The Chairman As Hero

Responsible officials in a democracy understand that their first duty is to defend the system. Choosing among the infinite array of possible policies is secondary.

Militant to a fault and most willing to offer America’s soldiers for the defense of such foreigners as least deserved their help, exposed by the heat of campaign as not really up to being President, this poor conservative who could not tell a Sunni from a Shi’i but thought he could decide who America’s friends were, suddenly—in a bizarre twist of fate— found his calling defending not some pseudo-ally with America’s armed might but true, liberal, Madisonian, Jeffersonian American values with his voice and his courage. Who could have imagined that it would be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who would become the champion of such liberal values as freedom of speech and freedom of the press? Who could have imagined that the Chairman, or indeed any chairman of an armed services committee, would turn out to be the one, single senator capable of teaching Americans about how a politician on the make can become a dictator and overthrow American democracy?

If the destruction of the fourth estate—a press free to criticize power, to expose the nakedness of the emperor—is not, as the Chairman stated, the first step toward dictatorship, then it is certainly one of the first four steps, the other three being setting up a minority as scapegoat, endlessly repeating the Big Lie, and undermining the independence of the judiciary…and these other three steps have of course already most firmly been taken. Perhaps only one further step exists in the basic recipe for establishing a dictatorship: starting a war.

It does not matter whether a politician establishes a precedent intentionally; it does not matter whether a politician takes advantage of the precedent. Precedents do not die by themselves: they sit silently on the shelf, loaded guns for anyone to grab and fire without having to justify themselves (“why not? Joe did it!”). That is why they are called “precedents.” The precedents of attacking the judiciary as an institution independent of Presidential desires, of attacking the right and duty of the media to criticize power and expose its limitations, of making scapegoats out of innocent minority groups are vastly more important than any particular policy of the day. Whatever the intentions of the Administration, its actions in one short month constitute a text-book example of how to turn a democracy into a dictatorship and thus establish an incredibly dangerous precedent that must be denounced and rejected in the clearest possible terms. Otherwise, someday, someone will seize this poisoned precedent and use it for nefarious purposes.

To make the above point crystal clear, the structure of the house of democracy rests upon a number of pillars, of which four of the most important are: an independent media; an independent judiciary; a constrained president; and respect for groups (racial, sexual, political, age, educational level, political perspective). Senator McCain stands out among GOP leaders for the clarity of his defense of these pillars of democracy, in contrast to the many who, for superficial reasons of particular policy preferences, profess to be satisfied with the current oppressive atmosphere of hostility toward this or that group, this or that profession, this or that sex, this or that branch of government.

So, whatever one may think of Senator McCain’s long career, whether or not one may think that his survival of POW camp entitles him to be called a “hero,” his defense this week of his own party’s negligent, if not hostile, attitude toward the independence of the media entitles him to be considered a true hero.

Political Ethics

Some people tell outrageous lies to awaken people. Senator Al Franken likes to state the truth, truth that everyone knows but no one is willing to admit, to awaken people.

 

Sen. Al Franken said Sunday President Donald Trump’s references to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” are “racist.”

His comments came after Trump reportedly attacked Warren in a closed-door meeting with several senators, telling the Democrats who attended that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party.” [CNN.]

The interesting question about the Pocahontas remark is not whether or not it is racist to sneer at the opposition political party for having a leader with non-white DNA in her blood but why Trump is apparently so profoundly worried over the rising prominence of Senator Warren. Yes, Warren’s thoughtful remarks on the reliability of the U.S. financial system, the protection of consumers, and the need for an attorney general of the U.S. who will defend the civil liberties of all Americans are a fresh breeze in the partisan heat of Washington’s endless self-serving propaganda, but after all, Trump just won! He is President. Warren, on the other hand, is just one of the senators of the defeated party and not even (so far) the Senate minority leader. Yet the honor of special treatment is now almost daily being bestowed upon her by one top Republican after another.

