Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

An Open Letter to My Congressional Representative

December 7, 2017

As I’ve said, most responses I’ve gotten from politicians look more like MadLibs than genuine communications; but First Amendment remedies are more legal, more moral and, I think, more likely to succeed than the Second Amendment remedies so often recommended by conservative politicians and pundits.  And I’m told that physical letters weigh more heavily with the Unlearned Elders of Washington than do phone calls, which themselves have more impact than email or petitions.  So, having tried petitions, tweets, e-mail and phone, I’m now trying actual letters.  I urge you to do the same.

Congressman Brett Guthrie

2434 Rayburn H.O.B.
Washington, DC  20515

 

Dear Congressman:

I oppose both tax plans, at least so far as any information has been shared with the people you work for. This tax plan is a budget buster, relying on bookkeeping tricks and flat-out fictions to look like it “only” raises the deficit a trillion dollars. It will raise my taxes, perhaps not immediately but in a few years, so any extra I get will go into savings, as Joseph saved during the years of plenty to withstand the coming famine. Taxes on the poor will be raised immediately. The LORD commands that we care for the poor (gleaning laws, Jubilee, restrictions on creditors etc.) and the prophets excoriate those who raise taxes on the poor to fatten the rich (see Isaiah 10:1-3, Amos 2:6-8, etc.).

Not only do your tax plans violate the Gospel and the Law, they violate economic sense and experience. You are following the theories which Gov. Brownback tried in Kansas; the result was the near bankruptcy of his state, until even most business owners were asking him to raise their taxes. It didn’t stimulate the economy then and won’t now. Kansas survives because it is part of a United States that is doing better; in particular, states like New York are contributing more to the Federal budget than they take out, and subsidize states like Kentucky and Kansas. Trickle-down economics will turn our economy into a trickle, when you are promising a flood of prosperity.

You seem to be calculating how much you can bleed your voters to feed your donors before we notice the pain. You offer us temporary cuts and later tax hikes, but give the wealthy permanent cuts. Either you intend to trick us, or you (as has been said) plan to make the tax cuts for everyone permanent despite the fact that this would push the deficit over two trillion dollars; and you know that this will only harm the economy, as it has in Kansas, Louisiana and elsewhere.

Reject this rushed, half-assed process that passes tax cuts for the wealthy in the dead of night, and leaves future generations to clean up your messy, thoughtless, hand-scribbled law. Start over, and do tax reform the way Reagan did: over years, working through committees, getting the best information and negotiating sound, thoughtful legislation.

 

Yours truly,

 

P.S. I am not just spouting uninformed and partisan opinions. In addition to numerous Scriptures, I have gathered objective empirical and historical data. I won’t bore you with a full bibliography, but I suggest this future reading for whatever intern might end up actually reading this letter:

Which states are most dependent on Federal funds? https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/

What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously? https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously

Thank you for your time.

 

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Another open letter to my senator, Mitch McConnell

December 5, 2017

I’ve tried repeatedly to phone my senator, but his phone never answers and his voicemail box is conveniently full.  I’ve also tried the contact form on his web page, but his responses fail the Turning Test.  I’ve been told that physical letters have more impact, so I’m mailing this tomorrow.  I am not, alas, overly optimistic that it will actually be read either.  So that maybe another human being will read some of this and give me a rational comment in response, I’m posting it here.  Besides, this blog needs more recent content!

Senator Mitch McConnell

317 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

 

Dear Senator:

I’ll try to state the main points quickly, since I doubt any human being is going to bother reading this anyway. Your answers to my previous calls and e-mails have been so off-target that I know no one bothers to read past the subject line. But I’m told that physical letters get a bit more attention, so I’ll try again.

I’ll give the conclusion first, and then the proofs leading up to it. This tax cut is a scam. It will raise my taxes, perhaps not this year but certainly in ten. However, tax cuts for the millionaires and billionaires, like you, your donors and Trump, are made permanent. You promised and still promise to give the middle-class and poor people a “big, beautiful tax cut,” and even say that you’re raising taxes on the rich. That is a lie, but you can make it the truth. Make the tax cuts for corporations and for the super-rich temporary, as you propose to do for the middle-class. Make the tax cuts for the middle class and poor permanent. The numbers that you have deigned to release suggest that you could do this easily, since the amounts you wish to raise from the middle class by abolishing their tax cuts match the money you wish to give away to the super-rich. You say that you need the ability to take the cuts back from the middle class if giving huge breaks to the rich doesn’t jump-start the economy. That’s insane. Instead, you should make the rich prove that having these big, beautiful tax cuts will encourage them to create jobs. If the economy tanks, they’ll have shown they don’t deserve or need tax cuts to stimulate the economy since it grew for over eight years without the cuts, but they’re still rich so they have enough money and to spare. This would go a long way towards convincing people that the GOP cares about its voters, and not only its donors.

Now for some backing for this suggestion. After eight years of hypocritical whining about how terrible it was that President Obama and the Democrats had passed a health-care bill without any Republican votes (though incorporating Republican ideas and soliciting Republican input throughout the process), your party rammed through a tax reform plan with less popular support, not even a pretense of seeking bipartisan input, and with so little discussion that few if any of the people who voted for it had any idea what it said. You said the ACA was rushed, but it was discussed in committees and debated publicly for nearly a year. Your tax plan was rushed through in about two months. During this time, the government has moved closer to a shutdown; but rather than deal with that first and work on tax reform for a year, you chose to ram through an ill-conceived tax cut for the wealthy. The CHIP program was allowed to expire; but rather than deal with insurance for sick children, some of whom may die, you felt it was more urgent to cut taxes on corporations so they could create jobs when we have extremely low unemployment rates already. I suppose some of the nurses who get laid off due to the loss of funding for children’s health can get jobs as gravediggers. Economists tell us that ending DACA could cost the U.S. economy $280 billion dollars (see http://fortune.com/2017/09/05/daca-donald-trump-economic-impact/), but you thought it was more urgent that we cut taxes to corporations when the CEOs tell us bluntly that most likely they will not invest the money in job growth, but use it for stock buybacks, dividends and executive bonuses. You are relying on economic theories and predictive models used by Gov. Brownback in his disastrous experiment with the Kansas state economy, which led to reduced economic growth and massive deficits. Kansas can survive because it is part of a United States that is generally doing better economically; in particular, New York and California pay in far more to the Federal government than do most “red states” like Mississippi, Alabama or our own home state, Kentucky (see https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/). If you do to the nation what your party did to Kansas, the nation might not survive. In fact, it seems unlikely that the world economy could survive.

I understand that conservatives want to reduce taxation on general principle. I am in favor of sound, frugal economic policy. What the GOP is proposing is not that. You say this is a middle-class tax cut, but anyone who can read knows this is another of your “alternative facts.” In the real world, this is a middle-class tax hike, giving people like me a few dollars now only to yank it away just as I will be needing to retire. It is a major tax cut for the wealthy and for corporations. That is why the tax cuts for the poor and middle class, if they get them at all, will disappear in a few years, while tax cuts for the super-wealthy and for corporations are permanent no matter how badly the economy does in the future.

