A Personal Note to My Readers

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Some of you who have followed Spark! may have noticed a lapse in my writing, for which I blame a combination of personal inertia and a variety of summertime tasks otherwise consuming my time.  However, over the past month, I have pursued an opportunity to work for the Clinton campaign in my home state, and I have accepted an offer from the campaign.  The demands of the position are very great, and sadly I will probably be unable to make further contributions until after the election in November.  I therefore would like to thank those of you who have followed, “liked,” or commented on my posts; and I hope that you will continue to do so when I return to my writing after the election.

For those of you who are also used to my presence in reading and liking and commenting on your own blogs as well, please do not feel offended by my disappearance from your blogs.  I simply will not have the time to appreciate your offerings until November, but I eagerly look forward to returning with a vengeance after that point.

Please, everybody:  Remember to cast your vote in November.  As I disappear into the ranks of Clinton’s campaign organization, let me make a last plea for that vote to be for the candidate I feel is the best able to steer the helm of our ship of state to the correct course: the Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton.  It is also every bit as vital that you all vote in your local and state elections, and for your congressional representation in Washington, to take back our rights from the entrenched conservative political machine.

Thanks for your support, everybody.  Good luck to all of you, and I hope to see you all (on the internet, at least) in November!

Headline photo, Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI) and myself earlier this year at the Flint, MI campaign office, before Michigan’s primary in March. © 2016, Sparkpolitical.

Trump and the “Second Amendment People”

A campaign that has effectively made it a policy to shock the American people on a daily basis made what some critics might call a “gaff” this past Tuesday, when he seemed to imply the use of force by private citizens in case Hillary Clinton is elected in November.

“Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know,” Trump muttered in his standard stream of unconsciousness that has become his trademark oratorical style.

Was Trump really implying that people take matters into their own hands when Clinton starts to put her judges on the bench (either to assassinate the president, or her judges)?  Obviously the campaign says that it was “sarcastic,” “a joke.”  This sarcastic joke emanated from a campaign whose key link to the people has been the idea that Trump “speaks his mind,” and “says what he means.”  Well, once again we have to ask:  does he or doesn’t he?

In fact, Trump never used the actual words, never included a verb; not unusual for a man whose “speeches” rarely involve sentences that any English teacher would let by without a generous use of the infamous red pen.  Instead, he said something without saying anything; and his campaign has implied that perhaps Trump was talking about the “second amendment people” uniting politically to pressure the government not to name or confirm certain judges not passing the right’s own tests for political correctness.  But we also have to realize that Trump has raised a violent force, a party not unlike the brown-shirts of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung, willing and able to follow the leader’s exhortations to violence.  Certainly such “implications” were followed by conservative followers in the past, as when after Sarah Palin put Rep. Gabby Giffords’s name on a “target list,” Giffords was, in fact, shot.  And if the college-educated reporters and leaders of the nation can see the threat of violence in the ambiguity of the words, what must the people whom Trump has congratulated for being “poorly educated” read into those words?  Trump can pretend a “plausible deniability” when someone takes a potshot at either Clinton or a justice whom she appoints; but that will not separate him from the blame behind such an act if it occurs.

Another, darker problem lurks behind the “gaff.”  Trump claims, and his followers accept unquestionably, two problematic axioms:  first, that Hillary Clinton is opposed to the Second Amendment; and second, that he himself will support and somehow strengthen the Second Amendment (as shaky and weak as he implies it is, what with mass shootings and demonstrations of open carrying of military-style weapons being merely a daily occurrence).  Both contentions are, of course, ridiculous.  Clinton has never opposed the Second Amendment, or the implied right to own firearms; and in fact she has on numerous occasions said the opposite.  Obviously Trump’s opponents do not so much care about Clinton’s words, as they do not trust anything that she says anyway.  Equally ridiculous is the notion that a candidate without a shade of understanding of basic constitutional principles, and who as a businessman has made much of his wealth by breaking contracts, could be trusted to preserve what many consider to be a basic constitutional right.  Again, however, the shakiness of such a notion is missed by the masses who care nothing of Trump’s record of failure and unreliability.  The dog whistle sounds the alarm of the Second Amendment, and the dogs then howl as required.

Another problem, one often ignored even by politicians like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, is the actual right provided by the Second Amendment – or more accurately, the right not so provided.  The words of the Amendment, words that have troubled scholars to elucidate for others, are as follows:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

What most readers miss is the fact that no rights of the individual are recognized or provided by this amendment.  The gun-owner clings to his gun on the basis of “the right of the people”; but in the Constitution and in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments), as well as in the Federalist Papers, written by three of the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the rights of “the people” are not the same rights as those for the individual.  The framers referred to “the people” as the embodiment of popular power; be that the elected governments of the several states, or other corporate bodies of popular power.  Whenever the framers wished to make abundantly clear to the reader that a right was for individuals, they named individuals, or left vague references to “the people” out entirely.  The right to protection against quartering is secured for “the Owner [of a house]”; trial rights are secured for “the accused”; other rights are promised to “persons” (individuals).  The right to freedom from government interference in speech and religion simply denies the government a right to make laws at all, without referencing either individuals or “the people.”  Nowhere in the Second Amendment do the framers actually suggest that individuals themselves have any specified rights under that act.  The right of the people to keep and bear arms is the right of the states, separate from the federal authority of the US Government.  The Second Amendment promised the states that they could and should maintain “well-regulated militia” for their own security, both from foreign invasion as well as from each other’s militia and from federal measures of force in their territories.

