Month: February 2016

Feeding the Poor, and Building a City

Quote of the WeekWhen I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist. –Hélder Câmara

Brazilian Archbishop and liberation theologist Hélder Câmara committed himself fully to what he saw as a Christian mandate to protect the poor and oppressed from the evils of military dictatorship and economic inequality.  He fought against Brazil’s military government, and at times even against his own Roman Catholic Church, to protect his flock from oppression.  But Câmara’s mission was not a uniquely Brazilian one.  His mission touches deeply upon the fundamental mission of the United States: the establishment of our City on a Hill.

When John Winthrop evoked the mission of our City in 1630 (a moment cited by American liberals and conservatives alike as a key foundation of our shared national ideology), he infused our nation with a liberal mandate to use all of our economic wealth to feed and care for those in need.  This mandate came (in Winthrop’s sermon on Christian charity) not from a vague political or philosophical viewpoint, but from the teachings of Christianity.  The City on a Hill calls for the foundation of America as a new, Christian nation – defined not by the faith of its citizens; but by the charity of its work, of its society and of its government.  By definition, a “Christian nation” uses (that is, taxes) its wealth to feed, clothe, and house the poor; to provide medical care to all needing it; and to ensure individual safety and prosperity through shared public goods like education, transportation, and public safety.  This is precisely what the City on a Hill, described by Winthrop, means.  When American politicians refer to it, they are citing specifically what today we would call liberal values.

Câmara’s mission in Brazil also sought these objectives, within his specific fight to protect the poor from the oppression of his time.  But Câmara points out a fundamental truth for our City:  it is not enough to see individual points of need and darkness, and to assuage those points.  We must move past individual welfare and charity, and push (as Winthrop commanded us in his sermon) to a collective, societal change, asking not merely what this or that person needs, but why that need exists at all, and how to prevent that need from arising in the first place.

Not “asking why people are hungry” is the first step toward accepting the failure of our City – to accepting the concentration of wealth and the permanence of social injustice.  Instead, our City (and for the religious, their faith) endow upon us a liberal imperative to reshape our government, and our society; and to understand that a society only truly prospers so long as it ensures opportunity, comfort, and security to all its members, not just an economically predetermined few.  We must feed the poor.  But we must also ask why they are hungry, and then solve the problem discovered by that inquiry.  That problem is poorly restrained capitalism and an acceptance of accelerating income inequality.  The answers are a more efficient and progressive regulatory environment, and a more progressive tax structure that fulfills the nation’s oldest formative vision.

Câmara’s words, and his work, remind us of our liberal mission to build a City on a Hill.  He also reminds us to ask why injustice exists, as the initial step toward solving that injustice.  Together, Winthrop and Câmara remind us that building and protecting our nation, building the City on a Hill, are moral compulsions to liberal standards of political and social welfare, and to enact and solidify our City’s community of care.

Headline image of Archbishop Câmara, via Google Image Search, posted on a US Catholic commentary.



The Second Round of the Primaries

The opening round of the primaries is over, and the pace of the primaries process is about to accelerate dramatically.  The various candidates each have their own strengths going into this next round, from now through March 15 (there are, of course, primaries and caucuses going on throughout March, April, May, in into early June; but the significance of March 15 makes it a good point at which to stop and begin the next phase).

The story thus far:  The primaries have begun with the Iowa Caucus (on February 1), the New Hampshire Primary (on February 9), two separate Nevada caucuses (the Democratic caucus on February 20 and the Republican caucus on February 23), and the Republican South Carolina Primary (on February 20).  Here’s where the two parties’ separate battles for their nominations are looking so for:

Democratic Campaigns:

In terms of basic delegate counts, the Democratic candidates have won:

Hillary Clinton: 52

Bernie Sanders: 51.

While the two Democrats are almost tied, the Democratic Convention also assigns a significant number of votes to so-called “superdelegates” (key party members and legislators, designated beforehand by the Democratic National Committee).  Thus far, Clinton has 451 likely superdelegate votes (based on endorsements), while Sanders has only 19.  A convention vote based only on states voting thus far, plus the superdelegate endorsements, would hand an overwhelming victory to Clinton, 504-70.  However, these numbers also represent only 15% of the total delegates and superdelegates count in Philadelphia in July.  The next round (up to March 15) will finally put the Democrats at the 50% mark for voted delegates.

The last Democratic primary before Super Tuesday is in South Carolina (an open event, in which both independents and Republicans can also vote).  Current polling among likely Democratic voters in South Carolina shows 57% supporting Clinton and 33% Sanders (with the rest still mulling things over).  If those numbers stay true, Clinton should go into Super Tuesday with 82 or so delegates and 533 convention votes total, to Sanders’s 69 or so delegates and 88 convention votes total.  While Clinton’s advantage is (to borrow a favorite Sanders word) huge, Super Tuesday’s 860 delegates could potentially seal the deal for Clinton (as if those numbers did not seem to do so already).  The question is how many of those delegates could Sanders get.

A quick look back at the Public Policy Polling (PPP) tracking poll released earlier this month (which matched initial voting preferences to respondents’ racial identity), combined with the racial composition of South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states (and the proportionate delegates count from those states) demonstrates that of the 911 delegates to be produced from these collective states, at least 500 should go to Clinton, and at least 278 should go to Sanders.  The battle is for the remaining 133 delegates (many responding to the poll were still uncertain for whom they were voting).  Together with the superdelegates, but not including those 133 “undecided” delegates, Clinton still has a massive advantage, 1,004 to Sanders’s 348.  Even if Sanders gets all of those 133 extra delegates, that only brings him to 481, still less than half of Clinton’s take.  To put a dent in Clinton’s advantage and keep himself alive into the convention, Sanders therefore has to exceed expectations founded upon polls like the PPP tracking poll, and convince already pro-Clinton as well as undecided Democrats to vote for him.  With only a week left to do so before Super Tuesday, the Sanders campaign clearly has its work cut out for it.

