What’s news?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched Anchorman II, astoundingly silly Will Ferrell turn as a newsman. Also this morning, as is my wont, I watched last night’s The Daily Show, getting my Jon Stewart fix, and followed it with my Stephen Colbert fix. Also watched some Rachel Maddow, and caught a little news, some on Fox and some on MSNBC. And then, finally got to Sunday’s John Oliver show.

John Oliver got his start on Jon Stewart, and filled in one summer when Jon was off making a movie. He was so good that HBO gave him his own show, Last Week Tonight.  It’s amazing. Of all the fake news shows out there, from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update (“Francisco Franco is still dead!”) to Bill Maher to Stewart and Colbert, Oliver’s show is, IMHO, the best. Oliver does still laugh at his own jokes, which can be annoying. But because he’s only on once a week, he’s able to dig deepest, focus on just a few issues, really take some risks.

Anyway, on his show last Sunday, he did this story, about the Miss America Pageant (warning: the clip has some bad language). It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the Miss America Pageant, or more anachronistic. As Oliver put it in his opening, “how the &$^$^(@ is this still happening?”  It’s the year 2014. How does an event, in which a fully clothed male stands in front of a line of half-naked women, so they can be judged, still be a part of American culture?

Okay, it was a funny bit. But then Oliver dug deeper. First, he showed the ridiculous questions the contestants get asked, and then showed one young woman, in 20 seconds, give a thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced response to a question about ISIS. His point is clear: yeah, it’s a beauty contest, but these are some exceptionally sharp young women. It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to think that these bright and talented women have to parade about in swim suits to earn a college scholarship.

But of course, Miss America is a scholarship pageant. That’s what’s at stake. These women are competing in an organization that prides itself on being the biggest provider of scholarships specifically for women in the world.  And they probably are. At least, Oliver and his staff researched the question, and couldn’t find anyone else providing more money.

And then they dug deeper. The pageant claims that it ‘makes available’ 45 million dollars annually. That’s a lot of money. Is it true? Oliver and his staff dug deeper. The Miss America pageant is a non-profit organization, required to file publicly accessible financial reports with the government. Oliver’s staff dug through those records, and found that the pageant actually gave out $482,000 in scholarship funds. So they pulled the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.

What they discovered was that the 45 million dollar claim is basically bogus, that Miss America reached that number by counting every scholarship any affiliated school might possibly offer.  If a young woman is eligible for scholarships at one of four Pennsylvania schools, for example, Miss America counts the total value of all four school scholarships, though obviously Miss Pennsylvania is only going to attend one of them.  That kind of thing. Miss America does not provide 45 million dollars in scholarship funds.

It was a very funny comedy routine. But it was also informative, well researched, and quite probably true. The Miss America pageant felt it necessary to respond. So did other scholarship programs for women. And nobody really disputed Oliver’s research. His story was funny, yes, but it was also truthful, accurate and disturbing.

So how was it not journalism?

And that’s the point. The line between fake journalism and real journalism, between the way comedians deconstruct the news and the often preposterous sideshow 24 hour news has become is, at the very least, very thin indeed.  If it exists at all. I know people who get all their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don’t necessarily strike me as ill-informed.

I wish more people read newspapers. But newspapers are dying. I look nostalgically back to the days when news was delivered by the Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys of the world. But that time is long past.  What we have is. . . well, what we have is this.

Anchorman 2 is an incredibly silly movie. The characters are buffoons and fools, selfish and self-centered. That’s why they’re so funny. (In fact, the one genuinely human moment of connection in the film is the relationship between Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who play a weatherman and a secretary, both of them dumb as bricks). But it’s also an incisive and intelligent satire on the news industry, on 24 hour news networks, who try to bring people “the news they want to hear, not the news they need to hear,” as Ron Burgundy puts it. This means overt calls to patriotism. Car chases. Soft-core titillation. Weather people buffeted about by hurricane winds (because how can you report a hurricane without putting some poor schmuck in the middle of one). A lot of the movie is pretty flabby, honestly, but in middle of it is some pretty sharp satire.

Jon Stewart has been accused by conservatives by having a liberal bias, which he freely admits is true. But his main target on the Daily Show is not in fact conservatism. It’s the same thing comedians have always made fun of: human stupidity and incompetence. Hubris and arrogance and people in power with their pants around their ankles. Fools behaving clownishly. Ron Burgundy is an idiot, of course, but his twenty-four news show is successful. There’s one sequence in the movie where Ron’s wife, a news anchor on a mainstream news show, is interviewing Yasser Arafat, a huge scoop for her (the show is set in the 80s). Ron, meanwhile, decides to follow a random car chase taking place in Milwaukee. His story gets much better ratings, of course. And it would. That’s why the scene is funny; that’s what would happen.

So if Jon Stewart is liberal, and Colbert plays a conservative idiot for laughs, and obviously John Oliver is liberal, and Bill Maher is so liberal he bleeds blue, why hasn’t there been a conservative fake news show?  There actually was one on Fox for a short while–it totally bombed. It bombed for an exceptionally good reason: because it wasn’t funny.

The real answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t just have a successful fake news show, they have an entire fake news network. CNN is funny because they’re lame; they’re funny in the same way that earnest people taking silly things seriously is always funny.  CNN is funny because CNN covers Justin Bieber the same way it covers ISIS.

Fox is funny in much the same way; that combination of earnestness and triviality is always going to be funny. But add ideology to the mix and the whole thing becomes hilarious. They’re not just earnest people taking trivial issues seriously, they’re also people who always, always have the Right Answer to any question, found in an unswerving allegiance to a specific set of ideas. The federal government: bad. Global warming: non-existent. Corporations: good. Barack Obama: Satan.

But look at they way they repackage classic comedic tropes. Take that Fox standby, the pompous, pontificating elderly authority figure. Polonius, in other words. The fathers in all of Moliere’s comedies. Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Bill O’Reilly epitomizes the type. Remember, during the Ferguson stand-off, Bill O giving those condescending scoldings to black people? Offensive, sure. But also really really funny, as hubris always is (that is, when its not tragic). And Sean Hannity; isn’t he also a comic type? Eddie Haskell, maybe? Alex Keaton? Obsequious young suck-up?

I mean, why are all the Fox News reporters and co-anchors pretty blondes? I don’t mean to suggest that attractive blonde women can’t read the news, or that they’re universally bad at their jobs. But come on. Isn’t it at least a little funny that a news organization can’t find anyone else to hire? The Stepford Wives jokes aside, is it an accident that Fox’s demographics skew so severely old, white and male? A generation of men who grew up girl-watching? And that, simultaneously, all the news presenters are attractive young women?