The important point here, it seems to me, is not even that Republican leaders seem so overawed by the calm, thoughtful, and cerebral demeanor of the senior senator from Massachusetts, but that they spend their time attacking her, personally, as opposed to talking about the fundamental societal concerns that she keeps perversely insisting upon discussing. Have we heard a GOP leader state that quoting the wife of Dr. King is unacceptable? Have we heard a GOP leader state that Wall St. financial corruption is good for America? Have we heard a GOP leader state that the way to “make America great again” is to grant a free hand to corporations to cheat American consumers? Nope, afraid not; the GOP wants to interrupt her, shut her up, and make crude remarks about…her DNA?!?

For those Americans who have never had the privilege of serving in Washington, it is perhaps worth pointing out that in Washington’s particular culture, when you have no answer to counter an opponent’s point, it is customary to slap them down with an irrelevant insult.

______________________________

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Policy Concerns:

Respect Is the Core of Democracy

Democracy thrives to the degree that the society adopting that system of government is made up of individuals who treat each other with respect. Without the voluntary agreement of the members of the population to treat each other with respect and to demand that their elected and appointed officials treat citizens with respect, all the tools of liberty–supreme courts, term limits, separation of powers, bills of rights, etc.–are worthless.

Respect is the core of democracy. Democracy is the political superstructure of a very particular type of socio-political system, a way of organizing society historically uncommon—both hard to achieve and hard to maintain. We can easily give it up, if we are too tired; it is not a logical choice for a tired, disenchanted population, and there are always vigorous self-promoters more than ready to drive, if you would prefer to curl up in the back seat and sleep. Be aware, however, that the decision to hand the steering wheel to someone else is a lifetime commitment: it is a decision to stop making decisions, to become a permanent follower. But it does have the wonderful benefit of permitting you to blame all your own shortcomings on a select list of officially sponsored “guilty groups.”

In this non-democratic way of thinking, there is no need to concern oneself with moral sensitivities toward these guilty groups…precisely because they are “groups,” not people. This is critical. These “guilty groups” do not contain “people.” What they do contain has many names. During the hot days of Bolshevik revolution and war against Russian “guilty groups,” Trotsky called the Russians in those groups “insects.”

This approach is carefully designed by those who wish to steer the vehicle of society to sound very appealing and comforting to the majority so it will permit the self-appointed saviors to slip smoothly into the driver’s seat. The problem with this tidy little package will only be revealed after it is far too late. Although Russians eventually buried their Soviet Union, the impact of that era’s excesses and outrages continues to plague the Russian people. Put simply, once the process of naming groups rather than individuals as the enemy becomes accepted, it takes on a life of its own. This seems to be inevitable, and a for very logical reason: the fallacy hidden under the Big Lie.

A group is almost never the real enemy. Real enemies are individuals who want to do bad things. Most of us are focused on living and don’t consider piracy the optimum way to enjoy life. A lot of us will follow a pirate, be he sufficiently smooth-talking, or be we sufficiently desperate, however. And once the pirate is empowered by society on the basis of a Big Lie blaming all the ills of society on, well, not exactly a scapegoat, but more precisely a “scapeherd,” then the new Pirate-in-Chief immediately faces a Big Problem: the fallacy of the Big Lie very quickly becomes clear for all to see. The consequence of this is the need constantly to add new “guilty groups,” and you may soon find that you, loyal follower though you may be, suddenly turn out to be a member of one of these “guilty groups.”

Historical examples are legion, the Bolshevik Revolution perhaps being the best known in Western society. First came that whole herd of White Russians, then “the West,” then in the purges all the old Revolutionary Bolsheviks (who were arrested on trumped-up charges and murdered by the state after fake trials), then various minority groups (e.g., a whole herd of relatively less poor farmers and the Chechens), that whole “group” of insects who engage in political dissent (including professors, independent-minded Party members, honest judges, inquisitive journalists, and sundry people who read books), and finally in World War II Russia’s finest generals.