Republican Campaigns:

Donald Trump has exceeded the expectations of everyone (except himself, and his own trumpenproletariat), and also exceeded the simplistic expectations implied by previous polls.  He now stands as the powerhouse of a newly re-organizing (or disintegrating) Republican Party.  He has a significant majority of delegates thus far (albeit from only four not very large states; so there is ample time for some yet-to-be-imagined counter-strategy by other Republicans to put him in his place).  As of last night (the Nevada Republican Caucus), the current convention delegate counts among the five remaining contenders are:

Donald Trump: 81

Ted Cruz:  17

Marco Rubio: 17

John Kasich:  6

Ben Carson:  4

There are also 8 delegates unaccounted for from states already voted (7 bound to candidates who have dropped out; and one Nevada delegate left to be determined as polls are still being counted).  Trump has a plurality of his party’s popular vote, winning not quite one third (31.9%) of the Republican popular vote.  This first phase of the primaries diminished the largest ever number of contenders for any American primary (17 candidates to start with) to the five current hopefuls.  For at least two of the remaining candidates (John Kasich and Ben Carson), the state primary and caucus rules in many of the state Republican parties doom them to irrelevance.  Only fifteen of the 52 remaining primaries and caucuses have no inclusion thresholds (which mandate some specific minimum performance level in order to gain any delegates); and most inclusion thresholds effectively mean that Kasich and Carson will get few delegates even from states that use proportionate delegation.  Realistically, the three reasonable contenders for the nomination are Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Despite showing both in opinion polls and in the popular vote thus far that barely a third of Republicans can get behind Donald Trump, the jobs-to-China billionaire has an advantage in that a number of states (including the key states of California, Florida, and Ohio) assign delegates on a winner-takes-all system (with a mere plurality as the qualifying measure of victory).  Trump needs only to do what he has been doing – beating Cruz and the rest for the greatest number of votes – to win all of those states’ delegates (a total of 744 delegates).  Add those (and the delegates from other winner-takes-all states) to the fact that thus far he has come in first in all of the states voting since Iowa (where he took only one delegate less than the winner, Ted Cruz); and Trump has a shot at going into the Cleveland convention with a majority of delegates.  The prediction of a brokered convention may not turn out, and Trump may well get the nomination on the first ballot.

In the meantime, while Ted Cruz started from a polling advantage over all other Republicans with the exception of Trump, Marco Rubio has come from behind and tied him for second place.  Rubio’s campaign has achieved that underdog campaign dream, the “big mo” (for momentum).  Although on January 7, Cruz topped the polls at 31.8% of Republican respondents (beating Trump’s 27.8 and Rubio’s third-place 11.3), the evidence suggests that as other candidates drop out, Rubio is attracting their votes and getting delegates.  The significance of Rubio’s race goes far beyond the mere triviality of the second-place holder; and Rubio’s accelerating campaign will have some advantages over both Trump’s and Cruz’s in the days ahead.

Thus far, with each state’s primary or caucus the sole event of the day, and with numerous days between these events to prepare for them, Trump has used a combination of campaign strategy and his cult-of-personality approach to public appearances to defeat traditional conservatives like Bush and Tea Party conservatives like Cruz.  Trump has carpet-bombed states with his own form, and with hats and T-shirts (made, of course, in China); while Cruz and the others have spent money on phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, and other direct vote-getting operations.  Trump’s minimalist strategy has worked, in the environment of the first round, an environment that allows candidates time to breathe and to move resources (themselves most especially) to the places where they most need them.  The next round, however, will have an entirely different environment.

The Next Round:

The next sequence of primary events (from now through March 15) are as follows:

February 27 (Saturday):  South Carolina’s Democratic Primary (an open event in which both independents and Republicans can vote as well), apportioning 51 more delegates.

March 1: Super Tuesday.  The largest single electoral event of the primaries season.  10 states will have primaries or caucuses for both parties simultaneously (AL, AR, GA, MA, MN, OK, TN, TX, VT, and VA); plus 6 more single-party primaries and caucuses (American Samoa D, Alaska R, Colorado D, Democrats abroad, North Dakota R, Wyoming R).  652 Republican delegates, and 860 Democratic delegates, will be apportioned by these events.

March 5 (Saturday):  Louisiana and Kansas have closed primaries and caucuses for both parties.  In addition, the Republicans hold closed caucuses in Kentucky and Maine; while the Democrats hold a closed caucus in Nebraska.  155 Republican delegates, and 113 Democratic delegates will be apportioned by these events.

March 6 (Sunday):  The Republicans hold an open primary in Puerto Rico to apportion 23 delegates; and the Democrats hold a closed caucus in Maine for 25 delegates.

March 8 (Tuesday):  Michigan and Mississippi both hold open primaries for both parties.  In addition, the Republicans hold a closed caucus in Hawaii and a closed primary in Idaho.  140 Republican delegates, and 184 Democratic delegates are apportioned.

March 12 (Saturday):  Republican closed events in Guam (a territorial convention) and the District of Columbia (a caucus), for 28 delegates.

March 15 (Mini-Super Tuesday):  The second largest electoral event of the primaries season.  Five states hold simultaneous primaries for both parties: FL, IL, MO, NC, and OH.  Also, the Republicans of the Northern Mariana Islands out there in the Pacific get to throw their two cents (and nine delegates) in.  Some 367 Republican delegates, and 697 Democratic delegates, are up for grabs.  By the end of the day, 1,535 of the 2,472 Republican delegates (62%) will have been apportioned.  Also, some 1,889 of the 3,782 (50%) voted Democratic delegates will have been apportioned.  Both parties should have a pretty good idea of how the candidates will be looking, although for the stronger candidates the game will be far from over.

