various theories about stolen or corrupted elections. I’m not concerned with that at the moment. What I’m concerned about is those sixty million voters. Those and the ninety million who did not vote. For the purposes of this piece, I see them all of a piece.*

So one hundred fifty million Americans put a man in the White House they do not trust. Other metrics were involved. Other motives.

Firstly, about that trust thing.

When Obama was elected, people voted for him with a measure of confidence that he would represent their interests.  That change was in the offing. That he was capable of making a difference to the benefit of the country.  They talked about hope and change interchangeably. It was obvious that they felt he would do positive things. They trusted him.  Both times.

And the reaction of his opponents came out of recognition of that basic reality. What his enemies had to do was destroy that trust, if possible.  And because of that trust, their main weapon was denial.  Because it meant their candidates did not command such confidence or trust. He had to be shown, therefore, to be ineffective.

He had to be delegitimized.

In the brawl over the last eight years, perhaps they succeeded on a level not intended. They did not, I think, manage to delegitimize President Obama. Rather, they fulfilled one of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical dictums and managed to delegitimize the idea of governance.

No, I don’t think that’s what they intended to do, but the fight they engaged was over fundamental principles of the purpose of government. In past fights, it was easier to simply discredit the person in office, either by impugning his reputation or exposing corrupt policies. This time, though, they had neither opportunity, not in any useful way. What policies they attempted to present as corrupt were not.  Some of them were mistakes, some bad ideas, some poorly managed, but none were in any way explicitly corrupt. And the man himself offered nothing to attack.  Even Obama’s detractors, unless they were being programmatically obtuse, could not but respect him.

Which left them only with a fight over principles.

Which they were losing.

Why else adopt a tactic of pure and undifferentiated obstruction?  This became obvious with the nomination of Merrick Garland, who had previously  enjoyed more than a little praise from the very people who then refused to even have hearings about his appointment to the Supreme Court. There was no good reason to do this.  It was purist petulance.  The commitment on the part of GOP senators and representatives to block everything Obama attempted to do had no basis in logic or sound thinking.  It was entirely party driven.  A short-sighted policy to delegitimize Obama’s presidency.

The intent, no doubt, was to show Obama’s philosophy of governance wanting.  That the Democrats, as exemplified by the president, had no good ideas. That based on their success at roadblocking even discussions on his policy measures the Republicans would show themselves as morally and philosophically superior.

The problem is, without that discussion there is no way to know who has the superior governing philosophy.  Ideas need airing, discussion, debate in order to determine their merit.  Instead, the GOP has successfully damaged, possibly destroyed, public trust in governance of any kind, at least at the federal level, for a substantial number of citizens.  By blanket opposition to anything Obama attempted, nothing was shown to be superior—only achievable.  Namely, the inevitable loss of public confidence in government.

They managed to strip the presidency of legitimacy.

They intended to strip Obama of legitimacy.  They failed.  He still retains it.  But he’s leaving office.  It is the office that has been damaged, though public understanding of that fact has probably not caught up with the reality.

What could be more inevitable then that we elect a man who already has no legitimacy to an office that may be badly lacking it?

The idea of legitimacy is a tricky one. It precedes trust. It is an intangible assumption that a person or institution deserves to be entrusted with representational responsibilities, that they are what they appear to be, that their actions, in part and in total, are born out of sound motives and based on confidence in the abilities and competencies required to be present and at the ready. In part, it is a kind of faith that what will be done will be done for the benefit of the community. That even in failure, the attempts to fulfill duties are done in good faith. When all these various implicit characteristics are in place and extant, then trust follows.

Legitimacy underlies all assumptions of power back to the days of kings and pharaohs and other potentates.  It is the reason for such grave concern over lineage and the legal rights of heirs and successors. Because continuity is important, certainly, but the imprimatur of authority must be seen to pass rightfully from one hand to the next in order for chaos to be kept at bay. It is a delicate, powerful thing which, when in place, is hardly thought of but once damaged or absent can be seen as all important. Which explains both why we are now so troubled by possible outside interference with this election and why forms are being so rigorously defended by those who know something is amiss. Why, specifically, the Electoral College did not act in its legal capacity to change its vote in the face of evident misadventure and the clear unsuitability of the president elect—because in the absence of legitimacy in the outcome the legitimacy of the institutions must be protected. Because the office has been damaged in the eyes of the people, a changed vote by the Electors could easily have been the final blow to a marginally creditable system. Barring Trump would be seen as less a decision against a usurper than as one more reason to distrust the system.