These details don’t matter, except naturally to those implicated. The point is that this whole process can happen anywhere, any time, and the clue that this socio-political landslide is starting comes when authorities and voters start focusing their attention not on misbehaving individuals—which exist within any group, but on the groups themselves, as though the group were a thing, with a personality. Suppose a politician were to attack an opponent not by saying, “Your position on economic reform will harm us because…” but by saying “Your ancestors were…” The remark is idiotic because it makes no difference whether it is true or not; it is not relevant to solving the problem.

When you criticize an individual for doing something or advocating something, the point of your criticism is the act or belief, and that is a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion because it is in fact directly relevant to resolving the problem. If the problem is starvation, the behavior of a hoarder or an inefficient farmer is a real issue to be resolved. If the problem is dirty air, the behavior of a polluting CEO is a real issue to be resolved. In contrast, were one to criticize the race, sex, heritage, nationality, age of a person, that would distract from solving the issue, it would remove responsibility from the individual, make the individual irrelevant, and focus attention on the group: all “Westerners,” all “Jews,” all “Muslims,” all “immigrants,” all “critical reporters,” all “interfering judges,” all those who expose Emperor’s nakedness. When a politician focuses blame on a group, he is using the magician’s trick of getting you to look away; the politician’s purpose is, in short, not to solve problems but to distract attention…to distract you.

That is why respect is the core of democracy. Democracy is the very opposite of everyone marching in step and saluting smartly. Democracy is about different people making the effort to understand each other and make room for each other and working toward mutually beneficial goals not because they agree—the only person I never argued with was my mother, and even that was more out of love than because I actually agreed with every single idea in her head—but because they respect each other. If you choose not to “like” a group, so be it; that’s your choice. Don’t invite that group to Thanksgiving Dinner. Individuals, however, are a whole different matter. You can still talk respectfully to the individuals in that group about whether to drive on the right or the left. When it comes to individuals, make your choice on the basis of…the individual. And if the individual talks all the time about this good group and that bad group, watch out: you are being conned.

Ethics vs. Partisanship

Ethics and partisanship are concepts that usually mix about as well as fire and gasoline, but this time appears to be different. The long-term result is the strengthening of democracy, for democracy can only work when principles take precedence over partisanship.

Ethics and “GOP” have not, over the last generation, been terms one would automatically associate, so it is truly refreshing to see a senior GOP Congressman condemning GOP White House officials for using their official positions to promote their private businesses. Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, had already set the stage by denouncing Trump’s criticism of a department store as “inappropriate,” and now Jason Chaffetz has joined his Democratic counterpart Cummings in submitting a letter to the Office of Government Ethics noting “an inherent conflict of interest” in Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of Trump family’s private business.

Whether or not it results in any real action, this letter by the ranking member and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asking the Office of Government Ethics to recommend disciplinary action represents a stunning official “red line” in the path of an Administration only three weeks old that will surely find its place in U.S. legal history and be used in the future as a precedent to justify the disciplining of wayward officials. A bureaucrat thus charged would be in serious jeopardy of being fired if not imprisoned; we shall see what standards apply to White House officials.

At this point, the question of whether or not Chaffetz took appropriate initiative or just grudgingly came to the conclusion that White House behavior had simply become too blatant to ignore is a relatively minor issue. The mere fact of Chaffetz taking a stand on a serious question of White House ethics demonstrates that GOP Congressmen can be enticed to put principle before party and that, on specific issues of profound concern to American society—such as having ethical behavior by its elected representatives, it may be possible for Democrats and Republicans to focus on substantive issues, leaving partisanship to the side. Are we moving toward a less partisan and more flexible, issue-based approach to governance where a goal of accomplishing something might take precedence over scoring points?

