Category: Commentary

Why We Fight; and How We Will Win

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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.”

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Despotism, and the Second Amendment

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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).

Intermission #4: Heart, Broken

Brian Lageose of Bonnywood Manor responds with genuine emotion to the tragedy and horror of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, proving that a humor blog can also, when necessary, write about mourning and about the horrors that surround us. Visit Bonnywood Manor, and read on:

Bonnywood Manor

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I kept telling myself all day that I wasn’t going to write about the shooting.

It’s not that I didn’t care or I didn’t have anything to say, far from it. But I knew that if I entered the digital discussion, I would inevitably run into conservative whack-jobs who have no grasp on reality, filled with hate. They are legion, these non-evolved cretins who apparently have nothing better to do than sit at their damp keyboards, wet with the rot from their decomposing minds, seizing on any and every opportunity to maniacally rub salt in the fresh wounds of innocent victims.

I just didn’t have the stomach for it, not today, not when I needed to grieve and process. Every one of these incessant, needless mass shootings affects me, tears at me, baffles me with the incomprehensible concept that a supposedly modern country is unable to enact decent, logical gun-control…

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Hillary Clinton Will Be the Nominee of the Democratic Party. I Will Support Her. I Hope You Will Too.

Former Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, on why educators and other Americans should unite behind Hillary Clinton:

Diane Ravitch's blog

I wrote before that I would support the nominee of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory in California last night, and she will be the nominee, opposing the execrable Donald Trump.

I will vote for her.

Readers will say that she is too close to the people who are promoting charters, high-stakes testing, and the destructive policies of the Bush-Obama administrations. That is true. I have fought with all my strength against these terrible policies. I will continue to do so, with redoubled effort. I will do my best to get a one-on-one meeting with Hillary Clinton and to convey what we are fighting for: the improvement of public schools, not their privatization or monetization. The strengthening of the teaching profession, not its elimination. We want for all children what we want for our own.

Which is another way of saying what John Dewey said: “What the…

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The Virtues of Federalism

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I am a federalist.  Among the many powers in the United States, which influence or dictate to individuals and groups, the federal government has consistently been more progressive and a purer expression of the people’s will than have local or state governments.  The federal government is less subject to control by small minorities striving for power over the majority, than are local and state governments.  Local and state governments are where prejudices can best find haven and oppress citizens.  The federal government is also more progressive than the market, and more representative than are private interest groups, and corporations.  The market favors and reinforces those already possessing substantial advantages over others; and private interest groups and corporations are by definition self-serving organizations fighting against each other, and against the whole people, for their survival and dominance.  I am a federalist because the federal government is the organization best positioned, equipped, and willing to support my struggle for my own rights as a human being and as a citizen.

Governments are responsible for protecting persons and property; and for promoting the public welfare.  For the federal government, these functions manifest through constitutional provisions such as the commerce clause (US Constitution, Article I, Section 8, third clause), giving the US Congress the power “… to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states…”  The federal government is responsible for protecting business, workers, and our environment and resources.  The federal government is responsible for managing and arbitrating the necessarily conflictual relationships between business and employees and consumers; and between those wishing to use resources here and now and those wishing to preserve them for future or long term usage.  State and local governments are also responsible for pursuing these goals within their jurisdictions; but only the federal government is capable of managing these issues at the national level.  Market forces do not look after the interests of individuals, groups, or the nation; but simply react to prices and forces to restrict access to and usage of resources to those few who can afford it.  Private national groups and special interests look after only their own specific interest at the expense of conflicting interests.  A government must manage all of these forces and groups, and only the federal government is able to do that for the nation.

