Do Something!

I had actually planned to write a mild, informative post on recent developments in software for writers. Instead, unfolding events compel a look at some atrocious happenings in the world and our so-called United States.

Which to address: the looming, horrific use of nuclear weapons or the flagrant resurgence of right-wing ignorance and violence throughout this country? I’m going to opt for the latter, on the grounds that once nuclear weapons are flying again, blog posts, Facebook, Medium et al. will all become instantly irrelevant. Trump’s Twitter as well. You could argue they are already irrelevant, of course. But while there is still some degree of social structure and control in place, social media may have some role to play. Bear in mind, though, that both sides believe this. Hence the heading for this post—it’s not sufficient to opine or respond on social media alone. If you want to protect what’s good in our society, genuine action is required.

Murderous moron: James Alex Fields Jr. Photo: Charlottesville Police Department, via Reuters.
Murderous moron: James Alex Fields Jr. Photo: Charlottesville Police Department, via Reuters.

Trump has encouraged, and thereby unleashed, a kind of hillbilly fascism at the grassroots level. We saw the most recent results in Charlottesville, VA this weekend: helmet-wearing thugs wielding various weapons to protest the removal of a statue honoring a 19th century racist and Civil War relic. Confederate flags and Nazi slogans were there in abundance, along with plenty of “Make America Great Again” merchandise. David Duke said “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” in order to “take our country back.” And Trump responded to the violence by decrying hatred on “many sides” (certainly his supporters cannot be asked to bear the blame alone).

Apart from the particulars, though, none of this is really new. Trump is an especially crude and vulgar exemplar of America’s worst tendencies, but he is hardly the first president whose statements and actions belie the nation’s stated principles and laws. Be honest and admit it: the highest ideals of America have always been an alluring lie. Yes, many admirable and dedicated people have sacrificed greatly to try to bring those ideals to life. But a great many other people in this country are either indifferent, or closer in spirit and sympathy to the idiots who gathered in Charlottesville to “Unite the Right.”

So what action can be taken in response, by those of us who would prefer to live in a country that actually adheres to its stated ideals? Here are some quick thoughts:

  • Band together. Not in small, local groups ringing doorbells but across states and regions. Progressive people must stand together regardless of location, and do so in big numbers.
  • Push to form regional alliances: California, New York, New England, for example. These areas already cooperate closely on issues like the environment. Let’s push for cooperation on other major issues that cry out to be addressed.
  • Urge the adoption of state-level legislation to form legally binding ties among these regional partners. If the South wants to secede again (and I say, let them), then progressives can respond by forming a sort of country within a country as a preliminary step toward building a new, blue America. The U.S. has never been truly united and it never will be. It’s time to acknowledge this.
  • BTW, the newblueamerica.org domain is available and I’m available to help build a site there if others want to pitch in with money, resources and political connections in progressive states.

It’s time to Think Different, as the late Steve Jobs once said about something much less important. Very little is working today, a great deal is broken. Catastrophe is barreling toward us on multiple fronts. Keeping one’s head down and going with the flow is only inviting disaster. We need to start thinking about big, unconventional change outside the normal political boundaries, and working to achieve it, before it’s too late.

Is America Possible?

It’s an urgent question today, and I fear the answer is likely “no,” although I’d love to be persuaded otherwise. This compelling message from Amanda Johnson of the Working Families Party offers some interesting food for thought. I reproduce it here in observance of the Fourth.

July 4th is upon us. We’re all excited to spend time with friends and family grilling at BBQs and watching fireworks.

Is America possible? Image: flickr.com.

But as we celebrate our nation’s foundational myth, we owe it to ourselves to grapple with some of the darker parts of our story. The 4th of July in 1776 was a moment of revolution and democracy, but also a moment of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.

This founding tension is still with us today. We do ourselves no favors by closing our eyes to its presence in our lives. If we’re going to live in a country where everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need to have important, difficult conversations about how we build an America that will truly live up to its promise for everyone.

As we gather this July 4th, let’s try to answer the difficult question author Michelle Alexander asked in November: “Is America Possible?”

