Tag: politics

Genius, Mediocrity, and the Perception of Victory

Quote of the Week:  Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best. Genius must always have lapses proportionate to its triumphs. –Max Beerbohm

As a political writer, I take these words to heart.  They are especially relevant to the risks that a writer must take as a natural part of the process.  Not everything I do ever ends up being perfect; and it is astounding how completely different something I have in my head looks once I start putting it into words.  Even outlines and drafts change radically as I enter words here, and often the transformation can be not only astounding but disheartening.  Sometimes I have ideas that work just fine in theory but come out looking more like something I would have written in high school.  At any rate, Beerbohm’s words indicate that as a writer I should be prepared to face a possible disaster (a “lapse of genius,” if you will) in order to strive for the higher goal of a well-constructed and delivered argument.

Looking past my own concerns, Beerbohm’s words are also relevant to the recent Iowa Caucus.  Two candidates in particular (Clinton and Trump), as well as the media, made their results out to be more than what they really are.  Clinton’s “virtual tie” (to use Bernie Sanders’s description) is painted instead as a “victory” (in a state she was expected to win, and by a good margin); at least in part because she is also expected to lose New Hampshire to Sanders, and needs to prevent a perception building up of an unstoppable Sanders momentum.  However, Clinton does have hope on the horizon, in the shape of Nevada (possibly), South Carolina, and Super Tuesday.  South Carolina in particular should be a big win for Clinton, and it is difficult to see how Sanders will keep up in the multiple-front onslaught of Super Tuesday.  But to get her there, Clinton strives to shape perceptions of her campaign as the unbeatable juggernaut.  She simply changed expectations at the last minute by having it appear that any win, even by the tiniest margin, was a “great victory,” regardless of the omens portended by Iowa.  But Clinton is a genius of political organizing, and that includes being married to another great political organizer.  Mediocrity is not a problem that Clinton suffers; and the campaign need not fear its lapse.  The genius of organization behind the Clinton machine should be allowed to consider soberly the reality of Iowa and find a way to connect to the new, young voter (who is overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders, and who well may play a vital role, as young voters did in 2008).  The genius of Clinton should be allowed its lapse; and it should be allowed to see and portray that lapse as what it is – not a fatal weakness, but a problem that needs to be fixed as the campaign moves on to its next objective.

Similarly, Donald Trump brought in a much lower percentage of Iowans than his pre-caucus poll numbers indicated.  Those numbers gave him a second place not far from the first, held by Ted Cruz, but also even closer (by a single percentage point) to Marco Rubio’s third place.  Trump is underplaying the result, treating it as if it had been expected.  Yet Trump had more campaign stops in Iowa than any other GOP candidate.  He clearly invested far more resources in, and expected far greater results from, the people of Iowa (despite at one point insulting them by asking, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”).  He also moves on to New Hampshire, a state where he is expected to do much better – a likely win.  And yet, the New Hampshire primary is basically “small time,” and like Iowa allows for much time and preparation, neither of which will be available for subsequent steps like Super Tuesday.  Trump’s failure to understand the voters, to understand the campaign process, and to understand his own rivals for the nomination (Rubio especially, whom Trump simply never saw coming) indicates not so much a “genius” showing an inevitable lapse, but the expected results of mediocrity trying to compete with its betters.

With Trump in Iowa, we see mediocrity at its best; unable to look past his own nose, or hear past the crowd of those around him.  Whereas with Clinton, we see political genius afraid to allow itself the comfort of a clear lapse.  For the good of the American political process, Trump’s mediocrity would best continue to “be always at its best,” but Clinton’s genius should be allowed to experience both its first lapse as well as its potential future triumphs.

Headline image via Google Image Search

Flint in Crisis, Part II: Friends in Need

With the city of Flint, Michigan, still deeply in need of aid and support in its continuing water emergency, we move from the basic causal events leading up to this January (detailed in Part I of this report earlier in the week), to a fuller examination of the problem at hand, and what needs to be done to fix the problem.

Flint is no longer using its contaminated river; and is back on Detroit’s water supply, having hooked back up last October.  However, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow stated recently in a televised town hall visit to the town, “the damage is done.”  Flint’s older lead pipes are corroded, and some of Flint’s galvanized pipes have also been damaged by the corrosives (chloride in particular), and by lead eaten off of connecting pipes by those corrosives.  While the entire system has not been compromised, fixing those parts that are is proving to be a complicated, expensive, and long-term operation for a variety of reasons.  Until the system is fixed, many residents are living day-to-day by depending on bottled water supplies, for cooking, washing, and of course drinking.  For a large city in a modern nation to be denied access to safe running water is simply unthinkable.  Others are more fortunate, and have water filters for at least some of their fixtures; but they are still dependent on external support for regular replacement cartridges.  Cartridges need to be regularly replaced due to continuing high lead levels in the water, and are obviously in very high demand.  There are also test results showing that in some homes the lead levels in the water are too high even for filters to handle safely, in some cases by an order of magnitude.