The two largest electoral battle days of the primaries season are March 1 and March 15.  These days will challenge all campaigns alike; the “establishment” candidates like Clinton and Rubio, and the “insurgent” campaigns of Sanders and Trump.  Unlike the first round of primaries, which allow campaigns long preparation times to saturate each state with public appearances and local campaign operations, and where each campaign can focus squarely upon the only state coming up next, putting all their chips on one square, the political meeting engagements of March require more actual strategy.  Campaigns have three principal resources to divide between the multiple states up for battle:  the candidates themselves (a much more limited resource, especially in March), campaign finances, and supporting endorsements (politicians and celebrities to deliver speeches in support of or in place of the candidates themselves).  Campaigns have to decide how to measure out these resources, particularly the first one.

In Trump’s case, that first resource (Trump himself) is even more significant, because it is almost all that he has.  He actually has far less cash on hand, and almost no significant fund-raising system, than the other candidates; and his money has largely been spent on “swag” (hats and T-shirts) rather than on communication and vote-getting (phone banks, canvassing, etc.).  He also has virtually no endorsements of significance, outside of popular culture icons like Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin (McCain’s Folly from Seward’s Folly).  Super Tuesday will be a test of his ability to advertise himself nationally, and a test of his campaign’s already established support in those states.  In the meantime, Cruz and Rubio have larger actual organizations, and have much more money and public supporters of significance.  They can use these resources to blanket Super Tuesday and March 15 states with personal vote-getting, and to whittle down Trump’s apparent but not overwhelming advantage.  One disadvantage that these larger and better-organized campaigns face, however, is voters’ flexibility.  Most Republican candidates’ supporters show a far greater willingness to consider other candidates than do Trump’s.  With Trump’s supporters dug in, how much can the large-scale maneuver warfare of the Cruz and Rubio campaigns achieve?

Rubio has an additional advantage of “likeability” with respect to Cruz and Trump (both of whom are detested by many establishment Republicans), as well as the “big mo” (for the moment, at least).  Rubio and Cruz represent, to some, different names for the same candidate (the “token Latino” to attract ethnic votes, and established alternatives to Trump’s insurgency); but Rubio’s campaign platform is more moderate in scope than Cruz’s plan to shut down most of the federal government.  Rubio has more overall “electability,” measured by traditional standards – which themselves, in 2016, are coming increasingly into question and being discarded one after another.  Were this not 2016, Rubio would be the GOP’s dream candidate.  But the game is changing, and the measures for victory are changing with it.

On the Democratic front, Sanders, too, has exceeded expectations, particularly in groups which were most favorable to Clinton (women, Latinos, and African-Americans).  While those latter three groups still favor Clinton, Sanders has whittled down her advantage.  But as with Trump, Sanders has enjoyed the ease of the first round to gain points, and now faces the tough battles of March.  Clinton has developed her organization throughout the country, building support and working to disarm the “Clintonphobia” that the Republicans and Sanders have worked hard to reinforce.  The question of March will be the same for Sanders as for Trump: can the insurgencies fight a ground battle on numerous fronts simultaneously, against established campaign machinery backed by the party establishments?

Image from I Agree to See; via Google Image Search.

Fighting Evil, or Growing It

Quote of the Week:  The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it. –Albert Einstein

Einstein warned us that those wishing to perpetrate evil (like Hitler in his time, or Trump in ours) are incapable of operating without two additional forces supporting them.  First, they need supporters who themselves may be unwilling to “speak their minds,” but who also applaud evil men for unleashing the darkest monsters of our psyche, man’s tendencies toward suspicion and hatred.  And evil is equally dependent on those who stay silent and inactive; who work, raise their families, and die while remaining distant from greater events around them.

The United States is at a crossroads, much like Germany was in 1933.  A generation from now, Trump may have disappeared into the footnotes of history, unremembered and without having accomplished anything of substance.  Or, Trump can – if we let him – turn our nation away from its democratic principles and economic prosperity and onto the path toward authoritarianism and poverty.  We can remain a powerful and independent democracy; or become, as Trump’s supporters would have it, a third-world dictatorship and economic colony to China, India, Russia, and Brazil.  Although Trump’s supporters would bristle at that objective, that is where their course will lead us.  The twenty-first century economy requires ever more education and cultural diversity, and pushes into poverty and history ever more twentieth-century (and older) sources of income.  Those on the Left, like Clinton and Sanders, who want to steer our nation forward understand the vital importance education and cultural diversity will have in this new century. Their policies of the Left can help keep our nation free, democratic, prosperous, and powerful.  But Trump, and his fellow Republicans, call for the dismantling of education and other public goods that build our City on a Hill.  Trump’s opposition to education is hardly surprising coming from a mogul who himself shipped jobs to China, helping China (to use his own monosyllabic diatribe) to “win.”  Trump calls for ever greater debts to China through lower taxes (while increasing defense and other spending), and also increasing our provocation of China into military conflict (thereby also risking a nuclear apocalypse as well).  But the trumpenproletariat do not think closely about his policies any more than Germans in 1933 could see past Hitler’s own simplistic “solutions” to German problems.

Americans who value their nation must also value its principles, not merely its strength.  What makes the US “great” is not its military, but the inclusiveness of its society and ideals, the openness of its discourse, and the prosperity of its economy.  To keep our nation “great,” we need to keep it inclusive and diverse – pushing that envelope ever further as we go.  We need to welcome immigrants and refugees to help build our nation with us.  We need to keep our discourse lively and open – engaging each other, rather than staying in the shadows and allowing evil to grow unmolested.  And we need to transform our economy to a 21st century model – green, sustainable, information dominated, and supported by a massively expanded and dramatically improved educational system.