This in no way should be read as implying that Chaffetz is remotely liberal in the sense of being “Madisonian” in his view of democracy or at all interested in broad cooperation with the Democrats. Rather, it seems to show that it is simply possible in the real world to find an occasional GOP Member of Congress willing to seek common ground with the other side of the isle on an issue-by-issue basis. No one is expecting such cooperation suddenly to become common, but given the razor-thin edge in the Senate, and the debilitating nature of the current hostility between the two parties, Chaffetz’ signature on that letter constitutes a welcome step toward the strengthening of our battered democracy.

Judging the Judge

Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts.–Coretta Scott King

A sad day for America, it would seem, and I can only wonder that not one single Republican Senator had the integrity or conscience to demand a somewhat more sincere evaluation…but we shall see; America will judge.

From Racism to Political Suppression

A critical new but entirely predictable stage in the evolution of the U.S. political system is now occurring: having gotten away with blatantly hostile political moves toward Muslims and Mexicans, authoritarians are now trying to pass new laws in several states designed to suppress political protests. The naive belief that we can have a government that represses groups who differ from “us” but treats “us” with respect must be abandoned by mainstream, moderate Americans, or our way of life will end.

Either politicians work for the people, or people work for the politicians.

Nothing is new in this process: authoritarian politicians get control, then legislate outrageous penalties for nonviolent but embarrassing expressions of dissent in order to keep politics in the backroom. They get away with it by blaming everything on a minority (“the Jews,” for Hitler; “the Kurds,” for Erdogan; or “the Mexicans” or “the Muslims” or “commie-pinko Harvard professors” or “college kids”) and suddenly you get jailed for vague charges of “insulting the glorious leader” or “causing a commotion, and free speech is but a distant memory.

In Indiana, a bill would allow state officials to clear a road blocked by protesters using “any means necessary”. In Washington, a bill called the Preventing Economic Terrorism Act creates a new crime for protesters who “cause an economic disruption”, with a mandatory 60-day sentence. In North Dakota, the site of protests over the Dakota Access pipeline, a new bill would protect drivers who inadvertently hit protesters blocking the road. And in Iowa, a proposed bill would create five-year prison sentences for protesters who block highways. [The Guardian.]

Concerning the harsh Iowa bill,

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said Iowa already has strong laws in place to address people blocking the state and interstate highway system. He suggested the enhanced punishment is a reaction to anti-Trump protesters. [Des Moine Register.]

A bill in North Dakota–where the governor, sheriff, and pipeline corporation officials who mistreated Sioux protesters last fall remain free–goes far beyond “just” attacking the First Amendment rights and effectively (by the vagueness of its writing) legalizes murder:

02.2. Liability exemption for motor vehicle driver.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages.

If it is OK for me “negligently” to drive through a crowd of protesters, then how long will it be before I have the legal right “negligently” to allow my firearm to go off in the face of a speaker with whom I disagree? These bills are not written vaguely because the authoritarian politicians who write them are incompetent; they are written vaguely to enable hostile officials to repress dissent.

It has over the last six months, become increasingly clear that a movement in this country desiring to fight the Civil War all over is gaining political prominence; these bills do not specifically address racial issues, however, but issues of free speech and thus target all Americans. They thus call into question, after more than two centuries, fundamental issues of political philosophy thought settled by the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Resisting Corporate Takeover

As corporate interests take control over the Federal Government, people are panicking. As frightening a shift away from American society as it seems to many, the Constitutional and civil society resources of the United States put the population in a pretty good position to defend itself…if we, the confused and angry and disunited American people, can work together.

Maybe it’s a good thing. For three-quarters of a century, Americans have been taking it easy. Oh, I remember the civil rights struggle and the horrors of the “American War,” as many Vietnamese call it, and the madness of the Cold War, but through it all, the Federal Government was, in general, our friend, handing out gifts and trying to make life easier for us, even if only partly out of conviction, partly to bribe us into tolerating the abuses and excesses of the rich.