Lead will continue to leach into the water in all parts of the system using the old lead pipes which have been compromised, until those pipes are either repaired or replaced.  In those parts of the system that are damaged, it is no longer a question of the source of the water in the pipes.  The cleanest water will still be contaminated with lead leaching out of the damaged pipes.  Those parts of the system where the pipes have not been damaged can now use the water coming through from Detroit since last October (although consumer confidence in the system will be another issue entirely).  But what parts of the system are damaged, where is the damage, and how extensive is that damage?  One big problem, identified by University of Michigan-Flint professor Martin Kaufman, is that Flint’s records on its own water system are questionable at best.  With little money for modern resources, Flint still uses an index card system for tracking work done on its pipes.  The cards are not even organized properly, and some of the records are out-dated and incorrect.  The city’s own water officials are in many cases unsure where some of the pipes are, in what condition, and of what construction.  So fixing the system requires much more than looking up where the lead pipes are and replacing those.

One potential solution would be to run anti-corrosives and a sealant through the pipes.  Phosphates, highly toxic chemicals, are useful in sealing corrosion on old pipes.  The problem still remains as to where those chemicals need to be applied.  But with phosphates, there are additional problems.  Unlike regular anti-corrosives that most municipal water systems use (which are only used for preventing corrosion, not for sealing already damaged pipes), phosphates are highly toxic and would need to be flushed out of the system (and the system tested for water safety).  They are also only a temporary fix.  The pipes would begin corroding again; and so would need continuous monitoring and testing (for lead to begin leaching back into the water; not a good way to convince consumers of the system’s safety), as well as repeated resealing for as long as those parts of the system were not replaced.

Furthermore, there is the problem of home damage beyond the damage to the city’s water system itself.  Flint master plumber and plumber’s union manager Harold Harrington, featured by Maddow and MSNBC’s Stephanie Gosk in an interview segment, suggests that homes damaged by the corrosives and/or experiencing high lead levels in the water may require from $3,000 to $10,000 of repairs each (pipes, fixtures, water heaters, etc.).  There are an estimated 15-20,000 homes that need water service repairs.  Harrington suggests that some 1,000 plumbers could do that part of the job relatively quickly; but no one in the government has allotted any funding or authorized any work toward that goal.  Obviously, expecting poor home-owners who were not at fault for the failure of the system to pay for these repairs themselves would be both financially unrealistic and morally bankrupt.

Senators Peters and Stabenow (both Democrats representing Michigan in Washington) are attempting to attach an amendment to the Energy Policy and Modernization Act under review in the Senate’s Energy Committee, which would provide as much as $400 million in federal EPA funding for fixing Flint’s water system, and require the state to match all federal funds with an equal appropriation.  The $800 million total, if approved and funded, would meet Governor Snyder’s January 14 estimate of $767 million for repairs (Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, estimates repair costs about twice as high; $1.5 billion).  Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chair of the committee, has not indicated any support for the measure, either for herself or her Republican colleagues, long opposed to federal infrastructural expenditures and oversight.  Sen. Murkowski has at least expressed support for a provision of the amendment enabling Michigan to use $21 million of an existing federal Drinking Water Revolving Loan for forgiving Flint for already incurred debts for its water acquisition.

In the meantime, beyond fixing the water system, Flint has many new problems to fix resulting from the damage already done.  Lead poisoning is irreversible; and whatever damage was done (especially to young children, who are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning) cannot be undone.  Parents, teachers, doctors, and counselors need to observe the children under their care for cognitive and physical indicators of lead poisoning, and provide supports to those children as needed.  Many of these children’s blood lead levels are now going back to normal, as they are back on clean water; so those levels will not indicate who will suffer from lead poisoning, or how extensive the damage will prove.  With Flint already under economic hardship, Flint’s schools (lacking medical personnel, for the most part – they only have “health navigators” to help find external medical supports) need vastly more money for more support programs and for on-site medical staff.  This money will have to come from external sources – the state and/or the federal government, both largely run by Republicans clinging tightly to the purse-strings.  State representative Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) has asked the governor to forgive Flint’s public school system for its existing debts, as a way to help the schools create better programs and hire essential personnel.

Flint also needs other infrastructural development and investment.  There are virtually no major grocery stores easily accessible to poor residents (the Kroger stores there are on the outskirts, difficult to get to for poor residents).  Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha, one of the principal doctors involved in alerting Flint to its lead problem and in pushing the local and state governments on the issue, insists that fresh vegetables and unprocessed foods are key needs for developing children.  Such needs will be especially important to families with children suffering from lead poisoning; and they are difficult to come by outside of larger grocery stores.  Such needs can also be expensive, and require greater preparation time.  These factors tend to steer poor families toward unhealthy, high-carb, high-calorie, processed foods (part of the so-called “ghetto tax” suffered by the poor).  Flint is merely the tip of the iceberg in the nation’s problem in providing opportunities and a healthy standard of living for its poor.  These problems plague all poor communities, rural and urban alike.

In the meantime, as Flint struggles to survive this calamity, some support is coming to the city from across the state and across the nation.  Celebrities, organizations, and private individuals are all chipping in with donations of money, water, and other supplies.  The most immediately pressing needs are bottled water and water filters (as well as cartridges for those filters), all of which are being consumed about as fast as they come in.  These needs will continue to be daily requirements for a great number of households until the infrastructural repair work is well underway, a process that has not even begun.  Most large-scale celebrity and corporate donations, while expressing great charity and solidarity, provide less than a day’s water for the city’s population of 100,000.  Flint needs everything it can get, and immediately.  Flint also needs volunteers to help with water distribution, and with blood-lead testing and other services.

