Tag: community

Resistance Tuesday: March 7, 2017

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While the Trump administration works to divide our nation and to deepen the hatreds and inequalities that further such division, organizations like MoveOn.org are working assiduously to keep that agenda from succeeding.  MoveOn’s program includes the participation in national “Resistance Tuesdays” (also pursued by other organizations as well).  For the many outraged Americans who can only do so much, the idea is to focus the energies of as many resistance members as possible on Tuesdays, a weekday that allows us to visit elected leaders’ offices and to hold public events that can enjoy a brief moment in the spotlight.

This week, I participated in three actions for Resistance Tuesday.  First, I joined a group of MoveOn and Indivisible members, and visited the Detroit Regional Office of Michigan’s Senator Debbie Stabenow.  Terry Campbell, the senator’s regional manager, had a friendly meeting with the roughly 40 or so of us.  We brought with us a flyer of issues to present, calling on the Senator’s help in resisting Trump.  Senator Stabenow has already been at the spearhead of the resistance by Democratic members of the US Congress, so there was no acrimony like that found between many Republican members of Congress and their constituents.

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Terry Campbell (on the left, at the head of the table), Sen. Stabenow’s regional manager, discusses our issues with MoveOn and Indivisible members in the senator’s Detroit office.

Then, I went to Ypsilanti, MI to participate in a Planned Parenthood/ACA support rally at a district office of US Representative Debbie Dingell (MI12-D).  We rallied on the street outside of the office building for about half an hour, while cars driving past us honked their horns in support of our rally.  Dingell’s district office staff invited us up to the office for cookies and lemonade, and to discuss our issues with them.  As with Senator Stabenow, Rep. Dingell has been a key player in supporting the Affordable Care Act and resisting the Republican agenda of repealing it; and she has also been a leading voice on the Hill for defending Planned Parenthood from attacks by conservatives.  Our meeting with the staff was therefore similarly friendly.

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Planned Parenthood supporters rally in front of the Ypsilanti district office of Rep. Debbie Dingell.

Both Stabenow’s and Dingell’s staffs made it abundantly clear that Republicans are not shy about contacting them about concerns and pleas to vote on their side; and that our voices were therefore a vital part of the growing resistance, and a necessary part of the process of pushing Congress away from the extremism of the White House’s agenda.  We were thanked for our activism, and urged to make Resistance Tuesdays a regular moment for contact and action.  The staff members also told us that for our voices have been far more numerous than are the voices of those supporting the regime of hatred and division.  Terry Campbell of Stabenow’s staff said that some 10 resistance calls come in for each call urging support of Trump nominees and initiatives.

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Planned Parenthood supporters enjoying cookies and lemonade while filling out issues cards in the Ypsilanti district office of Rep. Debbie Dingell.

Finally, I drove to Dearborn, MI, where I had worked for the Clinton campaign during last year’s campaign season.  At the Arab American National Museum, speakers from Voters Not Politicians and Count MI Vote held a town hall on redistricting.  The groups are working on fielding a ballot proposal in Michigan to create an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission to eliminate the state’s outrageously gerrymandered districts.  In the 2016 election, for example, Republicans accounted for 47.6% of the vote, while Democrats accounted for 47.3%; a minuscule advantage showing the state’s roughly even partisan split.  However, 9 of the 14 Representatives elected to Washington were Republicans, versus 5 Democrats.  In the state house in Lansing, a closer split (63 Republicans to 47 Democrats) still shows a much stronger partisan division than is apparent in the actual, counted votes of the state’s citizens.  Both Republicans and Democrats in Lansing have taken advantage of gerrymandering in the past to minimize the votes of the weaker party in the state house, and have redrawn districts to silence opposition and to create primary challenges to strong candidates from the weaker party.

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Michigan citizens attend a town hall with Voters Not Politicians and Count MI Vote in Dearborn.