American power and wealth are built upon the foundation of two key pillars: public funding and direction, and private enterprise.  Throughout the history of this nation, private enterprise has depended upon the government’s active support, initiative, and funding to provide the necessary infrastructural foundation upon which to build successful businesses. The federal government played a key role in railroad development, providing public land and funding construction projects; and fueling a massive industrial revolution and employing hundreds of thousands of workers.  American shipping, communications, and motor works; oil and coal; agricultural industries and supports; were all built with federal dollars and federal initiative backing those men of wealth who could both afford and dare to build a greater economy with the people’s support and taxes.  No part of this nation was built by enterprise acting without government welfare, or by government acting without the organizational drive and muscle of free enterprise.

While vast fortunes were made (and very often squandered) by men of wealth, with the eager help of federal initiative and funding, the development of capitalism and all of its failings drove government to ameliorate the worst effects of capital.  The Civil War-era federalism of the Republican Party meshed perfectly with the party’s championing of workers’ rights against the greed of corporatism.  Later, the Great Depression drove the federal government to finally enact economic measures to keep the “boom and bust” cycle of unrestrained capitalism from breaking the lower and middle classes.  While state and local governments could moderate some of the impacts of economic spasms, the federal government could steer far more support to those areas suffering the greatest effects, providing help that only national funding could provide.  It was only federal New Deal mechanisms like Social Security, large construction projects, national labor and cultural drives, etc., that brought a broken US economy back onto its feet.  Private enterprise had failed, and state government was too near-sighted and hampered by local financial disadvantages to do more than minimize local manifestations of massive national problems.

Although deregulation has weakened the New Deal regulations that protected us from disasters like the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the federal government still attempts to ameliorate some of the failures of capitalism.  The Dodd-Frank banking reform law was one such attempt; with Senator Elizabeth Warren as the conceptual godmother of one of its key provisions, the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau empowered to protect consumers from irregularities in the banking sector.  Although Republicans have worked strenuously to keep the Bureau from functioning the way it was intended, the federal government still works to minimize the harmful ups and downs of the capital market.  The market, private business, civic action groups, and special interests are neither capable of nor interested in performing these roles effectively and beneficially.

The federal government’s irreplaceable functions are most evident domestically in the support and development of national infrastructure.  From the canals and railroads of the 19th century, to the interstate highways and nuclear power plants of the 20th, to the information network and green energy of the 21st, only the federal government has had the combination of political power, national jurisdiction, and fiscal resources to push private groups to do what the market is ill equipped to do by itself:  invest in their own and the nation’s success through federally funded and managed infrastructure programs.  No other entity has either the constitutional mandate, the public oversight, and the funding to make strategic decisions for our country, and to implement those decisions. In the 1950s, the increasing global competition with the Soviet Union pushed the federal government into a greater, more cohesive program of education, infrastructure, scientific research, and economic investment and management.  Similarly, the increasing competition today for jobs and markets in a globalized economy and information network pushes our country to a return to federal management, to a renewed faith in the virtues of federalism.

Infrastructure is one of the key public goods provided by government.  The public good is the measure of that which the people do best by doing it through collective governance rather than through private initiative or on the free market.  Examples of public goods are the roads on which we drive, the water that we drink, and the schools in which we teach and learn.  Schools in particular present a strong case not only for the provision of the public good, but for the federalization of that good.  The management of schools by local and state government derives from the growth of districted common schools funded by those authorities – the authority to manage comes with the fiscal responsibility for providing the public good of education.  However, our schools are failing because local communities and state governments have failed to fund such schools, as budgets have grown constricted amid economic woes and a growing conservative disdain for the public.  With district school funding keyed to local taxes (usually property taxes), schools in high-income areas have substantially greater funding than do those in low-income areas.  The conservative notion of “failing schools” refers not to a lack of our schools’ commitment to care for their students, but to these schools’ inability to squeeze the necessary funding from poverty-stricken areas.  Federal funding is the simplest answer to fixing such funding discrepancies.  The federal government has far greater assets with which to fund schools, and federal funding is not subject to local or state-level economic crises or failures.  Poor states would be more capable of competing with rich states for jobs and resources were their children better educated, and more consistently educated in accordance with priorities determined by federal authorities tasked with keeping American schools competitive with foreign schools.  Federal funding would also protect our schools and our students from local variations in political and moral extremism; although a continuing role by state and local authorities would still be necessary to give the communities a degree of power in offering electives favored by the community.