Most of all, to keep Trump from becoming our own nation’s Hitler, to push him back into the ash-heap of history, we need to fight – all of us – against evil where we see it.  We need to combat stupidity and simplicity of thought (the preferred growing environment of hatred and fear).  We need to bring more people to the battlefield of political discourse, and use our weapons of logic and facts.

Talk to your people – your friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors.  Explain your views.  Learn theirs.  Engage and combat the evil in front of you – before it knocks on your door and throws you into a paddy wagon.  We can stop this now, in its tracks.  Or we can watch TV, shut our eyes, and bring our nation to its knees and its end.  Which way do you want this to go?  Will you be the evil, or be its end?

Headline image via Google Image Search.

A Brief Reprieve from the Stress of Politics

Before you freak out over Trump, or over Democrats for supporting the “wrong” candidate,

Take a moment to stare into the sunset (or sunrise), and reflect:  This is just a moment

In history, that future citizens will forget after learning about in high school.

Posted as a “Three Line Tale (TLT).”  Photo and post concept by Sonya Oldwin; full image here.  Thanks also to jansenphoto’s blog, Dutch Goes the Photo, for his post inspiring my response.

Replacing Scalia: the Basic Math of Progress

With hard-line conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia departed from the bench, President Obama has a rare opportunity – to appoint another liberal Justice to the bench, giving the Court a liberal majority.  There are four conservative justices left: Chief Justice John Roberts (appointed by George W. Bush), and Justices Anthony Kennedy (the last Reagan appointee; and at times a centrist rather than a true conservative), Clarence Thomas (appointed by George H.W. Bush), and Samuel Alito, Jr. (appointed by George W. Bush).  If the president were to get another liberal justice appointed, that justice would join Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer (both Clinton appointees), and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (both Obama appointees).  With five liberal justices, it is not unlikely that moderate Justice Kennedy might steer more toward the conservative side of the bench (being as he has a force of balance between the two sides); but a numerical majority of liberal justices would still be able to push litigation and judicial review significantly to the left of the Court’s recent performance.

For the president to get his third appointee on the bench, he has to select and vet a candidate.  Then the Senate would subject his candidate to review in what is likely to be a more than thorough screening under the direction of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  If the candidate is passed by the committee, the vote goes to the floor of the Senate for final approval.  The first problem obviously is that the Republican majority of the Senate gives them the majority in each of the committees, including specifically the Judiciary Committee (which currently has 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats).  As recalcitrant as the current rank of Republican Senators has been (and as uncooperative and openly hostile to the president specifically), it is optimistic to presume that the committee would value the president’s right to appoint a justice over their political objective of disenfranchising the left.  It is more optimistic to presume the floor of the Senate would be any friendlier to the president.

In fact, the Republicans are getting ready simply to block the president’s selection of a new justice for the remainder of his term, keeping at least a balance of equals between the conservative and liberal sides of the bench.  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), presidential candidate and a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, has been leading the Republicans’ pre-emptive assault on the president’s constitutional prerogative to appoint Supreme Court justices.  Leftist petitions have been flooding the internet in the vain hopes of pushing the Republican Senators to reverse course entirely and actually follow the exact kind of popular calls for action that they have studiously ignored since taking the majority in 2015.  However, the math, and senatorial procedure, simply allow the Senate to sit on its constitutional prerogative of approving appointees for the remainder of the president’s term.

While that seems like bad news, this can also be very good news to Democrats.  Current electoral math suggests (not irrevocably, of course) that the Democrats are going to get large masses of new voters to the polls in November, and are going to get the White House on Inauguration Day in 2017.  Those large masses of new voters are also going to vote for one third of the Senators.  There are some 24 Republican senators, and 10 Democrats, up for re-election in 2016 (serving six-year terms, one third of the Senators are elected every two years; “Class 3” is the current rank up in 2016).  With 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and two Democratic-allied independents currently sitting in the Senate, to get a bare majority in the Senate in 2017 the Democrats need to re-elect all ten of their current “Class 3” senators, plus five more to take over Republican seats.  To beat the filibuster threshold (60 senators from the same caucus), the Democrats would need to take 14 seats from the 24 Republican senators up for re-election.  Incidentally, should Senator Sanders (I-VT) win the general election, the Democrats would need to fill that seat as well through another election; Senator Sanders is not up for re-election in 2016, so if he loses the nomination he gets to stay in the Senate for now.  Also, should some Democratic senators lose their seats, the Democrats would obviously need to unseat even larger numbers of Republican senators elsewhere.  Either way, the Democrats need five more seats in the Senate to gain a bare majority, and 14 more seats to beat the filibuster threshold.

If the Democrats do, indeed, push many new voters to the polls and beat the Republicans in doing so, they will also have the opportunity not just to keep their current senators, but also to unseat some of the 24 Republican senators up for re-election, and to gain a majority (possibly, but unlikely to include beating the filibuster threshold).  With a majority, the new Senate Majority Leader (perhaps Harry Reid, who held the post from 2007-15) would put together a new Judiciary Committee with a Democratic majority.  Under a new Democratic White House backed by a Democratic majority in the Senate, the President could appoint a far more liberal Justice than President Obama would ever be able to get through the current Senate, pushing the Court even further to the left.  As so many of the Republican strategies in recent years have backfired disastrously for the GOP, Cruz’s pre-emptive attack may also be the harbinger of a greater, more progressive America to come.  A more progressive Supreme Court could overturn its own recent Citizens United ruling, could reverse Scalia’s opinion on gun rights not being seated upon militia responsibilities, could find ways to restore some of the recently disemboweled Voting Rights Act, and could back ever more progressive legislation and presidential policy.  Senator Cruz’s pre-emptive attack could, under certain not yet guaranteed conditions, prove to be the greatest thing Democrats could hope for, and could show the Republicans why some things are best not wished for, let alone sought.