I know the response from conservatives. MSNBC has a liberal bias worse than Fox’s conservative bias. Plus, so do CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN. PBS. Fox is a necessary corrective. I’ve heard all the arguments. My point, though, is that Fox is itself basically a fake news organization. They have the trappings of real news–the sets, the graphics, the anchors sitting at a desk, the field reporters–while actually sort of ducking the responsibilities and obligations of actual news reporting. And John Oliver did a real news story–dug for facts, asked tough questions, researched and reported. So what’s news? What counts anymore?

 

Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day, a national holiday established in 2004. We celebrate it on September 17, because that was the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Or the people who were still there signed it, many of the Convention members having already left Philadelphia. The Framers were probably relieved, first to have the ordeal done with, and also because it was September, following a particularly sweltering summer of 1787. With no air conditioning. Or good fans. Or even open windows, which remained closed for fear of eavesdroppers.

Still, this is a good thing, to celebrate the Constitution. And for families with children, the Constitution Center has a website with lots of fun activities designed to teach kids about it.

The Constitution is actually a pretty easy document to read, once you get used to eighteenth century vocabularies and usage.  It’s really pretty simple. It basically describes the process by which laws will be passed, who will pass them, how they will be elected to the task, and who is responsible for executing them. The principle doctrine that informed its creation is ‘separation of powers.’  The Framers were worried about political power. Most of the world of their day was governed using the ‘insane hereditary dictator’ system of government, a popular form throughout most of history, for reasons that defy comprehension, since it never works very well. Anyway, what is political power, how should it be wielded, who exercises it, how can it be channeled in positive, beneficial directions?  Nobody knew.  And when the Framers finished the document, they were generally skeptical about what they’d accomplished. What if it didn’t work? Because maybe it wouldn’t.

James Madison and the other Framers built the theoretical framework for a Constitution out of untested and frankly pretty radical political theories, which they believed in and thought would work in a practical sense, but which they couldn’t be sure of at all.  Key to those theories was the notion that political power resided with the people, and not with a sovereign blessed by God. Throughout most of history, the theory had been that God had, in His Infinite Wisdom, placed everyone in a particular station in life, for inscrutable but wise reasons of His own. If you were a peasant, it was because God wanted you to be a peasant; if a nobleman, again, God’s will.  And kings, of course, were likewise divinely appointed, and ruled by divine right, and therefore, by fiat, by unobstructed decree.

Now, its true that our political traditions were mostly British, and that Britain had, ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, been a more or less constitutional monarchy. The political theories Madison believed in had, for the most part, and in rudimentary form, been tried out in Britain. The ever-evolving British constitution did allow for some freedom and personal autonomy; the Magna Carta was in both American and British backgrounds. So there is a sense in which the Framers took the best of their British political heritage and rejected the worst of it.  I certainly don’t think a non-British colony, granted independence, would have come up with anything like our Constitution. It was still radical, and perceived by some as dangerous–dangerously monarchical by some, dangerously anti-monarchical by others. Was the office of the President too strong? Not strong enough?

Some conservatives today believe that our Constitution established America as a Godly nation, a Christian nation, with Christian values. We hear, for example, that the Framers opened their sessions with prayer. They didn’t. They did think about having a prayer once, but rejected it, because it might look bad; might look like they were squabbling so much they needed a priest to sort them out. It certainly never occurred to any of the Framers that they could pray. Wasn’t something gentlemen did.

It’s important to understand that that this Christian document malarkey isn’t remotely true, and that if it had been true, the document would have reflected the traditional understanding most Christian denominations had of political power.  The Framers would have reinstituted the monarchy; would have provided for a king. When historians point out that the Framers were, for the most part, Deists, that isn’t an insult. The Constitution is a Deist document, reflecting Deist values. Deism is not atheism; Deists believed in God.  But they believed in a distant God, who had set the universe on its path and chose not to intervene subsequently in how it worked. The Deist God was a clockmaker God, who wound up the universe and then let it tick along on its own.

This doctrine didn’t disenfranchise God, but it did empower ordinary (property-owning, white, male) citizens. People were generally free to decide what they would make of their own lives. Birth and wealth and privilege didn’t matter much; what mattered were the decisions of free men, working out their own destinies. And that meant a democratic document.

But the Framers were just as afraid of the raw power of pure democracy. They were savvy enough to know how easily mobs could form and be swayed and the destruction they could wreak.  So democratic power had to be limited in scope, turned into a Republic, in which enlightened citizen-philosophers, elected by their fellow citizens, could make decisions that would be binding and conclusive.

Another familiar conservative trope is that the Framers intended a ‘limited government,’ that they would be appalled by the massive behemoth that our current federal government has become.  This is likewise nonsense. The Framers were in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.  They’d tried Federalism. They’d tried small government. They’d tried the ‘local government is best government’ experiment. If there was one thing that united them, it was disgust with the ineffectual, bankrupt mess the Articles had created.

Again, their solution was separation of powers. They wanted to disrupt the traditional centers of power.  A democratic House, immediately responsive to voter concerns needed to be checked by a more contemplative Senate, protected from passionate demogoguery by its leisurely six year electoral cycle. If laws were passed that violated the rights of minorities, a Supreme Court could declare them invalid. Presidents nominated Court members, but those nominations required Senate ratification.  The Framers didn’t want government to be powerless; indeed the very doctrine of a separation of powers presupposes that government would have significant powers that needed separating.

What they established (or were at least willing to live with) was a government that would be inefficient. They didn’t mind much that the process of passing a bill was cumbersome and ineffective. That was all right. They figured that sooner or later, legislators would compromise, and the measures that resulted would be regarded by most as ‘not great, but probably the best we can come up with, given the circumstances’.  They were fine with half-measures, with watered down legislation, with debates in which egotists and gasbags and show-offs and grandstanders would hold forth endlessly on subjects they knew nothing about. They weren’t afraid, in other words, of American governance getting pretty comical at times.  They were pessimistic optimists, in other words, realistic about human self-delusion, but also certain that in the end, future Americans would muddle along well enough.

They also knew their work wasn’t perfect, and that changes would need to be made. That’s why they included an amendment process. When James Madison was elected to the House he’d helped create, his first, self-imposed task was passing a Bill of Rights. That’s worked out pretty well. But the Constitution was absurdly accommodating to slavery, and most of the Framers knew well enough that that was going to be a problem, that they’d basically shuffled a major slavery confrontation off to their grandchildren. The Framers may well have been ‘inspired,’ but collectively, their work was informed by self-interest, anticipated personal economic benefits, and moral cowardice every bit as much as nobility and sagacious wisdom.