The two groups holding the town hall argue that voters from neither party can be truly represented as long as gerrymandering continues.  While voters for the weaker party will never get either their candidates nor their issues onto the central stage, voters for the stronger party will also get pushed over in favor of special interests as that party’s candidates will always be confident of re-election.  Candidates and elected officials in states with gerrymandering are universally more responsive to campaign contributions from large, corporate donors; and take only a token interest in hearing even their own party supporters on issues and positions.  Corporate donors have long been opposed to state propositions to eliminate gerrymandering, because they understand clearly that while gerrymandering does not itself cause corporate corruption of politics, it is an environment that openly enables such corruption to flower.  The groups were recruiting volunteers and donors for the upcoming year’s campaign to put their initiative onto the ballot in Michigan.

The day’s activism demonstrates several strengths about the resistance.  First, the three completely different groups of voters participating in three different events (I was the only one in the crowd who attended more than one of these three events), shows us that, with local groups rising all over the state and the nation, resistance support is much stronger than what might be thought by looking at the numbers of any one, single event.  The state of Michigan held far more events this Tuesday than just the three that I attended; and each event had a diverse group of local and regional supporters come to be heard and to learn about how to express their collective voice.  The resistance is strong, is diverse, is everywhere, and is growing.

The second lesson is that, thanks perhaps to groups like Women’s March on Washington, and to Planned Parenthood, women are specifically taking an increasingly dominant role in organizing, leading, and attending these events.  While the agenda of the Trump administration affects all people in the United States, women are specifically impacted even more by so many of the different aspects of Republican plans to infringe on our rights.  From steps to keep refugees out of our country (a group that is predominantly women and mothers with children), to the deportation sweeps and detention actions against immigrants (mothers are being separated from their children and families, particularly the children born here being separated from their mothers who are being detained), to more visibly anti-woman programs like the campaign against Planned Parenthood (whose provision of health care to the poor would be even more necessary if the Republicans succeed in repealing the ACA) and against reproductive rights, women have found that this regime has them directly in their cross-hairs.  Women activists are coming out fighting, pushing their issues onto the central stage, taking seminars on running for office, and constructing a community of non-violent, caring resistance members and actions.  This community is strong, is diverse, is everywhere, and is growing.

Finally, individual voices of constituents are consistently held by elected officials to be a strong factor when they can be heard in groups.  A single voter acting alone can have their issues recorded for their member of Congress if they bother to call, and those issues are tallied so that members of Congress do see what issues are important to the constituents who call or write or visit.  However, groups showing up en masse can put an agenda directly in the face of elected officials, who have little choice but to respond and to try to show their responsiveness on those issues.  Conservative citizens’ groups were created by and shaped the Tea Party during the last eight years of Republican obstruction of the Obama administration; and the new progressive resistance is coming out in numbers that are simply unprecedented, and make the Tea Party pale by comparison.  These groups are strong, are diverse, are everywhere, and are growing.

What can you do?  Get on Facebook, or Twitter, and find a local Women’s March, Indivisible, or other group.  Or go to MoveOn.org, or Planned Parenthood, or to any other citizens’ groups working for the resistance.  Check out The Resistance Calendar for events in your area (or national events that you can travel to if you are able).  And keep calling, emailing, and visiting your members of Congress, putting your issues onto their agenda.  Actions like these are why the resistance is strong, is diverse, is everywhere, and is growing.

Headline image (Senator Stabenow’s Regional Manager in Detroit, Terry Campbell, sits in the front row, second from the left), shared with the author by an unknown MoveOn volunteer, taken on her cell phone, and used with her permission.   All other photographs ©2017, Sparkpolitical.

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A Brief Thought from Today’s Resistance

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Today, Trump supporters in Michigan rallied at the state capital in Lansing, bringing with them cranes and trucks with professional Trump campaign signage – leading one to wonder, “Just which side is paying people to protest, precisely?”  Indications of professional political campaign financing to the conservatives notwithstanding, resistance organizers all around Michigan organized a counter-march, in effect protesting against the counter-protesters protesting against our protest.  Joe Montgomery of Ypsilanti was one such organizer, posting a page onto Facebook inviting people to march at the capital building, while other organizers created events at other Michigan cities as well.  My wife and I chose to join the capital protest.  Having several signs from previous protest actions, rallies, and marches, we found the signs we wanted, and drove to Lansing.