Headline image from The Atlantic, “A Closer Look at Confirmed Federal Judges,” (August 12, 2001), via Google Search.

The Discomfort of Thoughtful Politics

Quote of the Week:  Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. –John F. Kennedy

When I saw this quote of Kennedy’s recently, obviously the first thing I thought about was the Trump trainwreck – er, sorry; “campaign,” I think we are calling it now.  However, I realized that as a Thinker-American (we are a small but vibrant community), it is just too easy to pick on the intellectually weak.  Furthermore, none of the trumpenproletariat are likely to be reading this and to be pushed to test their synapses for electrical power.  I realized that my picking on Trump would be simply another voice in the echo chamber; and echo chambers are themselves a part of the problem that has let the bottom-feeders of our polity out into the air to claim legitimacy.  Instead, it is more fruitful to test my own political faith and my claims to intellect, as well as those reading this blog, by reminding all of us (myself most definitely included) that in politics, and in so many other areas, we participate in too many activities that reinforce beliefs and emotions, without adding data or requiring thought.  Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters yell at each other without even stopping to listen, as if they were Democrats and Republicans (and that latter pairing itself is more incapable of working together or listening to each other than in the past).  They each then go back to their echo chambers, hear the same combination of facts, arguments, and opinions, and go back reinforced to refuse to listen once again to the other side.  Supporters of the various Republican candidates do the same to each other.  This nation has no real political discourse between opponents.

The internet has helped mightily to create and reinforce these echo chambers.  Individual claims become “facts” on the internet to those readers who do not take the time to test claims that fit nicely into their view of the world.  Figures and charts and other seemingly legitimate data are coddled together without real research from vetted sources or any attempt at peer review before publishing. On the other hand, facts that do not fit are simply, conveniently, discarded.  We use an impossibly rigid system of looking at facts and arguments from the other side (that creates a virtually impenetrable barrier); but take as already given, vetted, and proven the slightest claim or remotely “fact-esque” opinion that agrees with our own.  In doing so, we claim to be “thinking”; but we are really only engaging in the comfort of opinion without risking the discomfort of thought.

The next time you hear an opponent – even one with the obvious logical and factual flaws of Trump – argue their side, check your own motivations to dismiss them, and your own factual basis.  And the next time you hear someone on your side present their stump speech, check your motivations to agree, and the factual basis of your own argument.  Then re-check them.  Then do it again.  Think about why your politics are “better” than those of someone else; and think about why your opponents may also have a legitimate viewpoint worthy of consideration.

Are you ready to believe six impossible things before breakfast?  (Just ask Alice.)  Then you may be ready for the discomfort of thought.  If not, then leave your echo chamber, lock the door behind you, drink some more coffee, and try to do it by the close of business.

Headline image via Google Image Search.

The Timing of Political Revolution

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders says that now is the time for “political revolution.”  As a campaign slogan, it is catchy, and the evidence from the only two (and disproportionately white) states to vote in the primaries thus far is that it is catching on.  Young people especially are flocking to Sanders and to his message of “political revolution.”  But are the Sanders supporters (and the Senator himself) correct about the timing?  Is it, indeed, really time for a “political revolution”?

I myself am a socialist, of the variety referred to within the large and diverse leftist community as a “trade union socialist.”  We believe in the formation and use of democratic union organizations as a foundation of pushing through a greater democratization of both our economy and our government.  In the United States, trade-union socialists generally vote Democrat (or for the Green Party in local elections); as have I specifically.  Trade-union socialists are the primary constituency of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that has had a long and friendly relationship with Senator Sanders (a contributor to DSA newsletters, and of DSA values).  Sanders has for years been our spearhead.  He has pushed moderate socialist ideals into the legislative conversation.  Despite being an independent (still so listed in the Senate), he has also pushed actual Democrats into remembering and representing their leftist values.  Sanders has had a bountiful impact on American politics.

However, I disagree with the Senator about the timing of political revolution.  I have historical reasons, as well as concerns after viewing the past few years of politics.  Over a century ago, from 1904 to 1905, the Russian Empire was at war with Japan.  The war did not go well for Russia, despite having an overwhelmingly larger army and navy.  The new Japanese military operated on far more modern theories of war, and emphasized much greater modernized training than was found in the Russian military.  After repeated military setbacks, in January of 1905, a revolution began in Russia, mostly spontaneously.  The peasants (who formed the bulk of the personnel in the military, as well as the country’s population) rose up against the regime in protest against the great bloodshed among their own.

The organization that became the Communist Party (at the time called the Russian Socialist Democratic Labor Party, or RSDLP) had already fragmented into a small, radical “Bolshevik” group (led by Lenin); and a larger, more moderate “Menshevik” group (of whom Trotsky was a prominent spokesperson).  With a revolution apparently happening all by itself, the socialists considered what to do about it.  Trotsky saw that the rising was the people’s way of telling the socialists that now was the time.  He also saw it necessary to take the reins and lead the rising so that it ended not in defeat, bloodshed, and more repression; but instead with some measure of democratization of Russian society and government.

