I guess I really am a hippie at heart

After the rally a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia, I wrote that there have been two Harry Chapin songs bouncing around in my head. They’re both calls to action in their own way: we have more in common than not and that working together — even when that work will be difficult — is the best way to truly improve things.

When I mentioned this to my 12-year-old son, he suggested that I put together a playlist of protest songs, songs that call people to action or raise awareness of issues worth addressing. I thought that was a good idea.

It didn’t take me long to assemble this playlist from my music library. I had to break one of my rules for making a playlist for one like this. Normally, I don’t do any more than one song per artist, but that wasn’t going to fly this time. There’s a fair mixture of covers and original versions of the songs, although only one song is actually repeated in the playlist: Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” appears right alongside of Eddie Vedder’s amazing cover of that same song.

There are — as can be expected with songs that are angry at the status quo — multiple tracks on this playlist with objectionable language, including one that uses a word I never actually use in its title.

There’s also an interesting history lesson to be had here. Direct references to certain wars and political figures are peppered throughout the list. It gives me the opportunity to talk about things my kids probably haven’t really learned about in school yet. That includes four straight songs about The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Speaking of objectionable language, one thing I neglected to mention when I wrote of being bullied in high school, is that the song “Working Class Hero” by John Lennon was one of the things that helped me cope during my suspension from school that year.

The emotions of this playlist are laid bare to anyone who will listen. Even though I’m quite familiar with all of these songs, I didn’t quite expect the sheer level of emotion I felt when I actually sat down to listen to it. Whether it’s Harry Chapin singing about “how together, yes we can create a country better than the one we have made of this land” or Phil Ochs’s spoken word tale of how he felt after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968: “Something truly extraordinary died there which was America.” There’s some fear, some hope, some empowerment, some calls to action. In defense of the weak, the poor, the downtrodden, the needy. War, poverty, injustice, and hatred are among the themes covered in this list.

I probably will add songs to this playlist over time but at least for now, it’s a good one. Here’s what I put on this list. What other songs belong here?

Song Title Performed By
Revolution The Beatles
Bulls on Parade Rage against the Machine
I Ain’t Marching Anymore Phil Ochs
The Parade’s Still Passing By Harry Chapin
We Shall Overcome Bruce Springsteen
This is Why We Fight The Decemberists
Give Peace a Chance John Lennon
Another Age Phil Ochs
Zombie The Cranberries
The Luck of the Irish John Lennon
Sunday Bloody Sunday U2
Sunday Bloody Sunday John Lennon
I Don’t Like Mondays The Boomtown Rats
Days of Decision Phil Ochs
It’s Good News Week Hedgehoppers Anonymous
The Times They Are A-Changin’ Bob Dylan
Holiday Green Day
The Hands that Built America U2
What Made America Famous? Harry Chapin
Bound for Glory Phil Ochs
This Land is Your Land Woody Guthrie
Little Boxes Pete Seeger
In the Ghetto Elvis Presley
Southern Man Neil Young
Ball of Confusion The Temptations
What’s Going On Marvin Gaye
Blowin’ in the Wind Bob Dylan
The Rising Bruce Springsteen
Dover John Flynn
Goodnight Saigon Billy Joel
I Kill Therefore I Am Phil Ochs
Masters of War Eddie Vedder
Masters of War Bob Dylan
When the War Came The Decemberists
Two Tribes Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Hitler’s Brothers Paula Cole
Mussolini’s Head Greg Greenway
Universal Soldier Donovan
Where Have All The Flowers Gone The Kingston Trio
That’s What I Want to Hear Phil Ochs
I Wonder What Would Happen to this World Harry Chapin
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Buffy Sainte-Marie
Old Man Trump Woody Guthrie
Power and the Glory Phil Ochs
Exhuming McCarthy R.E.M.
Woman is the Nigger of the World John Lennon
Only a Pawn in their Game Bob Dylan
Chimes of Freedom Bob Dylan
Remember When the Music Bruce Springsteen
Song for Myself Harry Chapin
Abraham, Martin, and John Dion
Pride (In the Name of Love) U2
Love Me I’m a Liberal Phil Ochs
I Ain’t Afraid Holly Near
Imagine John Lennon
One Man, One Woman, One Vote Greg Greenway
Working Class Hero John Lennon
William Butler Yeats Visits
Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed
Phil Ochs
It’s the End of the World As
We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

If you want to be a hero, well just follow me………


After the Rally

About a week ago, I wrote about my own experience with being bullied.  If there is a single overarching disappointment with the electoral victory of Donald Trump, it’s the resurrection and resurgence of a culture of bullying, of vilifying people by virtue of their being a member of being a part of a group.  Judging people not by the content of their character but instead by some vaguely defined membership (which may or may not be an active choice).  