While deeper ramifications of the crisis will be examined in Part III of this report (still to come), readers can help Flint now, by volunteering time, and/or donating funds and/or supplies.  For Michigan residents wishing to come in person to help, one of the principal centers of support is the Red Cross in Flint:

Red Cross Blood Donation Center, 1401 S Grand Traverse Street, Flint MI 48503.           (810) 232-1401

The United Way of Genesee County has set up a donations page for contributions to the Flint Water Fund:

http://www.unitedwaygenesee.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=5

For other ideas on supporting Flint during this crisis, see the following:

MSNBC: How to help Flint, MI

CNN: How to help with the water crisis in Flint

Flint Water Response Team

Come back to Spark! later this week for Part III of this Special Report.

Headline image, volunteer for Who is Hussain preparing water donation to Flint, via Google Image Search.

The First Round of the Primaries

With all pundits’ attention riveted to the Iowa Caucus, the first real electoral event in the 2016 election cycle, it is worthwhile to step back and peruse what in vague terms the first month of the primaries and caucuses is going to involve.  For more information on the general process involved, check out Spark!‘s Primer on the Primaries.  Note that with one exception, all of the events below allot delegates by proportionate representation, so multiple candidates can (and will) come out of them with delegates to the conventions.

Timeline of events for the first month (Feb 1 – March 1):

Monday, Feb 1: Iowa Caucus (both parties)
Tuesday, Feb 9: New Hampshire Primary (both parties)
Saturday, Feb 20: Nevada Democratic Caucus (closed to GOP)
– also, South Carolina Republican Primary (open to all voters; and “winner takes all”)
Tuesday, Feb 23: Nevada Republican Caucus (closed to Democrats)
Saturday, Feb 27: South Carolina Democratic Primary (open)

Then (wait for it): Tuesday, March 1, Super Tuesday: 10 states will have primaries or caucuses for both parties simultaneously (AL, AR, GA, MA, MN, OK, TN, TX, VT, and VA); plus 6 more single-party primaries and caucuses (American Samoa D, Alaska R, Colorado D, Democrats abroad, North Dakota R, Wyoming R).

More events obviously will happen in March after Super Tuesday.  We have another article describing the second round of primaries (up through March 15, and including further discussion of Super Tuesday).  Spark! will bring you further updates as we get closer.

While Iowa is an exciting event for politicians, pundits, and anyone following electoral politics, it is nothing more than the symbolic beginning of the election cycle.  Only three candidates have ever gone from winning their party’s Iowa caucus to gaining the presidency in the same year:  Jimmy Carter in 1976 (who only had 27% of the Iowa Democrats in 1976; there were 37% “uncommitted” that year), George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008.  Many candidates have emerged from Iowa in strength and were never heard from again; whereas the opposite has also been common. Bill Clinton, for example, seized a massive 2.8% of the Iowa Democratic Caucus in 1992 (losing overwhelmingly to Tom Harkin’s 76%; remember him? Yep, thought so).  Clinton went on to win both the nomination and the presidency.  Iowa is therefore not a predictable indicator of who will win in the end.

However, as the first electoral event, Iowa provides the opportunity and time for candidates to prepare offices, staffs, and support; and to get their message out.  It is a battle for a strong “out of the gate” position in the horse race to the nomination.  The results of Iowa are merely the bell clang of that race.  After Iowa, candidates have relatively short periods of time in which to prepare for state primaries and caucuses; and then Super Tuesday comes along, and the campaigns have to battle it out in multiple states simultaneously.  On Super Tuesday, they triage their resources as best they can, to win those states considered to be both in contest and winnable (as well as losable).  After Iowa, there is little chance for candidates and campaigns to take a breath.  Ultimately, therefore, what Iowa represents is not so much the strongest candidates or campaigns, or the ultimate likely victors; but rather just the beginning of the real test for how the candidates have prepared for the four month slug-fest of the primaries phase of the nomination process.

As you prepare for and then watch the Iowa caucus and its results, remember the British wartime advice:  Keep Calm, and Carry On.  This is just step one, of a long and complex process.

Headline image via Google Image Search

Flint in Crisis, Part I: A Tale of Two Cities

Lansing Protest 3

The following constitutes Part I of a multi-part Special Report on the current water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  Part II was published several days later.

The Flint water crisis begins with the decline of the manufacturing cities of Detroit and Flint; and with the “water war” between those cities over Flint’s water supply.  That “war” was escalated by the Republican administration of Governor Rick Snyder, whose entire tenure has been powered by corporate financiers.  Snyder’s administration has been a long, sordid tale of privatization of public goods such as education, municipal services, and utilities.  Taking advantage of poor cities like Detroit, Plymouth, and Flint, Snyder has appointed “emergency managers” empowered to overrun elected municipal governments across the state (some, like Flint and Detroit, with large Democratic majorities and therefore hostile to the governor), and to transfer public services to private profiteers.

Both Flint and Detroit have suffered from the loss of automotive and other manufacturing jobs to non-union southern states and to low-wage foreign markets.  The cities have therefore also lost their principal revenue source: middle-class manufacturing workers.  Snyder has pushed these cities and others into selling off their public services to the private sector that has backed his elections (including his re-election in 2014, with less than 21% of the voting-age public supporting Snyder).  In both 2014 and 2015, Detroit was plagued by its own water crises, which were financial problems involving tens of millions of dollars of unpaid water bills.  Detroit’s response was to cut off water to delinquent accounts.  However, with a major portion of delinquent accounts being owned by about 40 major businesses (including major Detroit sports arenas like Joe Louis Ice Arena and the Comerica Park baseball stadium), Detroit left intact its services to the major debt holders and instead targeted the small-debt holders, the poor families of Detroit.

Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) also sought to reduce its deficits by raising the price of water sold to other municipalities, such as Flint, whose water costs almost doubled between 2004 and 2013.  The DWSD had been the principal supplier of water to the city of Flint, a smaller city even harder hit by globalization.  In November 2011, Snyder began appointing “emergency managers” to run Flint’s financial affairs.  The managers often overruled the decisions of the elected city council.  Snyder’s managers in Detroit and Flint began working in parallel to privatize city services in both cities, with the DWSD a major target.  Too big to be sold outright, Snyder’s corporate appointees worked to parcel out the DWSD into more easily digestible portions.  After Flint ceased acquiring water through Detroit, Snyder’s administration and managers broke up the DWSD into a smaller version of itself (keeping its old name), and a new semi-private, autonomous corporate entity, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).

The Republicans’ desire to break-up the DWSD, and the city of Flint’s need to cut their growing costs for water, pushed the two into a search for alternate means of supplying the city’s water needs.  A consortium of city and county water officials, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), was created from drain and water authorities in Genessee and Lapeer counties.  The KWA proposed to build a pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron to Flint, with construction to be completed around the end of 2016.

With a major source of its revenue threatened, the DWSD and the city of Detroit argued that Flint was initiating its own “water war” against them.  They also argued that construction costs and risks would make the new pipeline water more expensive than the costs of Detroit’s water.  In several attempts by the two cities to come to terms, and with Snyder’s office running interference, the DWSD apparently offered to cut costs back.  Detroit proposed to cut prices by as much as half, which would have made Detroit water cost 20% less than the construction and operation of a new pipeline system; but Snyder’s office killed the deal.  Finally, in March 2013, the city council approved the plan for the KWA pipeline.  The DWSD retaliated, issuing a cut-off notice to take effect the following April.

With the cut-off to take place at least two years before the completion of Karegnondi pipeline, Snyder’s emergency manager for Flint, Ed Kurtz, pushed the city council into tapping the Flint River, according to reports by both Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.  Both the WSJ and Michigan blog Bridge MI deny that the city council were given any choice in the process.  Both organizations cite sources within Flint’s city council saying that the decision was made solely by the state (the emergency managers and the State Treasurer, Andy Dillon).

The Flint River, once contaminated by factory waste disposals into the 1950s, continues to suffer pollution problems from winter-time run-off of road salts and other ground contaminants.  Road salts themselves are heavily corrosive, containing chloride and other corrosive chemicals which have bled into the Flint River, the principal drainage system of the region.  In April, 2014, Flint disconnected its municipal water supply from the DWSD.  Almost immediately after the shut-off of Detroit water, in the spring of 2014, Flint residents noticed a change in the taste, odor, and color of their municipal water.  That summer, Flint doctors recorded unusually high incidences of rashes, hair loss, and other ailments.  In the fall, Flint schools began bulk purchases of bottled water.  In October the GM plant in Flint ceased using municipal water after corrosion damage was detected in parts exposed to water from the municipal system.

The corrosion at GM was caused by high levels of chloride in the municipal water (having some eight times that found in Detroit water).  While most municipalities add safe corrosion inhibitors, Flint water was not treated.  The chloride corroded the old lead pipes of the city’s water system, leaching lead into the water coming out of the pipes.  The lead quickly reached extremely hazardous levels.  While federal law considers 15 parts per billion (15 ppb) as a minimum “action level,” requiring responsive action, EPA tests of Flint residential water reached levels as high as 13,200 ppb, almost 900 times the minimum action level.

Further problems in the river water were detected by researchers called in to investigate increasing medical concerns.  The water had untreated biological issues, with both E. coli and Legionnaires’ virus detected shortly after the water switch.  While the city quickly recommended the boiling of water to combat E. coli, the Snyder administration still refuses to accept a connection between two independent medical reports of Legionnaires in the water, and some 87 recorded cases of Legionnaires in Flint after the water switch.  So far, ten of the Flint Legionnaires patients have died from their ailments.

While the EPA essentially kept quiet on the issue, instead pressuring the Michigan Department for Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other state authorities to take action, the MDEQ refused to accept the validity of the increasing evidence of large-scale problems in the water supply.  Both city and state governments largely treated the greatest problem cases as isolated local incidents not demonstrating a greater problem. Meanwhile, medical institutions in the Flint area recorded the average level of lead in the blood of local children as doubling since 2013, and in some areas tripling.  In January, 2015, Genesee county declared a public health emergency, and urged Flint residents not to drink the water.

Almost a year later, in December, 2015, a Snyder-appointed task force to look into the problem finally criticized the MDEQ for failing to “properly interpret” federal guidelines on water lead levels, and for failing to require corrosion-control treatment for Flint river water.  Following this criticism, MDEQ director Dan Wyant resigned from his post.  His successor, Kevin Creagh admits to his agency’s “tone-deafness” to the problems.

With ten residents dead, numerous children showing cognitive and physical impairments indicative of excessive lead poisoning, and various rashes and infections plaguing many more residents, public activists attempted to reach the voters and motivate public officials of the state to take responsibility for their actions and fix the problems they caused.  Protesters from across the state marched in Flint on January 8; and then again in front of the governor’s condominium in downtown Ann Arbor on January 18.  The next day, hundreds more protesters poured into Lansing, marching to the steps of the capital building as Snyder delivered his annual “State of the State” address inside.  The United Auto Workers union (UAW) was there in force, representing the aggrieved auto workers whose loss of jobs and income has served as an economic trigger for these events.  Protesters from Flint and other Michigan towns called for justice; for the resignation, impeachment, or even arrest of the governor; as well as for a substantive solution to the Flint water crisis.