Lenin disagreed.  He looked at the rising, by traditionally conservative peasants (the Russian Orthodox Church itself had many clergy acting as leaders of the rising), not as a good sign but as an omen that the people were not ready, and now was not the time to agitate.  He saw a peasant revolution in 1905 as likely to take Russia backwards rather than forward.  The RSDLP largely agreed, regardless of the factional split.  Their concept of revolution was based on modernized, urban industrial workers, not the peasants; and the workers were still a relatively tiny sector of the population.  They feared that conservative peasants would oppose educational reforms, modernization of the economy and infrastructure, and the development of a more inclusive culture (all of which were key platforms for the RSDLP).  Ultimately, the RSDLP stood aside, while a smaller faction followed Trotsky into the revolution and into the new Russian government.  In little time, the Revolution of 1905 was unmade as the Tsar showed himself disinterested in working with a more democratic government.  Finally, World War I erased almost all of what little good the revolution accomplished; and a new revolution (two, in fact) took place in 1917.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 has great relevance to Sanders’s idea of “political revolution.”  Many Americans are, like the Russian peasants of 1905, very conservative; distrusting of outsiders, and of new ideas.  Consider the past few years, as Democrats have used the power of the White House, of the Congress before 2014, and of new social media venues, to try building a greater City on a Hill.  In the meantime, we have seen great push-back.  How much does the Black Lives Matter movement resonate among white voters?  The movement argues only that blacks should not be needlessly targeted for violent reactions by the police.  Is that a “radical” suggestion?  How many Americans, after the BLM campaign, clung ever more tightly to the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of the racist America they wanted to maintain?  How hard has Planned Parenthood and other women’s health organizations had to fight – not for an expansion of services, but only to continue those services legally guaranteed by Roe v. Wade?  Furthermore, it took the US Supreme Court to overturn “marriage amendments” across the nation; and when a Kentucky county clerk told the Court they could go stuff it, a massive upswelling of support stood behind her.  There is still a discouraging proportion of Americans who hate Obama for no other reason than that they still see his color, and political power, as indicative that he is not even American, or Christian (and we will move past the further point of why his being Christian should even matter in a nation that pretends to value “religious freedom”).  These people will all be voting in 2016; and in the mid-terms in 2018.  How much “political revolution” can we expect from these voters?  And what kind of revolution do you expect to see from frightened, and frighteningly well armed, white men?

Sanders is not the only candidate promising political revolution.  Donald Trump has created a movement of trumpenproletariat from whole cloth, from segments of the population that rarely vote.  By moving increasingly conservative and xenophobic people to the polls, his promise to “make America great again” promises precisely to undo everything that has made our nation great already.  Each victory we have enjoyed – and we have had many – is seen as a “defeat” by this anti-American who wants to tear down the City on a Hill and build a parking structure in its place.  If we have a political revolution in 2016, Trump and his petty-fascist followers are promising to be the leaders of that revolution.  It takes a certain naive optimism to presume that “political revolution” is going to go the way Sanders proposes.  Even presuming Trump loses, his fascist army will still be fighting out there in the streets of the information superhighway, on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat.  They will vote locally while voting for the president, and keep pushing Congress ever more to a radical right extremism that undoes everything we have accomplished over the last half century.

This is not the time for a political revolution.  This is not the time to radicalize heavily armed Americans already suspicious of their government, of new ideas, of people with different skin colors and accents and clothes and religions.  This is a time to consolidate those gains we have made, and to prevent the Right from making further inroads to our rights and our prosperity.  This is the time to build the City on a Hill by speaking to those values most Americans hold dear.  The last half a century has seen progress, and the promise of a new America that is more inclusive and more prosperous than ever before; that builds and shares more wealth than we have ever seen.  But that progress is at risk.  And promises of political revolution threaten to undo that progress, to destroy the foundations of a more inclusive, more productive, more secure America that we have barely begun constructing.

In the 1930s, there was another moment when political revolution was advocated.  Germany had a much larger and better organized socialist movement, and a century previously had led the world in creating what today we think of as modern liberalism.  That very state did see a revolution in the 1930s – a revolution of exactly the type of people that Karl Marx feared would undo all of our leftist values, and exactly the type of people that Donald Trump is bringing together.  With even stronger leftist assets and credentials than the US has today, Germany pushed over into a radical right-wing nightmare that makes today’s Republican party look democratic, inclusive, and reasonable in comparison.  This happened in the home of modern liberalism, and the home of a strong socialist movement.  Political revolution was argued by both left and right.  And when revolution came, those voices who had first advocated it were not its leaders, but its victims.

The last few years of conservative retraction demonstrates that the United States does not possess the capabilities needed for moving a leftist, or even just liberal, political revolution past the trumpenproletariat and past our own conservative peasants.  We have not one, but two candidates who are arguing for a political revolution.  Unlike Trump, Bernie Sanders is a great, principled, and honest leader.  But his promise to light the flame of political revolution is naive and dangerous.  Before you light the flame, be sure you know who is going to be carrying the torch.

Headline image by Ben Sarle, via Sanders campaign on Facebook.

Growing a Family with Water in Flint

The Guys from Texas

While the city of Flint, Michigan waits for a long-term resolution for its beleaguered water system, as its citizens struggle from day to day for the most basic of needs, that of water, the people of Flint look eagerly to any support they can get.  For now, at least, the city is blessed with the limelight and the attention of our fickle media.  Help is coming in from across the state and across the nation; at least for now.  This is the story of four amazing men who joined in that drive, and built new family connections in the process.

After my recent volunteer experience, I went back to Flint on Saturday with my wife Tonya and our young friend Joshua.  This time, we ended up getting sent by the Red Cross to Crossing Water, operating out of St. Michael’s Catholic Church.  We spoke with Michael Hood, program director, who is sending support teams to Flint households to determine families’ needs and provide for them as best they can (Crossing Water was also the subject of another writer’s experience, which I re-blogged here). The group is currently working very hard to find people with the most urgent circumstances and get them some relief: disabled people unable to lift and carry cases of water, mothers of young babies that require clean water for mixing formula, undocumented people lacking the proper identification to show the National Guard workers checking residents through the water pick-up stations, home-bound elderly folks without access to the pick-up stations, etc.