All references by the framers to “the people” were to corporate entities, not individuals.  In fact, that reference created animosity by such leaders as Patrick Henry who saw in the very preamble of the Constitution that the words “We the People” were written by delegates to the Constitutional Convention as selected by the states’ governments, and were not in fact representatives of the people themselves, let alone free individuals speaking solely for themselves.  “We the People” were the states.  The rights of “the people” were the rights of the states, not the rights of the individual inhabitants of the states.  It is also true that at the time, most states had militia based on private owners of their own weapons (in addition to every state maintaining central arsenals of both artillery and extra infantry weapons, the latter for those soldiers who had none of their own or lost theirs in combat).  Private ownership of weapons was preferred by the states as a means of reducing the cost of maintaining public arsenals.  But the Second Amendment does not specify that private ownership itself is either sufficient or necessary to the defense of a state.  Instead, the presence of a state-run and well-regulated militia is needed for state defense.  The states insisted on their rights to protect themselves from each other (at a time when state animosities toward each other was quite high, and many border and trade issues unresolved), and from a larger federal military (which the framers argued in the Federalist Papers to be more conducive to a credible deterrence of external aggression, but which could also be used by a tyrannical central authority to force undesired measures upon the states).

However, the Constitution is not merely a historical document, but a living contract subject to interpretation by the US Supreme Court.  What the Court ultimately says about the Constitution, and about how the rights therein are to be protected or interpreted, determines what the Constitution is for those to whom the Court’s musings apply.  In Heller v District of Columbia, in 2003, the Court finally decided that the Amendment does indeed guarantee the individual a right to own a firearm, separate from any need of state or federal regulation of militia, and separate from the use of such firearms for the security of the states.  For now, regardless of what our framers meant by “the people,” “the people” are indeed the individual citizens of the nation.  And both the militia clause and the security clause are considered inoperative and irrelevant to the rights of the individual.  The Court has overturned its own decisions before; and therefore at some point a future Court may well decide either to reattach the militia and/or security clauses to the right, and/or to define that right as not individual but corporate.  However, that is for the future.

In the meantime, we have a problem of who exactly the “second amendment people” are, the people vaguely referenced to in Trump’s distorted mutterings.  Are they gun owners, or the NRA (who consider themselves to be a constitutional rights advocate), or the gun industry (notwithstanding the NRA’s role as the industry’s chief corporate lobbyist)?  Who are these people to whom Trump held his hand to say, “maybe there is,… I don’t know”?  He himself obviously would have a difficult time answering that question, although the ease with which he can accept endorsements and donations from the gun lobby is unquestionable.  Trump’s failure to know what even he is saying as he may, or not, be saying it, is frightening in what those who follow him may decide that he was saying (such as the followers who easily obeyed Palin’s later denied exhortations to shoot people like Gabby Giffords).  But Trump’s failure to know what even he means is even more frightening as we envision a nation presided by a man exhibiting clear symptoms of dementia and who (unlike Pence, who some have hinted might be more responsible for certain governing roles), would actually have control of our nuclear codes.  If the missile hatches are ever opened, we need a leader to know what she says, what she means, what she expects from her supporters and from the nation, and what the nation that elected her stands for and expects from her.  Trump is unquestionably not that leader.

Headline photo by Sara D Davis/Getty Images, posted on Thomas L. Friedman, The Dallas Morning News, Trump’s Ambiguous Wink to the ‘Second Amendment People’,” August 10, 2016.

The Third-Party Option is Not a “Conscience Vote”

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Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people. Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them.

blogger Clay Shirky

Blogger Clay Shirky (not connected to WordPress) makes an effective argument for why voting for third parties in the US, or simply not voting, are not effective uses of the “protest vote.”  The voters may not like living in a two-party system; but pretending that they do not is unrealistic and ineffective.  It also reinforces the precise electoral system that they might hope to change through their “protest.”  See Clay Shirky’s argument in more detail here.

Headline image from the BBC News.

one August day, 1945

With the anniversary of the atom bomb attacks of 1945 having just passed, it is worth taking a moment to see them from the innocents who suffered from them.

What does nelkumi think? ねるくみの頭の中

A siren pierces my ears. Planes zip above my head.

I run, zigzagging, hiding behind trees.

A loud explosion stops me. I turn around and see a bright ray penetrate the sky.

Then, I hear the sound of rumble. Houses, buildings, and poles crumble down onto earth, leaving me in darkness.

Without being able to see, I start to hear voices. Cries and whimpers. “Help me.” “It hurts.”

People begin to emerge from behind the thick curtain of dust and smoke. Some have pieces of glass stuck in them, bleeding. Others have their torn and blood-red flesh hanging from their bodies.

Many lie asking for water. Once they finish gulping water, they expire.

Hospitals and infrastructure are gone, and deceased and injured converge. I cannot even recognize some, and numbness takes over.

When dusk comes on, I see the town drowned in red flame, which wouldn’t cease for nights and…

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How It Happens

In the 1800s, political combat in Germany helped form conflicting political ideologies, including modern liberalism, Marxist communism, Nietzchian conservatism, and the seeds of Nazism.  A century of national and international struggle, within Germany and without, put Hitler into the chancellery in 1933.  Today, it is all too easy to see Hitler as inevitable for 1930s Germany, and to forget the liberal German philosophies opposed to Nazism and the constitutional strengths of both imperial Germany and the Weimar republic.

The United States now finds itself in a situation in many ways resembling Germany in 1933, with the fascists now effectively in control of a major political party, and that party ignoring or even celebrating their links to avowed racists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and religious fascists.  The Democrats are attempting to rally the forces of American democracy against the new specter of fascism; but right now the polls indicate that the US lies on a precipice overlooking an unprecedented national catastrophe.

Is this an exaggeration of our national situation?  Would Donald Trump, if elected president, really present a threat to our republic?  The Republican Party itself has long predicted disaster that would emanate from Democratic presidencies, particularly the apocalyptic warnings that those like Trump made about President Obama and now about Hillary Clinton.  Are we on the Left overreacting and simply repeating the GOP’s own ridiculous exaggerations, allowing the last adult in the conversation to reduce himself to the uneducated mutterings of the other children?  Can we perhaps relax and presume that while Trump would steer the nation away from our record of progress and success, the republic is strong enough to survive him?