I say “usurper” purposefully, though with full admission of the irony implied.

It was usurpation that invented those so-called popular sanctions, those speeches, those monotonous congratulations, the customary tribute that in every age the same men pay, with great prodigality and in almost the same words, to the most contradictory measures. In them, fear apes all the appearances of courage, to congratulate itself on its own shame and to express thanks for its own misfortunes. A peculiar stratagem that deceives no one! A game that impresses no one and that should have succumbed long ago to the arrows of ridicule! But ridicule attacks all and destroys nothing.
Benjamin Constant, On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814

Constant was talking about Napoleon, of course, but consider—Napoleon achieved a position of ultimate power in France with the assent of the people who claimed legitimacy to bestow that power. That Napoleon turned out to be other than what anyone expected made him a species of usurper. He replaced legitimate authority by virtue of pure assertion. That he did so in the wake of the complete loss of legitimacy on the power of the monarchy only underscored the fact that he had no authenticity, only the force of a manufactured popular mandate.

People loved him.

For a while, at least. And when he had been beaten and exiled the first time, the Sisyphean task of recovering legitimacy in a Restoration ran into the reality of a desolated economy and a broken public trust led to a final surge of popular support during his Hundred Days.

Now, a usurper can still do the job, but has the same problem as the delegitimized “rightful” ruler, namely a lack of trust from the people. In this instance, the office is the damaged part, which is why Obama was unable to pass on his still-intact legitimacy to an heir, namely Hillary Clinton. Large segments of the popular base that swept him into office in two historic elections did not stir itself to grant its favor upon her because she had been the one the ongoing attempts to delegitimize Obama had successfully tainted. They could not damage him so they attacked his staff.  The repeated harangue over settled questions served his enemies well, because she was seen finally as corrupt—so corrupt in fact that her corruption was beyond revelation.

Constant again: Usurpation brutalizes a people while oppressing it—accustoms it to trample on what it respected, to court what it despises, to despise itself. And if usurpation manages to endure for any length of time, it actually makes impossible any freedom or improvement after its fall.

The irony in our case, of course, is that the usurpation has been done for the usurper, rather than by him.

When I say that no one who supported him trusts Trump I base this on the immediate and almost desperate sounding apologia that followed on the heels of his election, that he never really meant all the things he said, that he was speaking allegorically or metaphorically, or, more cynically still, that he was only saying those things in order to win and would never actually act on any of it.  Often these apologies are made by people who months before lauded him for plain-speaking, for “saying it like it is,” for being “genuine.”  And again, this was all said with no sense of irony. Wishful thinking, perhaps.  But disturbingly, I think, based on a perception that it didn’t really matter, which suggests either no understanding of what was happening or an admission that all faith in the office had been lost and it was of no consequence who inhabited it.

Of course, the apologies on his behalf also suggest some understanding of how undesirable those things he said actually are. People made excuses for the visiting uncle at Thanksgiving who couldn’t stop telling off-color jokes and wondering why cousin so-n-so had to go an marry someone not of his or her ethnicity. Oh, he doesn’t really mean that, he’s just being, you know—

And no one seems to have the authority, the moral will—the legitimacy—to tell him to leave, or just shut up. Possibly because they see him as a founder of the feast.

This is no surprise in a movement which on the one hand is represented by David Brooks and on the other end by Alex Jones.

The lack of trust manifests among those who must now work with him.  Many stepped up to voice opposition to him during the campaign, but are now backpedaling because they see him as the one who may be useful to them. But while they may be acting as if everything is as it should be, they do not trust him, and may well believe he is not legitimate. They’re stuck, though, because the institutions they have worked so hard to control are in danger of collapse after several decades of sapping, and if they move aggressively to correct what is clearly a mistake they risk losing everything they have worked toward.