And the Constitution is deliberately and intentionally vague about a lot of issues that it might have been nice to have clarified. (Like, what they meant by ‘bear arms,’ for example!)  From time to time, you’ll hear people declare, in terms of utter certitude, that some action or other by some President is ‘unconstitutional.’ That’s the basis for Speaker Boehner’s amazing, risible lawsuit against President Obama; the President unilaterally changed some of the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act.  But it’s not remotely clear what the constitutional line is between  ‘Congress passing legislation’ and ‘President executing laws.’  The Framers give us, like, two sentences on those issues. So you can make a case for the President’s actions being unconstitutional, but you can make an equally plausible case for those actions being perfectly constitutional.  The Constitution is kind of infuriating that way.

And that’s what I like about it. It’s a framework, a set of guiding principles.  It’s not Holy Writ. Did the Framers intend for the US of A having a modern social welfare state? Providing health care? Regulating car safety? Passing environmental legislation? Child safety laws? Gay marriage? Access to public buildings for people with disabilities?  How could they possibly have anticipated any of those issues? Article One Section Eight does offer a few suggestions regarding the kinds of issues Congress might consider, but there’s no hint that those are the only questions they properly could address.

Do you want a big government or a smaller one? Do you want a bigger army or a smaller one? Do you want more money spent to help disadvantaged people, or do you want less money spent on those efforts?

We’re the People. We get to decide. And that’s the genius of the Constitution.

 

 

Presidential lying

I’m going to do something that I’m normally reluctant to do; respond to a source without providing you a link to that source. I’m not just going to respond to it, in fact, I’m going to judge it, declare it utterly worthless.  And I’m going to confess right now that I haven’t actually even read the article in question. And I feel absolutely comfortable doing all this.

The subject is Presidential lying, and the article in question, based on its title, makes the case that President Obama is a liar of the first order, that he lies all the time, routinely, pathologically. That he is, in fact, the worst liar ever to occupy the White House. As I say, I have not read the article, and I’m not going to link to it, nor even tell you where it might be found. A conservative friend linked to it on Facebook, and I read some of the commentary about it on his FB page. So, again without reading the article or examining the author’s evidence, I’m prepared, right now, to say that this article is worthless, and that its very existence fundamentally discredits the website on which it appeared.

Presidents and lies. And first of all, let’s define what a lie actually is. If I claim that yesterday, I grew wings out my upper back, and flew around the neighborhood, and using those wings, was able to hover in the air outside one of the upstairs rooms of my house and fix a broken window, that would be a lie. I don’t have wings, and even if I did have wings, wouldn’t be able to fix a window. But if I said to you that the company I hired to fix that window did a terrific job on it, and that I recommend their professionalism and workmanship, and you subsequently hired that company and they did a poor job on your window, my recommendation would not be a lie. You might be angry at how bad a job those window-fixers did for you, and how dishonest and corrupt they seemed, but my recommendation was offered in good faith. I had a good experience with that company, and told you of it fully anticipating that you would have a good experience too. If I say to you ‘I strapped a magnet to my back, and my back pain went away,’ and you strap a magnet to your back and it doesn’t do you any good at all, I still didn’t lie to you.  Even if I say to you ‘magnets cure back pain,’ that wouldn’t necessarily be a lie. Maybe I genuinely believe that magnets can cure back pain. Maybe I say ‘scientific evidence proves that magnets draw healing chemicals to the source of the pain in your back’, again, that’s not necessarily a lie. It’s nonsense, but it’s not a lie, unless I know it to be nonsense when I say it.

Presidents are politicians, and part of the politician job description is to be a salesman. Politicians try to sell us on their ideas, on their programs, on their proposals, and of course, also on them.  And so, when describing a program, a politician, like any salesman, is likely to emphasize the benefits of that program, and soft-pedal possible downsides. If there are three estimates regarding the cost of the program, a politician will emphasize the lowest of those estimates. That’s just sales. And it’s not fundamentally dishonest. Our political system, like our legal system, is adversarial in nature. One pol says ‘this is a good idea,’ and his/her electoral opponent responds ‘no, it’s a terrible idea,’ and we voters sort it all out on election day. But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that either politician lied to us. They were both making a case for their ideas.  They just disagree.

Now sometimes, a politician really does just lie to us. He’ll say something like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  Or he’ll say “I am not a crook.”  Usually, we see right through it.  We look at President Clinton and we say to ourselves, “you did too have sexual relations with her.”  Or we look at President Nixon and say to ourselves, “I don’t believe you.  I think you are a crook.”  And that kind of lie is a very serious matter, and massively destructive to that politician’s career, when they get caught. And they always get caught. Nixon would have been impeached if he hadn’t resigned. Clinton was impeached, though not removed from office.

Presidents can’t really get away with those sorts of lies for very long. People notice, people pay attention. Any claim that President Obama lies all the time just doesn’t hold up. Watchdog groups, like Politifact, don’t seem to have noticed any massive whoppers like the two I just cited. If President Obama lies all the time, it’s not obvious the way the Clinton and Nixon lies I mentioned were.

But, then, lies regarding policy are not as obviously lies. Take two examples, one from a Republican and one from a Democrat. When President Bush told the American people that Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction that endangered American interests, that turned out not to be true. But I don’t think it’s accurate to call that statement a lie. There’s no question that the Bush administration genuinely thought the evidence of Saddam’s WMD was credible. A statement that turns out not to be true is not necessarily a deliberate falsehood.

By the same token, when President Obama said ‘under the ACA, if you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep him,’ that wasn’t a lie. The best information he had suggested that almost all insurance plans would meet the ACA guidelines. He didn’t know that health insurance companies would suddenly sell a bunch of low-premium, low-benefit plans that would have to be canceled when the ACA kicked in. He was trying to sell people on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Maybe he exaggerated a little, but there’s no evidence of him consciously and intentionally lying. Politifact called the ACA statements lies, because there’s no question that the President said things that turned out not to be true. And he’s paid a heavy political price for it; his approval ratings are very low right now. But deliberate, intentional lies?  Did he know that a great many people would actually lose their insurance and their doctors, and say the opposite, on purpose?  If so, why tell so obvious a whopper?  Is he really that stupid? No. I suggest to you, therefore, that his statement was offered in good faith, and that it was not a lie.