These same questions were asked by Germans on the eve of, and just after, Hitler’s ascendance to the chancellery.  A nation which had long inspired the world with its liberal visions, and had also infused politics with more radical philosophies like socialism and communism, saw Hitler’s power as a survivable necessity, something that would be a defeat for the forces against him but which could nonetheless experience some measure of success and which certainly would soon see other, more reasonable forces back in power.  But unlike the failure of American Democrats to live up to Trump’s and other Republicans’ warnings, Hitler and his movement showed German liberals and moderates and even conservatives what comes from underestimating a demagogue with a strong, populist backing.  Those liberal, moderate, and conservative voices quickly found themselves in “protective custody” in Dachau and elsewhere.

Germany’s Weimar government did not provide for the powers of a führer, and the powers of Chancellor were in fact quite limited.  These limitations on power did not stop a man “speaking plainly,” or his followers, from using legitimate powers of government to expand Hitler’s political authority until there was nothing left of the Weimar constitution.  This is the danger we must be wary of with Trump.  The US Constitution limits and checks the powers of the presidency; but Trump now has a viable path from these limitations and checks to the unlimited powers of dictatorship.  This is not a threat to be taken lightly.

The threat posed by Trump consists first of the nature of his rise to power, and second of the weaknesses our system has for preventing a dictator from gaining power through the electoral process.  First, Trump himself has not shied away from evoking an image of himself as führer, from the Nazi-style salute used at his rallies, or his deleted tweet of German SS re-enactors paired with his face on the American flag, to his calls for violence to be part of the political process (promising to pay the legal fees of supporters employing violence at his rallies, saying he would himself like to punch the detractors, etc.).  But Trump’s Hitlerian vision go far beyond enjoying displays of Nazi rally techniques.  Trump seeks to control the press, a control at times resisted and later succumbed to by the chief conservative agitprop outlet, Fox News.  Trump gained popularity among his fascist base not only by attacking fellow conservative TV personality Megyn Kelly with grotesquely misogynist reductions but also through his degrading mockery of a disabled journalist, Serge Kovaleski.  Trump showed other journalists that he would accept no one falling outside his own eugenically limited definition of humanity, and he seeks to limit thereby the presence of nonconformist and non-fascist media.  He continues to try to control the press through a multitude of actions, like lawsuits, blacklists, and insults; and he seeks to reduce reporters’ First Amendments rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

Trump’s nomination also saw Hitlerian and unconstitutional calls (championed by Governor Chris Christie) to jail their political opposition.  Christie’s own experience as a prosecutor ought to have dissuaded a less opportunistic and cynical jurist from a mob-justice, call-and-response conviction based solely on fact-free expressions of wrath toward a woman daring to enter the male-dominated field of politics.  Jailing leaders of the opposition on propped-up charges, or on no charges at all, was a chief, early tactic of the Nazis, even before they gained full control of the government.  Were Trump to gain the presidency, his “law and order candidacy” suggests that not just Clinton, but all vocal opposition would soon find themselves in jail, regardless of the nation’s established justice procedures.

Trump has called for mass deportations of undocumented workers, and for a registry of American Muslims, both of which evoke early Nazi moves toward “purifying” the nation’s racial profile.  The uncontested popularity of these suggestions with white supremacists and with ultranationalists both in the US and overseas, shows the frightening sync between Trump’s new order of fascism and Hitler’s old scheme.  The unconstitutionality of his suggestions bother neither himself, his advisors, the GOP now that he has been nominated (disregarding some bickering and whining before they knelt before him to crown him as their führer), or the extremist fascists who form his base.  Trump’s racist proposals, and his violently racist followers, show clearly the nature of the neo-racist state that they hope to build across the nation in our hallowed halls of federal, state, and local government, and disregarding all parts of the Constitution with the exception (for the moment, at least) of the Second Amendment.  The fascism of Trump and his supporters is frightening and indisputable, presenting a nauseatingly long list of offenses committed openly and on purpose, to expand the envelope of publicly allowable violence and hatred perpetrated against fellow Americans.

With a republic over 240 years old, and with multiple checks and balances acting on the federal presidency, how could Trump possibly warp the powers of the presidency into a dictatorship?  The same process that Hitler used would serve Trump or any other demagogue to bypass the Constitution.

First, now that he is the official nominee, Trump is also the new leader of the Republican Party.  He can now begin reforming the party, executing at will his own “Night of the Long Knives” to ensure Republican compliance.  Certain political measures might wait until after the election, to encourage moderate independents to vote for him in November.  After the election, however, Trump can begin pruning moderates and conservatives from the party, completing its transformation into an extremist party more in line with his hunger for power.

Second, the next president has an immediate vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court, due to Scalia’s death and to the GOP’s unprecedented obstruction of the constitutionally mandated processes of government.  Trump, if elected, would fill that slot as one of his first presidential acts, putting on the bench someone he knows would support his unconstitutional approaches to government.  In addition, leading liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, and centrist justice Anthony Kennedy is 80.  They are the next likely justices to retire or die on the bench, and their seats may both potentially need filling during the next term of president.  Putting three “trumpets” on the bench to ensure that no challenges to Trump’s contempt for constitutional law survive, Trump can effectively operate without fear of a SCOTUS overturn; and he can also stamp the next 20-30 years of American jurisprudence with his sad little brand and his extremist vision.

Third, having greater control of a more conformist and extremist Congress (through greater control of the Republican Party), and a more conformist and extremist Supreme Court, Trump can also solidify extremist control of state and federal district gerrymandering to further their gains, to cement their control of districts, and to divide opposition communities from within and keep them electing conformist, extremist Republicans.  SCOTUS will continue to strip voting protections from minorities and from women, and will solidify extremist voting results.  No Republican would dare stand in the way of such an onslaught; fearing if not for their lives than at least for their careers and political relevance.  And whenever Trump chooses, he can simply ignore whatever provisions of the Constitution he wishes, with neither his puppet Congress or his puppet Court opposing him.