I don’t have disdain for David Duke (for example) because he used to belong to the KKK.   I have disdain for him because (among other things) he believes himself to be superior to others because of the color of his skin.  That this worldview comports with that of the KKK, although not coincidental, is not the whole story nor is it the entire justification for my contempt for the man.  At an individual level, I would still judge other KKK members separately from the group to which they belong.  

One thing that makes 2016 different from 1980 (another time a celebrity perceived by many as a political lightweight rode a populist wave into the White House, threatening to undo a lot of the hard-fought social progress recently achieved), is the fact that the losing side is refusing to remain silent.  Indeed,  two weeks have passed since the election and the rallies of the opposition continue to seize the intellectual and moral high ground.  

About a month before the election, my son asked me what I thought were the three biggest issues facing the country.  I thought about it for a minute and said the environment, nuclear proliferation, and tribalism.  

If you agree with me on those topics then you also agree that the election of Donald Trump — if we can take his relevant public statements at face value — are a setback with regard to all three of those issues.  His threats to back out of the Paris climate deal and the Iranian nuclear deal could (if he follows through) make global warming worse than it already is, and could make it harder to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  

And he undoubtedly used tribalism, fear, and hatred to appeal to people who either feel left out of the economic recovery we have otherwise been enjoying, or whose beliefs cause them to fear people they otherwise don’t know (pick a group: blacks, muslims, the LGBT community, atheists, liberals,….)

Trump himself isn’t the real problem.   It’s the acrimony he has encouraged, the resurrection of anger, rage, scapegoating, and tribalism.   They’ve always been there; he just reawakened it, at least in this country.  

I had the good fortune to attend a rally in Philadelphia this past weekend.   While some of the sentiment was decidedly anti-Donald Trump, the real message was love, of building bridges rather than walls, of offering someone a hand instead of a fist.  

The rally was a thing of beauty.   Men, women, and children of all ages, creeds, colors coming together.   Strangers, mostly, united by the shared belief that we, as a people, can be better, do more for our fellow human beings and the world around us.   

It wasn’t so much a protest as it was a call to action, to turn the lights on as the darkness approaches.   We listened to inspiring speakers talking about their visions of what truly makes America great.   

And then we marched to the Constitution Center and back.  We sang and cheered for life, love, beauty.   

The most moving part was when we marched by the National Museum of American Jewish History and the entire crowd (well over 1000 people) went silent and gave a polite salute to the six million people who were slaughtered during the holocaust as a part of the brutal nazi regime in Germany seven decades ago.  The unspoken words: never again.  

I had made a sign that read “However you say it, we need more love” with the word “love” written in multiple languages around the poster board.  The languages I chose were French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German, Hindi, Hebrew, and, most prominently, Arabic.  

I can’t imagine the incoming regime actually making good on the promise to implement a registry for Muslims.   I would imagine that before they even try, it would be challenged on first and fourth amendment grounds, and would fail in the courts.  But you can count me among those who would clog the list if it were to come to fruition with erroneous and misleading data.  

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of Harry Chapin, both his work and his music.   He’s got two songs that have been echoing in my head since the rally on Saturday, both of which are a call to action, to motivate us against complacency and the forces that seek to divide us.  

Song for Myself
What Made America Famous?

He’s surely celebrating

I don’t talk much about my senior year of high school.   

The events of that year, for me personally, were integral in shaping who I am now and informed many of my opinions and the way I regard music, art, politics, other people, and life in general.  

Truth be told, even today, as I look back on the events of that year, more than 25 years ago now, there’s still a lot to parse.  

It was a year of some incredible highs: my first real girlfriend, the Presidential Classroom, acceptance to Georgetown University, watching events unfold on TV (the fall of the Berlin Wall being the most visible) and realizing I was witnessing history.  

It was a year of devastating lows: the breakup with that girlfriend, mean things I said to friends, the hospitalization for an ulcer.  

And the emotional torment associated with a single person whom I will not call out by name in this essay.   While I wouldn’t pin all of the blame for the lows on him specifically, I can certainly see how the stress of the situation might have led to both the ulcer and the mean things I said.  