In order for a government to work effectively, a certain degree of confidence must be in place that what it does is done legitimately.  The general populace may know some of what goes on, but the entire point of a government is in its function of dealing with things too vast and complex for the average citizen to access, at least in the details. We have to trust that the institutions in place are managed by people who do what they do with a minimum degree of competence and for the benefit of those they represent. When Reagan began his campaign of delegitimizing the very idea of government (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” August 12, 1986) he put at risk that powerful, fragile trust necessary for a government to function. It has never been a question of criticizing the government—we have always done that, it is part of the very institutions we rely on that we do that—but the very idea that the general will can be legitimately expressed through those institutions that Reagan called into question.

I doubt he intended the results we see now, but this is his true legacy. This is what has become of popular conservatism.+ Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of the struggle against progressivism.

Conservatism itself has been usurped. It has morphed from a philosophy of preservation and economic and demographic caution to one that simply rejects change. From there it has become dynamically retrograde, identifying a priori change as a viable target, rejected out of hand as having somehow violated conservative prerogatives. Hence the assault on even New Deal concepts which have long become part of the settled landscape of Things To Be Conserved. (The entire movement to privatize as many public programs as possible is part of this. Should they acknowledge the legitimacy of these programs as part of the proper purview of government, they would be forced to admit change as a necessary aspect of their philosophy.)

There is in the current manifestation of the Conservative movement a deeply-nurtured mediocrity.  Partly this is a result of a mangled understanding of the nature of equality, but mostly it stems from a distrust of anything that requires imagination or innovation. The only vision put forth by their best lights is a vague ritual solemnity that masks an avarice without taste and certainly stripped of genuine morality. Form is all and even in that it is only the form of denial.

There is no climate change. There is no viable secularism. There is nothing to evolution. There is no alternative to oil, capitalism, or god.

There is no good progress.

Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of their struggle against progressivism. Lacking a substantive alternative, they have engaged a battle of labels.  Over time, the things meant by those labels have been abandoned, so we no longer know—possibly on either side—what they mean.  So attempts at restructuring the economic landscape, for instance, to shift the flow of resources to a broader population are labeled Socialist, but what is meant by that within the context of the struggle has nothing to do with socialism.

So what has replaced genuine conservatism is a regressive denial of progress.  Consequently, one method in play to thwart progress is the categorical dismantling of the material and legal scaffolding on which any progress depends for any success.  Like social security. Or voting rights. Progress is not to be trusted.  Therefore the tools and foundations of it must be denied those who would most likely pursue it on behalf of those who would most likely support its use.  The so-called Safety Net must be destroyed so those it allows a degree of comfort and security to move forward cannot affect change.

This philosophy has been ideal for those who have been pouring huge amounts of money into the political process in order to secure for themselves a free field of movement to guarantee their hegemony over resources. The use of money in campaigns may have begun as a tool to support ideas and a representational legitimacy, but as the contest fragmented and the points of focus were lost, it became a means of winning.  When it was no longer clear what winning served, money became the end in itself. Building war chests on the chance that one day there might be a philosophy worth supporting has become endemic to the struggle. Consider the point-free arguments over taxation. We rarely hear clear arguments over what use taxes are to be put, only increasingly strident rhetoric over whether they should even exist.  Meanwhile, borrowing continues, because that feeds private coffers which then pay for more strident anti-tax rhetoric.

Through all this the one thing that is excised from our political life that will be perhaps the final brace to a damaged system is competence. Competence aligned to legitimacy is dangerous to a self-justifying mediocrity.

As I said at the beginning, I did not intend to talk about outside intervention here.  I am concerned with the voters, who have chosen to reward an illegitimate candidate, both by direct ballot and, more importantly, by abstention. The work of delegitimizing our institutions is all but accomplished and this election is proof.  Because popular sentiment became invested not in the office but in the persons involved, to the exclusion of much if not everything else. Once there was a time when it did not matter so much which candidate won, we all trusted that certain basic duties of the office would be fulfilled regardless.# So those who lost grumbled and went home and geared up for the next election and got on with their lives knowing the scaffolding and superstructure was in place.  That the one who won at minimum would fulfill the required functions of the office to the general benefit of the community.  We trusted in the legitimacy of the elected candidate. We could change our mind in four years.

That did not happen this time. One hundred fifty million voters decided there was no legitimacy to be had, so on the one hand keep the competent one out and on the other hand assume a principle aloofness and refuse to participate. Because those who voted for Trump do not trust him. This will become apparent. Nor do they have confidence in the institutions anymore, so why elect someone who would be adept at running those institutions?