But there are always people who despise the current President, whoever he is, for partisan reasons. I’m a liberal; I thought George W. Bush was a very bad President. My conservative friends think Barack Obama is a very bad President.  Everyone, every person in the country, suffers from some form of confirmation bias. But for a hard-core political partisan confirmation bias gets amped up to eleven.  So every time a President we dislike says anything, we parse it carefully.  We take every slight exaggeration, every tiny misstatement, every failed projection as a deliberate and intentional falsehood. We never cut a President we disagree with any slack at all.

So on the periphery of our national political conversation, we can always hear, buzzing in our ears, a tremendous amount of partisan white noise. I have liberal friends who will go their graves ‘knowing’ that President Bush deliberately lied our nation into war, so he could enrich his wealthy oilmen friends. I have liberal friends who think President Bush ordered explosives placed inside the Twin Towers foundational gridwork; that 9/11 was an intentional Bush plot. I have conservative friends who are equally convinced that President Obama is a foreign agent, a secret Muslim terrorist and also a communist, born in Kenya, trained by Al Qaeda; that his agenda is to destroy America.

So liberal partisans are convinced that everything George W. Bush (or Dick Cheney) ever said was a lie, a deliberate intentional falsehood. And conservative partisans are convinced that President Obama is essentially a pathological liar, congenitally incapable of telling the truth, about anything, ever. There are liberals who suffer from ‘Bush derangement disorder.’ There are conservatives who suffer from ‘Obama derangement disorder.’  Both disorders are catching, and probably best avoided, and the best way to keep from catching them is to shut them out of our heads.  So when conservative white noise, about Obama and lying, appears on my FB page, I’m not going to read it, and I’m not going to link to it.

It’s perfectly possible to think that Bush’s Iraq policy was a mistake without considering the man a hideous monster. It’s perfectly possible to have misgivings about Obamacare, without considering Obama a tyrant.  Let’s have a reasonable conversation about politics. Let’s focus on policies, and on evidence, and on reason. Let’s leaven rancor with humor, certainty with humility, conviction with compassion. We’re all Americans, after all, and our elected leaders are human beings, susceptible to error, capable of great achievements.  And Presidents have the hardest job in the world. Respect the office, if you can’t respect the person holding it, and let’s keep our cool.

 

 

Rand Paul, ISIL, and the new nihilist chic

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or alternatively, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is really really evil. They’re so evil that al-Qaeda has disavowed them. When your extremist jihadist army is too evil for the guys behind 9/11, that’s really evil. I apologize for my tone here; ISIS (or ISIL) continues to murder journalists, and slaughter innocent civilians. They really are a horror show.

So the consensus on all the Sunday morning political talk shows was, as usual, that Something Has to be Done, and whatever the Obama administration is doing is too little, ineffective, and not part of an overall coherent strategy. Is ISIL a genuine threat to American interests?  That question tends to get dismissed pretty quickly. They’re really evil; of course they’re a threat.

Right now, the American response is to bomb ISIL positions, a kind of military action which Congress has not specifically authorized, not that they’re in any huge hurry to do anything of the kind, Article One Section Eight of the Constitution notwithstanding.  But Rand Paul published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal attacking both the President’s actions and those members of his own party (pace John McCain and Lindsay Graham), who are arguing for a continued American military presence in Iraq.  Wrote Paul: “shooting first and asking questions later has never been a good foreign policy.”  Paul isn’t convinced that Isis is a threat to America.  Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee issued an utterly contemptible response to Paul’s op-ed, questioning his patriotism and saying he supported policies that would “make America less safe.”  I’m grateful to my good friend Adam Blackwell, who called this contretemps to my attention, as well as Ezra Klein’s response on the invaluable Vox.com: “the DNC response recalls “the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe” when they were subjected to them by Karl Rove and his proxies.” Dead on.

Paul doesn’t say what he thinks we should do, or what he’d do if he were President (something he would very much like to see happen).  But like his father before him, Rand Paul is never more interesting than when he comments on foreign policy, precisely because he doesn’t care what the Washington conventional consensus is.

The Sunday talk shows are invaluable as a guide to what All the Smart People Think, mainstream Beltway wisdom. I always watch This Week on ABC, and it drives my daughter insane: “why do you watch this? It’s terrible!”  She’s right, but I watch nontheless–it’s good to know what the Establishment is up to. Washington always wants the President to Do Something, to Show Leadership, to Project American Will. That’s why the mainstream media turned cheerleader so quickly in the leadup to Bush’s Iraq invasion. It’s why Hans Blix couldn’t get a major media outlet to listen when he was busy shouting from the rooftops how Saddam Hussein did NOT have WMD, something Blix knew with some certainty, because he was the guy tasked by the UN to go to Iraq and look for them.  So that’s Beltway wisdom: always certain, usually wrong.

When Rand Paul writes about how disastrous that 2003 invasion proved, and how invading Iraq destabilized the region, freeing up human cockroaches like ISIL to crawl out from under the fridge and start blowing stuff up, he’s absolutely right. And so our foreign policy has become almost entirely reactive. Threats emerge, hands are wrung, the President is blamed for those threats, and generally it turns out that there’s not much we can do, except the limited measures the President anyway prefers.

The larger question, of course, is whether or not there are legitimate American interests at risk in Iraq and Syria.  The reason there might be is this: about a hundred Americans, and over a thousand Europeans have joined ISIL.  (I’m calling them ISIL instead of ISIS for reasons I’ll explain later).  That’s the fact that’s being cited on all the talk shows.  There are a hundred American guys going over there!  What happens when they come home!  They have passports!  They’re terrorists!  They’re going to do terrorist-y things over here!  Not so fast, writes Zack Beauchamp on Vox.

The first American jihadist ISIL guy to be killed over there is a guy named Douglas MacArthur McCain.  No kidding; he was named for one of the greatest of American generals, and shares a last name with John McCain.  Who was he?  He was from a Milwaukee suburb. Had a few traffic tickets. Was described as a goofy guy, kind of lost, searching for something.  I also read about the British citizen who they think was the guy who beheaded journalist James Foley.  He supposedly became a jihadist because his rap career wasn’t taking off.

And so I read about these guys, and no, I’m not a national security expert. I’m an aging playwright who used to teach theatre history. But they sure sounded familiar. They remind me of a friend of mine in high school who joined the Children of God.  They remind me of the Baader-Meinhof guys.  They remind me of the SLA.  You remember them; the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst? My brother’s junior high school English teacher, Emily Harris, was in that group. Smart, disaffected, searching, lost.