Rather than simply be negative, please let me offer the following suggestion: Reverse your priorities. Make the tax cuts for corporations temporary, tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires temporary, and the tax cuts for the middle class permanent. Instead of eliminating deductions that middle-class and poor people need, like the tax deduction for medical expenses, keep them, and cut tax deductions for private jets, for golf courses and other things that only benefit Donald Trump and other billionaires. Right now, you are proposing cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest sliver of the American population by shifting more of those expenses onto the poor and the middle-class. You say that doesn’t matter, because we’ll have so much economic growth that we’ll be able to renew the tax cuts for the middle-class when they are set to expire. If that is true, then why not just reverse that reasoning? If, as Republican economic theorists claim, the economy grows in ten years, we could renew the tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthy at that time; so schedule those cuts to end in ten years. Let the tax cuts for working people be the ones that are permanent. Show that you care about voters, not just donors.

Also, you claim we need tax reform because you want to simplify the process of paying taxes by reducing the number of brackets. That is absurd. If you really want to make it easier for us to pay our taxes, let the IRS send out a bill (see https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/16/technology/personaltech/turbotax-or-irs-as-tax-preparer-intuit-has-a-favorite.html). The government has our tax information already. The only reason the task of calculating our taxes is thrust upon us is because lobbyists for the finance industry have paid you and your colleagues to keep both the taxpayer and the IRS doing the same job of computing our taxes, so we’ll have to keep paying Intuit, H&R Block and others to help us with our taxes. If the government handled our taxes the way most other nations do theirs, we could reduce fraud as well as anxiety for millions of people. Right now, paying taxes is like trying to pay for a meal at a restaurant without seeing the bill, and getting punished if our numbers don’t match what the waiter says we ordered. I suggest instead that you, the waiter, hand us the bill, and if we need to dispute part of it we can deal with that.

When I was in college, Republicans were the party of hope, of international engagement, of moral principles, of sound, clear-eyed economic realism, and above all of patriotism. I didn’t always agree with Republican positions, but most of my best friends were Republicans or Libertarian. The conservatives I knew were able and willing to discuss evidence and to debate rationally. That Republican party is dead, and you, sir, are one of its murderers. As Bobby Jindal famously said, the Republicans have become “the Stupid Party.” My Libertarian friend once debated an avowed Communist who claimed Marxism was the only “fair” system. He replied simple, “But Robert, it doesn’t work.” Kansas is just one of several Republican states, as well as some nations, that have tried to apply the theories of Laffer and Ayn Rand. Those policies have failed, and hurt a lot of people, although the rich like you may not have noticed (see https://qz.com/895785/laffer-curve-everything-trump-and-republicans-get-wrong-about-trickle-down-economics-and-reaganomics/ and https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously). Instead of being the realistic party facing down dewy-eyed, empty-headed idealists, you continue to push policies that have brought corporations, states and even nations to the edge of ruin. You are the party of dewy-eyed, suicidally-devout fanatics The party of Reagan would not do this. Regan worked for years on tax reform, talking across the aisle, allowing Congressional committees to do their work, and so on. And when the policies didn’t work and deficits ballooned, despite the reassurances of the Hayek-Laffer school, he backed off instead of doubling down. I say to you what the Libertarian said to the Marxist: What you propose doesn’t work, so try something else.

 

Yours truly,

An open letter to a FOX News viewer

November 8, 2017

I’m writing this to a family member who, I’m told, has been posting FOX News.  Perhaps you also have a loved one who needs intervention; if so, I hope this helps.  Friends don’t let friends drive news cycles.

Part 1:  I’ve been told you’re posting links to FOX News.  Those of us who share your concern that Donald Trump is destroying conservatism in this country, and destroying this country, wonder why you would start repeating stories from a source that dedicates itself to promoting his virtue, accomplishments and authority even when these claims are contradicted by his crimes, vices, failures, bullying, lying, pettiness and proud, profound ignorance.  I thought I would take the opportunity to remind you, and others, about “the FOX News Effect:”

http://www.businessinsider.com/study-watching-fox-news-makes-you-less-informed-than-watching-no-news-at-all-2012-5

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/07/21/a-rigorous-scientific-look-into-the-fox-news-effect/#609265ce12ab

There are many other reports, but these two cover things pretty well, and so far as I know neither can be accused of liberal bias.  It is simply a fact that FOX News viewers, on average, are less informed, and less willing to become informed, than people who watch no news at all, according to some research; other less thorough studies suggest that perhaps they aren’t more ignorant than the totally uninformed, but still know less (while thinking they know more) than NPR listeners, PBS watchers, or even CNN consumers.  There are some important caveats:

  1.  MSNBC viewers do not do much better.  The problem seems to be not so much right vs. left, but right hemisphere vs. left hemisphere.  FOX and MSNBC are both partisan, serving up lots of slanted, emotionally appealing news stories to their chosen niches while avoiding stories that might challenge their narratives.  The right side of the brain is more involved with the emotions; the left side is more analytical, logical, and factual.  The partisan news media, whether left-wing or right-wing, appeal more to people who do not value facts or critical thinking, and encourage people not to try.
  2. As the Forbes article points out, correlation is not causation.  We’ve done little research to find whether FOX viewers are ignorant to start, or whether viewing FOX makes them ignorant.

At the same time, there are reports like this:  http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/why-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/why-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives

What these suggest are:

  1.  Either smarter, better-educated and better-informed people tend to be more liberal, or being liberal makes you smarter.  Conservatives tend to be more gullible, either because they are less educated and informed, or because they tend to be more trusting.  Conservatives are more authoritarian, more trusting of people seen as leaders; and they are more group-oriented, more inclined to trust people within group boundaries and inclined to distrust outsiders.  That’s not intended as an insult; it’s a psychological and definitional fact.  To be a social conservative is to be anti-multicultural and more respectful of authorities and institutions, whether they are Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads” or the people who won’t watch the NFL because players “disrespect the flag.”  That does not mean they respect all authority, but they do respect the authorities that they accept more uncritically than liberals do.  Liberals tend to be more skeptical, more cynical, and more willing to accept ambiguity and open questions.
  2. Being too extreme either way could be bad, but the liberal echo chamber is less impermeable and less effective than the conservative one.  The false news manufacturer had more trouble creating fake liberal news, because eventually some liberal would fact-check him; conservatives were far more likely to keep repeating a story that was factually false, but which fit their preconceptions and which seemed to be endorsed by a trustworthy authority (i.e. a leader of their group as opposed to an outsider).

Part 2:  The particular news story in this case illustrates much of the problem.  The story is originally reported as “Michelle Obama Speaks At Obama Foundation Summit.”  http://abc7chicago.com/politics/michelle-obama-speaks-at-obama-foundation-summit-in-chicago/2591352/ The original story, reported by the local news, mentioned how this was a meeting of young future leaders from around the world, how entertainers and artists as well as people in the political realm made speeches intended to advise and inspire, and Michelle Obama was one who spoke with a message encouraging young women in particular to be self-confident and to seek to be a positive force in the world.  The article also mentions, towards the end, that she advised young people to think twice before posting their opinions on social media.  This was at the end of a report that discussed comments from Manuel-Lin Miranda, Chance the Rapper and President Obama, as well as mentioning performances by other artists.  Overall, the event appears to have been a very large, star-studded, exciting and positive experience for those who attended.

