Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Our improbable "internal political resource"

As the Trump regime builds out its baby jails for children under five, and we, the resisting majority, scream our protests, some repeat over and over "This is not who we are. We aren't like this!"

And those of us who have never been confident that the USofA was very good through much of our history sigh -- and contemplate the terrible job of gentle (and not so gentle) instruction we owe to our fellow citizens. What a horror show this country has been for so many: there was the attempted extermination of the native people of the continent; the use of African human captives as trafficable, disposal machines for cotton profits; the wars of empire in which torture and murder have been justified by religious and race hatred. And it goes on and on.

But there have also been also those other themes of our history: "inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; "government of, by, and for the people." The gradual expansion of "the people" to encompass more and more of us ...

Mark Kleiman at Reality-Based Community took up how we live among these uncomfortable contradictions a few days ago. We need to learn a more complicated, more truthful, history, of course. But also --

Aspirational history and political rhetoric
... “critical” history isn’t the only kind. National myths are, themselves, potent realities. A country where the belief that horrible actions Aren’t Like Us is widespread has an internal political resource that helps political actors within that country oppose such horrible actions.  A country where that belief isn’t widespread – where criminality is an accepted part of the political culture – lacks that resource, which of course is a benefit to criminal political actors within that country. The accuracy of the underlying belief is an independent question.

This post was a rare exception to the rule on the internet; comments expanded the discussion. Here's one from someone who calls himself "johnarkansaslawyer".

As a leftist, I'm in broad agreement ... that the United States has no particular claim to virtue. Also as a leftist, I'm also able to tell the difference between bad and worse. What we have right now is worse cubed. ...

Hating your own country is the internationalism of fools. That much I do know.

Becoming revolted by your own culture's flaws is a useful phase in development of a broader worldview, assuming you get past it. Getting stuck in that revulsion leaves you just as foolish, just in the opposite direction.

As we resist cruel barbarism, we can't pretend this country is flawless. But neither can we succumb to nihilism. That's throwing away any chance to fight another day.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Of such small victories, a different world is made

The Rev. Marlyn Bussey  of St. James A.M.E. Church, San Mateo
Community residents of San Mateo County made it abundantly clear to their Board of Supervisors this morning that it is time for lawmakers to to do the right thing. Every other Bay Area country has funded legal defense for immigrants threatened by our nativist government's program of ethnic cleansing. Faith leaders and supporters testified for an hour within the meeting; afterward, flanked by brave immigrant neighbors, they spoke to the press outside.

Organized by Faith in Action Bay Area, folks made it clear they'll be back. All five supervisors seemed intent on getting with their constituents' program.
the Rev. Penny Nixon, Congregational Church of San Mateo

Monday, June 18, 2018

Their cries echo to the heavens ...

The investigative reporting group ProPublica provides this audio from within a Border Patrol detention facility. Whoever made and smuggled out the recording passed it to civil rights attorney Jennifer Harbury -- a name long familiar to many North Americans concerned with human rights in Central America. Harbury's Guatemalan husband was tortured to death in his home country in the 1980s by paid CIA informants.

Those of us in the US who worked for justice and peace in the Americas have always feared the misdeeds of the United States would come home. They have -- and are visited on the children.

A call to reunite children with parents

Laura Bush (you know, George W.'s wife) calls out border cruelty.

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.

Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.

Read it all -- and then find a Families Belong Together demonstration for human decency near you.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Pure evil

Jesuit Father James Martin calls the Trump border policy what it is. (I've transcribed a series of tweets here.)

Like many, I've resisted using this word but it's time: the deliberate and unnecessary separation of innocent children from their parents is pure evil.

It does not come from God or from any genuinely moral impulse. It is wantonly cruel and targets the most vulnerable.

Its use has been cloaked in lies, another clear sign that it does not proceed in any way from God or from a genuinely moral impulse. And the results--misery, anguish, physical suffering, division and despair--are also unmistakable signs that this is an evil.

As St. Paul wrote, "You will know them by their fruits....every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit." (Mt 7:17). That is, the results enable us to clearly recognize evil. As such, we have a moral obligation to name it and fight against it.