While talking with Michael (in a room filled with eager volunteers, many also sent from the Red Cross), we met four young men (see photo above; from left to right):  Samah Haider, Wajahat Zaidi, Daniyal Taqvi, and Mohammed Bhayani.  These four men had arrived in the room through a very different path from the rest of us.  They had just arrived in a U-Haul truck filled with 12,000 bottles of water (300 cases, in six pallets), and they had driven up from Texas to help get water to the needy families of Flint.  I spoke later with Daniyal Taqvi, and learned how they had made their way to Michigan.

Earlier in the week, Daniyal had been watching TV, and he saw news reports of Flint children suffering from lead poisoning and going to the hospital with tragic complications.  That image truly brought the reality of Flint’s crisis home to him.  Daniyal is a board member of the Houston chapter of the “Who is Hussain” organization (an Islamic organization whose Michigan chapter has already contributed directly to Flint, with over 30,000 bottles).  As Daniyal explained to me, Hussain ibn Ali, the martyr honored by the group, died while suffering from thirst.  “Water is something that touches a bond with us,” Daniyal said.  “All people need water, and as a human being, it is my responsibility to be able to provide water to them.”

Already experienced in working together on food and water drives in Houston, Dallas, and Austin (for the homeless, and to help build the Muslim community), these four young men were able to use the Who is Hussain structure and other elements of Houston’s Muslim community to collect some $1,500 for Flint in three days.  But they did not just want to send money.  Daniyal explained that maintaining a human connection with the care that these men were providing, and with the community they were aiding, was for them a key part of that care.  During our conversation, Daniyal was close to tears as he described the love and human closeness that he felt with those of us who joined his team, and with those to whom he gave water.

As the four men made their way up north in a rented car, they had little idea of what was to happen on arrival.  Their way was eased by compassionate souls in the rental company, and in a bank helping with the trip’s finances.  Daniyal tells me that in both places, the companies waived various fees when they learned of the group’s mission, to help them get aid to the north.  However, despite this aid, and the money raised in Houston, the group wanted to dedicate the donations entirely for water; so all actual costs of the trip itself were borne by the four men as part of their own donation to the cause.

Never having been to Michigan in the winter, the team expected a frozen winter wasteland, and they were bemused by the unseasonably mild temperatures and the lack of snow on the ground.  They arrived in Dearborn, rented a U-Haul, bought 6 pallets of water from Sam’s Club, and drove to Flint.  After using Google to locate aid centers in Flint, the men got the email of an organizer at St. Michael’s church at 609 E 5th Ave; and the men finally found themselves in a room with Crossing Water’s Michael Hood, and with about 15 Red Cross volunteers, including my own little team, Jason Garcia and his family, and others.

Michael Hood’s phased operation (mapping out needs, and then getting water to those specific people needing it) was a longer-term and broad-based system of care, and our Texan friends wanted to get water into the hands of those needing it rather more quickly, and more personally.  They did, however, donate about a third of their supply to Crossing Water (two pallets; about 4,000 bottles in 100 cases).  As they began unloading cases onto the ground, we formed a daisy chain together to get the cases from the truck to the church, and into a storage area inside.  As we unloaded, cars driving by inquired about getting water, and we gave some of them cases of water as well.

Water Truck

Samah and Daniyal getting ready to unload the last of the two pallets for Crossing Water.  Photo by Jason Garcia.

Once the church’s storage room was full, Daniyal and his team-mates wanted to go into Flint neighborhoods to deliver water personally, their main motivation in coming all the way to Michigan from Texas.  We met a Flint woman who needed water; and she told us that her whole neighborhood needed water.  Soon a convoy was formed, headed by the Flint native’s car, followed by myself, the water truck, and a couple of other cars of Red Cross volunteers.  Other volunteers remained with Crossing Water to help with their canvassing campaign.  Meanwhile, our watering convoy descended on northwest Flint, in the area of Dupont Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave.  We went door-to-door; some of us contacting residents to find out who needed water, while others did the heavy lifting and moved cases to those homes needing it.  The volunteers’ cars all had water as well (which we had all brought to donate), and we emptied out our car stashes while also taking cases from the truck.

In that first neighborhood, a resident told us about another nearby neighborhood needing water, and we found our way to a building with many elderly residents (many without cars and unable to get to the drive-through pick-up locations).  We formed another daisy chain, and unloaded a pallet’s worth or so into a central holding area that a building resident had identified as the best place to leave water where everyone could get to it.  While we were there, an elderly lady began crying when she talked to Daniyal, learning that help had come to her all the way from Texas.

Another resident told us about a government housing project, Aldridge Place, that was very large and very needy.  She agreed to show us the way, and our mobile watering army followed her there.  It was indeed a large complex, with numerous buildings and cul-de-sacs.  We simply dropped off a case at each door, knocking to alert residents, many of whom came out and thanked us as we worked.  As one resident saw Daniyal moving a case of water, she also began crying, hugged him, and said, “Everything’s getting better.”  Finally, with only a little water left in the truck, the Flint native who had led us to the project showed us to a last nearby neighborhood where we unloaded cases at each house that showed signs of occupancy.  At last the truck was empty.  We all thanked each other, hugged or shook hands, took pictures of the truck with our tired little army, and then called it a day.  (My family met up with our new Texan friends for dinner in Dearborn later in the evening, but that’s another story.)

Tired Relief Crew.png

A tired relief crew at the end of the day.

When I asked Daniyal what motivated them all to do such charitable work, he reminded me that we are all human beings, first and foremost, whatever else we may be.  He also felt it important that, with so much of the media’s attention focused on bad examples of Muslims, Americans should see the positive impact that Muslims and their faith can play in our society, with Islam’s own unique imperatives of charity and brotherhood.  His own organization, Who is Hussain, has organized other water drives in Flint, as well as peace rallies in the wake of last year’s darkest moments of terrorism.