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While the Trump supporters, with their seemingly well-financed materials, gathered by the capital building, we of the Resistance rallied first at Wentworth Park, just a few blocks away.  We chanted as we gathered enough of a crowd to make an impact; then at noon, we marched to the capital building to launch our peaceful protest of the support rally.

Upon arriving at the capital building, we noticed people wearing and carrying Confederate battle-flag apparel and other materials; and contrarily flying the American flag as well (not apparently aware of the opposition of those two flags during the war in which both were flown, nor of the opposition of the ideas that those flags stood for).  Mr. Montgomery also noted that one of the leaders of the support rally offered a Nazi “heil” salute at one point.  While the regime’s speakers used megaphones from the side of the building to argue in favor of their doctrine of hatred and fear, we stood by the street and chanted the normal chants becoming ever more familiar to the Resistance.

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The Trump supporters hurled insults at our crowd; while our marchers for the most part resisted the temptation to engage the other side (I saw only one marcher attempt a conversation with a Trump supporter; Trump supporters’ insults were generally ignored or laughed off as not being worth the time to recognize or requiring any response).  Trump supporters called the marchers “snowflakes,” “losers,” and “cockroaches.”  One Trump supporter walking past me called the marcher next to me a “whore.”  This was a divide not just of politics; but of style of engagement and hostility.  The Republicans were openly aggressive, hostile, unfriendly, and they directed their opposition not towards our positions but toward a simple adolescent recourse to personal invective; while our side deployed maturity, relevance on specific issues, and overt friendliness and positivity.

Many of our resisters noted further that while many of our signs argued for policy positions, very few of the Trump supporters’ signs did (most of the supporters carrying signs held only the standard-issue Trump-Pence campaign signs left over from last year).  Another demonstrable difference between our two crowds was the expected ethnic difference; with our crowd’s great cultural diversity offsetting the depressingly homogeneous whiteness of the predominantly middle-aged and older supporters of Trump.  In short, then, our crowd had not just a language and issues advantage; and not just an advantage of positivism over negativism; we also had the ethnic advantage, and the advantage of diversity of ages participating, young and middle-aged and old alike.

After sharing the space to the side of the capital building for about 15 minutes or so, Mr. Montgomery suggested we rally right on the front steps of the capital (some of our marchers later claimed to have earlier chased off the Trump supporters from those front steps).  We marched around to the front steps, and there rallied where each marcher who wanted to speak to the crowd could.  There, we were rallied by the improvised remarks of representatives of Women’s March and Planned Parenthood supporters, activists from By Any Means Necessary, students fearful of the regime’s implications on their education, immigrants fearful for the safety of their families, gay and transgender and cisgender and other people of all sorts of cultural identities fearful of the whitewashing over of their society by the hatred of the new administration and its supporters.  Activists who had helped to fight against deportation sweeps and actions by state police and ICE agents spoke out about keeping our eyes open and actively standing in the way of the administration’s extremist agenda.

As with so many actions of the past two months, we of the Resistance showed each other great love and care for each other, regardless of our disjointed agenda of a thousand different issues.  We applauded each other, hugged each other, and promised each other to stay networked in as we continue to form our twenty-first century resistance, a resistance (like that of the Arab Spring and in so many other places) that is enabled by today’s technology to develop with a power and speed unimaginable to resistance efforts of previous centuries.  And the millennials who are even more plugged in to this technology are ever more the driving force of the Resistance.

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All photographs ©2017, Sparkpolitical.  With special thanks to Joe Montgomery.

Scenes From The #ResistanceRecess

My latest pièce de résistance against the new administration has been work with NDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) on a petition drive.  The Standing Rock Sioux tribal leaders are continuing their struggle against the construction of the DAPL, especially since the Trump administration has ordered that the pipeline construction be continued.  However, the vast plethora of attacks made by the administration upon our civil liberties, upon the free press, and upon constitutional norms of government, have diverted much of what little national attention had managed to trickle over to Standing Rock.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has posted a bill (S. 65, and HR 371), “To address financial conflicts of interest of the President and Vice President.”  In concert with this bill, Roxanne Saxton of Michigan put up a petition through MoveOn.org, calling on Congress to “Require President Trump to provide the audit trail of papers proving he is no longer involved in any way, shape, or form with the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

In very little time, the petition accumulated over 230,000 signatures nation-wide.  Then volunteers and organizers like myself who signed the petition began a drive to visit every single member of Congress, Senators and Representatives alike, and present them with a full list of their constituents who signed the petition, together with the petition language and a summary of the campaign (numbers and so forth).