“In the words of William Faulkner, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ What many of us have been attempting to do—build a thriving multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy out of the rubble of slavery and genocide—has never been achieved in the history of the world. Some say it can never be done. Is America Possible?”1

We know these conversations can be difficult to have. Try to approach this conversation from a place of personal connection and shared values, and understand that without this important work, we cannot have real change. We know it’s tough, but it’s worth it.

We’ve made a list of conversation starters to get you going:

  • What is your experience of freedom? How is your experience of freedom different from other folks? What are things you can do that others can’t?
  • What kind of America do you want to live in? What’s keeping that America from being possible for everybody?
  • What can we do to make our neighborhoods and communities safe for people of color? What are you doing to stand up for racial justice? If you’re part of a resistance group, how are you working with groups led by people of color?
  • How do we build communities where both safety and justice are the norm? How do police interact with different communities? What are alternatives to calling the police?

Having this conversation is a national tradition. On Independence Day in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”2

The U.S. was built by slaves, immigrants, and working people of all races for a small class of wealthy, white male land owners on land stolen from native peoples. This legacy of slavery, colonization, and exploitation still lingers today—in the shootings of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles and lack of justice, in the exploitation of migrant labor, in the poverty of Appalachian coal towns and abandoned neighborhoods of post-industrial cities, in the construction of a dangerous pipeline on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

It lingers in our national myths that anyone can secure a prosperous future with enough grit and hard work —never mind the generations of public policies and corporate practices from Jim Crow to redlining to predatory lending to subprime mortgages to “too big to fail” that have put that prospect of security out of reach.

If we’re going to build an America that looks like the one we have in our hearts, we need to get to work today—and that work starts by acknowledging our past and creating a shared vision with one another.

I hope you and your family have a happy July 4th.

Amanda Johnson

Sources:

1. Michelle Alexander, Facebook. Nov. 13, 2016.

2. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.”

Amanda and the Working Families Party ask that you pledge to have a conversation about America with your friends and family.

Of course, the real conversation needs to take place with people who are not your friends and family. Good luck with that.

The Allure of Hatred

When James T. Hodgkinson shot Representative Steve Scalise and three others on an Alexandria, VA baseball practice field on June 14, his anti-Trump, anti-Republican Party views were widely noted. It wasn’t long before the Republicans started saying the left should “tone it down,” and pro-Trump supporters in Central Park interrupted a performance of Julius Caesar, protesting “the normalization of political violence against the right.”

Political violence on the diamond.
Political violence on the diamond. Photo: CNN.

No group has a monopoly on political hatred, but most would agree that hate groups and violent individual incidents occur more frequently on the right than the left. In fact there was surprise expressed at Hodgkinson’s political views, since anti-Republican violence is somewhat unusual. Not that Hodgkinson was any sort of political activist—he seems to have been a disturbed individual and a domestic abuser with little political involvement at all, apart from his comments on social media. But political hatred is alluring these days, whether one has a troubled background or not.

American politics has disintegrated to the point where each side views the other as the enemy. Enmity has reached the point where, for many people, members of the opposition party appear as enormously damaged human beings, if not actively evil. Eric Trump was recently quoted as saying, of Democrats, “to me, they’re not even people.”

This kind of hatred can be enticing. It’s like a drug that intensifies emotion and makes colors pop. For people leading uneventful, ordinary lives, it can add a jolt of excitement. For the increasingly large number of people whose lives are stressed daily, political hatred provides an outlet, a target, a scapegoat.

I can empathize and I suspect you can, too. We’re all flawed human beings, to be sure, but how can those people believe in such utterly destructive nonsense? How can they behave as they do? What hypocrites! What heartless, self-serving bastards! Look what they’ve done to America’s economy/education/healthcare/infrastructure/politics!

Can these divisions be bridged? I doubt it. It seems likelier that incidents like the one in Alexandria will only increase, with “partisans” from both sides doing the shooting. And each new outrage will only harden the hatred.

It would be helpful if the country could fully acknowledge this, if only to begin the process of constructing a solution. Increasingly, that solution seems to be that we will go our separate ways, either violently and chaotically, as at present, or formally and permanently with a political solution that codifies our divide in a way that makes sense.