CNN reported the same event somewhat differently:  “Michelle Obama to Young People:  Never Tweet (sort of)” http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/politics/michelle-obama-chicago-twitter-men/index.html.  The CNN report barely mentions the event, doesn’t mention any of the other events or participants at all outside the interview, and presented it more as a slap at the Tweeter-In-Chief than as simply advice to young people.  It then goes on to discuss other advice and encouragement she gave to the participants, and particularly to young women.  She discusses how most societies today are traditionally dominated by men, and that often women are overlooked, harassed or exploited by some men.  This is made easier because the traditional upbringing for young girls is to be nurturing and supportive, to take care of others; Michelle urged her hearers to find their own voice and their own destiny.

FOX News seems to be reporting on a different event:  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/01/michelle-obama-says-men-are-entitled-self-righteous-because-women-protect-them-too-much.html.  Not only is there barely any mention of the event and no mention of other participants, there is hardly any discussion of anything Ms. Obama actually said.  This isn’t fake news; she did say the things that are discussed, but they are edited and spun to seem more like the rants of a castrating harridan than the advice of an accomplished and educated woman of color speaking to other young women starting out on the path she has traveled.  There is no mention of her advice to avoid blasting your unedited and thoughtless opinions into cyberspace, which CNN presented as an attack on Donald Trump since he does exactly that; and there is little mention of anything else she said.  The only part of the event that receives any real attention in the FOX story is her comments on males and females.  They report:

“It’s like the problem in the world today is we love our boys, and we raise our girls,” Obama said. “We raise them to be strong, and sometimes we take care not to hurt men — and I think we pay for that a little bit.”

This is presented as an unjustified slam at men, who feel “entitled” and “self-righteous” but who are in fact being unjustly maligned.

It seems pretty clear that there is some spinning going on.  The event was not, as CNN implies, simply a Trump-bashing; nor was it simply two days of man-bashing.  The local news presented Michelle Obama’s discussion as a positive and empowering message for young women, the culmination of two days and multiple speakers and artists reaching out to these delegates.  Both cable news services edited the event to fit their own narratives:  one, the “this president is a twittering fool” narrative, and the other the “liberals be hating men” narrative.  Both left a lot on the cutting room floor to emphasize what they wanted.

Of the two spins, even FOX has been jumping on the Harvey Weinstein story, so it’s more than a little hypocritical of them to act as if these comments about “entitled” men are totally unjustified.  And given their own problems (Ailes, Stone, O’Reilly etc.) it’s a little self-serving of them to simply pretend that too many men feel morally empowered and socially entitled to “grab’em by the pussy” anytime they want, while perhaps other men wish they, too, were powerful and famous so they could do the same.  In fact, as J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor pointed out a century ago, whenever any system is dominated by one group for a long time, the values of that system will tend to reflect the interests of that group.  For hundreds, even thousands of years young girls have been raised to please and care for others, particularly males.  Until about a hundred years ago, women could not vote, own property, work without the permission of their husbands or (if unmarried) oldest male relative, and those norms hold today in many parts of the world.  And even in the U.S. the idea that women should be subservient and unthreatening to men is powerful.  For example, Donald Trump divorced his first wife because he heard her on the phone talking to people doing business with Trump Inc. and thought she sounded “harsh.”  He said she lost her “softness” when she began working in his business, and that he wasn’t able to see her as a woman once he heard her raise her voice on the phone with someone who was doing business with the Trump casino (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/donald-trump-1994-putting-wife-work-dangerous-thing/story?id=39537935).  So it seems more than a little disingenuous to pretend that no men think women should focus on taking care of their men first, and themselves second.

The CNN spin, by contrast, is definitely a spin, but does not seem obviously false to the speaker’s intent.  But even if she were totally ignorant of the fact that Trump broadcasts his own unfiltered and often misinformed views, with spelling and grammatical errors that make them look silly even if they aren’t, the fact that she was warning this group of young future leaders to not do what the current president* does would be at least worth noting.  A president of a major nation is supposed to be a role model, not a cautionary tale.  But to imply that it was the main intent of Michelle Obama’s comments is also a falsification.  Yes, she spoke to young people who might be inclined to “tell it like it is” by tweeting without thinking.  Yes, she spoke to young men who might feel inclined to try to dominate and mistreat women, and to young women who might feel inclined to keep quiet and not stand up for themselves.  But her main intent was not to divide and not to discuss anyone who wasn’t actually in the room; rather, her focus was on providing advice and inspiration to young people who hopefully would make their lives forces for positive change in the world.  So both cable news channels were somewhat distorting the original event for their own editorial reasons, but the conservatives were more misleading and uninformative.

Part 3:  “The FOX News Effect,” then, is that viewers of FOX News and other right-wing news organizations are often more ignorant than people who pay attention to no news in particular.  While the apathetic may be uninformed, FOX viewers are often misinformed.  In some cases, this may be flat-out fictions or speculations presented as fact, as in Pizzagate or the Seth Rich story.  This story about Michelle Obama seems to be an example not so much of lying, but vigorous spinning of actual facts.  Yes, Michelle said those words, though they are neither obviously false nor as vicious as suggested.  People who get their news only from FOX are naturally mystified why Michelle Obama hates men and why Crooked Hillary hasn’t been arrested; they’ve heard only a mix of slanted news and the occasional deliberate falsehood, leaving them not ignorant, but misinformed:  not zero knowledge but negative.  Furthermore, they are emotionally agitated, which is the enemy of sound thought and reflection.

The FOX News Effect has been magnified by four further factors:

  1.  The Social Media Effect:  Trump supporters are far more likely to find even FOX News too “mainstream/lamestream” for their tastes, and to report that they get most of their news from Facebook, Twitter, private web sites, blogs and so on.  These are even less well researched, less vetted, and more biased than partisan cable news.
  2. The Falwell Effect:  Conservative religious “authorities,” such as Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr, Pat Robertson and other Christian Dominionists and Prosperity Gospel preachers, have many millions of devoted followers, and have announced that anyone who questions Donald Trump for any of his known sexual, financial or other sins is challenging the will of God.
  3. The Russia Effect:  as an instrument of state policy, Russia has flooded the world with false news stories and even funded socially divisive social movements, largely through social media and individual blogs.  Furthermore, because Russia is an authoritarian, mostly white nation with a state religion (Russian Orthodoxy), Putin and Russia have been held up by conservative media as superior to democratic and Democratic pluralism.  Thus, FOX viewers, and consumers of alt-right media, are not only not worried about Russian distortion of their news; they welcome it.
  4. The Trump Effect:  President* Donald Trump gets most of his news from FOX and Breitbart and InfoWars, ignoring the CIA, FBI and other government authorities that get their information from actually observing the world.  This turns the conservative echo chamber into an Ouroboros, where the conservative news gets its news from uncritically repeating what Trump says, who in turn is uncritically repeating what they say, turning the old news ticker-tape into a vast Mobius strip where, with a simple twist and by attaching one end to the other, what was once an ongoing narrative becomes a one-sided, infinite, closed circle.  No new ideas can come in, no disconfirming facts can break the circle, and the system runs endlessly.  It is impossible to say whether alt-right news runs the country by flooding Trump’s brain with false and misleading ideas, or he controls them by filling the news feed with his fact-free tweets and rants.