Michigan has 16 members of Congress (MoC’s, as they are increasingly being called, as groups like Indivisible and others make resistance plans around contacting these key elected leaders).  Our Great Lakes State has 14 US Representatives (5 Democrats, and 9 Republicans); and both of our US Senators (Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters) are Democrats.  Recent events have put Republican MoC’s under considerable pressure to face their increasingly disgruntled consituents; and many have gone “missing,” ignoring invitations and pleas to hold town halls or public events at which they might have to explain their acquiescence to increasingly unpopular Trump administration initiatives.

This past week, (Sunday, February 19 through Sunday, February 26) was a scheduled recess for both houses, and MoC’s from both parties came home to hold public events or to visit key places in their states and districts.  Our petition campaign’s national leadership sought to exploit the opportunity, and to put copies of the petition, with constituents’ signatures and comments from the online petition, directly in the hands of all of the country’s MoC’s or their respective staffs by the end of the recess week.

Considering that 6 of Michigan’s 7 Democratic MoC’s are co-sponsors of the Warren bill, the Democrats were very friendly to this petition; while the Republicans are less comfortable with the implications of calling on investigations of their party’s president and vice-president.  Democratic officials have not been as eager to avoid public appearances during the recess as have the Republicans; and here in Michigan we were able to make direct contact with several Democratic MoC’s, such as Rep’s Sander Levin (MI09-D) and Brenda Lawrence (MI14-D), both of whom thanked our volunteers for our efforts and asked us to keep fighting.  While Republican staffers receiving the petition for their bosses have not generally been unfriendly in Michigan (and some have contacted our campaign with further questions and requesting electronic copies to back up their paper copies received in person), we were unable to make direct contact with any of the Republican Representatives of our state.

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A supportive crowd at Brenda Lawrence’s Town Hall at her Detroit office, 2/24/17, listens to a panel member discussing immigration law.  Rep. Lawrence is at the podium on the right. Photo ©Sparkpolitical, 2017.

Public rallies and town halls by Levin and Lawrence (some attended by other members of the Michigan Democratic delegation, such as Rep. John Conyers (MI13-D), Dean of the House of Representatives, who attended the Lawrence town hall) were scenes of public gratitude to their Democratic officials, in open contrast to the many angry crowds haunting the Republicans around the state and the nation.  At the Lawrence town hall, which I attended, for example, only one member of the audience showed visible (and relatively well-behaved) opposition as a Trump supporter; while applause was loud and energetic from the rest of the room for Lawrence’s support for immigrants fearing the new sweeps and deportation drives of ICE and the CBP, and for her presence at Detroit Metro Airport last month during the protest of the travel ban on Muslims.

On the other hand, Michigan Republicans like David Trott have become notorious for avoiding their own constituents.  While we were (optimistically) hoping to be able to catch at least one or two of them at their offices or during some public event or other, these officials have continued to avoid the public.  However, the Jackson office of Rep. Tim Walberg (MI07-R), whose constituents have created a “Where’s Walberg?” site for their missing representative, contacted our campaign and informed us that his office was going to address the questions raised in the comments column of the signatures print-out.  Other questions were asked of our volunteers by Republican staffers seeking more information about the petition, so they were not all immediately dismissive or unfriendly.

Now that Michigan’s petition effort is virtually complete (current projections are that all packets will have been delivered by Monday, Feb. 27), the Michigan volunteers are ready to move on to our next battle of resistance, either against the state administration of Governor Snyder, or against the national administration of President Trump.

Headline image, Danee Kaplan delivering our petition to Mitzi, Kalamazoo office staffer for Rep. Fred Upton (MI06-R).  With special thanks to Danee Kaplan for authorizing use of this photo.