Finally, if these measures do not appeal enough to his entitled yearning for adulation and obedience, then there is always the Reichstag fire.  Trump continues to fan the flames of hatred; and he continues to urge greater veneration of gun ownership and public carrying.  These two weaknesses together guarantee a growth of domestic lawlessness and terror under a Trump regime.  It will be easy either to engineer a staged incident or to encourage or exploit a real one, and then to call for “emergency measures” that, as in Germany, only “temporarily” suspend the Constitution.  With his opponents in jail, with Congress and the Court dominated by his puppets, no one would be left with the power and will to keep such “measures” from happening, or to ensure that they are “temporary.”  The “emergency” will be the duration of Trump’s regime; a duration that then can also be maintained for as long as Trump sees fit to remain in power.

Is this an extreme view of Trump’s vision and the threat posed by him to our republic?  It is intended to be.  Have other, reasonable politicians been accused by Republicans in Godwinite exaggerations of being “Hitler,” with no validity?  They have, indeed.  But Republicans do not get a “nominate Hitler for free” card by painting Hitler mustaches on President Obama’s likeness, or by confusing the provision of health care with the Holocaust or with slavery.  Such extremist ridiculousness does not mean that when a real wolf finally shows up, we have to let the sheep keep sleeping.  When the boy cries, “Wolf!”, we have to at least stop to consider whether a wolf is in fact present.  Trump has angered people of all “races” (including “white”), all genders and identities (including male and straight), all religions (including Christian), and all political thoughts (including conservatives and Republicans) with his extremist voice, and with that of his followers; and with his extremist approach to law and to contracts; and with his extremist style of “debating” and campaigning.  Godwin has left the building; and Hitler is threatening to break out of Trump’s ridiculous hairdo.  Trump may have no intention of going anywhere as far as I have suggested; but he can, and can we afford to risk that?  Should we risk that?  There may not be an apocalypse around the corner.  But as the missiles are armed and the launch hatches opened, should we not consider the possibility that this just might be our last real election if we do not stop this idiocy right this very moment?

Headline image from Huffington Post blog, “Donald Trump: The Man, the Candidate, the President,” 2/15/16.

 

 

Vetting Donald Trump

The full contempt that Trump has for the United States is difficult to encapsulate; but Rick Cooley takes an impressive shot at it:

Rcooley123's Blog

The Republican National Convention has come and gone (thankfully). Donald Trump is now the official Republican nominee for the position of next President of the USA, his trusted running mate, soon to be former Governor Mike Pence of Indiana by his side. The rough and tumble days of the primary campaign behind him, Trump promises to bring his mudslinging talents to unprecedented heights against his main general election contender, Hillary Clinton (pending, of course, her nearly certain nomination at the upcoming Democratic National Convention).

Aside from his acerbic manner and penchant for flinging biting insults at anyone and everything that he perceives as standing between himself and his current goals, Trump has earned his Party’s nomination by gathering a following among disenchanted voters ignored too long by GOP establishment politicians. Stoking populist sentiments by vilifying members of just about every interest group other than white males, Trump has been promising…

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A Vacation, a Reflection, and a Choice

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And Spark! returns!

Over the past two weeks, my wife and I celebrated our nation’s 240th birthday by touring New England, with visits to Boston (where we observed the city’s July 4th fireworks show from the Charles River), Salem and its witch museum, and Rhode Island.  In Boston, we also walked the Freedom Trail, seeing Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church (notice the plaque in the headline image).  We visited a replica tea ship, of the type also visited in the Boston Tea Party, and we stood beneath the balcony at which Bostonians first learned of the Declaration of Independence signed in Philadelphia.

On our way back home to Michigan, we stopped in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to tour the battlefield for several days, paying respect to another national birthday that occurred some four score and seven years later.  While our vacation was an immersion into the past, we have resurfaced to link that past to our nation’s present and future.

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Immersing ourselves especially into two tumultuous events of American history, the Revolution and the Civil War, it was easy to be torn emotionally between the passion and vision of the former, and the bloodshed and controversy of the latter.  With these two events solidly in our minds, we perceived the great promise of America: that all people are created equal, and that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights.  We also perceived that, 87 years after those words were written down, one of our nation’s bloodiest battles was fought between Americans holding two uniquely distinct translations of those words.  While our Gettysburg experience did not touch deeply on the Reconstruction, its failure to change the South, or another revolution a century later whose results even today are contested in our legislatures and courts, we do know that the blood spilled on the soils around Gettysburg, soils walked by our own feet these past two weeks, has yet to be redeemed by a nation struggling still with its racial identity.

These two monumental events, the Revolution and the Civil War, show a nation with both a great promise and a great reluctance to live up to that promise.  Indeed, on and around July 4, there was much flag-waving, much hurrahing, much fanfare over the “greatness” of our nation, but little public forum on the qualities that define that greatness, or the characteristics that argue its veracity.  We Americans love to fly our flag, to put our hand on heart and look optimistically forward.  We love to cite our rich, white, male founding fathers and their utopian vision of something called “equality.”  But blood was spilled over the meaning of those very words, in 1776, and into the 1780s; in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s; and in the 1960s.  Blood is still being spilled, between police officers and the communities they “serve and protect,” and at Trump rallies calling for another quality called “greatness.”

Our trip to Salem also illustrated our nation’s capacity for self-fear, self-loathing, and witch hunts (both metaphorical and real).  We love to point fingers, assign blame, to stick our nose in others’ affairs.  Persecution, witch hunts, suspicion, and xenophobia are every bit as much American as our inspirational founding phrases; and they are, to many of us, a great deal more real than are those idealistic words written down by a privileged few.

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The witch trials, the Revolution, and the Civil War all show Americans as an emotional people, who at key moments in our history march forward with pitchforks, muskets, cannon, and rifles, and fight out our differences, spilling blood and ending lives rather more effectively than we decide the debates that trigger such bloodshed.  This emotionalism also surrounds other acts, like John Winthrop’s proclamation of our liberal imperative to build the “shining City on a Hill.”  This emotionalism has gathered new forces of hatred and ignorance in today’s politics, shaped by a conservative media machine feeding factually deprived constructions of current and past events to an audience ever more hungry for factless validation.  Even the Left has been tainted by such unnerving and baseless propaganda, with an entire #NeverHillary force built up on unfounded conservative rhetoric fed to new voters unmotivated to investigate affairs for themselves, and hungry for information that requires no personal efforts at vetting, objectivity, or reason.