No more. Now we Americans are going to have to learn self-reliance…not selfish individualism but networked, self-organizing self-reliance, security achieved by cooperating for the common good. Do we want equality? Start by treating each other decently. Do we want clean air to breathe? Start by using less energy. Do we want protection from self-serving corporate greed? Demand that the legal concept of eminent domain, which is being used to allow pipeline corporations to rampage across America, be redefined truly to function for the PUBLIC, not private, good. Do we want government that protects our liberty? Educate ourselves about the meaning of liberty: read Madison on the meaning of democracy, learn what our state district attorneys are doing, and vote for district attorneys and judges who stand up for human rights. Do we want responsive Congressmen? Demand and vote for candidates supporting such reforms as recall—the legal right of the population to fire a bad politician. And always, always demand transparency by our elected officials. Why should Big Oil be permitted to force citizens to sell their land to make space for a pipeline? Why are these decisions made in backrooms? If it is arguably in the national interest, then politicians should be bragging about it…and providing time for citizens to participate in the decision-making process.

Cities addicted to Federal handouts will have to figure out ways to take care of themselves, and we certainly do not want Detroit (or Cochibamba) to be the model. Admit that the neo-liberal policy of protecting the wealth of the rich first that has been favored by both conservative parties over most of the last 50 years is the source of our current mess. Recognize that Trump is absolutely correct in asserting that America needs a better model. America needs a socio-economic vision better than either neo-liberalism or Federal care and feeding. Trump may not have the answer, but he has identified the failure of past leadership. Now it is up to us, on the ground, in our neighborhoods, to transcend the outdated debates so useful to the old, self-serving two-party structure and come up with an answer for the good of the whole society.

Earth Day got it right, but we Americans, we oh so very comfortable Americans, did not commit ourselves. The Occupy Movement got it right, but again mainstream Americans turned their backs. The anti-Vietnam War movement showed us all a thing or two, but anti-war thinking was nowhere to be found at the beginning of the 21st century. Teachers, police, and firemen in Wisconsin demonstrating in frigid cold to protect their contracts came very close to taking back their state from corporate interests. Bernie’s attempt to transform the old Democratic Party into a new party of the future only missed by a hair. Then came the Women’s March: a breathtaking sign that now, at last, Americans are waking up.

So, maybe this turning point in the official attitude of the Federal Government is a good thing. Get over reliance on Washington; start relying on each other. Take charge. Stop thinking “Me first.” Stop asking for welfare. Stop expecting Big Government to help you. Big Government we will certainly continue to have…in fact, bigger than you ever dreamed in your worst nightmare, but it will not be the Nanny State; it will be the Corporate State. The U.S.A. is the richest society in history: we do not have to find scapegoats for our own failures or beat down our neighbors so we can stand up; the pie is big enough to give everyone a piece, and together we can make the pie bigger. We—me and the funny-looking guy next door—can talk to each other, give a little, listen a little, and find a positive-sum outcome. We, the citizens, can do this.

Stand Up and Work Together

Maybe it’s a good thing. For three-quarters of a century, Americans have been taking it easy. Oh, I remember the civil rights struggle and the horrors of the “American War,” as many Vietnamese call it, and the Cold War, but through it all, the Federal Government was, in general, our friend, handing out gifts and trying to make life easier for us, even if only partly out of conviction, partly to bribe us into tolerating the abuses and excesses of the rich.