In his address on the 19th, Governor Snyder finally apologized for the crisis, saying, “I’m sorry and I will fix it… You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.”  Two weeks before, the governor had declared a state of emergency in Flint and in Genesee County.  On January 12, he also mobilized small units of the Michigan Army National Guard, to provide water supplies and security.  On January 16, in response to the governor’s request for federal support, President Obama declared Flint to be a federal emergency area.  Although the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requires that federal “states of emergencies” be for natural catastrophes, FEMA has funding for lesser “emergency areas” such as the Flint crisis.  The federal government allotted an initial relief package of $5 million, with FEMA coordinating relief with multiple agencies.  In his address on the 19th, Governor Snyder requested $28 million from Michigan’s state budget for emergency relief.

A full year after Genesee County declared an emergency and told residents not to drink the water, the governor’s office finally noticed and also declared an emergency.  That was almost a full year of tens of thousands of poor families knowing that their water was poisoning them and their children, but lacking the resources to buy enough bottled water for their daily household needs.  Only after a year of repeated complaints by dozens of residents at city council meetings and with bottles of poisoned, discolored, and foul-smelling water from their homes, did the governor finally declare an emergency.

For more information, come read Part II.  Also read our re-blog of “No Words“; our story on “Helping Out in Flint,” and our most widely read story, “Growing a Family With Water in Flint.”

Headline image © 2016, Sparkpolitical.  All rights reserved.

 

Moonlight and Madness, Or Moderation?

Quote of the Week:  “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” – Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg was certainly not afraid to live by these words, leading the beat generation and counterculture, expressing his homosexuality openly, confronting the government on drug policies and on war issues, and creating poetry anew in his own image.  However, as a political writer (and an avid watcher of the political horse-race, elections) I am somewhat intimidated by these words.  I do not live, and also do not write, as if I were Ginsberg, or a follower of him (which I am not, much as I am inspired by some of his work).  I write as a liberal, but one trying to converse politely with the Right; in case they happen to stop by.  But most, or all, of my readership thus far seems to be on my side of the spectrum.  I began my blog under the tagline “Fomenting a Political Conversation,” and that remains for the moment my mission – to get people talking if I can, not just with their individual echo chambers, but with people on the opposite sides of the aisle.

In that spirit, I often tone down my language.  I edit out some of my anger at the injustices of the world, at what I think are not just wrong but stupid positions or arguments.  I hide the madness, and stray from my inner moonlight in pursuit of what is likely a futile goal.  And I expect the politicians on center stage to do the same.

As a liberal, I love the stances and proposals of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  I have been a follower of both for years, and have been a past contributor to Clinton’s 2008 campaign, and to Sanders’ involvement in the Democratic Socialists of America.  Still, when Sanders shouts like the angry old man on the porch (in effect, living Ginsberg’s advice in ways that I cannot), I cringe.  I see Sanders as the great legislator (giving a voice to Congress that even as a Senator, Clinton never could); and Clinton as the great executive with deep personal experience and relationships with the leaders of the world.  But I also see Clinton as reserved (like myself) in ways that Sanders is not.  What would she promote as a candidate if she followed her own inner moonlight?  She was a leftist in 2008, before Sanders was there to push her; so that does not just come from the current dynamic.  Is Clinton “realistic” and Sanders “radical”?  Is Clinton “political” and Sanders “real”?  In part, I hope to answer these questions through this blog as I investigate these actors in greater detail.  For now, I find myself torn – between the “moonlight and madness” of Sanders’s more “revolutionary” proposals (which energize my instinctive leftism), and the “moderation” of Clinton, and her “establishment” positions (which I internalize as reasonable compromises).  And I am torn as a political writer, between writing my fury and delivering fiery oratory; and my desire to talk to the other side in a way that welcomes dialogue.

Howl at the Moon

When So Few Words Cause So Much Harm to So Many

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

And there lies the heart of the problem – or one of them, at least.  Today that poorly constructed sentence, with no connective phrasing indicating the relationship between the “well regulated Militia,” the “security of a free State,” or the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” would be edited until it actually made sense (unless, of course, it were posted as a meme on Facebook).  Is the right of Americans to own weapons seated solely, or largely, upon the intent of maintaining a people in arms against a foreign invader or domestic oppressor?  Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia argued in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), is there no necessary relationship, and does the Second Amendment simply promise unfettered rights to arms regardless of the “militia,” or the “security of a free State”?

While this is an interesting constitutional argument, over 30,000 lives are taken each year by firearms in the United States.  Roughly a third of those lives are victims of apparently deliberate violence; while suicides account for the largest share of gun deaths each year.  The many Americans lost each year (equivalent to losing the entire Vietnam War all over again every 21 months) deserve much more than an “interesting constitutional argument.”  Furthermore, as national fears ramp up over an increasing wave of violence (the rise of mass shootings, the rise of police violence against civilians, and the fears of foreign terrorism), gun-rights advocates opposing further regulations and gun-control advocates seeking further regulations both cater to fears of those around us.  The gun lobby and those gun-owners who oppose regulation portray a multitude of apparent threats to themselves, and to their families and homes.  They also ally with more extremist elements expressing fears of the “Other,” and with an increasingly publicly acceptable bigotry against non-whites.  The gun-control advocates fear that they may be next to die to some crazed, Christian “holier than thou” shooter in their church, school, or shopping mall; or that their nephew with problems may be the next to use a weapon to end his life.