I will cite one example, current in the news, which I think illustrates all these factors.  The concept is “collusion.”  In law, this refers to an illegal conspiracy.  In common parlance, it might refer to any secret plot to deceive.  For almost the entire Trump presidency* there has been ample, objectively verified evidence that members of his inner circle and campaign colluded with agents of the Russian government to swing the election towards Trump, as part of the Russian government’s stated support for Trump.  And for years there has been objectively verified evidence that Trump Inc. has substantial financial ties to Russian oligarchs and mobsters.  This fits not only the common definition of “collusion,” but also the legal definition.  It is illegal, under American law, to receive campaign help from a foreign government.

In conservative circles, the focus has been on the Democrats.  Because of the Ouroboros circle, it is impossible to tell whether conservative news created this idea and Trump repeats it, or Trump started the claim as a way to deflect criticism and now they repeat it as news.  There are three threads in this tapestry of bullshit (I use the term philosophically, as developed by Harry Frankfurt in his tome on the subject). One thread is that since the information on Trump deals with Russia, and the researchers who did the research talked to Russians, and the anti-Trump Republicans and the Democrats paid for this opposition research on Trump, they colluded with Russia.  This is just patently false:  talking to Russians is not conspiring with the Russian government, and opposition research is a common part of elections today.  If the Democrats hired a research firm, and that firm in turn contacted a highly-respected former spy to find out things about Trump’s Russian ties, that’s legal, and thus does not qualify legally as “collusion.”  And it isn’t collusion with the Russian government in any case, but only contacts between private citizens.

The second thread, related to the first, is the so-called “Uranium Deal.”  According to this assertion, Hillary Clinton accepted a bribe to allow Russians to control American uranium production.  And yes, given that Russia has sought to ingratiate itself with everyone it could easily do so, it might have donated to the Clinton Foundation hoping for some goodwill later.  However, no actual security or energy expert has said there was any weakening of the U.S. by the takeover of this one mine.  The Russians don’t even have a license to export the uranium; it is just a Russian company that is managing the mine, which produces a small amount of the uranium used in this nation every year.  Most of our uranium is imported, so foreigners controlled it already; in this case it’s just a business deal where the uranium starts and stays in the U.S. and some money goes overseas.  And eleven other people signed off on the deal, so either there was a vast and undetected conspiracy by eleven heads of various agencies, and the employees of those agencies, or this whole thing is nonsense.

The third is perhaps the most interesting, both because it is partly true and it is ironic.  There has long been evidence that the Clinton campaign had used the levers of power within the Democratic party to favor her candidacy over that of Bernie Sanders.  That does seem to fit the popular notion of “collusion.”  It was a secret, albeit open secret, conspiracy to tilt the results of what was supposedly a fair and even competition.  It stinks.  It reminds me of the sorts of games the student government clique ran when I was in college, both for its pettiness and its arrogance.  But it is not, so far as I know, illegal.  A political party can pick its candidates however the hell it wants.  And it is certainly not collusion with a foreign power, which is what the Mueller probe is authorized to investigate as part of the FBI mandate for counter-intelligence and internal national security.  In fact, and this is the ironic part, we would not even know about this apparently legal but distasteful collusion to stiff-arm Bernie if it weren’t for the illegal and unpatriotic collusion to subvert the American political process to aid Russian aims by promoting the Trump campaign.  And at this point, it is simply a known fact that there was Russian support for the Trump campaign, the Trump campaign knew about it at the highest levels, they encouraged it, Trump himself publicly supported it, and thus there is already more evidence against Trump than they had against Nixon for eighteen months after the Watergate break-in.

But you won’t hear about this on FOX News.  What you will hear is a “news” agency that reports excessively on the legal shenanigans of some stupid and arrogant political hacks, while downplaying the illegal crimes of a current president, his family and his closest advisors.  Just as Sean Hannity once defended Cliven Bundy, a tax dodger who supports slavery and says he does “not recognize the United States as existing,” so now Hannity and the FOX (or FAUX) News agency supports and defends the indefensible actions and falsehoods of the Trump-Kushner Crime Family; or, Trump mindlessly parrots what he hears on “FOX & Friends” as if they were an independent verification of his own dreams, rather than simply repeating what he himself tweeted two hours earlier.

So, if you want to be conservative, fine.  As David Brooks said, liberal vs. conservative is an argument over how to distribute the goods of society, and that’s necessary and rational.  But seek out information sources that are themselves as rational and objective as possible.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review; pt. 2)

August 30, 2017

The fundamental difference between the two, as Comey presents it, is the different ways each uses Christian scriptures to support his views. Following David H. Kelsey, Comey distinguishes between “direct” versus “indirect” authority.[1] Direct authorization is when a claim is based on a direct quote from Scripture, or is analytically true based on a direct quote from Scripture. While Comey does not give an example, I would presume that refusing to eat pork because Scripture says that you shall not eat any animal with cloven hoofs that does not chew its cud would fit. What Kelsey does say is that it is hard to find examples of direct authorization, because usually the scripture is more the basis of the theological command and not its content. Again using my example, the Torah commands the Israelites to “bind these words (the Shema) as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” but it does not say how to do this; Orthodox Judaism has interpreted this mitzvoth to come up with the form of the tefillin. It’s not much of a leap, but it is an interpretation; that makes this an indirect rather than a direct authorization. Why write the scriptures on a paper and put them in a box, rather than write them on a ribbon and tie them on?

Further complicating the question of scriptural authorization for a theological proposition is that the Scripture may serve any of several functions. It may be a direct warrant for the theological conclusion, or it may be backing for a warrant, or data in the argument, or even a rebuttal. In each case the use of the Scripture will be different. For example, in the abortion debate, there simply is no direct warrant saying “thou shalt not commit abortion.” It simply wasn’t an issue that they debated or felt needed much explanation.[2] Instead, attempts to produce a biblical pro-life argument will use some scriptures to attempt to show that the unborn is in fact a person (data) and others to show that killing a person who has committed no crime is wrong (backing) and that since abortion is thus the killing of an unborn person, abortion itself is wrong (an indirect warrant).