No more. Now we Americans are going to have to learn self-reliance…not selfish individualism but networked, self-organizing self-reliance, security achieved by cooperating for the common good. Do we want equality? Start by treating each other decently. Do we want clean air to breathe? Start by using less energy. Do we want protection from self-serving corporate greed? Demand that the legal concept of eminent domain, which is being used to allow pipeline corporations to rampage across America, be redefined truly to function for the PUBLIC, not private, good. Do we want government that protects our liberty? Educate ourselves about the meaning of liberty: read Madison on the meaning of democracy, learn what our state district attorneys are doing, and vote for district attorneys and judges who stand up for human rights. Do we want responsive Congressmen? Demand and vote for candidates supporting such reforms as recall—the legal right of the population to fire a bad politician. And always, always demand transparency by our elected officials. Why should Big Oil be permitted to force citizens to sell their land to make space for a pipeline? Why are these decisions made in backrooms? If it is arguably in the national interest, then politicians should be bragging about it…and providing time for citizens to participate in the decision-making process.

Cities addicted to Federal handouts will have to figure out ways to take care of themselves, and we certainly do not want Detroit (or Cochibamba) to be the model. Admit that the neo-liberal policy of protecting the wealth of the rich first that has been favored by both conservative parties over most of the last 50 years is the source of our current mess. Recognize that Trump is absolutely correct in asserting that America needs a better model. America needs a socio-economic vision better than either neo-liberalism or Federal care and feeding. Trump may not have the answer, but he has identified the failure of past leadership. Now it is up to us, on the ground, in our neighborhoods, to transcend the outdated debates so useful to the old, self-serving two-party structure and come up with an answer for the good of the whole society.

Earth Day got it right, but we Americans, we oh so very comfortable Americans, did not commit ourselves. The Occupy Movement got it right, but again mainstream Americans turned their backs. The anti-Vietnam War movement showed us all a thing or two, but anti-war thinking was nowhere to be found at the beginning of the 21st century. Teachers, police, and firemen in Wisconsin demonstrating in frigid cold came very close to taking back their state. Bernie’s attempt to transform the old Democratic Party into a new party of the future only missed by a hair. Then came the Women’s March: a breathtaking sign that now, at last, Americans are waking up.

So, maybe this turning point in the official attitude of the Federal Government is a good thing. Get over reliance on Washington; start relying on each other. Take charge. Stop thinking “Me first.” Stop asking for welfare. Stop expecting Big Government to help you. Big Government we will certainly continue to have…in fact, bigger than you ever dreamed in your worst nightmare, but it will not be the Nanny State; it will be the Corporate State. The U.S.A. is the richest society in history: we do not have to find scapegoats for our own failures or beat down our neighbors so we can stand up; the pie is big enough to give everyone a piece, and together we can make the pie bigger. We—me and the funny-looking guy next door—can talk to each other, give a little, listen a little, and find a positive-sum outcome. We, the citizens, can do this.

Do You Want Big Government or Not?

Big Government or Little Government? Which do you want? The U.S. just suffered through a sickeningly superficial, propagandistic electoral campaign flooded with hypocrisy. In the event, the Red States–i.e., the states favoring small government–won. Now, on Trump’s first day in office, disaster hits one of those red states, and guess what? Suddenly, those folks have apparently changed their minds and are begging for Washington’s help.

Tornadoes have struck red state Georgia, and Georgians suddenly have become champions of Big Government. Fine. Emergency assistance to our neighbors in need is exactly why we have this Union. I willingly share my taxes with the hard-hit folks of Georgia. But in return, let’s knock off all this superficial anti-Government trash talk.

Yes, we can all agree that in a perfect world, everyone would be independent and rich and generous and healthy and equal and happy all the time. But should a tornado strike, should a child be born to poor parents, should that child happen to have a skin color the majority does not have, should a crooked bank steal the home of hard-working parents who cannot pay their mortgage because the bank caused a recession, should extremists march in the streets carrying guns,  then we should have Big Government standing at our backs to offer assistance.

So take my tax dollars in your moment of need, my fellow Americans who live in Georgia, but in return, the next time we vote, I will expect you to support politicians who care for the people and who design a Big Government capable of providing aid, protecting the environment, inspecting drugs and food, building a world-class educational system, preventing sexual and racial discrimination, punishing financial criminals and violent racists, and defending equal opportunity for all.