President Obama, tired of more than a year of almost weekly “thoughts and prayers” consolations to the nation for the latest shootings du jour, finally moved past a catatonic Congress to enact changes to gun sales regulation via the few powers available to his office.  Immediately, the predictable firestorm of reaction was raised against the President by those in the gun lobby who had eagerly awaited such action for seven years without satisfaction.  The tightening of existing regulations on the sale of firearms now seemed to them to be inaugurating the president’s long-awaited crusade to take away their guns.  Quickly the president rose up to the challenge of national dialogue, in a time when we Americans do not bother to actually listen to each other any more.  At a “town hall” meeting hosted by CNN in Fairfax, VA, the president took questions from representatives from both sides of the gun issue.  Although the NRA’s headquarters is located just down the road from the site of the “town hall,” that organization refused to contribute to the dialogue, preferring instead to steer the issue silently through campaign contributions.

The president attempted to connect with gun-owners and sellers, reminding them that each of them probably had to pass background checks themselves.  His executive order focuses on ensuring that everyone purchasing a firearm passes through the same process.  There was not a lot of listening in the hall that night, however; and the president had to repeat his insistence that new regulations would not result in anyone’s guns being taken away, or even make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to acquire firearms.  When George Lakoff wrote about “framing” political dialogue, this was precisely what he was talking about.  People (on all sides of political and moral questions) create “frameworks” within which new information coming in must either fit, or be discarded.  New facts and arguments which do not connect with existing views of reality are simply discarded; not accepted or even noticed as facts or as being relevant, however well reasoned or argued.  Therefore, it does not matter how much the president reassures conservative gun-owners that he is not “coming for their guns”; since the NRA has spent millions of dollars convincing them that he is, that is their reality regardless of what the new executive order actually spells out, or what the president says to explain the language or intent of the order.

Unlike the gun lobby, however, the president made it clear that at least he was listening to  the other side.  He recognized that the Second Amendment (ambiguity notwithstanding) guarantees the right to own weapons, and that the right to do so is not going to go away.  Those of us who are not killed each year by gun violence are simply going to have to live with the most heavily armed national population in the world.  But, as the president noted, there are ways we can work to ensure safety, to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists as much as possible.  At the “town hall,” at least, one side (the gun lobby) was “framing” the president’s words into an intent to take away their guns; while the other side (the president) was in fact listening and responding to their fears, even accounting for them into his executive order and his message.

There were more stalwart opponents of gun rights at the town hall, however.  Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago (a longtime acquaintance of the president) argued that in Chicago, it is easier for kids to get guns than it is to get computers.  He asked the president why gun ownership and control could not be handled like that of cars (legal, accessible, but heavily regulated, insured, etc.).  The president reminded the father of the public’s paranoia about the government, citing last year’s Texas freak-out over military maneuvers in a state proud to house some of the largest military bases in the country.  Were the government to take firmer steps, especially without Congressional support, the public outcry would simply escalate past the administration’s ability to get anything done.  The president’s executive orders and arguments now positioned him in the center, rather than on the left or right; with the left arguing for greater controls, and the right arguing for fewer controls (or at least against more controls).  The president showed a willingness to listen to both sides.  Nonetheless, in our divisive political culture, the conservatives view the president’s words and actions as being on the left rather than in the center, as those of an activist and opponent rather than as a mediator between two opposing forces.

There is a simple explanation as to why one side in particular, the conservatives fearing a gun-seizing federalist tyranny, wears greater blinders than the other.  As lawyer and blogger Jack D’Aurora noted, the answer is easy:  “follow the money.”  There’s gold in them thar frames. There is money and power to be made by keeping people afraid and “clinging to their guns.”  And until we work harder to push corporate contributions and moneyed political interest groups out of our representatives’ pockets, they will continue to sell us their products and their consequences.  Until we push the NRA and the gun manufacturers (some of whom have also been attacked by the NRA for attempting to improve gun safety, as the president noted at the town hall) out of congressional offices, we will have to live – or die – with an overarmed and under-listening population.

Headline image from a posting by Odyssey, via Google Image Search.

The Hijacking of Morality

Quote of the Week:  “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”  – Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur Clarke warned us about the tendency of those wearing religious trappings to act immorally, and even to foment deliberately immoral principles and objectives.  Religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are complex structures of thought, filled with self contradictions that allow for these religions to be used for contradictory purposes – to argue, for example, both for and against slavery, for and against war, for and against religious toleration, etc.  However, there is an easy test by which we can determine whether an argument, religious or otherwise, is moral – how, in effect, to determine if morality is on track or has been “hijacked.”  That test is the liberal ethic of building a community of care and welfare, the vision of the City on a Hill.  Morality is ultimately not a question of religion, enshrined as it can be by religious thought.  Morality is not found in God’s House; but in the hearts of people doing the moral work of building a city of love and care and communal responsibility for those around us.