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.”

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).

Utah’s Spencer Cox on the Pulse Massacre

On June 13, 2016, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox spoke out about the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.  He uttered a strong message of love, using powerful words, especially for a Republican; and his stance defies the sheer hatred and fear of Donald Trump’s ignominious reaction to the shooting.

KSL.com of Utah posted the YouTube video together with a transcript of the address.

The Real Soldiers of Political Struggle

Quote of the Week:  Ethics, decency, and morality are the real soldiers. -Kiran Bedi

The first woman to join India’s Police Service (and a police advisor in the Peacekeeping Forces of the United Nations) reminds us that how we struggle is just as important as the values for which we struggle.  This election year has seen an escalation in violence, and in angry and invective rhetoric, which discredits all those who use such tactics.  Not just between the two parties, but even within both Democratic and Republican parties, the ugliness of attacks on candidates and their supporters by supporters of opposing candidates has muddied the moral battleground of political struggle.

The methods that political actors use in their struggle for power are not merely tools for achieving power; they are indications of what said actors would do with power if they achieve it.  That Sanders supporters (and, according to one Politico report, the Senator himself) have used tired Republican attacks on Hillary Clinton (including the nonsensical nothingness of the “emails” controversy, about which even Sanders said he was “sick and tired of hearing”), shows what a Sanders “revolution” would have looked like had it gained the nomination.  A Sanders campaign in the general election may well have turned from the morality of making our nation a better place into a more anger-laden, “holier than thou” crusade that would have turned our American conversation on the role of government into a scorched ruin.  While Clinton usually did speak with reserve about her rival for the nomination, her supporters often attack “Sandernistas” and the values of democratic socialism.  Such attacks ignore the fact that the leftist goals that have made America a better place (union-based power for the workers in their relations with their employers, controls on working conditions, minimum wages, Social Security and Medicare) all derive from socialism and are primary goals of socialism.  We on the Left need to get more comfortable with citing and embracing our socialist heritage as a uniquely American heritage.

From the other side of the partisan divide, the apocalypse of scorched-earth rhetoric is still looming, as Trump supporters care nothing for courtesy or accuracy in their attacks, and openly attack (verbally and even physically) those who show up to their rallies for reasons other than supplicating the candidate with worshipful adoration.  The Republicans’ flirtation with a totalitarian cult of personality is truly disturbing and threatens the final degeneration of the Republican party’s remaining moral reserve.

Now that the contest is moving past the primary phase into a general contest between the achievements, values, and vision of Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies (including, it should be hoped, Senator Sanders); and the empty rhetoric and pep-rally antics of Trump and his Republican enablers; Clinton has the chance to demonstrate her leadership superiority through a more reserved and policy-driven campaign.  Such a campaign will speak nothing at all to the base of Trump’s supporters; who are not going to be moved by anything short of a racist vision of 1950’s America as their rallying point.  Instead, a campaign of ceaseless supremacy over Trump’s policy immaturity can work to build an alliance with the forces of conservative moderation, who cannot see in Trump anything resembling a conservative vision of controlling taxes and government expansion, or making government an effective area for dialogue and coordination with private markets and personal initiative.

Conservatives need to be reminded (as do some of the less experienced of Sanders’s supporters) about the values of the American City on a Hill, a society respectful of its members’ values, diversity, and faith; a society striving to build the community into a greater whole and more perfect union.  These values are the ultimate soldiers who will win an American political contest, if the victor is to direct the nation forward in accordance with our traditions and our historical legacy.  Otherwise, a resort to spite, distrust, paranoia about government conspiracy, and a weakening of governance and infrastructure will push the nation backwards, into poverty and global impotence.  If our nation is to survive and to protect both its own people and the disenfranchised of the world, we must empower the real soldiers in the fight: ethics, decency, and morality.

Headline image from womenpla.net, Inspirational story of Kiran Bedi – India’s first IPS officer.