Anyone who participates in this kind of wanton cruelty is also guilty of this evil. "I was just following orders" went out at Nuremberg. The decision-makers and all who cooperate in these actions will be judged.

"I was a stranger and you did not welcome me." (Mt 25)


Father's Day

Here's my father, alongside his father, on a Buffalo winter day, just over 100 years ago in 1919. Both of them lost that ramrod posture as they aged.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

San Francisco: a little bit of alright

Before the June 5 election completely slips down the memory hole, it's worth noting that 69 percent of city residents voted to ban flavored tobacco products. That's impressive, considering that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company spend $12 million on defeating Prop. E. In the days before the election, we were all deluged in No on E mailers claiming that barring sale of bubble gum flavored vaping products was the new prohibition. Just about every corner market displayed a No on E sign.

The tobacco companies are working hard to expand their market.

“To Juul (the brand has become a verb) is to inhale nicotine free from the seductively disgusting accoutrements of a cigarette: the tar, the carbon monoxide, the garbage mouth, the smell,” writes the New Yorker‘s Jia Tolentino, of the San Francisco-based product Juul, a sleek vaporizer that looks like a flash drive. They come in eight flavors, like Fruit Medley and Crème Brûlée, cost about $16 for a pack of four pods, and, as such, have become increasingly popular among teens.

One in six high school students currently use e-cigarettes, according to one estimate from the Department of Health and Human Services. As of March, Juul represented more than half of the e-cigarette retail market, a lucrative market expected to reach $48 billion by 2023.

Their elders, so many of whom struggled to get over tobacco addition in their time, said "no way" in our city.
Whatever Big Tobacco claimed, this was a vote against child endangerment for profit.

Friday, June 15, 2018

What the rules do for us

Josh Marshall is actually reading and absorbing this new Justice Department Inspector General's report that condemns former FBI director James Comey's self-referential and consequential misbehavior in reference to the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails. (No surprise that Comey screwed up there.) Marshall pulls a long quote from career DOJ Prosecutor, George Toscas:

One of the things that I tell people all the time, after having been in the Department for almost 24 years now, is I stress to people and people who work at all levels, the institution has principles and there’s always an urge when something important or different pops up to say, we should do it differently or those principles or those protocols you know we should—we might want to deviate because this is so different. But the comfort that we get as people, as lawyers, as representatives, as employees and as an institution, the comfort we get from those institutional policies, protocols, has, is an unbelievable thing through whatever storm, you know whatever storm hits us, when you are within the norm of the way the institution behaves, you can weather any of it because you stand on the principle.

And once you deviate, even in a minor way, and you’re always going to want to deviate. It’s always going to be something important and some big deal that makes you think, oh let’s do this a little differently. But once you do that, you have removed yourself from the comfort of saying this institution has a way of doing things and then every decision is another ad hoc decision that may be informed by our policy and our protocol and principles, but it’s never going to be squarely within them.

This is the same lesson that Trump administration abuses remind us of. Decent institutions require rules. Those rules may feel as if they constrain unnecessarily; they may seem inadequate to some emergency. But in longstanding institutions that have survived and improved over time (like, say, our imperfect democracy), rules should constrain us.

That's true, even if a President doesn't think he needs or must abide by any rules or laws. Bulldozing through norms may work for awhile, but that kind of success doesn't endure. The norm breaker may not personally pay the price, but those around him and his enablers will. And so will the country he is betraying.

Friday cat blogging

I'm getting to be an older gent. Can I really do it? Can I?

It's so tempting. I'll just throw myself up there ...

Morty treats the insulated attic crawl space as his private playground. I sure hope he never gets in trouble up there, because I sure can't follow to rescue him.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Dear Leader lords it over his captives

This image is from within a Border Patrol concentration camp for migrant children in a Walmart in Brownsville Texas. A former employee in the privatized children's prison system along our southern border described what he could no longer do:

Colleagues at a government-contracted shelter in Arizona had a specific request for Antar Davidson when three Brazilian migrant children arrived: “Tell them they can’t hug.”

Davidson, 32, is of Brazilian descent and speaks Portuguese. He said the siblings — ages 16, 10 and 6 — were distraught after being separated from their parents at the border. The children were “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” he said.