Daniyal has come away from this experience with a deep sense of family connection with us in Michigan.  He feels new, profound connections with those like myself who followed the lead of these men and helped them fulfill their mission of mercy.  And he also feels a profound connection to those needy to whom he gave water, a meaningful and spiritual experience for him.  These men came to give; but they got back something that they felt distanced from in the north – family.  Daniyal was touched by the realization that “humanity still exists,” that while not everyone is equally blessed, those with more can share their blessings with those who have less.  Daniyal wishes now that everyone could do something like this at least once; to realize we are all part of a greater human family.  He, Samah, Mohammed, and Wajahat are proud to have given water to their family.

Flint is only one place in the US that needs help, as much as it lies on the headlines of today’s papers and internet sites.  My city in Michigan, or their cities in Texas, could be among the next places that need outside assistance, that need good people like these to come from other towns to help.  These men did not come here to help people that looked or dressed or worshiped like them.  They came here as people, to help other people in need, members of the same community of mankind regardless of petty differences.  They came here in the best tradition of their faith, and of the nation we all share, traditions that call for all people with extra resources to help those without.  This is the ultimate meaning of our City on a Hill, the building of a community of care and welfare.

Those politicians and extremists who call for restricting entry to our City of people in need of shelter (some of whom look precisely like these four amazing men from Texas) are not building our City, or defending our nation or what it stands for.  And they threaten the ties that build our nation – the ties between the diverse communities and cultures of our City.  Such ties will be needed more than ever as our nation’s infrastructure ages, as political rhetoric demonizes and marginalizes the poor and the different, as some Americans refuse to accept others as members of the same human race.  Instead of such politicians and pundits, we need more men like these four.  We need more men like Daniyal Taqvi, like Mohammed Bhayani, like Samah Haider, and like Wajahat Zaidi – they are the true builders of our City, examples of our best traditions, and leaders who give real meaning to our values.

With special thanks to Jason Garcia, Michael Hood, John Gleason; and of course our new brothers in Texas.

Whom Are We Allowed to Criticize?

Quote of the Week:  To learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you are not allowed to criticize. –Voltaire

As an American citizen, I have a strong appreciation for the First Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing our rights to free speech, and the freedoms of religion, press, and assembly; as well as the less-cited right to petition the government for redress of grievances.  All of these rights work together in harmony to allow us the right to criticize whomever we please – in theory.  Obviously, the Constitution was never purported to be a perfect document; and there are glaring omissions from the point of view of modern society.  For example, major corporations were beyond the imagination of the framers of the Constitution; and so corporate powers over individuals, communities, and even our government specifically are completely unrestrained by any line of the Constitution.

In fact, every grouping of people outside of the government proper has the power to restrict rights of all people joining those groups (besides often working to limit rights of others outside the group).  Churches can require members to follow religious rules; families, companies, and other groups can control speech as rigidly as they please; and so forth.  While the Constitution protects rights to criticize other groups, we are losing the fight within groups.  This becomes evident as political divisiveness and the vitriol of rhetoric separate factions within political parties as deeply as they separate the parties themselves.  As Democratic and Republican campaigns for the nomination to the presidency heat up, invective not only between but also within the campaigns is also heating up.  There is an ever-increasing expectation of ideological conformity within the campaigns.  Trump supporters (the trumpenproletariat) become ever more shrill in favor of their candidate, and eat each other alive when any of them expresses doubt or recognizes a flaw in their candidate.  The supporters of other campaigns do the same.  As a Clinton supporter myself, I have received the most vicious criticisms on Facebook from fellow Clinton supporters (whenever reflecting on weaknesses, like her Wall Street connections and her Iraq vote), while Sanders supporters and Republicans have been far less nasty.  While some members of both parties’ campaigns complain about attacks by other candidates from the same party, I have seen fierce expectations of conformity within the members of several individual campaigns.

This bipartisan expectation of conformity is troubling indeed.  It demonstrates that whatever the Constitution says, we are not allowed to criticize those very individuals asking us for our vote and purporting to represent our interests and views.  That is not a foundation of democracy; that is a weakness that can potentially undermine our democracy.  None of our candidates are perfect (if you will excuse the understatement); and we must express our doubts not only about those we are fighting against, but of those for whom we are fighting.  If we do not, the very point of this fighting is lost.

Headline image via Google Image Search

Helping Out in Flint

Helping in Flint.png

On Friday, February 5, 2016, Spark! joined with the Michigan Democratic Party and other groups in supporting the relief drive in Flint, Michigan.  The Red Cross Blood Donation Center (1401 S Grand Traverse Street) has been dispatching volunteers to various local charities, churches, and other organizations to provide water and other supports to residents affected by the water crisis.  They provide water directly to houses, and also maintain drive-through water pick-up locations, where drivers can simply pull up and have cases of water, and/or gallon jugs, packed into their car.

I participated in one such activity for several hours at one of Flint’s Center of Hope locations (at 517 E 5th Avenue), along with various people volunteering from other organizations (in the picture above, for example, a couple of the volunteers are US Navy recruiters).  We unloaded pallets of water from a truck brought to the site; and packed cases into cars, vans, and trucks as they rolled up (four cases per adult in each vehicle).  We also received a large number of water donations (sort of a “take some water, leave some water” activity).  Many of the volunteers (myself included) also brought some of their own water donations as well.

The Red Cross in Flint can be reached at (810) 232-1401.  They operate volunteer support teams seven days a week, mostly from 9:00am – 4:00pm.  Please come and help them.

You can read more about how this crisis occurred in Part I of my “Special Report: Flint in Crisis”; and about what Flint needs (and how to help) in Part II.  You can also read a touching story about the human impact of these events that I re-blogged from another writer.

Headline image © 2016, Sparkpolitical.  All rights reserved.