Denial and Destruction

I won’t spend much time on the twisted announcement reversing U. S. climate change policy that Trump made yesterday. There’s plenty of analysis regarding that already. Instead, I’d like to suggest you focus on something other than our buffoonish president for a moment. That something is the Republican Party itself, which MIT gadfly Noam Chomsky recently said is “racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life.”

Hurricane Sandy aftermath, 2012.
Hurricane Sandy aftermath, 2012. Photo: NY Daily News.

The GOP, and conservatives in general, have always been laggards when it comes to keeping pace with change—any sort of change. But today’s Republicans are another breed entirely. Motivated by a toxic combination of greed and hatred, and almost entirely devoid of empathy, the Republicans, as David Brooks puts it in today’s Times, “share [a] core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.”

Chomsky, in addressing the dangers this worldview and the Republicans pose, cites a 2013 Daedalus article by conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in arriving at his dire prognosis. They wrote that the Republican Party is now “ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Those words date from four years ago and their truth has only intensified in 2017. Moreover, Chomsky is not only considering climate change when he speaks of dangers to human survival but nuclear weapons as well.

Given what we saw yesterday in Washington, and given recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, we would do well to take Chomsky’s warning seriously.

An American Kakistocracy

Many of you probably intuit what a “kakistocracy” is but may be a little fuzzy on the exact definition. According to Wikipedia, a kakistocracy is “a state or country run by the worst, least qualified or most unscrupulous citizens.” (Or, in the case of the United States, people who occupy all three categories simultaneously.)

Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan
Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan. Photo: Salon.com

The word comes from the Greek kakistos (meaning “worst”) and kratos (meaning “rule”), thus meaning government by the worst people. Despite the Greek roots, the word was first used in English and was coined by author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.

In spite of its long history, the word’s usage has been infrequent. But I think the times we find ourselves in could make “kakistocracy” a strong candidate for 2017’s Word of the Year.

Trump’s election has obviously given the word a boost. As economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “[Trump is] surrounding himself with people who share his contempt for everything that is best in America. What we’re looking at, all too obviously, is an American kakistocracy—rule by the worst.”

I want to do my small part to promote widespread usage of the word, since in my view we are living in a moment when kakistocracy has supplanted democracy as our country’s governing principle. Democracy has in fact been subverted (perhaps with foreign assistance) to allow the rise of kakistocracy in America. This has been achieved through the canny use of social media and “alternative facts,” heavy Republican gerrymandering and a politically masterful stoking of widespread, free-floating resentment. Plus copious amounts of money, of course.

Our American kakistocracy runs far deeper than the three ugly (in every sense of the word) politicians shown on this page. A large portion of our citizenry has indeed been taught to hate all that is best in America, and cheer when the crass and the ignorant tear down another standard of civility or excellence. Everything that has traditionally represented progress in the U.S. and around the world—education, science, the arts, social integration—is now suspect, part of a “politically correct” elite which must be overturned.

Kakistocracy is in full flower thanks to the Trump administration, and the nearly 40% of U.S. citizens who still support it. This must change. But how?

Department of Injustice

Of all the perverse and destructive appointments Trump has made since taking office, Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice may be the worst. Sessions, in my opinion an unreconstructed, ferret-faced racist of the worst sort—the sort with power—demonstrated just how destructive he is yet again yesterday, when his decision not to prosecute the police killers of Alton B.Sterling in Baton Rouge last year was announced. The determination not to file federal charges was made without notifying the Louisiana attorney general, the mayor of Baton Rouge or Mr. Sterling’s family.

The decision follows a newly implemented Sessions policy to back off from federal oversight of law enforcement agencies around the country. Sessions has said that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” entire departments, and that “[police] morale has suffered.”

In the video on this page, you can see that Mr. Sterling is pushed to the ground by the police and held there as one officer points a gun at his chest before shooting him point-blank.

Last night, around the Triple S Food Mart parking lot in Baton Rouge where Mr. Sterling was killed, people congregated and discussed the federal decision not to prosecute.

“I’m not surprised, because it happens all the time,” said Kosher Weber, 21, her voice cracking in anger. “Where do things go from here? There’s no justice. There’s no nothing.”