Falwell, as you probably suspect, generally claims that his interpretations of Christian ethics and political goals are directly warranted by Scripture. He is a fundamentalist and hence an inerrantist. Comey points out that this does not mean that he is always a literalist. Falwell is claiming that all Scripture is inerrant, without error or contradiction; in cases of apparent contradiction, he is quite willing to claim that a particular passage is not literally true. For example, when Jesus says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” that is not a literal command to self-mutilation but rather a hyperbolic expression to teach the importance of avoiding sources of temptation.[3]  Furthermore, because the Bible must be without mistake or contradiction, seemingly contradictory passages must be harmonized, rather than allowed to stand in isolation or to remain distinct in tension with each other. For example, Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus did not find him but were met by an angel who said he was alive, and that they were so terrified that they ran away and told no one. Matthew says they did tell the apostles. Luke says Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. John says that Jesus appeared in person to Mary Magdalene, and that she told the apostles. Rather than accept that there are four distinct witnesses to the same event that report it differently, the fundamentalist must attempt to harmonize all the accounts into one story incorporating all (or at least most) of the elements of each. Furthermore, it cannot be left to the individual to decide what “really happened,” what one actuality lies at the basis of all four reports; the fundamentalist commentator must produce the harmonious interpretation and present it to the layperson as the authoritative understanding.[4]

Reinhold Niebuhr, by contrast, relies on indirect warrant from Scripture for his theological thinking.[5] While fundamentalists like Falwell treat the Bible as factually true, even describing it as “superscience” and insisting that the philosophy, history, science and even basic cause-and-effect reasoning have no place in Christian faith, Niebuhr argues that the Bible is in fact often factually wrong and even calls it “myth.” He argues that the Bible tells great truths, revealing the true nature of God and of ourselves, but that it “falsifies some of the details” in order to express a deeper reality. As Comey puts it, “Science and history give the facts while religion and myth tell the truth.”[6] The purpose of the myth is not to report facts, but it is not mere fiction either; it is a symbolic expression of realities that exceed the ability of the human speaker or writer to express directly, and likely exceed all human ability to verbalize.

From the Fundamentalist perspective, this sort of reasoning is hopelessly vague at best, and blasphemy at worst. If you can’t trust God’s truthfulness on things like the origin of the world, then you won’t be able to trust Him about heavenly things like salvation; therefore, you must hold onto the belief that everything in the Bible is not only “true” but also “factual.” Niebuhr argues that not only is this sort of factuality demonstrably false, it also falsifies. It risks making our historically conditioned, finite judgments about God into absolute eternal truths, rather than recognize that they are true expressions of God but only partial.

Both Falwell and Niebuhr would say that the Bible is central to all human thought about God and about our place in God’s creation. For Falwell, it is the accurate, direct statement of what God has done in history and what God has commanded humans to do. Scientific, historical and ethical thinking must first accept the inerrant revelation of truth through the Bible; any human thought is only appropriate as it is necessary for explaining and applying that core biblical data. For Niebuhr, the Bible expresses God’s nature and our own, not by revealing literal events and literal words but by expressing fundamental truths. For example, to Falwell it is essential that the Christian affirm the creation of the world in six days. For Niebuhr, the truth of the Creation story is that God is in command, God is other and beyond the world as well as involved with it, that God loves the world and us and that the world is good; and we too are originally and essentially good, although we also fall into sin and separate ourselves from God and our essential nature.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review)

August 28, 2017

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.”  Honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982.

 

After President* Donald Trump fired James Comey, several news stories appeared discussing his undergraduate senior thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and how his theological convictions might have affected his performance of his duties as Director of the FBI. My first thought, naturally, was, “Wow! A religion major found a job!” My second though was, “ I have got to read that thesis!” So much is on-line these days that my first thought was to Google it. No luck there. So I went to the public library, found the thesis title listed in a database of college theses, and requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Unless I get permission from the College of William and Mary to post it, I suggest you go to your library and request it yourself; it is a fascinating read, well-written and informative, reflecting some deep thinking from its young author.

Comey’s thesis compares two theologians who each had a powerful effect on Twentieth-Century American politics. The first, Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of America’s most influential religious thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s, still widely read after his death in 1971. The second, Jerry Falwell, was at that time something of the new kid on the block, described by Comey as “a well-known fundamentalist television preacher” and an example of the Religious Right, which had been very influential in the 1980 presidential election. [1] Both were Protestant Christian theologians who urged Christians to become involved in politics as part of living out their faith. However, while both rejected Communism and urged the United States to oppose its spread, they had very different political agendas and very different strategies for linking their political teachings to their biblical studies. Comey’s project was to compare the two theologians, to examine each one’s approach to the Bible, politics and the task of connecting them, and to critique the strengths and weaknesses he found in each writer’s position.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

August 10, 2017

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

 

 

The definition of “reality” should be “true whether you like it or not.” Yet somehow, today even reality is a partisan issue. According to polls, only 24% of Americans believe what the White House says.[1] President Trump’s approval ratings are higher, currently about 34-38%. That means that around 10-14% of Americans think their President is a liar, and still trust him to run the country and trust him to keep his promises to them. If one of us were trying to give advice to a friend who was in love with a partner who lied and cheated, and the friend admitted this, we’d tell that friend, “Are you nuts? Get out of this relationship! You are saying you know this person is no good, so how can this be good for you?” But in today’s politics, many of us choose the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet with less care than we would put into deciding whether to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

This is largely the result of the fact that this White House does, in fact, say things that are demonstrably false, that the person saying must know are false, so casually and easily that it stuns those of us accustomed to honest communication. From the very first presidential press briefing, where the White House lied about whether Obama or Trump had bigger crowds at his inauguration, to lying about meeting Russian lobbyists and intelligence officers (and then admitting, and then admitting more, and more) to lying about whether the President is golfing when people post pictures of him golfing on Instagram and Twitter, and on and on, people have become so accustomed to White House lies that they hardly notice them. They expect lies. Even many in the President’s own political party openly question his honesty, even as they support him. Many working in the White House leak information about the lies, even while continuing to work for and support the administration. Collectively, they are saying that some things matter more than honesty. Some things matter more than having a government and having policies that are rooted in reality. Party loyalty and partisan agendas and culture wars are more important than whether what anyone says is true, or whether the government is going to do what it says it is going to do, or cares about what it says it cares about, or even whether what it proposes could possibly work even if it were implemented. So people give up on trusting their government; those who were opposed become more so, the neutral become more opposed, and even supporters lose trust but continue to support a government that they acknowledge does not deserve their trust, but which the are emotionally devoted to anyway.

This is no way to run a democracy. That is not a partisan statement. We have a real-life experiment that supports this claim.   Liberia is an African nation that was founded by freed American slaves. It uses U.S. dollars as its currency, and in other ways has long-standing cultural ties and debts to the U.S. It has come through a very nasty civil war, and is working to reestablish democracy. People can vote for their leaders, and the leaders for their part are constrained by rule of law, at least somewhat. They can’t simply demand obedience and shoot any dissenters, as North Korea does; the Liberian government, like ours, depends on most of the people doing as they are told voluntarily. The Ebola crisis was, arguably, even more dangerous than the civil war; the war killed far more people, but Ebola had the potential to spread over the whole world. The government tried to get people to cooperate in containing and fighting the plague. Many of their orders restricted individual freedoms, such as requiring infected people not to travel. Other orders contradicted long-standing social traditions; in Liberia, it is common to kiss the dead good-bye, regardless of how they died. The government told people that traveling could spread disease, that touching the dead could spread disease, that they needed to stay home, report any illness to the government, get medical care, and stay away from sick or dead victims of Ebola. The people did not trust their government. They had been lied to many times, by warlords and dictators and even, they felt, by the democratic government. When they were told something that they didn’t like, they simply refused to believe it. They wanted to believe that they could leave their home when a family member got sick, or even travel to see family at the first sign of fever to get care; they wanted to believe that they could kiss their dead relatives goodbye; and in short, they wanted to believe that their government was lying to them and that things were not so bad and that it wasn’t really a crisis. So they believed what they wanted to believe, did not trust their government, did not cooperate, and thousands of people died before the rest decided that maybe, this time, the government was telling the truth.