Now, with America’s failed foreign policies of oil-based imperialism to blame for the construction of new forces of terror, with a populace living in an historically low-crime era but increasingly frightened by the conservative media and the NRA into needing ever more destructive private arsenals, with the police militarizing and displaying an overtly racial application of “community policing,” our nation has become frightened, angry, resentful, suspicious.  While polls indicate that the voters continue to understand the dangers of having too many guns available in a culture unwilling to fund schools and work programs, a divide separates that population from the “representative government” of a Republican Party whose campaigns are funded by the makers of those guns.  Fear, anger, resentment, and suspicion do not mix well with large, military-style arsenals, whether owned privately or by the police.  Our nation’s emotionalism would not carry quite the danger of continued bloodshed if our society were not so dangerously over-armed.

Our nation is now, once again, at a cusp.  We face changes in our party structure just as we did on the eve of the Civil War, in the two major parties that have dominated political issues since that war.  We face a Democratic Party struggling for legitimacy among an ever more restless youth (with ever bleaker economic prospects), and struggling to retain its traditional strength among women and minorities (racial, religious, and identity-based).  We face a Republican Party struggling for relevance as new demographics shift presidential elections away from an increasingly white-men-only party, but which continues to dominate, through gerrymandering and corporate campaign financing, congressional elections.  We face a populace tired of both parties, tired of choices that seem like the “lesser of two evils.”  And at the end of the 2016 primary season, we face a critical choice between two different parties, two very different candidates, and two fundamentally different visions of America.

Notwithstanding the always intriguing prospect of a third party (easily dismissed due to the failure of our smaller parties to build local and state-level constituencies, a historically necessary first step in new party formation before jumping to the presidential run), Americans have a choice between two candidates hated by the other side, and also distrusted by many independents.  But having two flawed candidates is not the same as not having a clear or valid choice.  Candidates are human beings, as much as we try to elevate them to messianic or satanic purity in trying times like today.  Voters can, must, and do accept candidates with flaws in order to find the best of the necessarily imperfect choices for the job.  In 2016 that choice is a clear one.  On the one hand, the Democrats have selected a lawyer who has helped poor and minority families, who has consistently pushed the nation toward a greater commitment to health care, who has helped build partnerships with foreign governments and with fighters for democracy like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi.  Clinton’s record is not perfectly consistent (any more than is Senator Sanders’s, or Trump’s); and the conservative propaganda-and-government complex has invested millions of dollars, both public and private, to heap distrust and contempt upon a candidate whom they fear may be able to get results and turn the helm to the left.  On the other hand, America can elevate an inherited billionaire who has never earned the public’s trust, who has never held a public position, elected or appointed, who has failed in venture after venture after venture (only saved from financial ruin by his family’s deep treasure of stored wealth), who has shifted the very jobs of those shouting his name to China and claims now that he will somehow get them back (without bothering to elucidate on the details), who attacks Americans and foreigners alike, who defecates upon our nation’s most treasured values and our long history of depending on immigrants and refugees to build our nation.  We can elect a candidate embraced by the many peoples of our land; or we can wish vainly and with no prospect of success to make America white and patriarchal and frightened and suspicious again.

In the end, however, our choice is not just between two candidates.  Our choice, like those faced in 1776 and 1860 and 1964 and in so many other moments of our history, is between succumbing to fear and hatred, distrust and violence, on the one hand; or embracing the promise of our nation, the liberal imperative toward the City on a Hill, accepting the challenges bravely and together, as a nation of many peoples.  We the People can form a more perfect Union; or we can succumb to our fears, breaking ourselves morally, economically, and politically in trying to replicate a Roman Empire by propping up a corroding and bankrupt Pax Americana.

All images © Sparkpolitical, 2016.

After a Rough Week, A Joke

It’s been a rough week in the political world, so before we dive back in and examine the unpleasantness of it all, for this week’s Quote of the Week, we give you just a little joke. Have a good week.

Heaven Is Where:

The French are the chefs

The Italians are the lovers

The British are the police

The Germans are the mechanics

And the Swiss make everything run on time.

 

Hell is Where:

The British are the chefs

The Swiss are the lovers

The French are the mechanics

The Italians make everything run on time

And the Germans are the police.

The original author of the joke is unknown.  There have, by the way, been some modified versions (for example, having the French and Italians exchange their roles in “Heaven”), but you get the point.

Why We Fight; and How We Will Win

no to terroris

When philosopher Erich Fromm introduced George Orwell’s novel 1984, he warned readers that the book was not about the Soviet Union and life under communism.  1984 was about the West, about democracy and the ease with which it can turn itself into dictatorship by succumbing to fear and hatred.  The novel was Orwell’s warning that in the conflict between the western democracies and the communism of the Eastern Bloc, both systems would become less distinct, more like each other.  Eventually, in fighting an ideological struggle, democracy would become more ideologically orthodox, more totalitarian.  Communism would for its part borrow ever more the Western language of liberation and freedom.  Orwell and Fromm both argued that, in ideological conflict, the main danger is not being defeated from the outside by the enemy.  The main danger is that in fighting their enemy, each side will assume the characteristics of the other until the struggle becomes only a semantic excuse for a fight over power, pure and simple.