The autonomy of state and local governments is often championed by states’ rights advocates as negating the intrusion by the federal government into the lives of citizens.  However, states’ rights advocates ignore the glaring problem of state autonomy, which is that virtually all oppression which visits American citizens comes from their state and local governments.  States have vastly greater powers over their citizens than does the federal government.  State and local governments control speech, public behavior, unions, religion, arms, voting, education, marriage, welfare, housing, employment, food, water, the environment, commerce, communications, transportation, sewage and garbage, and many other activities.  In any given location in the US, the overwhelming number of laws that restrict people’s lives and choices come not from the federal government but from their state and local governments.  States were responsible for preserving slavery, segregation, poverty among African-Americans and other minorities.  It took the federal government to push a civil rights agenda to protect our basic freedoms.  North Carolina and other states are even dictating their citizens’ gender identities, while the federal government attempts to intrude into our state governments’ intrusion into our rights.  States’ rights do not represent the rights of the people; they represent the rights of a minority of people to enforce their power over their neighbors and fellow citizens.  The federal government operates as an ameliorating force in the struggle between the powers of the state and local governments, and the rights of the people.

A major problem with state and local government in the US is that the focus by our national media, and the attention of those few people who follow politics, are centered on the federal government.  This attention puts the federal government under a microscope that largely ignores the place where most of our law and most of our governments’ abuse of power takes place: in the states, counties, cities, townships, and villages.  Few as Americans are who can name their legislators in the US Congress, far fewer can name their state legislators, city council members, county commissioners, and other key elected officials.  This enables a far greater degree of corruption, lobbying, and abuse of power at local and state levels than can take place at the federal level.  State and local governments generate and enforce law with relatively little input or awareness by citizens (other than the few corporate actors funding local officials’ election campaigns), and with relatively little attention by either the media or the people.  In the meantime, the national media shouts loudly and constantly about major legislation in the US Congress, about election campaigns for federal positions, about bureaucratic operations, and about corruption and lobbying at the federal level.  This shouting ignores the fact that, taking place outside of most citizens’ attention, and with much lower voter turn-outs, local elections take relatively little funding; and a small corporate donation can create a far closer relationship between local government and the corporation than can be created by a much larger donation at the federal level.

At state and local levels, prejudices are actualized into law (both written and unwritten) far more easily – and over a vastly greater number of issues and behaviors – than at the federal level.  This is why the civil rights battles had to take place at the federal level; the state and local governments of the Old Confederacy were unwilling to loosen the chains of oppression and to allow their citizens access to their constitutional rights.  Whatever states’ rights advocates argue about federal incursions into our freedom, the federal government has protected and enhanced our rights across the several states far more than our own state governments have, as controlled as the latter have been by local forces unwilling to change.

While democratization, civic action, and increased transparency can happen at state and local levels, it often takes greater resources than local citizens can access to put a spotlight on local problems.  It took national organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee to organize voters’ registration in southern states in the 1960s.  It took national actors and media outlets like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Time Magazine to finally enable the citizens of Flint, Michigan to fight their own state government’s lack of concern over their poisoned water.  In both cases, national actors helped push the federal government into a response as well, generating relief to oppressed populations that was not forthcoming from state and local governments.  As the federal government has stepped in to denounce North Carolina’s HB2 law, it is again taking the national resources of the whole people to fight against a minority of people, who are attempting to abuse their powers of law to oppress their own neighbors and citizens.  By spotlighting issues like voting in the 1960s, and Michigan’s water fiasco and the North Carolina law of today, the federal government can push democratization into local areas oppressed by their own governments.