In other words, the Americans and Western Europeans who are running off to Syria and joining ISIS may well be simply the latest iteration of the ‘bored nihilist hipster’ crowd. You want to reject mainstream suburban values? One way to do it is to become Kurt Cobain and write some of the greatest music of the last fifty years.  Another way is to run off into the wilderness.  The possibilities are endless.  Get a tattoo, dye your hair, get multiple piercings, drop out of school, try heroin, rob a convenience store. But if you really want to piss off your parents, try joining a group of jihadist terrorists. Way more hardcore than playing Tour of Duty all night. This way, you can really shoot a real weapon.  Drive around in a Toyota pickup waving an AK around. Wear a bandana and talk jihad, send home letters about the glorious pan-Islamic caliphate you’re bringing about. And maybe shoot some people, too.  That’s hardcore, man.

That’s why I’m calling them ISIL, instead of ISIS. Isis was an Egyptian goddess.  ISIL sounds like the thing painters set their canvas on to paint. I don’t want terrorist to sound even a little bit cool. ISIL sounds stupider.

So what happens when they come back to the US, those who survive. Well, not much. First of all, they’re going to be easy to identify, easy to track, and easy to follow. They’re already pretty easy to keep tabs on, because they love to tweet. Doug McCain was, by all accounts, a pretty bright kid, who was lost and needed something to give his life meaning. He found it in Islam, and that’s great. Then he found a greater fulfillment in the darkest corners of the Islamic world, and became a killer, a savage nihilist. It’s a tragedy. My heart breaks for his family. But he wasn’t ever much of a threat to America or to American interests.

So what should we do about ISIL? I’m not convinced they’re much of a threat to American interests. Iraq has a very large, superbly trained and equipped army. They also don’t seem very interested in fighting for the glory of Iraq. The Kurds are semi-autonomous, much better fighters than Iraqi general forces, and motivated–they’ve seen enough of Isis up close to know what they’re dealing with. If some limited bombing strikes can provide support for Kurdish forces, that might be worth trying, if we can manage it without infuriating Turkey, which does not want a Kurdish state on its southern border.

I also think that the US might have a larger humanitarian role to fill. If NATO forces, or UN peacekeepers can be persuaded to get involved, we might be able to fight ISIL effectively, without at the same time supporting Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, or further destabilizing the hopelessly corrupt and inefficient Iraqi government, such as it is. Who knows; perhaps the threat of ISIL could even provide an opportunity for some very careful and nuanced diplomacy with Iran, since ISIL is a Sunni force and Iran generally supports endangered Shiites.

So our options are limited, and the role the US can and should play is a complicated one. So far, I’m willing to support President Obama’s general approach. But Rand Paul should also be listened to. To the degree that it’s possible for both President Obama and Senator Paul to be right about foreign policy, that might be a middle ground worth further exploration.

 

 

Labor Day

Monday was Labor Day, which probably suggests that if I was going to write a Labor Day piece, Monday would have been a good day for it. But procrastination remains my favorite character flaw, right up there with laziness. (I was going to start an apathy club, but it seemed like too much trouble. I was going to start a procrastinators’ club, and will, first thing tomorrow!)

Besides, Labor Day is a wonderful holiday, celebrating unions. “Comrades, come rally, and the last night let us face!”  Sing along together, brothers and sisters!  Remember Joe Hill!  My grandfather was a union man, and thanks to the United Steelworkers, a Norwegian immigrant with almost no formal education, a hard working laborer in a stell mill, could put two kids through college, buy a home, and build a wonderful life for himself and his family in America.

And yet, the labor union remains an institution that is quickly disappearing from American life, despite the fact that it’s probably needed today more than ever.  There a 151 million Americans with full-time jobs today, and only 16 million belong to unions, which is about 9% of the population. And the income gap grows ever wider.  The super-rich have never been richer and real wages for the lower and middle class continue to fall.  There’s talk, of course, of raising the minimum wage. National legislation doing that has no chance at all, as long as Republicans control the House of Representatives.

In a sense, our country is in a new Gilded Age, reliving the later years of the nineteenth century, that period when the Rockefellers and Carnegies and J.P. Morgans of the country became rich beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, while factory workers killed themselves working horrendous hours for terrible pay and no benefits.  Working people had no voice, no advocates, no chance of rising. Sixteen tons was not hyperbole; coal miners did owe their souls to the company soul. No more.

It’s the one genuinely inspiring story in all of American history. If you want to tell stories of heroism and sacrifice, of ordinary people making a difference, tell the story of the American labor movement.  Tell the story of Cesar Chavez and John Lewis, of Eugene V. Debs and Samuel Gompers, of the Pullman strike and the coal strikes, of the UAW and the IWW.  Why hasn’t HBO or Showtime or A&E or AMC done a multi-part miniseries about the American labor movement?  It would be spectacular.

Tell the story.  Because in another sense, we’re not living in another Gilded Age, precisely because of unions. Minimum wage laws, child labor laws, required overtime pay for overtime work, safety regulations for workers, restrictions on those ‘company stores,’ a whole web of regulations we rely on today have made life for the working poor at least somewhat livable.  And we owe it all to unions.  We owe it all to the blood and guts and sacrifices and toughness of generations of organizers and strikers.  My grandfather told me once that I could do anything I wanted to with my life, I could pursue any career at all, and he would love me and support me.  But if I ever turned scab, that was it. That would end our relationship. That was the one unforgivable sin; to cross a union line.

So why isn’t Walmart organized?  Or McDonalds?  Or UPS?  Or Amazon?  Why isn’t there a national union of service industry workers, a union for call center employees and fast food workers and department store clerks?  If you get a job at Walmart, warnings against unionizing is part of your employee orientation training.  Why isn’t the CEO of Walmart in prison for his persistent violations of labor law in that regard?

And I know this is an unpopular opinion.  I know that conservatives hate unions, and see them as inherently destructive, as economically unfeasible, as greedy and corrupt. And there have been corrupt union leaders in our history; that’s certainly true.  Power corrupts, and union bosses aren’t all saintly, which is why Jimmy Hoffa got poured into the foundations of the Meadowlands football stadium.

My brothers are businessmen, and this is an area where we disagree. So let me make my case.

If you run a business, to whom are you responsible?  You run a business, you create products, you sell them, who are your constituents?  Well, the Business School model would say that you are, first and foremost, responsible to your shareholders.  The people who have invested money in your company, the people who have loaned the money with which you built it, they’re probably the first people to whom you are responsible.  And for publicly owned companies, there’s a board of directors safeguarding the interests of those shareholders.  So there you go; you’re responsible to shareholders, and a board looking after their interests.