Humans are for the most part essentially moral creatures.  All human civilizations, societies, and cultures have moral systems; and for that matter the gross similarities on moral rules (prohibiting murder, protecting children, etc.) vastly outweigh disparities.  This is even more true of religions, which are virtually universal in their agreement on basic moral questions (disagreeing instead on doctrinal questions, like the number and names of their god(s), the relationship of physical to metaphysical realms, days and times and methods of worship, etc.).  That humans always manage to impose an identical moral order on their religions, and on their societies and cultures (not to mention on agnostic and atheist philosophies) proves that religion gets its morality from people, not the other way around.  Morality is a human quality, not a religious one.

All religions are theories of philosophy.  Philosophy is merely “the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”  Religions are first and foremost theories about the nature, composition, and origin of the universe, questions fundamental to philosophy in general.  All philosophical systems – religions included – are ultimately moral systems, because humans are moral creatures seeking to impose their natural moral standards upon their thoughts, impulses, laws, cultures, etc.  Religions represent natural human curiosity about – and the need to explain – the universe around them; and religious morality derives from both our natural human norms and from social and cultural differentiation.  No religion developed in a vacuum.  All religions grew out of existing moral, philosophical, political, social, and other systems, and kept certain basic standards while imposing certain other new standards.

Political ideals are also philosophies, and they similarly derive from basic moral norms as well as imposing new moral standards.  Furthermore, political and religious ideology are often intimately intertwined.  Human thought remains fixated on systems inherited from the past (systems in which people grow up and which therefore can be central to their conception of the world around them).  Early thinkers sought to explain complex and (at the time) immeasurable phenomena through simple religious statements; and their explanations have been passed down the generations to the religions of today.  Political idealism, often informed by preexisting religious ideals, also interacts with and shapes developments in religious thought (as in such trends like Wahhabism and the Great Awakenings of the nineteenth century; and the twentieth century movements of religious conservatism and extremism).

The interaction between religion and politics has had ramifications both great and terrible.  The American liberal ideal of the City on a Hill exemplifies a civilization informed by Christianity and enshrining a social collective with an imperative to care for all people and to welcome all seeking refuge.  However, despite the essentially liberal ethic that derives from Christianity and the other great religions, religion carries with it a risk that bleeds over onto politics as well.  Religious messages can be confusing, complex, and self-contradictory; and many have perverted religious messages to pursue immoral objectives of greed, selfishness, and intolerance.  In fact, much in the way of religious conservatism (of all colors) falls under this description, including the Religious Right of the US, the settlers’ movement of Israel, and the Islamic theocracy of Iran.  Even more extremist religious conservatives like ISIS, al Qaeda, and terrorist killers like Robert Dear and Dylann Roof pervert religious messages into immorality, denying messages of peace, love, and tolerance; and perpetrating violence and hatred.

Religious conservatism effectively abandons the liberal moral ethic enshrined by religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and works against the community of the City on a Hill.  Such movements and their sympathizers used religious arguments to support slavery, to rationalize and push forward imperialism and Manifest Destiny, to ignore and even justify the Holocaust, to continue repressive regimes like those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, to fight against the extension of civil rights in the US, and even to argue against basic health care services to the poor like those provided by organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  In all of these cases, religious arguments contradicting the basic liberal ethic of the very religions cited were used to justify oppression, intolerance, and violence.  Values hostile to the major religions of the world, as well as to most human moral norms, are given religious justification by those claiming religious titles and citing religious sources.

Clarke may have misspoken somewhat when he criticized the “hijacking” of morality by religion.  Religion does not “hijack” morality; but it does promote the abandonment of morality (even while being itself an expression of moral principles), by those wearing religious garb and identities.  There is, however, a simple way to tell the difference between religious leaders arguing immorality (the “hijackers”) from those arguing a moral message.  The litmus test is the liberal ethic of community, the construction of the City on the Hill (and the construction in fact, not simply the patriotic lip service to an ethic otherwise ignored).  We find morality ultimately not in God’s House; but in the hearts of those building our City, extending the community of care and welfare to all people.

Headline image via Google Image Search.

Traversing the Thin Line Between War and Peace

This week, in accordance with plans announced last year, the United States Army is deploying roughly 1,300 personnel from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) to Iraq, in what is characterized as a regular rotation.  The division headquarters is replacing the division headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division as the command component of a DMCU (Division Multi-Component Unit).  The DMCU is a joint coalition force responsible in part for training and supporting Iraqi military and security personnel, as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve mission to combat ISIS.  The 101st Airborne’s headquarters elements will include about 65 personnel from the Wisconsin National Guard.  The division headquarters has been home-deployed since February 2015, when it returned from a five-month deployment to Liberia as part of the relief effort to stop the spread of the Ebola virus.

In addition to the headquarters rotation, the division’s 2nd “Strike” Brigade will be replacing the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade as that formation returns to its home base in Ft. Drum, New York.  The combat elements of the 2nd Brigade trained recently at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Major General Gary J. Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne, expressed great confidence in the brigade’s ability to perform its mission.  The troop rotation is ultimately going to leave approximately the same US troop strength in Iraq (currently around 3,000) as before.

The USN and Iran Face Off in the Gulf? (Or Not)

Meanwhile, on January 12, two USN patrol boats with ten sailors aboard (nine men and one woman) were detained by naval elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGN) for “snooping around” (the Iranian accusation), or for “mechanical issues… leading to both boats inadvertently drifting into Iranian waters” (the American response, paraphrased from the Reuters feed on the incident).  The Iranian government assured the US State Department that the Americans would be returned to US custody very shortly.