The US has entered a new ideological struggle, this time against ISIS, an incoherent network of extremists who share a radical perversion of Islam (arguably an anti-Islamic vision), who have opened their arms to the disgruntled peoples of the world in the hopes of fomenting violence against their enemy.  ISIS’s enemy is the Muslim community; a community whose nations universally reject the pretended “state” and its “message.”  The Muslims of Syria and Iraq have formed an even more incoherent “alliance” of sorts, with Shi’a and Sunnis fighting seemingly side by side (or at least against the same opponent) to dislodge ISIS from its power base.  That power base was constructed in the vacuum of power created by Bush’s dissolution of the Iraqi Army in 2003.  The base was greatly strengthened after the Arab Spring, which briefly united many Arabs and Muslims of diverse beliefs and political views against corrupt governments like that of Egypt and brutal dictatorships like that of Syria.  ISIS called on extremists to reject the democratic principles that some Arab leaders promoted during the Spring, and instead to embrace a doctrine of fear, anger, and hatred toward those outside of their bubble.  They have warred against minorities like the Kurds and Yazidis, they have foisted a rape state of brutal sexual slavery upon women, and they have even looted and destroyed Arab, Muslim, and Christian cultural landmarks for profit and for attention.

Furthermore, as ISIS’s initial success in capturing a territorial base has now resulted in an alliance of forces steadily taking back that territory from them, ISIS is turning ever more to a strategy of “decentralized terror” against external forces predominant in aiding their chief Muslim enemies, especially Russia, Western Europe, and the US.  ISIS has reached out to other extremist groups throughout the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere to create an image of a “network” of groups that were already using terror to war against the forces of reason and community.  This network is a momentary alliance of groups that have shifted their alliances among groups like al Qaeda, and represent not a growth of ISIS, but an “alliance” of convenience between groups already extant and active.  Finally, ISIS has called on those outside the organization to “come to the dark side,” to commit terror in ISIS’s name regardless of their lack of actual connections to the organization.  This call has been answered in places like Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando, where disgruntled people suddenly proclaimed “allegiance” to the group, an “allegiance” eagerly accepted by ISIS as a cost-free means of confusing their enemies into thinking that they are more widespread, embedded, and powerful than they are.

ISIS is using these tactics to build a regime of hatred, racism, and fear.  They hate Muslims who are not committed to their vision; and they of course also hate infidels and foreigners for the same reason.  They perpetrate racism against groups within and near their area of control in Syria and Iraq, and they perpetrate rape and slavery against women.  They work strenuously to frighten those in their base area to remain quiet about the extremist “state” that they are trying to establish, and to frighten those outside their power into doing their bidding.  Their chief external aim is to force other societies into more extreme anti-Muslim positions, to convince Muslims that their only viable option for retaining their Muslim identity is to embrace ISIS radicalism.  Those foreign leaders who do ISIS’s bidding; who follow ISIS’s game-plan by fomenting suspicion, fear, and hatred of Muslims; are helping to prop up ISIS’s failing outhouse of orthodoxy, and are keeping ISIS’s enemies from achieving victory.  Those leaders are building, both in their states, as well as in ISIS, a larger world dis-community of hatred, racism, and fear.

This is the enemy against which the US is poised.  In view of this enemy, Orwell’s and Fromm’s arguments from 1984 have become no less relevant today than they were in 1948.  In fighting ISIS, some like Donald Trump have sought to do exactly that which ISIS requires of them, and exactly that against which Orwell and Fromm warned us.  Trump seeks to “fight” ISIS by transforming the US into another version of ISIS, to transform the thing ISIS hates into the thing ISIS is trying to build:  a world regime of hatred, racism, brutality, and fear.  Trump followed the recent Orlando atrocity not with kind words and praise for the victims, but with calls for ever more astringent measures directed solely at Muslims, exactly the response ISIS hopes such actions will inspire.  Trump could not have followed ISIS’s playbook more faithfully if he were directly in their pay.

The response of Democrats (and even some Republicans) to Trump’s partnership with ISIS, however, reflected the better angels of America’s “shining City on a Hill.”  Democrats like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and Republicans like Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, condemned Trump’s inexcusable partnership with our enemies, declaring that the US was not about to turn aside from its historical legacy of building a greater community from diverse peoples, or from America’s record of taking in refugees and immigrants as new builders of our nation.  The legitimacy of our City is best exemplified in the fight with ISIS by a specific strength which Trump even denied without any factual basis.  The FBI has repeatedly reported that the American Muslim community continues to serve as the nation’s best early warning system against terror attacks, helping enormously to keep such incidents to a minimum.  Trump simply ignored our law enforcement and intelligence specialists, and the abundantly available facts, blaming Muslims for not supporting law enforcement or working with the government.  These unfounded verbal attacks by Trump on Muslims, for not doing exactly what our intelligence and law officials say that they have been doing exceedingly well, are not only “uninformed” or ridiculous.  They are seditious, slanderous, and dangerous to our established, effective, and functioning security system.

During the Cold War, the US on any number of occasions succumbed to the temptations of Orwell’s warning.  The US blacklisted Communists (real and alleged), imprisoned some just for their political views, maintained surveillance against civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., put out of work people who espoused nonconformist views as when Muhammad Ali was denied his boxing awards and credentials for his anti-war views.  Ultimately, however, such tactics did not weaken the Soviet Union, strengthen the US, or lead to any victory.  Instead, the Soviet Union was weakened by democratic forces eating away at it from the inside, by pin pricks of republican values as Americans engaged with the Soviets in travel, commerce, and science.  The US welcomed Soviet citizens seeking refuge like writers Vladimir Nabokov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who became leading voices for Soviet nonconformists seeking an alternative vision for their society.  It was the best liberal traditions of our City on a Hill that pushed the Soviet Union over the cliff, not the worst moments of emulating our adversary.  Our victory over ISIS, once we have achieved it, will be no different.  Becoming like unto them will only strengthen them.  Our best liberal values are exactly what ISIS is working to undermine; and extremist thugs like Trump who help them will not “win” anything other than a fuller ISIS entrenchment.

Our liberal traditions, the vision of the City on a Hill, are Why We Fight; but they are also how we must fight if we are to win, and if a victory is to mean anything other than a closer partnership with our enemies.

Headline image posted on imamsonline.com, “Islamic Scholars Must Unite to Combat Extremism.”