For the Trump supporters, the problem would seem to be different. They trust their government and apparently will trust it no matter what happens. In an emergency, presumably they would obey unquestioningly. For a democracy, that is not necessarily good, if it is not actually an “emergency.” One of those helpful patriots went to Comet Pizza in D.C. with a rifle and fired a few shots because InfoWars, one of Donald Trump’s favorite news sources, told him that the Democratic Party was running a child sex ring in the basement. This is not only a sick slander, it is laughably false; the pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement. But people could have been killed, and an apparently decent (but gullible and obedient) man is destined for time in prison or perhaps a mental hospital, all for believing a news source endorsed by his President. This is just a small foretaste of what awaits if a future election does not go the way the Trumpists want it to go, and they have to choose between accepting a democratic result or believing that millions of invisible illegal aliens voted for the other side.

Right now, the entire world is suffering the results of the White House and GOP sacrificing its credibility over a series of silly and easily-proven lies. The United States and North Korea are engaged in an increasingly violent war of words, with both threatening the other with nuclear destruction. We are used to this sort of bombast from North Korea, and   the world has seen that they don’t carry through on their threats. But when the President of the United States uses the same language and bombastic threats as the tin-pot dictator of North Korea, no one knows how to take it. Are we headed towards a full-scale nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, and possibly beyond? When the Secretary of State says we should not take the President’s speech literally, should we believe him, when we’ve seen other White House officials say one thing only to be overruled by the President hours or days later? If there is a war, and the President assures the world that it was necessary and unavoidable, or that the U.S. does not intend any harm to any nation other than North Korea, will anyone take him at his word? For that matter, if there is not a war, will we believe it is because diplomacy has won out, and not because of all those millions of dollars invested by Trump Inc. in Macau and elsewhere in China, that might be threatened in a war between the U.S. and a Chinese ally?

The fact is that today’s society is enormously complex. It cannot function without trust. We each have to assume that the others will do what they are supposed to do, whether it is buying food and expecting it not to be poisoned, or electing politicians and expecting them not to start wars either in a fit of temper or based on their personal business portfolio. Civilization is one enormous trust fall. Without trust, we pull our money out of banks and stop using credit cards (or accepting them), we can’t buy cars we can’t personally repair (so goodbye to modern computerized cars), and we open the door with a gun in our hands whenever anyone knocks: in short, anarchy, the opposite of civilization. And right now, we have a President of the United States who is not trusted by most people in his own country or around the world, who is not trusted even by some of his own supporters, and who for his part actively works to undermine trust in everyone and everything else—-attacking the press, Congress, judges, even his own political party and his own Cabinet and other officials. We stand on the brink of nuclear war, maybe; we can’t even know. And if this erosion of trust continues, it will be impossible for civilization to survive.

 

P.S. If you’ve read The Management of Savagery, the al Qaeda strategic manual, you know that this is precisely what the jihadists have been aiming for all along. The jihadists believe that their terrorism will cause trust to break down, civilization to collapse, and society to disintegrate into warring factions and tribes, allowing them to take over in the resulting chaos. Donald Trump is just the latest in GOP efforts to help the jihadists achieve their otherwise impossible goals. Jihadist terrorism is not nearly enough to either bankrupt the U.S. or to cause regions and ethnic groups to turn on each other; but GOP economic mismanagement has done a pretty good job of destroying the economy of Kansas and weakening other states, and some of the people who helped drive Kansas to the brink of bankruptcy are now helping devise federal policies. And with the rise of the alt-right and the state-sponsored xenophobia we see around us, and the conservative threats to use violence against anyone who opposes them, al Qaeda must be feeling very encouraged about its chances to break up the United States. Without the GOP cooperating with their agenda at every opportunity to serve its own desire for power, the jihadists would not have a chance.

 

[1] Brian Stelter, “Fact-Checking of Trump Falling on Deaf Ears? Far From It.” CNN August 8, 2017 (http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/08/media/media-white-house-credibility-cnn-poll/index.html)

An Open Letter to Mitch McConnell

July 12, 2017

Dear Senator McConnell:

Republicans have been saying for many years that a nation that cannot guard its borders is no nation at all.  As a point of geography, this is not really true; there are many national borders today that are not patrolled or even fenced, where a person may wander from one country to another without realizing it, and still those nations thrive.  Why?  Because physical boundaries do not matter nearly as much as the ability to govern and control.  If a nation is able to make and enforce laws within an area, it exists.  I could live in Canada for twenty years, in a shack, thinking I was in the U.S. because the border was unguarded and I can’t read a map, and it would not threaten Canada in the slightest, so long as when I finally broke the law in some way Canadian police were able to arrest me, and Canadian courts were able to judge me according to laws made by and for the people of Canada.

Currently, in the United States, we cannot say with confidence that we are a nation.  Our ability to choose our own leaders is under attack.  Without the ability to choose our own leaders, we cannot make our own laws.  Without our own laws, our courts are reduced to enforcing the laws made by others.  When our own courts cannot enforce our own laws, our police and military are merely security guards protecting someone else’s property, following the directions of the boss who actually makes the rules.  And right now, Russia is striving to be that boss.

We know that the Russian government hacked at least 21 state election boards.  We are told that they didn’t change any votes, but we do not know that since no one has actually investigated this.  To say “we have seen no evidence that any votes were changed” when there has been no serious (or even cursory) investigation by DHS is like the “three wise monkeys” with their eyes and ears and mouths covered, so that they cannot see, here or say anything bad. (Source:  http://www.thedailybeast.com/dhs-never-ran-audit-to-see-if-votes-were-hacked).  It is a farce.  But instead of investigating this very real, proven threat to our national sovereignty, you, the Republican Party, are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars investigating voter fraud, which even you, Sen. McConnell, admit never happened (sources:  http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/03/politics/kris-kobach-letter-voter-fraud-commission-information/index.html and http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/17/opinions/mcconnell-call-out-trumps-rigged-election-comments-douglas/index.html).  You yourself said in February of this year that no tax money should be spent on this snipe hunt; but still, a Federal government commission is demanding that state governments aid in its “investigation,” tying up millions of dollars to pay for an investigation using up the time of public servants who could be better employed preventing Russian hacking of the 2018 and 2020 elections.  The executive branch of this government has repeatedly called the entire Russian hacking investigation a “hoax” and “fake news,” with our President even repeating in Poland that “we don’t know” who was involved in hacking our election.

A nation that cannot guard its own methods of choosing its leaders is no nation at all.  The Russian hacking of our nation’s elections systems is a direct attack on our national sovereignty.  By comparison, everything else—-health care, tax reform, even military spending—is irrelevant.  What difference does it make whether we have the best military in the world, if the leaders who command that military are chosen by a foreign power?  We will simply be mercenaries for the Russians.