They have placed themselves in a mindset that allows for no real alternatives other than the continued deterioration of systems they no longer believe in but hope will not abandon them. We have a crisis of legitimacy.  Worthy candidates will be seen as more a danger than a benefit because making things work to our benefit has been characterized as somehow inimical to our identity.

In a way, we have usurped our own government. In its place will now be a set of forms that will set the stage for a series of convulsions until finally we get past the constraints of our fear.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

*And yes, I acknowledge that voter suppression was an active force in all of this, but ninety million? No, suppression cannot account for even half of that.

+ To be clear, I do not see this movement as legitimately conservative. This is the name they have taken from people who are or were genuine conservative thinkers and who would never have countenanced the circus taking place under their rubric.

#No, I do not mean to suggest there were no differences between candidates, only that regardless who won, which ideology or philosophy became dominant for the duration, the institutions of the country could be depended on to continue and that certain values were held on common by both sides of the political divide.

So What Do We Do Now?

It has been clear for all of the campaign season and is now becoming clearer that Donald Trump should not be president.  He is temperamentally unsuited to the position, he does not have the working knowledge of how things work in a government, and he is wildly unpredictable.  He is also as thin-skinned as they come.

But so what?  He has been elected.  For better or worse, unless something remarkable happens, he will be president for the next four years.

By remarkable I mean any of several possible legal scenarios.

There is a petition circulating to request the Electors of the Electoral College change their vote. This is possible and, as previously noted, not only perfectly legal but one of the reasons the College was established to begin with.  It is also possible Trump will decide this is a bad move for him and resign.  It is questionable whether this would leave Pence in place. After the inauguration, it is possible congress could impeach him.  There is ample in his background that would seem sufficient.

Addressing just one of these, I could suggest that the Electors do something even more remarkable, and that is to nullify their vote entirely.  Give it to no one.  This would likely force a new election.  We would have to do the whole thing over.

I do not believe we have ever had a nominee winning the Electoral vote with such a gap in the popular vote before,  As the ballots continue to be counted, it is clear that among those who actually went to the polls, Hillary Clinton is the winner.  It would be ethical and legal for the College, on December 19th, to change their votes to reflect this reality.  Will that happen?  I rather doubt it.  I do not believe there is sufficient moral fiber extant to take that kind of a position and it may well be that most of them, aligned with Party the way they seem to be, want this.

Which means the elephant is loose in the china shop.  This is going to hurt and hurt a lot.

So what are our options?

It has been suggested we abolish the Electoral College.  It is, however, in the Constitution, so getting rid of it requires a constitutional convention, which means opening the whole thing up to revision.  I personally don’t trust that we have on hand the wisdom to do that.  We see all the time other countries that continually rewrite their constitutions and it rarely ever comes out well.  We might pass a new amendment to nullify it, the way we did with Prohibition, and that would avoid putting the whole thing on the surgeon’s table, but that would also require an enormous consensus across the country, something we’ve been lacking of late.  I don’t think that would work, either.

So here’s a thought.  There is no reason to have the Electoral vote announced at the same time as we’re doing the popular vote tally.  As we are now painfully aware, on that day, the votes just aren’t all in.  Expecting this big complicated mechanism to do all this fairly and honestly in one day may be too much.  Had we not locked in those ballots on the day and waited for the balance of the vote count, we would not have a fait accompli the undoing of which could cause a violent ruction.  Since it is the case that they meet for the final vote on December 19th, we should simply wait till then for any kind of announcement.

There was a time I hated the idea of term limits, but I’m coming around to the notion.  The real damage of this election is in the fact that through negligence and apathy we returned a vast number of incumbents who are set on undoing so much that mitigates the reality that we have been on a course of public pillage which has cost us jobs, savings, security for millions of people who simply do not have the resources to hire the kind of legal help to protect themselves.  Supposedly, that has been the task of our government.  But how can the government do that without some sense of what its constituents want?  We do not vote in sufficient numbers, regularly enough, to place representation in Washington that reflects the reality of our lives.  For whatever reason, Americans have traditionally disliked politics and whenever an excuse presents refuse to participate, even at the most basic level of exercising the franchise.