This person was someone I’d known since the first grade.  At times throughout all of those years, he and I were, if not friends, then at least on good terms with each other.  Other times, it seemed as though he found my very existence to be the worst possible things imaginable.   

But by senior year, he undoubtedly hated me.   I just wanted to be left alone.  

I remember the day after a particular episode of The Wonder Years first aired.  It was the episode where the school walked out in protest of the Vietnam War.  He asked me if I thought we should just give peace a chance, an angry tone in his voice.  

When I mumbled that it was obvious he had seen that episode the night before, he got angrier and asked me what I said, so I told him.  He then went off on an angry tirade against the kid who, in the show, proposed the protest and his rhetoric.  He said he legitimately wanted to hurt someone for pointing out the wrongness of American foreign policy in a work of fiction set twenty years prior.

On multiple occasions, he vandalized my property, in and around my locker.  

I worked in a retail store after school and on weekends.  (It’s where I met my first girlfriend…)  He made a point of occasionally showing up there to harass me.  

He knew where I lived.  One morning we woke up to find that someone had spray painted swastikas and a “go back to Israel” message at the foot of the driveway and on garbage cans we had put out for collection.  While I can’t be 100% certain who did it, I’m reasonably sure that it was him.  

He was in the junior ROTC in our school and it was common knowledge that he kept a knife in his boot.  (I never saw it personally and I will readily concede — in hindsight — that it’s possible that this was a myth, but at the time it wasn’t something worthy of my skepticism…)

So I legitimately feared for my safety.  Without my parents’ knowledge, I started bringing a Swiss Army Knife to school in hopes of defending myself at least a little bit.  

To no one’s surprise, the school administrators found out and he and I were both suspended from school for three days, never having thrown a single punch.  The official reason for my suspension was the knife.  I never heard exactly why he was suspended.  

Yes, I know that if that were to happen today, I would have been expelled.  

After the suspension, he ramped up his already hateful rhetoric, egging me on to a fight which I had no interest in participating in.  When friends — including guys on the football and wrestling teams — asked me why I didn’t want to fight, I usually responded with some variation on “I’m a lover, not a fighter…”

Instead of making a fist, I filed a civil complaint in the local courts.  When the subpoena arrived, it was quite the news in our school.  The judge, wisely, looked at the two of us and, in dismissing my case, told us to leave each other alone.  After all, by this time graduation was just a few months away and we’d likely never see each other again after that.  

In the last edition of the school newspaper before graduation, I bought some space in the “farewells” page and wished him success both in his chosen college (West Point) and in life.  Rumor has it that this gesture — which I did just to gain closure — pissed him off tremendously.  

I have had no contact with him since then although there was a time freshman year of college when I met someone from West Point who had come to visit a friend of mine in my dorm.   I asked him if he knew the guy who had tormented me.   When he said yes, I told him to tell him I said “hi” and then to duck.  

I occasionally google him to see what he’s up to.  At various points in recent years I’ve seen a photo of him bringing a thanksgiving turkey to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, writing a particularly vituperative review of an army history book on Amazon, and teaching in Pittsburgh.  

And I don’t doubt that he’s celebrating the recent electoral victory of Donald Trump.  The overt racism, sexism, xenophobia, and antisemitism that pervaded Trump’s campaign and which has since emboldened his supporters to harass and attack minorities and immigrants (see this Raw Story article for details) is something that I don’t doubt appealed to my tormentor.  

In hindsight I probably should have stood up to him more directly back in high school.  His brand of hatred and anger just don’t belong in a civilized society and certainly don’t help to make America great (whether or not we want to append the word “again” after that).  It’s why I’ve started wearing a safety pin on my shirt and why I will be going into Philadelphia next weekend to protest, not so much Trump himself but the rhetoric that he has used and which has poisoned civil discourse.  

If you can, please join me.  

The real problem with the electoral college

In six of the past seven quadrennial elections, the democratic candidate for president received a bigger share of the popular vote than the republican candidate did.   Despite this fact, the democratic candidate only won the election in four of them.  In the years 2000 and 2016, the democratic candidate lost the election because of the way electors from the electoral college were apportioned, which is the way presidents are actually elected.   (Except for the states of Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state receives all of that state’s electors.)