You also have a responsibility towards your customers, obviously. Presumably you provide either a product or a service or both, and you have a responsibility to make it a good product or a valued service. And all sorts of consumer advocacy groups make sure you do provide a good product, and not a shoddy one. There’s the Better Business Bureau, there’s Consumer Reports, there are many others. And frankly, if you rip people off, you won’t stay in business for very long. There are also government entities; if you’re in pharmaceuticals, you answer to the FDA, for example.

You’re also responsible to the community, I suppose. You want to be a good citizen, you want to make the town or city where you live a better place. It’s good for the company image. And if you contribute to the local symphony orchestra, you can even get a tax break.

But you also have a responsibility to your workers, to your employers. And they have no one looking out for their interests.  They have no advocate, no spokesperson. There are, of course, laws regarding employees. You may be required to provide health benefits, you can’t endanger their health, you can’t overwork them. And basic labor economics suggests that skilled workers will need to be paid an industry standard if you want to retain them. But if a layoff will help your stock price, you lay off the workers, and they have no effective recourse.

That’s where unions fit. Workers need an advocate; employees need collective bargaining. Is it possible that unionizing will cut into the corporate bottom line? Absolutely, and given the current level of corporate profits, that’s a very good thing, too.

So on this Labor Day, let’s do two things. First, let’s show some gratitude for our forefathers, for the courage and determination of those generations before us who fought for working people, and achieved so much. And second, let’s fight for unionization today. Let’s organize again, fight the bosses again, raise wages and awareness.  Like Norma Rae, let’s hold up our hand painting sign, and proclaim our allegiance: Union!  Union! Union!

 

Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.

 

Ferguson and race

I am very very reluctant to comment on the current situation in Ferguson Missouri and elsewhere. I feel so astoundingly unqualified.  As a middle-aged white male, I cannot bring anything like any personal history to this situation.  But an event that I thought couldn’t possibly support political polarization has become politically polarized, and I will try to comment.

First of all, I’m not sure it’s possible for the Ferguson chief of police to bungle this situation more completely.  Last Thursday, thanks in part to the timely intervention of Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, the situation in Ferguson had begun to calm down. Friday morning, Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, released video footage of what appeared to be a strong-arm convenience store robbery, claiming that Michael Brown was the main suspect in that event.  As Ezra Klein put it, that footage was completely irrelevant to Brown’s shooting, or to the actions of Officer Wilson, the policeman who shot him.  It was, in fact, a transparent attempt to co-opt the narrative regarding Brown’s character.  And it meant that the already volatile atmosphere in Ferguson exploded over the weekend.

(Jackson’s handling of this case, BTW, couldn’t have been less helpful.  In our household, in fact, ‘Ferguson police chief’ has become synonymous with foolishness; as in “well, she’s plenty stupid, but is she Ferguson police chief stupid?”)

There remain dueling narratives in the case.  This story does a reasonably good job of sorting them out. But the subsequent actions of the Ferguson police all tend to support, at least, this conclusion; that the Ferguson police aren’t used to having their authority questioned, and react badly when it is questioned.  The militarized uniforms and armaments facing unarmed protestors, the arbitrary arrests of journalists, the hostility to anyone attempting to film them, and the pathetic attempts by Chief Jackson to leak information to make Michael Brown look like a thug, they’re all classically defensive overreactions. Watching the cops react to the protests is eye-opening.

What everyone seems to agree is that Brown was jaywalking.  A policeman stopped him, they had a confrontation in which Brown reached through the police car window, or was dragged in.  A scuffle ensued, in the car.  Brown broke away, ran off, and the officer fired at him.  He turned, faced the officer, put his hands up.  The police narrative is that Brown then charged the officer.  Most eyewitnesses agree that Brown had surrendered, arms in the air, and that he did not charge the police vehicle.  At the very least, I’d have to say that the most credible evidence points to the shooting as a homicide, requiring, at the least, the filing of criminal charges against Officer Wilson.

But what’s so disheartening about this is the hopelessness and impotent outrage and misdirected fury within the Ferguson black community.  If the town of Ferguson is two thirds black, and yet all elected offices in the town are held by whites (except for one City Council member), what happens in city elections?  Last election in Ferguson, voter turnout was 12%. And it all becomes clearer.

Why vote if it won’t make a difference?  Why engage politically if it doesn’t matter?  Why try to succeed, if the only outcome you ever see is failure?

What’s gone wrong?  Why does Dr. King’s vision seem so far away?  Why are so many young black men in prison, why do so many young black women have children out of wedlock, why is the African-American family in such crisis?

I don’t know. I don’t know what ideas are even out there.  I do know that the Bill O’Reilly ‘black people just need to be moral, go to school, go to work, stop having kids, and stop committing crimes’ elderly white male conservative nonsense couldn’t be more misguided.  Our society needs to do more, provide more opportunities, incarcerate fewer kids. And stop pointing the finger, blaming the victim, making young black people the Other against which Virtuous White American must always contend.

And for kids to be constantly, incessantly hassled by the police isn’t helping.  I haven’t experienced that kind of harassment in my life, because I’m an old white guy.  I have African-American friends, and they say that hassles with the cops are a routine, regular part of their existence.

And maybe there’s this:  Every morning, after nights of rioting and looting and protests and violence, young black men and women go out into the streets of Ferguson with brooms and shovels and clean up the streets.  It’s their city, and they don’t want it trashed.  That’s a force for good, if it could be harnessed.

But for starters, train cops better.  Reinstitute community policing. Make every polcie vehicle carry a camera; make police work entirely transparent.  Let the police/citizen relationship return to what it should be; non-adversarial, cooperative, Officer Friendly ready, always, to help.  And get out the vote.  There’s a Ferguson police chief, for example, who needs to go.

 

Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri, is a town of some 21, 000 citizens, in St. Louis County Missouri, basically a suburb of St. Louis.  The 2010 census revealed that 67% of the town is African-American, and 29% is white/Caucasian.  However, the town employs 53 police officers, 3 of whom are black.  The mayor is white, as are 5 of its 6 city council members.  The chief of police is likewise white. But a state report on racial profiling found that 86% of traffic stops were of black drivers, and that 92% of arrests were of black suspects. A lot of news stories about the town have, with justification apparently, called it a ‘powder keg.’

And on Saturday, an unarmed 18 year old black kid named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police.  Witnesses say his hands were up and clearly visible when he was shot.  Here’s a link to the NBC news story about the shooting.  Meanwhile, the streets of Ferguson are clogged with protestors.  Tear gas has been used to dispel protestors, and some looters have been arrested.  Three national news reporters have been arrested. A group called The Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown has made four demands.  The first of those demands is that the officer who shot Brown be publicly identified and arrested for murder.