With that in mind, two things we could change that might make it easier.  First, make election day a national holiday.  That would be simple enough.  Secondly, do what Bernie Sanders suggests, make registration automatic, a birthright.  When you turn 18, you’re registered to vote.

Of course I can see obstacles.  Certain parties have always tried to tie the right to vote to property.  The resistance to things like Motor  Voter registration demonstrates that.  But dammit, that would settle it.  At the time of your majority, you would also receive a federal ID, good for all manner of thing.  If you can’t get to the place to do so, then we should have mobile registration units that will come to you to secure that ID.  I think voter ID laws as they stand are there simply to bar people from voting.  We saw this in Wisconsin in a pronounced way.  So simply make it law that at 18 you are automatically registered to vote and at the same time you receive your federal ID.  In fact, it could be done as part of the whole senior high school process, folded in with yearbook photographs.  Done.  Turning someone with such an ID away from a polling place would then be a violation of federal law.

Another issue is this whole nonsense about third parties.  Here’s a reality.  Third parties have never gained traction in this country.  There are many reasons for this.  Firstly, because it was never intended that there be parties as such, but secondly because we do not create coalition governments as are done in many places where having three, four, even five parties is normal and the winning party must create a government from proportional parts of all parties.  Here, with the winner-takes-call method we have, third parties do little more than muddy already murky waters.

But a more trenchant reason is that the two parties we do have take in and absorb viable third party concepts and people.  One or the other morphs into what becomes effectively a new party.  Which is one reason talking about what either party was like half a century ago is absurd.  There may be some continuity but rarely consistency.

Given that, what I would suggest right now is for Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Barack Obama to form a coalition to essentially invade one or the other party and begin to transform it in accordance with whatever program they devise between themselves.  We cannot ignore Stein or Johnson or at least not what they represent, they made substantial showings in this election.  But they will never, at this rate, achieve the kind of authority to challenge either major party, certainly not soon enough to do much good.  But by forming a nexus of change within one or the other, they could remake one of the two major parties.  Rather than let it happen as it does by accident, it should be done consciously and directly.  These four represent the chief aspects of what might make a responsive party.  Together, they could be amazing.

Finally, given that we are likely stuck with the situation at hand for the next four years, two more ground level suggestions.  The first, the people in congress are supposed to represent all of us.  Whether you voted for them or not, by law they are still our representatives—our employees, basically.  Treat them that way.  Don’t leave the conversation because they’re not your guy.  Flood their offices with your input.  Tell them what you want.  All the time.  Burn their ears.  They must represent you, that’s how it is supposed to work.  Act toward them as if you had put them there.  You can still work to unseat them and put someone more to your liking in their place, but while they are there make them do their job.

Secondly, since it would seem civics is rarely taught in school anymore, maybe we should start local classes in it to acquaint people with how all this is supposed to work.  Bring the kids.  It has become obvious that too many Americans don’t understand the first thing about the way the government works—or could work if people did their part, which they can’t do if they don’t know how.

We are possibly about to lose a great deal.  We have a government in place that won by a minority of voters.  That is not majority rule it is minority veto.  It may be that such things must happen before we act.  Secession, a Great Depression, the Cold War.  If true, it does not reflect well of us.  The tools are there but we have to turn the dials.

Lastly, there are many people in this last election who were turned away from the polls.  Voter suppression is very real.  But many more just opted out.  They were discouraged, perhaps, by their choices, but that’s simply not good enough.  You play the hand you’re dealt or you end up barred from the game.  Stop waiting to be inspired.  Inspiration is not reason, it is not logic, it is not a substitute for dealing with reality.  It’s not sexy, but when you vote, the fact is you’re hiring an employee to do a job.  The only factors that matter are “Is he/she qualified” and “Do they support the things I support?”  Everything else is a bonus and that merits reelection.  If they fail in their job, your fire them at the next election.  But being swept off your feet by bold rhetoric and substanceless campaign slogans and baseless judgments of “personality” is a sure way to be disappointed—even badly betrayed.  But significantly, keep that in mind—at the end of the day, the president is an employee.  He—or she—works for you.  Handing over your conscience because they dazzle you with promises of brilliance not based on ability or sympathy is irresponsible.

 

 

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