2000 and 2016 mark the fourth and fifth times in American history when that happened.  The previous three were in the years 1824, 1876, and 1888.   In 1824 and 1876, no candidate won a majority of electors and, in accordance with the rules laid out in the constitution (or more specifically, the 12th amendment), the presidency was decided by the House of Representatives.   1888 was replayed four years later between the same two candidates and the loser the previous time won the next time.  (And the loser in 1888 was the sitting president so that actually makes 1892 the only time in American history where the main choice was between the sitting president and a previous president, although Ulysses Grant in 1880 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 came out of retirement to seek the presidency under a third party.)

The number of electors in the electoral college is a straightforward calculation: each state gets a total number of electors equal to the number of senators it has (which is always 2) plus the number of Representatives it has (which can range from 1 for our least populous states to (currently) 53 for our most populous state, California).   There are a total of 435 representatives in all of congress.   The 23rd Amendment to the constitution gave three electors to Washington, DC as though it were a state.   Thus, there are a total of 538 electors.  

And therein lies the real problem.  Our least populous state (Wyoming) has a population of about 563,600.   California has a current population of about 39,100,000.  This creates a bit of a disparity.   In the house, Cynthia Lummis (Wyoming’s representative) represents about 200,000 fewer people than any of her colleagues from California.  Thus, the people she represents have more relative clout in the government.   This also means that a vote for president in Wyoming is more valuable than a vote for president in California (or at least would be if Wyoming were actually a “swing state”.)

There have been 435 members of the house since 1911 (although after Alaska and Hawaii joined the union in 1959, this number did go up to 437 for four years before going back down to 435).  Since the population of the country has grown quite a bit in the past 105 years, the House of Representatives has gotten significantly less representative in the process.  

In fact, the current population of the country is nearly 100 times as large as it was when the constitution was first drafted and laid out how the government is supposed to work.  The first congress had 65 members of the house.  Now it’s not even seven times larger.  I’m not saying there should be 6,500 members of congress now (it’d be a logistical nightmare just to find offices for them all) but it seems clear to me that we need to increase the count of people representing us in Washington.   

Now I concede that a part of this proposal is borne of the fact that my home state of Pennsylvania has lost representation in congress after each of the past three censuses because its population growth rate, although still positive, has been slower than the national average.  This, in turn, has made Pennsylvania one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union.

I don’t know the correct “magic number” of Representatives per citizen.  I should think that even Wyoming needs more representation in congress though.  

When we do that, the number of electors will also go up and become more commensurate with the population.   That could make the citizenry more engaged and maybe, just maybe, events like 2000 and 2016 will be the anomaly and not the norm.  After all, it only really happened once before.  

Corruption, anyone?

I’m not hiding the fact that I have serious concerns for the environment, women’s rights, the economy, health care, the Supreme Court, and international relations in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory the other day.   

But I don’t want to talk about those, at least in this essay (although I’m going to touch on international relations).  

What I do want to talk about is something I haven’t seen discussed yet: the very real conflicts of interest between a president Trump, and a businessman Trump.  

There was a point, about a month ago, when Trump took a break from the campaign to focus on the opening of a new hotel.  So he’s already shown a willingness to put his personal financial interests ahead of even his own political agenda.  

What happens when a foreign power gives Trump clearance to build a new hotel or golf course somewhere in its territory?  Wouldn’t they expect something in return?  It’s why the constitution expressly prohibits the president from holding “present, emolument, office or title” from foreign powers.  

Now before I proceed, let me make it clear that all presidents are positioned to profit from the office, both in terms of domestic and foreign powers and investments.  But to avoid conflicts of interest, they generally put their holdings in blind trusts or similar vehicles so that they can’t know whether they’re truly profiting from their decisions.  

It’s kind of hard to do that with real estate.  It would look awfully suspicious if, for example, Vladimir Putin let Trump open a golf course in Yalta and then started building up troops near the Russian border with Lithuania.  

All right.   That might be a bit extreme but I’m sure it’s something that might keep Dalia Grybauskaite up at night. 

I’m not trying to argue that Trump will knowingly do anything illegal as president with regard to his business interests.   Hell, I’m not entirely sure the line between what’s legal and illegal is all that well defined.   We’ve literally never had a president whose personal finances had this much opportunity for conflicts of interest and corruption.  

About a year ago, Trump said he wouldn’t collect the presidential salary ($400,000 per year) if he were elected.   Assuming he keeps this promise, I would worry that his refusal to collect it might be window dressing to cover up more shady sources of income.  