Government is both a boon and a burden; the means of keeping ourselves free and a machine used to oppress us.  In the US, we have complicated relationships between federal, state, and local levels of government; and between government and corporations, the media, and private citizens.  Each of these is a form of oppression against the rest; and each is also a source of freedom from the rest.  Failures of policy, the impact of corruption, and abuses of power occur at all levels, from top to bottom, and throughout both the public and private sectors.  However, the attention of voters, information consumers, and the media have for some time been focused on federal and national issues, at the expense paid to state and local levels.  We have achieved a transparency of power in the federal government that is sorely lacking in the very place where most of our laws and our governments’ powers are enacted and enforced.  The sordid history of human rights in the US shows that there is not just an imbalance of power between federal and state levels; there is an imbalance of interest.  The forces of patriarchy, theocracy, racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and oppression find quiet, dark corners in that very center of American law and power, our local and state governments.  Like cockroaches fleeing when a light is turned on, these forces slink into our local and state governments, away from the level where the greatest and brightest lights are shined by our media and our attention.  This is why I am a federalist; and this is why I cringe at the words, “states’ rights.”

In the 1800s, in the 1900s, and today, “states’ rights” have always meant the “rights” of a minority (those few holding local and state seats of power) to take away the majority’s rights.  States’ rights are not people’s rights; and they are the means for restricting or eliminating our rights.  While clearly imperfect, and subject to its own hungers and abuse of power, the federal government is better positioned, and has done more, to protect local human and civil rights than our local and state governments can do or wish to do.  I am a federalist because I am jealous of my freedom, and I am suspicious of power that slinks into dark corners away from transparency.  I am a federalist because my nation’s history shows that in the battle for our rights, the federal government has been a purer expression of the will of the people than the local and state governments have been.  I am a federalist because our local schools become less able to teach the more our local and state governments interfere with them, and because we need a federal effort to fund schools regardless of their geographic locations or the socioeconomic status of their districts.  I am a federalist because our nation works best when it works together as a nation.  We the People have formed a more perfect Union; and we must uphold and empower our Union.

Headline image of the preamble to the Constitution, from Wikimedia Commons.

An Afghanistan Soldier Who Should Have Died, Many Times

An Afghanistan Soldier Who Should Have Died, Many Times

While I saw this too late to post it on Memorial Day, here is a good story about a US soldier and his perspective on the demands we place upon our men and women in uniform.

Insights From The Edge

“We finally got the wounded out on the first day and uh, we’re like holy crap, when is this going to be over? When’s the mission going to be over? And we stayed there. It went on day after day. It just became so like, we’re never leaving this place. Just kill as much Taliban as you can. It never got better. I prayed to God, please don’t rain. Please don’t rain. And then it rains. And then it snowed and then it hailed.”

This is 23 year-old Thomas Dewar, Sergeant in the US Army 101st Airborne Division, 1st Brigade, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion. He fought two tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first, 2010-2011, the bloodiest year on record.

We’re sitting in a sunny café facing the San Gabriel Mountains. Patrons chat happily as they drink their cappuccino’s. Dewar could be any all-American boy. Sandy blonde hair, sun-tanned…

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My Candidate for President

Diane Ravitch on the presidential race.

Diane Ravitch's blog

To Readers of This Blog:

I have been consistently even-handed in the Presidential race in dealing with the candidates of the Democratic party. I oppose the Republican party candidates because I don’t agree with their corporate-friendly agenda and their positions on social issues, as well as their embrace of privatization as the solution to the problems in public schools.

As between the Democratic candidates, I have supported neither. I have published posts critical of both Sanders and Clinton. Neither is especially good on the issues that matter most to supporters of public education. Clinton said when campaigning in New York state that she would not want her grand-daughter to opt out of the tests, and she waffled on the issue of charter schools. Sanders voted for the Murphy amendment to the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which would have retained high-stakes accountability under federal control (fortunately the amendment did not pass)…

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Does Clinton Have a “Favorability Problem”?