Despotism, and the Second Amendment

Despotism – the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel or oppressive way.    – Oxford English Dictionary

Consider a despot; one who practices despotism, who seeks to exercise absolute power over others, especially in a cruel or oppressive way.  Despotism is sometimes used as one of the arguments by advocates of the Second Amendment on why the US needs that amendment.  The possession by the people of their own arms aids, many have argued, in checking despotism, in preventing tyranny.

Certainly the American Revolution demonstrated a need for the amendment.  A people with their own weapons formed the Continental Army, defeated Great Britain, and established the British American colonies’ independence.  Thirteen new states arose, each with its own independent militia.  The immediate post-revolutionary suspicions against central authority pressured the framers of the Constitution to include an amendment guaranteeing the states’ rights to form militias and to enable their members to bear arms.  That amendment was the second of the twelve submitted to be ratified.

The American Revolution was fortunate in that it included leaders like George Washington, who was practically offered a dictatorship by men such as Alexander Hamilton.  American political leaders themselves acted (Hamilton, perhaps, notwithstanding) as patriots and refused to build a tyrannical government from the passionate forces sweeping the new nation.  Shortly after the American Revolution, the French Revolution exploded, and ran into an entirely different direction.  In France, the Revolution crafted a tyranny out of the popular revolts that far surpassed the despotism of the French Crown against which they rebelled, sending tens of thousands to their deaths.  Ultimately, the French Revolution also birthed the imperial power of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Quickly the French Revolution proved that popular revolution is not, by definition, liberal, empowering, or anti-despotic; the people themselves perpetrated, in the name of the “people in arms,” the gravest despotism that the Age of Reason had seen, and then elevated an imperial dictator.

A century after the end of Napoleon’s rule, armed revolutions tore through Russia, itself an unapologetically despotic regime.  Demoralized by war and hunger, the Tsar’s peasant army shouldered arms and went home – many taking their rifles (and more powerful weapons) home with them.  The February Revolution saw armed peasants and workers and revolutionary parties talking down the demoralized forces of the Tsar’s remaining forces in the capital, until the revolutionaries had full control of the city.  There was virtually no army in February 1917 capable of resisting the revolution; not because of lack of weapons or ammunition, but because of lack of will.  The popular forces of the revolution, the “people in arms,” used not bullets or bayonets, but facts and arguments, to defeat the Tsar’s forces and establish the Provisional Government.  However, in little time, after the Russian government refused to end the war and to distribute land and food supplies, more extreme forces, the Bolsheviks especially, used their own elite popular fighting forces (select, trained units of factory workers, the Red Guards) to defeat the forces of February.  Again, with little initial bloodshed (and the heavier firepower of a cruiser, the Aurora), the Bolsheviks took power in October.  Again, the “people in arms” triumphed – and in little more time, sent not just tens of thousands but millions to their deaths.

In Germany, after the end of World War I, popular forces of the Left fought popular forces of the Right.  There was little in the way of an effective army, as Germany’s military had been stripped to the bone by the Versailles Treaty.  Ultimately, the “people in arms” shot and bullied their way to power in the Reichstag; and President Hindenberg gave Adolf Hitler the Chancellery in the hopes that Hitler would form a coalition government with more centrist forces, defeat the Left, and establish order.  Establish order the “people in arms” of the Nazi Sturmabteilung did – a new order, the Third Reich, sending yet even more millions to their deaths.

In Iraq and Syria, following the end of World War II, popular Arab street forces (including forces that would coalesce into the Ba’ath Party) fought each other for power; and from these battles between the various Arab “people in arms” emerged Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, two of the fiercest despots seen in the Middle East.  After President George W. Bush’s “mission” was “accomplished,” the defeated Iraqi army disintegrated, and melted into the countryside as soldiers and officers took their weapons with them.  They would soon create a putative Islamic State, one of the formative groups later constituting the group referred today as ISIS.  These “people in arms”have become proficient in exactly the skills one might expect: they kill, oppress, rape, and destroy.  Time after time after time, the free availability of weapons among the people, the “people in arms,” ends with predictable results: despotism, rape, torture, murder, and war.

If this strikes the reader as pessimistic and depressing, the bright side is that despots can be defeated; but it is not best done through force of arms.  Mahatma Gandhi took India out of the British Empire through peaceful means of civil disobedience; and Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same tactics to bring civil rights to the US.  Across the Soviet bloc, from the late 1980s to 1991, Communist states which controlled weapons possession as strictly as they controlled everything else, saw peaceful revolutions toss Communist governments aside one after another (Romania was the one exception, where the government opened fire on demonstrators, and the army soon joined the revolt against the government and the Securitate).  While continued economic problems have begun to eat away at the democratic governments formed through the “Rainbow Revolutions,” the people without arms managed to do in all of these cases what people in arms cannot: change society and government, peacefully, into something better.

With despotism being, itself, a product of over-arming a population, American Second Amendment advocates have a tough sell indeed to prove that weapons possession “checks despotism.”  In just the past year, numerous American despots have in fact materialized, armed to the teeth by the Second Amendment.  These despots have not been checked by the Second Amendment, or by private armed citizens; they were enabled by the Second Amendment, and they are private armed citizens.  Dylann Roof sought absolute powers of life and death over the members of the Emanuel AME church, sought to oppress the African American community with fear and hatred and cruelty.  He was not a man in power, but just a radicalized youth manipulated by an unfettered conservative media, and armed with weapons easily acquired in a society eager to enable such acquisitions.  But wishing to exercise absolute power, oppressing minorities, Roof definitely qualifies as a despot.  Certainly his surviving hate-mates of white supremacism continue to seek a despotic seizure of power.  Robert Dear, the shooter at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, similarly sought to oppress women and all poor people depending on supports like Planned Parenthood.  Another person in arms used these very arms to push, violently and despotically, an extremist agenda on the nation.  The San Bernardino shooters also used weapons to attempt, despotically, to change our nation into a more extremist, anti-Muslim regime that would push moderate Muslims into the arms of ISIS.  And most recently, Omar Mateen used legally acquired weapons and the tired tactics of despotism and violence to pursue the same mission in Orlando, this time targeting specifically the gay community.  None of these despots (and make no mistakes, as separated from legitimate political authority as they were, all of these criminals pursued despotism and were, by definition, despots) were “checked” by the Second Amendment.  They were brought down (arrested or killed), after succeeding in generating terror, not by a “good [civilian] guy with a gun,” but by good policemen.  All of these despots had their arms enabled by the Second Amendment and by the relaxation of laws on certain types of weapons.