 

On Fools and Their Chains

Quote of the WeekIt is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere. –Voltaire

The problem with short, pithy one-liners is that they do not delve deep enough to spotlight the complexity that underscores a seemingly simple reality.  Voltaire’s oft-quoted contribution can be (and is) used by holders of any political viewpoint to attack all others, decrying each other as “fools” revering their “chains.”  A Nazi could have used the line against a Communist or democrat; a Communist would eagerly see a connection between the “chains” and Marx’s exhortation to workers to break their chains.  American Democrats can use this line against Republicans, and Republicans against Democrats.  Clinton supporters could use the line against Sanders supporters, and vice versa.

The truth, however, is that it is not adherents of any single ideology who “revere” their chains.  Instead, fools end up on all sides of political questions; each with a different set of chains that they revere, each convinced that the rest are the fools.  The trick to not being a fool is to notice the chains around you; and to push yourself, your politics, your community, and your candidate to help you to free yourself from your own chains.

We find fools revering their chains behind all sides of the 2016 American presidential election.  Those advocating for Senator Bernie Sanders are fools for failing to see in their enthusiasm that Sanders is neither an ideal candidate who could beat an energized Republican attack on his socialist beliefs, nor is he the perfect Leftist.  Like that of his chief rival, Secretary Hillary Clinton, Sanders’s legislative record is liberal, but shows a willingness at times to compromise with conservatives.  There is not quite the universe of sunlight between the two Democratic finalists that Sanders supporters believe there to be.

Furthermore, by threatening to break up the liberal polity, or to take their votes to third parties or waste them away on writing in Sanders, they do not have the numbers to get what they want but they do have the numbers to keep the Democrats from defending the powers of the presidency from the Republicans.  Despite their attacks on establishment Democrats, Democrats have consistently pushed and continue to push a liberal agenda forward, eking out a moderate construction of our City on a Hill despite the conservatives’ attacks on the City.  A failure of Sanders supporters to unite behind the Democratic flag will hurt their own interests and goals more than those of any other group, ushering in a firmer shift to the Right and away from Sanders’s vision of a progressive society.  In their enthusiasm, Sanders supporters are threatening to solidify their own and our nation’s chains.

Clinton supporters instead savor the comfort of chains to their at best minimally left-leaning progressivism.  While Clinton, as Secretary of State, did push a number of progressive issues forward (women’s health and emancipation, the freedom of gender identity, the voices of non-governmental advocates for democratization like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, etc.), she also wavered on trade deals which threaten to increase globalization and decrease American job growth and economic independence.  There is a dangerous tendency in Clinton and her supporters (and to Sanders as well, even if his supporters fail to see it) to settle for what progress we can sneak past the corporate establishment, while empowering that establishment further with greater wealth and status at our own expense.  Clinton needs to be pushed often and fiercely to remember her liberal credentials (which are just as legitimate as those of Sanders, even if she has connections pushing her in other directions).

Between the Democratic varieties of fools, Clinton supporters need to embrace the more progressive vision of Sanders, cease deriding “Sandernistas” and “socialists,” and remember that socialism is ultimately about empowering workers to fight for their rights – a message that the Democratic Party often at least pretends to espouse.  Sanders supporters need to realize that they are of much the same ilk as are Clinton supporters; and that as such, both candidates’ supporters lose out if Trump is elected in November.

Trump supporters are their own unique type of fool, many (like some Sanders supporters) new to the field of spectator politics.  Trump’s supporters have failed to read Trump’s own statements (conveniently available on his website), which promise both to hurt their political interests and to raise their taxes for the pleasure.  An alleged billionaire who shipped jobs to China, lost fortunes of his inherited wealth, and profiteered off of those losing their homes in the housing market collapse, is nonetheless convincing the uninformed that he is a populist who will fight his business partners and friends on Wall Street, bring back jobs to the US (now that it has become politically correct for him to be interested, and despite not having any actual plans for doing so), and will help them now instead of profiting off of their losses as he has always done in the past.  The people most hurt by Trump’s business practices and lifestyle are the very ones building his movement.  They do not merely revere their chains; they worship the man who made those chains, and shout that he is now going to set them free.  One could almost love them for their optimism and simplicity, were it not for their vehement racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism.