The Founding Fathers of this great nation, the authors of our Revolution and of our Constitution, were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of John Locke.  His was one of the first and most effective pens to be raised in defense of government of the people and by the people, at a time when England and most other nations still proclaimed the divine right of kings to absolute power.  When the leaders of the Thirteen Colonies sought to articulate the weight of their oppression and the justice of their cause, they turned to John Locke for guidance.  Here is what John Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Civil Government:

 

The delivery also of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another. (Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter XIX, sect. 217; http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr19.htm)

 

Since the 300 year old English can be a little clumsy to the modern ear, please allow me to rephrase:  When the leader of a nation, whether it be the Executive or the Legislative branch of the government, turns power over to a foreign government, that nation has dissolved, and the citizens are on their own to live as individuals, or to join together, take up arms to defend themselves, and to form a new government more responsive to their will.  That is the threat under which we now live:  the end of the United States of America.  And just as John Locke’s words justified a revolution on the far shores of the Atlantic eighty-six years later, there will be people who will say that they justify another one, should you, Senator McConnell, and your fellow leaders, allow this nation to hand its elections over to a foreign power.

I do not exaggerate when I say the United States faces an existential threat.  Here we are, threatened with the loss of our nation’s ability to control its own affairs in its own borders, while the Executive branch is focused instead on justifying the President’s fantasies of popularity and the Legislative branch is focused on passing legislation which the voters do not want and which don’t matter two whits if we cannot say with confidence that our nation is really ours.  Your behavior is as if the nation’s capital were again being burned to the ground by an invading army, and Congress were busy planning for the coming Cherry Blossom Festival.  What will future generations say, when our children or grandchildren ask how it came about that a mighty nation, at the height of its power, suddenly fell into subjugation and humiliation?  How will you be remembered, who allowed this to happen?

Put aside all this nonsense and distraction.  Health care will wait another year.  Tax reform will wait.  These things may flatter the Republican ego, allowing you to feel like you won over the Democrats; but only a fool fights in a burning house.  Focus your attention on something that will actually get bipartisan support, something that might actually unite our troubled nation, and something that actually matters.  Form a bipartisan, independent commission to discover what the Department of Homeland Security seems so uninterested in:  what the Russians are doing to influence state and national elections, and how to stop them.

Thank you for your time.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

May 9, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

 

Platonic politics seems very distant from “the American way,” so distant that we may wonder if it has anything at all to teach us. But as one of the earliest attempts at rational political theory, it is also the source of some of our deepest principles. Most fundamentally, Republic’s politics are rooted in the notion of the leaders as public servants. Plato’s rulers were to live entirely on the public dime, and that dime was supplying their daily bread—not caviar. They were to have simple food, simple clothes, no private property of any kind. Even family was denied them; children were to be raised by the community. This may seem insane today, but in Plato’s day it wasn’t so far from the actual society of Sparta. The main difference between Sparta and Plato’s ideal society, as he himself says, is that the Spartans were no philosophers. Plato believed that philosophy was essential to full human achievement and to the sound running of a society. A society led without a moral sense would inevitably collapse into corruption and tyranny, so the leaders had to be as philosophically devout as they were socially dedicated. Furthermore, in Plato’s day “philosophy” included areas of thought that we would today consider very separate subjects: engineering, mathematics, and natural science were all areas investigated first by “philosophers.” Music is math in action, turning physical ratios such as length of string on a lyre into audible harmonies; so his philosophers had to study and practice music as well. History and drama help us understand the human condition and explore moral truths, so philosophy would include knowledge of what we broadly call “arts and humanities.” All of these would be strictly disciplined, turned to the service of promoting social order; but while actual Sparta had little use for all this art and thinking, Plato’s republic would put them at the center of education for future leaders. They would not be warrior-ascetics like the Spartans, but philosopher-warriors. But like the Spartans, Plato’s rulers would not only sacrifice their comforts, but if necessary even their lives for the good of the State, serving as guardians and auxiliaries, a lean, mean professional army to be used not for conquest, but ruthlessly in self-defense.

The second lesson Plato teaches is the importance of expertise. No one can be good at everything; different people have different abilities and different motivations. Some will be delighted by a life of public service; others will see no point in a life lived for anything except their own pleasure. In Plato’s world, those who want to make money and build businesses would do so, and their acquisitive instincts would be turned to the good of society as a whole; someone has to make the weapons the soldiers use to guard the nation, or raise the food that feeds the philosopher rulers. Those who want to serve and who crave excitement and prestige will become lifelong auxiliaries, professional soldiers and police defending and enforcing the laws created by the philosophers. And those with the philosophical temperament and mental ability to wisely lead would be given the job of thinking and making laws for the society.   One of the things that separates human society from the much less successful social structures of other primates is the notion of a division of labor. Chimpanzees work entirely on a dominance model of leadership; the bigger and stronger become alphas until deposed. Among humans, leadership often rests more on expertise and the prestige it affords; people listen to someone who knows what he or she is talking about. They also listen to the one who can bully or punish, or more broadly can impose an agenda rather than solicit one from the group; so among humans the “dominance” and the “expertise” models of leadership often compete. No alpha male chimp takes advice from a weaker subject, nor does he fear being undermined by someone who can make better tools. Human leaders may organize and rely on those with expertise in different areas, or they may see the “eggheads” as threats to be slapped down or kicked out of the group. In Plato’s world, expertise rules; the “alpha male” personality would, in his view, be too passionate and irrational to be allowed power. Better to let him be a warrior if he can obey orders, or let him build a business, so long as he doesn’t actually undermine the State.

But “the American way” is only distantly descended from Plato’s republic, as this passed through Augustine’s civitas Dei to Aquinas and Luther and other Christian political thinkers, thence to the Enlightenment and John Locke. In Locke, both dominance and expertise are modified, and in fact he is not creating an “ideal society” at all; he is proposing principles for real people living in real civil society. And in this, the government’s job is to discern and fulfill the collective will of the community. The would-be alpha must persuade others to follow; the expert must teach and sell his or her thoughts in the marketplace of ideas; both models of leadership ultimately rest on getting people to agree to be led, which means a combination of persuading them where to go and agreeing to lead them where they ultimately say they want to go. The ultimate leader is not the king, or the Prime Minister; it is the voter. As with Plato, in Locke’s view the political leader is a public servant. Despite their differences, as we saw before, they have very similar views of what the bad government, tyranny, looks like: the true leader is a public servant working for the good of society, while the tyrant expects the society to work to his (or her) own profit.

Thus, in a civil society all citizens are both subject and ruler, making and obeying the laws. No one is above the law and no one is too lowly to help write the laws all will obey. One of the inalienable rights of all human beings is liberty; we may agree to obey the will of the majority, but only because we also had a part in making the decision. Even when the citizen is outvoted, the government is still an expression of his or her will, created by the process of voting and debating in which all have their part.

Furthermore, anyone who chooses not to vote is eo ipso choosing the part of a slave, letting others make the essential decisions. If voting is the way individual liberty is expressed in a civil society, to not vote is to not be free. This idea, however, raises other questions. Logically, does freedom have to be exercised to be real, or can it be merely potential? What if one likes none of the options one is asked to choose between? Or, what if (as often happens) there is only one candidate for a position? And what if the voting rules are written or the voting maps are drawn in such a way that one’s vote is rendered powerless?