The hackers’ collective, Anonymous, has released this video on YouTube.  A few hours ago, they released the name of the Ferguson police officer who they claim was the shooter.  They also hacked into the Ferguson police department website.  Ferguson authorities, though, say the name Anonymous released is wrong; that that officer thus identified was not the shooter.

The Chief of Ferguson police, Thomas Jackson, is a pleasant-seeming round-faced man, who has been fairly unshakable so far in press conferences.  He comes across as reasonable and mild.  He says he’s concerned about race relations in the town, and that he has made healing those divisions his highest priority as police chief.  But the police presence clearly visible in all the national news stories about the Ferguson protests is anything but benign.  We’re seeing SWAT teams, with full military style regalia, in armored cars.  Gunners on rooftops with machine guns.  It’s difficult not to conclude that the police have badly overreacted to peaceful protests, and that fear is driving events on both sides.

By all accounts, Michael Brown was a big, cheerful kid.  He graduated from high school this summer, and was looking forward to college this fall.  He wanted to be a heating and air conditioning engineer.  He was cheerful, outgoing, liked to rap, liked to make people laugh.  What a terrible loss, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to our country.

I don’t know anything more about this story than what I’ve read in the news, seen on TV, or read on the internet.  I do have a few thoughts.

It doesn’t really matter what was said or done by Brown or by his friend.  There’s talk of a confrontation.  I wasn’t there.  Brown’s friend tells a different story than the police have been telling, but we only have partial information from all sources.  But this kid should never have been shot.  I can’t see any justification for it, based on preliminary news reports.  Even if we believe the most pro-police news stories that have emerged, this was a shooting that should never have occurred.

The officer in question, therefore, should have been arrested and charged with this homicide.  That doesn’t mean that he should be considered a murderer.  There are any number of lesser charges that could be filed, and I don’t doubt that prosecutors are already sifting through the accounts that have been given.  And I fully understand that reluctance of Ferguson police to release the name of the shooter.  But he could and should be held in protective custody, pending formal charges being filed.  It also appears that Anonymous’ videos have hardened police resolve. A Ferguson police spokesperson said that the hackers’ threats ‘prompted their decision’ not to release the officer’s name.

People in authority hate, absolutely hate having their authority challenged.  One of the reporters who was arrested said the police officers asked him to leave a restaurant where he was filing a story.  When he didn’t leave quickly enough, they slammed his head against a soda dispenser. There’s no justification for that kind of police behavior. Others have been arrested for taking photos of officers.  But taking a photo is not only legal, it’s constitutionally protected.  I understand that cops take huge amounts of crap in their jobs, and that mouthy civilians have to be very high on their lists of annoyances.  But, at least in Ferguson, and elsewhere, police training needs to be substantially revamped.  Whatever happened to community based policing, for example?

I really do think, however, that it’s time for some cooler heads to prevail.  It’s time to get the St. Louis SWAT teams out of there, perhaps by sending in the National Guard.  Perhaps it’s time to turn over the investigation to state authorities.  President Obama has called for ‘calm;’ that’s obviously welcome.  But I’m also glad he didn’t join Ferguson by overreacting.

Still, this is a terrible situation, and one that plays itself out nationally.  I have good friends who are police officers, and I know how tough their jobs are.  Go on YouTube, and you can find dozens of videos showing officers using excessive force.  But this is a big country.  If the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project’s statistics can be trusted, there are around 4, 000 incidences of police violent misconduct in our country annually.  Any good cop will tell you that that’s 4,000 too many.  But in a nation of 300,000,000, it’s a fairly negligible number.  We can and should do better, but let’s not also overreact, or think the problem is bigger than it probably is.

But then, I’m a middle aged, middle class white guy.  Police misconduct doesn’t affect me much.  If I were black, I’d probably feel very differently, and with good cause.

 

Reclaiming the language

The Deseret News just published a letter to the editor of mine, about immigration.  In this letter, I tried to make a modest and reasonable proposal.  Since conservatives are so upset about illegal immigration, why not make more immigration legal?  In other words, if you’re concerned about people from Mexico and Central America crossing the border illegally, why not issue more green cards?  Especially since immigrants are a net plus for our nation economically.  Develop some process where people without criminal records can come over legally and work here.

(The DN comments responding to my letter have been hilarious, BTW. I especially love the high dudgeon displayed by one dude, incensed at the suggestion that immigrants might be better people than Americans.  How dare I?!?!?)

I get that immigration is a hot-button issue, and that some folks get really riled up about it.  But one aspect of it seems particularly interesting to me; the fury people display at the word ‘amnesty.’  We liberals are, apparently, ‘pro-amnesty.’  And amnesty has become an epithet. Dave Bratt, who defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia, basically won his race by using one word: he labeled Cantor ‘pro-amnesty.’  Amnesty, in this context, means ‘soft on crime,’ (crossing a border illegally being the moral equivalent to rape/torture/murder, apparently).  Amnesty means telling illegal immigrants, ‘ah, we were just kidding.  It’s all cool.  Stick around, why doncha?’  It spits on the rule of law.  Or something. Watch: every time an immigration bill comes before Congress, someone in the House of Representatives will stand up and say ‘it’s a pro-amnesty’ bill.  And then see potential votes for the measure just . . . vanish.

So I declared myself in favor of amnesty.  I like that word: amnesty.  It’s a really good word.  It’s an act of forgiveness, a pardon.  It’s related to words like ‘kindness’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘absolution.’  It’s a Christian word, really.  Of course, obviously, we should extend amnesty to people who crossed our border, got a job, support a family, pay taxes, start businesses.  So someone broke a law years ago.  Let it go.

Conservatives have been very successful with this tactic, of turning a perfectly good word into an insult.  “Liberal” is one.  For awhile, a lot of liberals started calling themselves ‘progressives,’ because conservatives had been so successful in demonizing ‘liberal.’  Well, to heck with that!  I’m a liberal, and I’m proud of it!  “Favorable to progress or reform?”  You bet.

Liberals do it too, of course.  Both sides seek political advantage through the careful use of language.  Don’t think that the political slogan ‘hope and change’ represented much beyond language that had been carefully vetted by focus groups and polls.

 

Still, it can get mighty sleazy.  In 1996, Newt Gingrich sent a famous memo to GOPAC, a conservative political action committee.  In this memo, he urged conservatives to memorize two lists of words, one positive and one negative.  Here’s the memo.

I’m sorry, but this list makes me ill.  It really does.  How does calling political opponents ‘greedy selfish traitors’ contribute to civilized discourse?  If words have meaning, then really strong words, like ‘traitor’ or ‘treason’ have to stand for something significant and dreadful.  They can’t just be used to win a Congressional race over a guy you may not disagree with all that much anyway. And the cynicism of it appalls.  “You, too, can speak like Newt!  Just memorize these word lists!”