Officials had told them their parents were “lost,” which they interpreted to mean dead. Davidson said he told the children he didn’t know where their parents were, but that they had to be strong.

“The 16-year-old, he looks at me and says, ‘How?’” Davidson said. As he watched the youth cry, he thought, “This is not healthy.”

No, it is not healthy. The authors of this abuse, the Sessions and Nielsens and Homans, are the criminals.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What some South Koreans think ...

After all, Koreans are the ones in the immediate line of fire. They are the ones who have been separated from kinfolk for nearly 70 years.

According to E. Tammy Kim, writing from Seoul for the New Yorker:

Koreans see the Singapore summit not just as another sensational episode in the story of Donald Trump but as a step away from a sixty-eight-year-old unfinished war. In South Korea, in all but the most reactionary circles, there is a sense of ethnic solidarity with the North and some longing for unity. Support for President Moon, who is seen widely as the catalyst for this sudden thaw of relations between North Korea and the world, remains high. (Local elections, though overshadowed by the summit, take place on Wednesday in South Korea. Support for Moon’s party, generally, has also remained high, and voters will have a chance to express their confidence at the ballot box.) I’ve yet to meet a single Korean who isn’t willing to express optimism, in some form, about the prospects for peace and reunification. ...

... Lee Soo-jung, an anthropologist at Duksung Women’s University, acknowledged the painful “historical irony” of benefitting from Trump. In a fairer world, she tells me, “The citizens of the world would be able to vote for the U.S. President.” ...

... After the summit, [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] issued a short statement congratulating the U.S. and North Korea on a “successful” and “historic” meeting, praising Trump for his initiative and promising to work toward inter-Korean peace. South Koreans do not trust Kim or Trump, or believe in the possibility of a quick reunification. They are simply aware of the toll that seventy years of national division have taken, and are eager for an alternative future.

How many people around the world must have felt that they, too, deserved to have the chance to vote on U.S. presidents -- since the North American elephant might crush the life out of them with an accidental or unconsidered misstep?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trump's video trailer for his nothingburger summit

Much of the media finds this weird video apparently gifted from Trump to Kim simply dumbfounding. I don't.

A story: years ago, when I was doing some consulting on organizational effectiveness for the ACLU, I had the sad duty of researching and explaining one of the facts of life to the civil liberties groups' brilliant director. According the best opinion studies, about 16 percent of citizens thought TV cop dramas were documentaries, literally true. (Obviously these folks had no personal experience of police or courts.) This phony film is for these same people. I doubt if it will occur to polling and marketing companies to inquire, but it is aimed at the segment of the population who will believe it. They exist.

What if democracy and individual freedom seem incompatible?

How to begin describing political scientist Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It? On the one hand, many US readers will have to work to adjust to unfamiliar uses of familiar words which are at the core of Mounk's argument. On the other hand, once we get the definitions down, this is a very clearly written and highly accessible survey of trends all over the world that certainly seem hostile to polities that value human freedom. So -- here are Mounk's core definitions:

  • a democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translate popular views into public policy
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and individual rights such as freedom of speech, etc ...
  • a liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic -- one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy

One additional definition is necessary to understand Mounk's book: by populism he means movements that see legitimacy and power as emanating solely from majorities of the people. These movements have no respect for the technocratic, legal, and institutionalist organizational forms that elites (and majorities in less fraught times) uphold. Populism can refer to movements either loosely of the left or vaguely of the right. In US history (not much discussed by Mounk who is a newly naturalized US citizen, formerly German) western farmers rebelling against the banks and gold standard in the 1890s were lefty populists -- as were the followers of demagogic Louisiana governor Huey Long during the Depression of the 1930s. Donald Trump is a right populist in our familiar categories.

In this book, the author demonstrates that liberal democracy loses legitimacy all over the world because, for many people, the democratic part of the equation -- voting, parties and candidates -- don't seem to deliver what they promise: much impact on outcomes people want in their daily lives. What populists -- like Donald Trump -- do is weaponize people's frustration with the failures of the system against the very institutions that make democracy liberal: higher education, regulatory bodies, science, courts, lawyers, etc.. Populist pols substitute the One True Leader for all those complex social mechanisms and claim "I alone can fix it."Hence

"an honest leader -- one who shares the pure outlook of the people and is willing to fight on their behalf -- needs to win high office ... once this honest leader is charge, he needs to abolish the institutional roadblocks that might stop him from carrying out the will of the people."