It will, of course, be argued that, lacking access to firearms, American despots could resort to other tactics like the suicide bombers of Palestine, or the bombs of Timothy McVeigh and the Alabama bombings of the 1960s.  Indeed, halting easy access to weapons does not eliminate extremist ideas, or the occurrence of extremist actions.  But there are reasons why alternate tactics are not used while weapons are plentiful and easily acquired.  Such weapons generate the desired results of terror and death, and of personal empowerment for the despot.  The simple fact that they are the tools of choice for despotism should itself be the leading argument for limiting access to them.

The Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments of the Constitution secured a diversity of rights for American citizens.  But the Second Amendment has secured a right unlike all of the others.  With the exception of the Second Amendment, virtually all of the rights protected by the amendments are “participatory” rights, which enable us to contribute to the political environment.  Free speech, religion, the press, voting rights, trial rights and protections from the law, protection from slavery, equality of rights, all give Americans access to the political system and enfranchise us with civic responsibilities.  Only the Second Amendment produces no “participatory” right, but only a “right of denial,” denying the government a specific power over individuals.

Until 2008, the courts largely did not really consider the Second Amendment as even a “right of denial”; the amendment was not thought to actually guarantee any individual any inherent rights.  Instead, the awkwardly ambiguous “militia” clause was historically the dominant clause, determining the court’s view that gun “rights” did not exist in their own outside of states’ rights to form militia forces.  All of this changed with District of Columbia v. Heller; and the NRA has been pushing federal and state courts, federal and state legislators, federal and state executives, as well of course as private citizens, to forget 220 years of constitutional and court history, and to forget the militia clause.  The NRA continues to push the Heller interpretation of the Second Amendment.  They do this, they say, as “the nation’s longest standing civil rights organization,” and “as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.”

The NRA’s apparent defense of the Constitution might be laudable, were it not for their overwhelming preference for and financial contributions to Republican legislators (since 2010, NRA support for Democrats has steadily declined to roughly 1% of their total contributions).  They prop up a party universally hostile to minorities, to women (the nation’s actual majority), to families and marriage equality, to voting rights, to protection from religious tyranny, to letting courts and juries determine punishments to fit specific instances of crime.  All of these participatory rights are fought and limited and chiseled away, one piece at a time, by a party supported unreservedly by the NRA with its pretenses of “defending our civil rights.”

What is the solution to the problem of violence and despotism in America, to the protections afforded to despots by the Second Amendment?  The Second Amendment is, indeed, not going away in the foreseeable future.  There are over 300 million privately held firearms in the US.  Like our nation’s wealth, these weapons are steadily concentrating into fewer hands, each with greater arsenals, but as of 2015, 31% of households in the US had at least one firearm.  Private gun-owners in the US fall almost evenly onto both sides of the partisan divide.  An actual repeal of the Second Amendment is itself not a realistic option for the immediate future; far too many Americans are simply opposed to such a repeal, and that opposition is firmly bipartisan.  Nonetheless, an additional amendment clarifying the language of the Second Amendment could potentially reattach the gun right to the militia clause, as it was in the past, so that as with all of our participatory rights, gun rights could be limited where they conflict with the public safety.

Ultimately, to some extent, we Americans are going to have to get more comfortable with the need for public safety to override certain gun rights, pure and simple. We have constricted the rights to free speech, to the press, to religion, to all other rights whenever such rights become dangerous to other people or to society as a whole.  Gun rights are no different, except that the danger is not theoretical as in the case of “yelling ‘fire’ in a movie theater” for free speech.  The danger of firearms is far too real, and can be easily quantified by caliber, impact velocity, and rounds per minute.  This nation has before exercised a ban on weapons like the modified military rifles preferred today by despots.  It is ludicrous to suggest that such a ban would not work today, as it has worked before, and in fact quite recently.  The nation can implement a “self-disarmament” law that does not punish gun-owners for clinging to their guns, but does reward those who turn their guns in to the police for destruction.  Stricter gun controls do not have to require the government to “come for our guns,” but they can still reduce the possession of lethal technologies by people not professionally trained or authorized by the public for their use.  Such a “buy back” measure helped to reduce murder rates, actual firearms crimes, and absolute crime incidents in Australia by substantial numbers, even while the population increased from 18 million to 23 million.

Publicly, we the people need even more to disarm the NRA, an actual threat to our safety rather than the individual hunter or the rape victim seeking to protect herself with a self-defense piece.  Without enhancing our governments’ own potentials for despotism, we the people need to take our governments back from special interests that interfere with our liberty and our safety.  The NRA does not represent in good faith even its own members (for example, in fighting against increased background checks which 74% of NRA members support), or gun-owners (with almost half of them being Democrats whose other rights the NRA fights by supporting Republican legislators), let alone the American public.  We need to hold our legislators’ feet to the fire for taking NRA contributions and for supporting an anti-safety agenda.

Finally, we can use the methods that have always worked to check despotism:  the political process, voting, and civic action.  We the People must push our local, state, and federal governments to restrict weapons possession by suspicious persons, restrict arsenal sizes, restrict types of weapons shown to be preferred tools of despotism, and even to deny outright such rights to certain persons (people on no-fly lists, people with histories of hate-crime arrests, people affiliated with known hate groups, etc.).  The American public has to accept that the Second Amendment has been twisted far past the original intent and conditions of the framers.  The Second Amendment is enabling despotism, not checking it; and to combat against the growing threat of despotism, we need first and foremost to disarm that threat.

Headline image from “Podcast: A Reasoned Debate About the Second Amendment” (National Constitution Center, October 22, 2015).