But it does work. We see it all the time in relation to President Obama.  There’s got to be relationship between the frothing-at-the-mouth fury we see so often directed at this President, and the language used to describe him.  He’s a tyrant, a communist, an uncrowned monarch!  He wants to be king!  He’s destroying America!

Except their actions don’t really match the rhetoric.  If you really do think that this President is a tyrant, hell-bent on destroying America, then obviously, you have to impeach him.  But there’s no real enthusiasm among Republican leaders to do anything of the kind.  The only people calling for impeachment are people who can afford to use irresponsible rhetoric or engage in irresponsible acts.  It’s all House back-benchers.  And talk show hosts.  And Sarah Palin.  People who will never be held accountable for their words.  Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner occasionally calls Obama an ‘imperial President,’ but he has to do that; he’s terrified of the Tea Party right.  His actions belie his words; all he’s really done about Obama’s supposed tyranny is file that ludicrous lawsuit.  And when the Speaker couldn’t get even a purely symbolic, harshly punitive border-kids bill through the House, he then said ‘well, the President can deal with this unilaterally; he has the authority.’  After suing the President for doing exactly that.  Funny funny stuff.

Anyway, as a liberal–and I am a liberal, and proud of it–I intend to use the word ‘amnesty’ every time immigration comes up in conversation.  Let’s claim it!  It’s a great word.  Let’s try to use language that is precise, specific, clear, and accurate.  Let’s not go around calling each other traitors.  That’s just silly.

Rand Paul and Israel

Rand Paul has been in the news a lot lately, in trouble for being, in the past, a little too candid.  This article does, I think, a pretty good job of covering the controversy.  In the past, Paul has suggested that he would cut American foreign aid to most countries, Israel included.  When asked, point blank, if he would cut aid to Israel, he said yes, but then hastened to qualify it.  Now he says that he wouldn’t cut aid to Israel, and that he never said that he would cut it.  It’s become a thing.  Jon Stewart did a bit about it. It’s been prominent on MSNBC.  Politifact gave Paul’s denial’s a pants on fire award.  And so the narrative is: Rand Paul, flip-flopper. Or, you know, a liar. And I like Jon Stewart and I like Rachel Maddow. But I think the focus is off here.

The Presidential election is two years away.  Already, Rand Paul is spending immense amounts of time in Iowa, because that’s what you do when you’re running for President.  And so he’s trying to define himself, and Democrats are also trying to define him, less flatteringly. This is all normal stuff, though I hate to waste brain space thinking about a Presidential race two long years away.

But this Israel stuff is immensely depressing, is it not?  There are three intersecting/overlapping things going on right now.  First, Rand Paul is a libertarian, with views on foreign policy that are quite different from the views of the Republican establishment and, actually, not terribly reflective of the Tea Party Right.  Second, his ideas about Israel and foreign policy and foreign aid deserve a respectful hearing, not least because they are so different from what most politicians believe or are willing to say.  These are really important issues, about which we should have a vigorous and thoughtful debate.  Third, though, the media isn’t likely to allow that debate to happen.  Because the mainstream media aren’t interested in policy. They’re interested in the horse race, and in crafting shallow melodramatic narratives about the candidates.  They’re more interested in the question “did Paul flip-flop on Israel?” than they are in the question “what should American foreign policy be in regards to Israel?”  They want to ask “what did Rand Paul say and when did he say it?”  Not “why are we giving all this money to Israel?  Should we give more, or less, or should we cut off all foreign aid altogether?”

They’re interested, right now, in timing.  Who will announce, and when, and how?  They’d rather function as drama critics than as policy analysts.  They love it when a candidate ‘goes negative,’ and they love the subsequent campaign strategizing.  They’d rather focus on ‘who’s going to win,’ than on ‘what would these people do, if elected President.’

In the 2012 race, as the Republicans slogged through those endless televised debates, Ron Paul was the one guy who was consistently off the res.  He got booed a lot, and he clearly didn’t care.  He was the one guy who didn’t think America should be projecting military power abroad.  He opposed the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan.  He wanted to cut military spending.  Those were interesting positions, and I admired his political courage in taking those positions.  Now his son is running for President.  And Rand Paul seems to actually want to be President, unlike his father, who always struck me as someone who would rather be true to his own libertarian belief system.  Do you want to be President, or do you want to be right?  Rand wants to be President, I think.

So, Rand Paul in 2010 and 11 tended to tell people what he really believed about foreign policy, and to some extent, he now seems to be backing away from positions that are unlikely to be popular.  And I get that, but I think it’s also a shame.  In essence, I think, Paul doesn’t think the media will allow for a substantive, nuanced debate on important issues.  I think he thinks, with good reason, that they’re more interested in playing ‘gotcha.’

Conservatives believe, as an article of faith, that the mainstream news media has a strong liberal bias, and that that bias warps their coverage of the news.  I think that’s total nonsense.  I think the reality is that the important mainstream news media figures aren’t biased, they’re incompetent.  They’re terrible.  They’re hopelessly bad at their jobs. They do a rotten job of covering what really matters: policy.  Instead, they focus on trivia.

This is not to say that I agree with Rand Paul, or that I intend to vote for him.  I don’t tend to agree with libertarians on most issues, and I probably won’t vote for him, if he’s the nominee.  But I think ideas matter.  I think he’s being treated badly, in part because he’s communicated his ideas artlessly, and in part because he’s not playing the political game very astutely.  But I also think he should be given a forum to communicate, clearly and thoughtfully and with as much nuance as is required, what he thinks about American foreign policy.  I think he should be allowed the space to carefully describe what he thinks about Israel, and our aid to Israel, and the weapons we’ve given to Israel, and the military expertise we’ve shared with Israel.  I think that’s an important and interesting set of issues, and we should be having a national conversation about it.  Especially now, given what’s happening.

I don’t care if Rand Paul has flip-flopped. I don’t care what he said in 2011, and how he’s ‘clarified his position’ since.  I want to hear him out on this important subject.  I want to know what he thinks, why he thinks it, what specifically he proposes.  And I want to know what Hillary Clinton thinks on those same issues, and why she thinks it. I want to know all that about all the candidates, from both parties, running for President in this next election.

I don’t think it’s going to happen.  And I think that’s a shame, and that it serves our nation poorly.  Can’t we be smarter about this stuff?  Because the guns are going off, and people are dying, and I don’t know that we’ve ever really debated our role in any of it.