For the populist, the institutional roadblocks are the political system of law and justice itself. I find this description of what US democracy is up against in the Trump regime clear, compelling, and chilling. Mounk provides readable documentation from survey research and electoral examples all over the world.

So what would be necessary for liberal democracy to satisfy the people, thereby defanging the populist menace? Mounk suggests three areas where he sees contemporary democratic failure. Unconstrained economic elites are seizing for themselves more and more of the wealth of the nation and mature economies offer very little in the way of "trickle down." Increasing racial and national diversity among the people is easily blamed for the specter of scarcity. Promoting the notion of racial, cultural, or even gender "enemies" serves to divide minorities from the "real" citizens. And modern communication media lend themselves to obfuscation, conspiracy theories, and lies.

"Once upon a time, liberal democracies could assure their citizens of a very rapid increase in their living standards. Now, they no longer can. Once upon a time, political elites controlled the most important means of a communication, and could effectively exclude radical views from the public sphere. Now, political outsiders can spread lies and hatred with abandon. And once upon a time, the homogeneity of their citizens -- or at least a steep racial hierarchy -- was a big part of what held liberal democracies together. Now, citizens have to learn to live in a much more equal and diverse democracy.

I found Mounk utterly convincing on the economic aspects of the democratic predicament. He is not steeped in the history of workers' movements; but he is a European social democrat and he knows economic theft when he sees it.

On "fake news" I resist thinking this is a technological problem; every communication advance (think printing Bibles in the vernacular for example!) has eventually been absorbed by its culture without overthrowing all access to truth -- though the process can be long, violent, and fraught.

And I found Mounk a little shallow on race, immigration, and culture; on this, a perspective grounded in consciousness of white supremacy as the US national original sin needs to be front and center to combat Trump's xenophobic nationalism. Like so many academics, his appreciation of this feels a little less heartfelt than his economic analysis.

So what does Mounk propose to people who want to defeat contemporary populism? He's got quite a catalogue. First and foremost, and somewhat unexpectedly for an academic, he says we have to be ready to go out in the streets. He cites the example of South Korea whose current government is one that was elected because the people demanded the ouster of a corrupt predecessor. Resistance can work.

... while the work of resistance is undoubtedly cumbersome, most political scientists do believe it can make life difficult for populist governments: the painstaking work of opposition can call attention to unpopular policies; slow the progress of pending legislation; embolden judges to strike down unconstitutional laws; provide support to embattled media outlets; change the calculus for moderates within the regime; and force international governments and organizations to put pressure on a would-be dictator.

He urges as much unity as possible in opposition; when facing a populist demagogue, we can't afford nonessential divisions. Of course discriminating among unlikely allies is not easy. He points to currents in contemporary civic education that he says we can't afford right now:

... an exclusive focus on today's injustices is no more intellectually honest than an unthinking exhortation of the greatness of western civilization.

He thinks we have to make peace with some kind of patriotism; the ugly sort of nationalism might be softened with more respect for the value of attachments to history and place. He applauds Obama's address at the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march as an example.

I hope I have not made this book seem dry or academic. Though thoroughly documented and impressively broad ranging, it is well written and easy to read. I don't agree entirely with a lot in it, but I found it even more useful for thinking about our democratic predicament than I had hoped.

Mounk's work against demagogic populism is readily available at two other venues. He writes a regular column at Slate, The Good Fight. The article I've linked to describes growing populism in Canada. And he produces a podcast of the same name, some episodes of which are better than others.

Monday, June 11, 2018

On impeding monsters

Here's a rather well done video on what smart resistance looks like when a man mistakes himself for a king.

When nonviolent resistance reaches a critical mass of 3.5% of the population, authoritarian rulers fall.

Nonviolent resistance is hard, because your side is volunteering to take the casualties. But there is good evidence that it works better, especially in the aftermath, than any other tactic.
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