We’ve had some pretty corrupt administrations in American history.  Grant and Harding should be the first names that come to mind.  At least with them, they started out more or less clean and just got dirty.  With Trump, I don’t see how he can even go in clean.  

Something to watch out for

Last week, on October 31, 2016, we recognized the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, thus kicking off the Protestant reformation.  This one event was the spark that exposed rampant corruption but at the cost of some of the most devastating conflicts in world history.   

There’s something about the first twenty years of a given century that seems to be laden with conflict, violence, anger, and chaos.   We can start with Luther’s actions in the year 1517 if we want.  (We can go back further if we want but this is as good a place to start as any…)

101 years later, as tensions boiled over, the defenestration of Prague was the spark that began the Thirty Years War, the most violent, bloody war prior to the 20th century.   

The first twenty years of the 1700s were, I concede, relatively peaceful.   But by the end of that century, the American and French Revolutions led directly into the Napoleanic Wars from 1803 to 1815, completely altering the map of Europe forever.  

Then, of course came June 28, 1914.  The Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off a diplomatic crisis that rapidly devolved into World War I.  Then came the Russian Revolution and the seeds for the Second World War.   

So now we’re here in the year 2016.   There have been two dramatic elections this year alone: Donald Trump and Brexit.  (Three if you count Colombia’s rejection of the peace in its civil war).  Either of them could be seen as a shockwave to the relative peace we as a planet have enjoyed since the end of World War II (and yes, I know that there have been multiple protracted conflagrations around the planet but the reality remains that in the past seventy years, the only full-scale war where all sides can be considered either first or second world countries was between Israel and Egypt and lasted a whopping six days).   

And the pawns are moving into place: Putin in Russia, the refugee crises in Syria and Iraq, North Korea’s belligerence, an emboldened Benjamin Netanyahu, Duterte in the Phillipines…   Add in strains on resources caused by droughts, famines, or other natural disasters (many of which could be the result of climate change)…  You get my point.  

I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be (or even if it’s going to be) but there’s a lot of places where a tiny spark could quickly turn into a raging wildfire.   
And it does seem like the hundred year cycle is coming back around.  I hope it doesn’t happen but I for one will be on the lookout for it.  May it not be as bad as it has the potential to be.  

I can’t sleep

In the old Nintendo video game Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, when you run out of lives, the screen turns red with a large shadowy figure announcing the return of the big bad guy who was defeated in the first game.   The music of the game stops and is replaced by a sinister laughter to add to the sense of doom created by the loss of your character.  

I’m reminded of that image as I see the results of this year’s election.  

I was born in 1972 and, to date, I have seen five presidents whose political party was Republican.   The order in which they served is, in my opinion, the same as the descending order of their quality as stewards of the nation.   I have more positive things to say about Nixon than I do about Ford, and then they take a sharp decline downhill from Reagan, to Bush Sr, to Bush Jr.   

In that time, the Republican Party has ceased to be a party that stands for what is right and good about America.  They stand for unfettered greed, destruction of the environment, reckless spending, military aggression, authoritarianism, and the tearing down of the wall of separation between church and state.  And their biggest selling point is fear.  

Make someone afraid and you can get them to do just about anything.  

So, yeah, I’m disappointed by the results of the election today.   Donald Trump, a man whose public policy statements have been at best constitutionally questionable, has apparently won the election.   This wasn’t supposed to happen, pure and simple.  

Commodities and stock markets around the world have already started to react negatively to this news.  And there’s no question that we’re in for a bumpy ride at least for the next two years, if not the next four.   I think we can safely predict an uptick in terrorist attacks, economic turmoil, and general bad times as a result of this election.  

But I’m an optimist.   Maybe Trump will surprise us and reneg on some of his more outrageous promises (like the wall on the Mexican border, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, or an attempt to overturn Roe vs Wade).   Maybe the democrats In congress — with or without the help of some republicans — will grow a spine and rebuff him the way the republicans often rebuffed President Obama.   

Regardless, this should strengthen our resolve to keep fighting.  Fighting for what’s right about America, especially now that an easy symbol of what’s wrong with America is about to move into the White House.  Let’s still fight to preserve the environment, civil rights for all minorities, economic justice, education, health care, scientific literacy, and, most importantly, freedom.   

After all, even after you’ve lost all of your lives in that video game, you can still defeat the evil dictator.