A final type of fool likely to play a role in November is the one who will withdraw from the whole process and just avoid voting entirely.  The republican (small “r”) ideal depends on citizens taking responsibility for themselves, for their families, and for their communities, by ensuring that elected officials are responsible to them through the electoral process.  Those who leave the thinking and decision-making to others are the first ones to complain that their schools are “failing,” that the US goes to war at the drop of a hat, that their income is stagnating, that their government is corrupt and unconcerned about their issues.  We expect adults to care for themselves, we expect parents to care for their children, and we expect citizens to care for their cities, states, and nation.  Those who do not vote are largely responsible for the disappointments of all of us, voters and non-voters alike.  These fools have failed to recognize their own responsibility for undoing their chains through the electoral process and through civic action.  They wear the chains of convenience instead of assuming the inconvenience of civic responsibility.

Which type of fool will you be?  This list is clearly not exhaustive, but simply recognizes that all of us ultimately are fools of one sort or another (especially in the eyes of the other fools around us).  Try to recognize that your own brand of foolishness helps you to revere some form of chain or another; and remember that we are all of us fools in chains together.

Headline image, Voltaire, by William Blake (c. 1800) from Wikimedia Commons.

The Virtues of Federalism

File:Constitution We the People.jpg

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.

Will Edison, or Marx, or Both Prove Right on Big Energy?

Quote of the Week:  We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. –Thomas Edison

Over a century ago, the controversial technology developer (some would say, “inventor,” while others might hedge at that title) Thomas Edison evoked his hope that man would not limit himself to destructive and extracted energy sources when there was unlimited natural energy all around us.  His conflicts with Tesla over alternative energy schemes notwithstanding, and leaving aside the morality of some of Edison’s own approaches to business and corporatism, this specific Edisonian vision has been betrayed by the energy corporations that today live in his shadow.

Energy companies themselves should be at the forefront of green energy research and implementation, and they would be if they did not suffer from a myopia that afflicts most American corporations.  Corporations are all too wedded to the quarterly profits and the stock-market values of their stock shares, to look into the future and invest in their own success.  If and when green energy supplants oil and coal, those companies that today profit the most from extracted energy ought to have ensured their own survival by spearheading the transformation to green energy.  But that takes a corporate vision that is beyond the quarter-to-quarter profit motivation of American corporatism.  Instead of a steady transformation that protects the economy, the environment, and the corporations’ own stockholders, there will likely be a market disaster as coal and oil become suddenly too expensive and limited in quantity to provide the world’s increasing hunger for power.  Some forward thinkers will make a fortune; and some old money will disappear into the coffers of the new.  In the meantime, of course, those less wealthy people who had mistakenly invested their savings in old energy may find their retirement savings gone and their lives financially ruined.

The corporate myopia is also related to “financialization,” as major corporations worldwide invest fewer resources into research and put greater resources into stock buybacks to artificially inflate their own market share values.  Overall, business is becoming less enamored of research and more enamored of artificial devices to put greater stock values into the hands of the stockholders – and to concentrate those stocks into fewer, richer hands.  Karl Marx’s predictions for the potentials that capitalism has for destroying itself have outlived the communist movement that he helped create.  The fall of communism notwithstanding, corporatism is becoming ever more the corrupt, inefficient system that Marx criticized.  Capitalism’s increasingly apparent inability to solve problems, to create jobs, and to make people’s lives better may yet generate a new methodology for economics in the future.

Extracted energy suffers from a dilemma, in that increasing energy extraction competes with food and water resources (through environmental degradation and through the need for water to push resources out of the ground).  On the other hand, increasing food and water production require ever-increasing energy availability.  The world’s rapidly growing middle classes want energy, food, and water in ever greater quantities; and the only way to assure those needs in the long run is by switching our energy systems to non-extracted energy; to wind, sun, and other systems as hoped for by Thomas Edison.  Who will win in the end – Marx with his predictions for the end of capitalism; or Edison with his hopes for the transformation of energy?  Or will capitalism’s end help to finally enable a transformation to green energy?  The 21st century offers us both an opportunity to make our world better through innovative technologies like green energy, and a danger of what may happen if we do not.

Headline image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain images.