Headline image of 101st Airborne helicopters via Google Image Search.

Image of USN riverine patrol boat released by Reuters, courtesy of the US Navy.

Who is at the Helm?

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The New York Times recently featured a discussion about the political direction of the nation, and various reactions to it.  Having myself answered telephone polls that included the question, “Are you satisfied with the direction in which the nation is moving?”, I am troubled by the failure of polls using this question to address the more fundamental question of who is driving the nation in that direction.  The responses posted by the Times, and the reactions they reveal, also show a problem with both the question and with what American voters think about and respond to.

The main problem which President Obama has had to contend with since even before winning the presidency is the economic situation.  The Bush Recession and the financial meltdown of 2008 pushed President Bush into a corner, and during the 2008 presidential race, Bush asked the two contenders, Senators Obama and McCain, to the White House to discuss it and advise him how to deal with it.  Senator Obama’s plan became the road-map to recovery, used by both Bush and President Obama.  While there was a halt to the meltdown, and while job growth has continued almost unabated since 2009, Republicans and their supporters question the president’s performance and claim that Republicans would have done better.  They of course ignore the fact that the recession and meltdown both happened on their watch; and they ignore the fact that neither Bush nor McCain had an effective plan to deal with them (which is why Obama’s plan was implemented by Bush).  They also ignore the fact that job growth and overall economic performance have generally been better under Democratic presidents than Republicans.  So is the problem “direction,” or “velocity”?  The Republicans have a legitimate concern that Democratic recovery is too slow; but they had no alternative means of achieving a more rapid recovery, with the modern job market globalizing and market shares of foreign nations edging out American manufacturing and other services.  So whom is to blame?  The Republicans who had no ideas and allowed the problems to manifest, or the Democrats who have repaired much of the damage but too slowly from the point of view of their critics?

Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and others on the left have also demonstrated significant problems deriving from the increasing concentration of wealth in the US.  Some of the reasons why recovery has been slower than would be liked also derive from this problem.  As wealth has been concentrating (lower-end wages remaining the same over time, but wealth expanding at the top), union and middle-class jobs, which provided much of 20th century America’s income and consumption, have been edged out.  As income and consumption reduce overall, there is less demand for manufactured goods and for the jobs producing them.  There is less money to invest in small businesses (and less consumer support for those businesses).  This allows large corporations to push over smaller ones (itself causing further wealth concentration into the large corporations at the expense of “mom and pop” local businesses).  Congressional leaders like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pushed for supports at both consumer levels and business levels to even the playing field; but with foreign competition growing and here to stay, America faces a 21st century economy that will have to be very different from our 20th century hegemony.  Both Democrats (like Bill Clinton) and Republicans have helped to loosen the regulatory environment that creates living spaces for smaller companies and protects them from larger corporations.  And unions have fought to preserve the incomes of their own workers, inciting resentment from others towards their seemingly “overpaid” members, who have traditionally been the nation’s principal consumers and job creators.   So whom is to blame?

A new political environment has evolved with populist movements arising like the petty-fascist reactionaries of Trumpland.  The Republicans bloviate with hate-filled language about homosexuals, abortions, and foreigners to incite actions like the multiple county-based oppositions to the SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling and the Colorado Springs shooting at the Planned Parenthood facility.  They ignore the calls by Black Lives Matter and other movements for a dialogue on racial discrimination, and their snide remarks about African Americans struggling for their rights helps fuel incidents like the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston.  They do not even manage to distance themselves from heinous incidents like the Charleston shooting.  The racist group inspiring Dylann Roof’s shooting, Council of Conservative Citizens (the ideological descendant of the Citizens Councils of America , or “White Citizens Councils”), is currently campaigning for Trump in Iowa.  Extremism is looked upon from the right as normal and acceptable.

Are there growing extremes on both sides?  Where is the leftist “extremism” about which the right so often complains?  While Sanders suggests that large corporations will not “like him,” he, Warren, and Reich push not for some communist utopia of “people’s republics” dictating production, consumption, and classless society, but instead for a leveling of the field that allows small companies to co-exist with the large.  They seek a capitalist environment in which workers can achieve personal security and agency while working for profitable companies.  They seek a society in which the police do not target specific groups or races, but instead protect all citizens under their watch.  They seek a society that builds the City on a Hill, the vision for America that has always been and remains the nation’s central, and founding, ideal.  In what way are these goals “extremist”?  So whom is to blame for extremism?  Both parties, or just one – the Republicans?

When poll-takers ask their respondents the question, “Are you satisfied with the direction the nation is taking?” they ignore the question about who is doing the driving.  Both sides of the spectrum have reasons to be fearful about our “direction,” as well as about our “velocity.”  And on the economy at least, both sides are more in agreement about direction, disagreeing more about velocity.  The party in the White House created the plan steering the nation back toward job growth (the desired direction for both parties), while the party in Congress has yet to advocate specific means that would change our velocity.  So which party is to blame?  And where in our course corrections do we find racist and bigoted populist movements of the far-right, like Trump’s movement; or activist movements of the left like Black Lives Matters?  To which direction are they trying to steer us, and is our ship turning toward them?  Economically, where do we find the rocks of foreign competition and increasing globalization, around which we must steer to get to our port?  These questions are far too complex to be enshrined by one simple and myopic question.

Headline image from Forward Now! (posted August 20, 2013), via Google Image Search.