There needs to be a way to vote “none of the above” in an election. The wise parent asks the child, “Do you want your red shoes or your blue shoes?” The important point, wearing shoes, is not left to a vote. For adults, this is not acceptable, for it is no choice at all. It is “managed democracy,” not real democracy.[1] It is intended, as is the choice offered the child, to give the appearance of freedom while denying the substance. The difference is that the child is not a fully rational being, and the parent is guiding the child towards becoming a fully free and rational adult in the future by giving “practice” choices. The autocrat is trying to create the illusion of freedom while denying true choice to the citizen. Allowing voters to say “none of the above” allows them to express their displeasure. Even if this no-confidence vote has no formal sanction attached, at least it informs the leaders that the people are not in fact endorsing through silence. This is, however, only a first step. The fact is that, politically speaking, freedom is only real when there is a viable way it can be expressed. Politicians, like anyone, want job security, and generally will try to find ways to win reelection beyond simply asking what the voters want and then delivering it. Democracy is, after all, “rule by the people;” thus it is not always in the interests of the current leadership, regardless of party or factional allegiance. Democracy is, essentially, the periodic opportunity for peaceful revolution, to eliminate the need for violent transfers of power. Those who currently hold power may not want to transfer it. But democracy is always in the interests of the society itself, simply because it is a way to resolve conflicts without chaos and bloodshed. Thus, politicians will always be tempted to gerrymander, to mislead, and to obstruct the right to vote. They may not even consciously recognize that this is self-serving; instead, sometimes they say that voting is a privilege, or that some people vote “wrong” and thus should be discouraged from voting until they “grow up” and “understand better what it means to be an American.”[2] Even today, some argue that voting age should be raised back to 21 or even 25.[3] And others have argued that women should not have the right to vote.[4] The arguments in these and similar instances are that voting is a privilege which must be earned, and that people who are likely to make the wrong choices shouldn’t be granted that privilege. This is the very opposite of the idea advocated by Locke and repeated by the leaders of the American Revolution, that the right to vote is an expression of freedom and freedom is a natural right.[5]

I believe it should be clear now that these efforts at voter suppression are the very opposite of what “The United States of America” is supposedly about, and in fact could have tragic, violent consequences. The U.S. political conversation has always been controlled by the debate between paternalism, represented by Plato, versus participation as advocated by Locke. In practice, paternalistic language has often been a cover for tyrannical agendas. I would say that the paternalism/participation debate is more fundamental than the so-called “conservative” versus “liberal” polarization that gets so much press. The question of whether the people should have a voice in running things, or should be controlled by leaders who claim moral or intellectual superiority, is the first question that must be settled; after deciding how to decide, a society can then address the conservative/liberal debate. That is what the Founding Fathers believed, and that commitment to participation is an essential part of American politics. It is the air we have breathed since the Revolution itself. It is as much a part of our political DNA as the oxygen we breath is part of our blood. And the logic of participation, as bequeathed to us by John Locke, is perfectly clear: a government that does not allow you to vote is not your government. Any person or institution that seeks to deny you the right to vote, or to render that right impotent —because you are likely to vote for the “wrong” party, because you are black or poor or female or non-Christian or your parents immigrated here more recently than theirs, or for any other reason not obviously related to your incapacity as an individual person—- is your enemy, is at war against you, and you have a natural right to resist such an attack with violence if necessary. Democracy is the alternative to civil war; to try to thwart, suppress, or subvert it is to attack the peacekeeping and problem-solving ability of the society, and to leave civil war the only choice for those shut out of full participation. Currently in the U.S. the largest, best-organized, best-funded and most dedicated group working to suppress democracy is the Republican Party. Repeated investigations have found that so-called “voter I.D.” laws are aimed solely at denying legal American citizens the right to vote.[6] Repeated legal rulings and investigations have shown that these laws are not addressing any real problem but are solely intended to stop the “wrong” people from voting. Even Republicans, when faced with their President’s claim of widespread voter fraud, publicly admitted that there is no evidence that widespread fraud exists.[7] Attacks on the very concept of factual reality, reliance on “alternative truths” and other such gaslighting of the public are another way to undermine functioning democracy. And while the language of paternalism is used, the actual practice has been what both paternalists and participationists would define as tyranny: authoritarianism, cliquishness, government by power and intimidation rather than by expertise and wisdom, dishonesty, and profit-making by the ruling family and its hangers-on.

There are some who would ask, “Who cares about what some musty old philosophy book says?” Philosophy matters, especially to non-philosophers. There is a dialogue between philosophy and the wider culture. Thinkers look at the world, distil the essence of trends and notions around them, make unconscious assumptions visible and conscious, and occasionally invent novel solutions to problems and conflicts. The ideas they present are in turn taken up by law schools and courts, by seminaries and divinity schools, and by writers and other artists, and become part of the legislative processes and the popular culture. So it matters, deeply, what John Locke has to say about government by the people. These ideas are the original programming of our nation, and they will continue to run when activated, as long as America is America.

There is government that encourages the people to speak and works to give them voice, or there is tyranny, war of the government against the people. The people may tolerate a state of cold war or siege war for a long time, as long as things run smoothly; but when things turn sour, as they inevitably will, the final resolution is revolution. The only escape from future political violence is present action to strengthen democracy, even (especially!) at the risk of political and social change brought on by empowering everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The government that seeks to deny millions of its citizens these rights that Americans have been taught to regard as “inalienable” will itself alienate those citizens, and risks the same response King George received.

[1] Nicholay Petrov and Micahel McFaul, “The Essence of Putin’s Managed Democracy;” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 18, 2005 (http://carnegieendowment.org/2005/10/18/essence-of-putin-s-managed-democracy-event-819)

[2] For examples, see Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/) So-called liberal politicians are also inclined to such sentiments as well.

[3] Austin Frank, “We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age—We Should Raise It: People Under 25 Shouldn’t Vote;” Today in Politics February 9, 2017 (https://tipolitics.com/we-shouldnt-lower-the-voting-age-we-should-raise-it-579a07c3152b)

[4] Mikayla Bean, “Ann Coulter says ‘Women Should Not Have the Right to Vote,’ but ‘They Can Still Write Books.’ Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, June 11, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/ann-coulter-women-should-not-have-the-right-to-vote-but-they-can-still-write-books/)

[5] Granted, this was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, and not universally held even by all the Founding Fathers. Like the right of non-whites and women to vote, the right of the poor to vote was certainly implied by that “all “men” are created equal” idea, but only made explicit later in amendments. Today, however, it is explicit: all American citizens have the right to vote, and that is what it means to be a citizen. For more discussion, see Garrett Epps, “Voting: Right or Privilege?” The Atlantic September 18, 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/09/voting-right-or-privilege/262511/)

[6] Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, “Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina’s Voter I.D. Law;” Washington Post June 29, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/appeals-court-strikes-down-north-carolinas-voter-id-law/2016/07/29/810b5844-4f72-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html?utm_term=.a7c4d7d5bca2)

[7] Reuters, “Republicans Unenthused Over Trump’s Voter Fraud Claims;” Newsweek January 25, 2017 (http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-voter-fraud-republicans-congress-election-fraud-548277)