Derrick Brody, 45, said: “Over and over again. They kill a human being, and they get away with it, just ’cause they got a blue suit.”

Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said Mr. Sterling had been “shot in cold blood” and wrote on Twitter, “The DOJ’s decision not to pursue justice is a travesty.”

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. So did a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Police Department. She also declined to confirm the employment status of the two officers who had been under investigation, referring inquiries to the Justice Department.

This is one more sickening step backward for America.

An Enemy of the People

As we arrive at Trump’s 100-day landmark, there is an astonishingly wide array of catastrophic decisions to examine (the Korean peninsula, which is bubbling in the red zone as I write this, may turn out to be the most catastrophic of all).

Trump: Appalling ignorance and a dangerous tone
Trump: Appalling ignorance and a dangerous tone. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Of the many abominable actions and statements we have had from this president and Congress since January, I think their hostility toward a free American press is among the most alarming. Trump’s characterization of the press as an “enemy of the American people” is straight out of Orwell. Not coincidentally, this governmental animosity is reflected in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by the non-profit, non-governmental group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières). The U.S. slipped two places, to rank 43rd out of 180 countries surveyed. The United Kingdom also slipped two places, largely due to laws permitting generalized surveillance and a proposal for a new espionage act that could result in journalists and whistle-blowers being prosecuted as spies. Even so, at number 40, the UK still ranks ahead of America.

If you’ve heard of (or remember) COINTELPRO, the FBI’s “counterintelligence program” of some 50 years back which involved massive amounts of illegal surveillance, then having the president refer to the press as an “enemy of the people” should be especially chilling. The FBI of the 50s, 60s and 70s was not even close to today’s NSA in terms of surveillance capabilities. No wonder major news organizations like the New York Times go to great lengths to try to provide confidential access to members of the public who would like to submit tips. We’re way beyond Watergate days, when a reporter could safely meet an anonymous source in an underground parking garage.

Still, the First Amendment remains on the books. The Times can publish stories showing how deeply compromised the Trump administration is, and I can publish this humble blog. But—and it’s a big “but”—things can change very quickly.

Trump and his cronies are setting a very dangerous tone where press freedom is concerned. Already, a very large proportion of U.S. adults have been convinced that mainstream media is corrupt and untruthful. Already, U.S. education has been undermined (quite deliberately) to the point where today’s young people need to be taught how to distinguish truth from falsehood—the ability doesn’t come naturally any longer.

Ignorance is extremely dangerous. That’s why, upon Trump’s election, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” was moved forward by 30 seconds. We’re now at two and a half minutes to midnight. Let’s hope that the “major, major conflict” with North Korea which Trump is threatening doesn’t bring us any closer. Let’s also hope that a free American press keeps shining a light on this disastrous administration, for those are are still able and willing to see.

Stop Police Misconduct

With growing existential dangers abroad and a president ill-equipped to handle them (see Charles Blow’s excellent column in today’s Times), I’m going to direct your attention instead to a long-standing domestic problem: police misconduct. We may not have answers for dealing with North Korea, Syria or Russia at the moment (as I write this, a headline on my phone’s home screen informs me that the Pentagon is developing options for a military strike in Syria), but surely we can address a problem that plagues every American city (and many small towns and rural areas as well). Or at least we can try.

Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted.
Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted.

When I speak of police “misconduct,” I’m being euphemistic. What I really mean is criminal violence perpetrated by the police, up to and including murder. What I really mean is systemic brutality and racism and a larger culture that encourages and excuses criminal police behavior. What I really mean is a judicial system that kowtows to the police as sacred “public servants,” not to be penalized under any circumstances.

Here I will introduce the obligatory reference to the admirable service that “good” cops provide. “Good” cops risk their lives to help people in need. “Good” cops are altruistic when it counts, doing their utmost to protect people from harm. “Good” cops, unfortunately, are something of a rarity. And even they tend to keep their mouths shut when it comes to criminal behavior by their colleagues on the force.

The cops who “misbehave” are antisocial thugs with lifelong inferiority complexes. Guys too stupid or emotionally immature to handle college but who want to earn a decent living anyway. Guys who hunger for respect and deference, which were in short supply as they were growing up. Guys who perhaps couldn’t cut the armed forces but managed to find a haven in a local police force. Guys who, if they sense even a hint of disrespect, will make you pay for it. Sometimes with your life, especially if you’re black.