Recently, the above chart has been going around Twitter (with no link to sources, but a reference to NYT/CBS/Huffington Post polls).  The argument is that Senator Bernie Sanders is supremely equipped by his favorability ratings to take on Donald Trump in a general election in November, and that Secretary Hillary Clinton is not.  However, this chart omits two significant points of data.  First of all, Bill Clinton’s favorability in 1992 is noticeably absent.  Before taking the election in a landslide, in April, 1992, Bill Clinton’s ratings were 34 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable, giving him a net -13 (unfavorable), a point worse than his wife is currently running according to this chart.

A second missing factor is the differential between the winning candidates’ ratings and their opponents’ ratings (taking the winning candidate’s net +/- favorability, and subtracting from that their opponent’s net favorability).  The differential between Sanders and Trump (37) is by far higher than any contests on this list (higher than the Reagan-Mondale contest differential, which is 30).  That, of course, is the basic argument of the pro-Sanders user posting this chart; that Sanders ought to win a November general election against Trump in a landslide.  However, the Hillary Clinton’s differential against Trump (12) is also higher than the lowest three differentials here: her husband’s victory in 1992 against incumbent President G.H.W. Bush (differential = 3); George W. Bush’s race in 2000 against Al Gore (differential = 2); and incumbent President Obama’s 2012 reelection win against challenger Mitt Romney (differential = 6).  While there appears to be more risk in running Clinton against Trump than running Sanders as the Democratic nominee, a Clinton/Trump race, if decided on these favorability ratings, would be a Democratic win.

Headline image copied from a Tweet.

Battle For The States

Another good argument from elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Rcooley123's Blog

During Presidential election years here in the US, there is a basic tendency to downplay media coverage of what is taking place in other political arenas, such as Congress, the soon-to-be-outgoing Presidential Administration, and especially state and local government happenings. This year has been no different is this regard. Who can resist the non-stop madcap coverage of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others constantly berating and disrespecting each other along with major segments of the voting population?

Ever since the 2010 midterm elections and the fallout of redistricting made possible by major GOP victories at the state and Congressional levels during a census year, some of what is arguably the worst state legislation in generations has stung residents of many states at once – often negating gains seemingly coming from Supreme Court decisions. At a time when the people were electing and re-electing a President espousing a break from the…

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Don’t Just “Like” Teachers, Help Them!

Yes, we are all about our slacktivism.  We “like” things on Facebook, “retweet” them on Twitter, and find other ways to spend three seconds at a time in dedicated support to a cause before we move on to something else.  Some of this helps to get the message out to others, and so this is not an entirely useless activity.  However, it is all too easy to think that these momentary (and cost-free) “supports” of a cause really do very little to actually support the cause.

Okay, enough guilt for the day.  This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.  You can “like” this or some other post or meme, “share” it or whatever else you wish to do.  But you can also spend just a few minutes more – and a little of your own money (how much is entirely up to you) – by going to Donorschoose.org and contributing to a classroom project.  The site will give you choices of project types, locations of schools; even specific schools and teachers and projects to support, what the projects are for and how much they need.  You can spend a few bucks or hundreds of dollars (or more), as you choose; finish funding a project needing only a little more help, or be one of many getting a project closer to having full funding, whatever you want.

Today, for a contribution that my wife and I sent to some Detroit schools (a 1st-grade math class and a 4th-grade history class), we got these thank-you cards and letters (you can also donate anonymously if you feel weird about recipients knowing who you are):

Thanks from Donorschoose Kids.jpg

Our nation is strengthened by education, our workers are more competitive when educated, our national earnings and revenues are higher, deficits and debts are lower when our people are educated.  You don’t have to bankrupt yourself to help out, or commit many hours out of your busy schedule.  But just a few moments on this site and whatever contribution you can afford will go a long way toward moving specific kids toward their learning goals, toward better lives, and toward a better nation for us all.  Help out, won’t you?  Thanks!

Headline image taken from a Twitter post.  Photo of cards and letters © Sparkpolitical, 2016.