You’ve all met these people, I’ll wager more than once.

So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions (I hate granting Sessions that title, since he is so blatantly unqualified for his job) attempts to roll back efforts to reform police departments around the country, it’s cause for great concern.

Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III is, in my view, an unreconstructed Southern bigot. It shows in his weaselly face—you can easily imagine spotting him in a photograph, standing in the front row at an old-fashioned lynching party in a Southern town square back in the fifties. No matter how many niceties and courtesies he tries to layer on top, his essential character still shines through.

We need to rally around the police reformers. They have two important jobs to do. The first is to get rid of the obvious “bad actors” on their forces. The second is to change their recruiting practices to avoid replacing current bad actors with new ones. If policing really is such a hallowed profession, then maybe it should be treated more like one: increase the requirements (educational, professional, personal) for joining the department, and increase the rewards proportionately.

The mindset that cops can do no wrong has got to go. So does Jeff Sessions.

Carelessness Kills

After initially denying responsibility for scores of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in Mosul Jidideh on March 17, the senior United States commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, has acknowledged that the U.S. “probably had a role in these casualties.”

Amnesty International said as many as 150 people may have died in the strike. Hundreds of other civilians have been killed in their homes by airstrikes, the group said.

Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Civilian deaths in Mosul. Photo by Felipe Dana/Associated Press.

“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside. The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who carried out field investigations in Mosul.

In a recent interview, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of United States Central Command, said new procedures have made it easier for commanders in the field to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers.

As a consequence, some groups contend that US coalition strikes are now causing more civilian casualties than strikes by Russia are causing in Syria. Russia was accused of war crimes for its bombing of Aleppo, Syria, last year. There have been more than 1,300 reports of civilian deaths in airstrikes in March alone, around three times as many as were reported in February.

Is this part of a trend? It sure looks that way. Just yesterday President Trump relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia.

This new level of carelessness in conducting airstrikes is both callous and counterproductive. A strike supposedly aimed at the enemy which kills scores of civilians instead is an instant recruiting tool for ISIS. Not to mention wasteful, counterproductive and demoralizing for the United States and its allies. It’s also deeply immoral, in some cases veering extremely close, if not over, the line defining war crimes.

It’s just one more instance in which the new president’s “I don’t give a shit” attitude is producing widespread damage, this time producing a stark rise in innocent (and preventable, with more care taken) civilian deaths.

Global Humanitarian Crises

While the United States wrestles with its self-inflicted wounds regarding health care and other moral imperatives, the world at large is experiencing the worst humanitarian crises since 1945. Bad as Trumpcare promises to be, it’s not going to result in mass starvation (even if millions of poor Americans will have less money for food and healthcare alike). Yet some 20 million people around the world face imminent starvation and death, more than at any time since the end of World War Two.

Two thirds of the people of Yemen are at immediate risk.
Yemen, where two thirds of the population is in desperate need of aid and seven million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Photo: Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency

America seems intent on tearing itself apart while much the world is coming apart, in ways that most of us cannot imagine.

Without collective and coordinated global efforts, “people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease,” Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the security council in New York yesterday.

Of course the UN has long been anathema to “conservative” Americans—one can easily imagine Bannon and Trump attempting to kick its New York headquarters out of the country. Yet for all its dysfunction, the world’s intergovernmental organization still provides a moral call to action that is genuinely altruistic and meaningful. U. S. “conservatives,” on the other hand, hate and fear the Other, both in this country and abroad. Twenty million people starving to death in Yemen and Africa? So what?

Yet the other half of America, the half trying to resist the destructive Trump takeover, still does care, by and large. Might I suggest a short pause from town hall confrontations and resistance marches, at least one long enough to write a check which will prevent a number of people from dying in the next week or so? The largest need is in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. And there is plenty of need elsewhere around the world as well, including the massive, ongoing refugee crisis.

Let’s not permit the mass starvation of 20 million people to become part of the world’s “new normal.” Please visit this page to select an aid organization and donate to do your part to help.