I have even less respect for Trump now

On January 29, 2017, a mere nine days into the nascent administration of Donald Trump, a US Special Operations force carried out a raid on the village of Yakla in the nation of Yemen.

While all of the details of this raid will be the stuff of investigations that, if they’ve even begun, certainly haven’t been completed. But here’s what we do know:

The initial groundwork for the raid was started during the Obama administration but Obama himself never greenlighted the mission. Donald Trump did that.

One US Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid, as were some number of civilians. The number of civilians killed, depending on which reports you might read, ranges from the low teens to as many as 25.

Very little, if any, intelligence was gained from the mission.

To his credit, Donald Trump was present when Owens’s body was returned to the states and to offer condolences to his family.

Now let me make it clear that any number of factors can lead to the success or failure of any given mission, most of which are outside of the control of anyone who’s not on the ground in the middle of the mission. I’ve seen some articles from the fringe political left refer to Trump as a “murderer” because of the results of this raid. If I’m being at my most polite, this characterization is grossly inaccurate.

But there’s plenty of fallout from this raid that should fall squarely on Trump’s shoulders. First and foremost is the fact that he tried to shift the blame for the raid first to Ex-President Obama and then to the generals who oversaw it. I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, but you authorized the raid and therefore it’s up to you to accept the consequences, good or bad. By trying to deflect the blame, Trump has turned this mission into more of a news item than it needed to be.

The President of the United States is often called upon to make extremely difficult decisions. This particular decision involved him serving as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces but not all decisions need to involve that particular responsibility. Some decisions prove, in hindsight to be good decisions while others prove to be, um, not so good. (And, as I’ve written before, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it was a good decision.).

I would argue that, with regard to this particular decision, Trump was lucky in that he received near-immediate feedback that caution would have been the more advisable path. Someone with good leadership skills would have taken this miscue as cause for introspection, reflection, and a changing of tactics for the next time a similar decision might be warranted.

Last night (February 28, 2017), President Trump gave an address before a joint session of congress. It had its high moments and low moments, to be sure, but the lowest moment of the night was when he called out Carryn Owens, the widow of the slain SEAL from that mission. It was arguably two minutes of the most uncomfortable television I’ve ever watched.

I don’t blame anyone who gave her a standing ovation, but she clearly was still grieving over her loss, and rightly so. What I saw was someone whose wounds from a traumatic event were still fresh, praying for strength, crying. I don’t know what was going through her head and whether or not she appreciated this gesture, but when Trump doubled down and claimed the raid to be a success despite the casualties, it was clear that he learned nothing from this basic lesson in on-the-job training for the presidency.

If I were Mrs. Owens or any other member of Ryan Owens’s family, I’d be furious at being used as a prop in his speech, his totally misguided attempts to defend the indefensible. And I do question if we’d even know about this raid had Owens not died.

I don’t know if this raid would have come out differently if Trump had waited longer before authorizing it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post if either Owens, or the Yemeni civilians, or both, had survived. It’s a lot harder to get a learning experience from having made a successful decision.

But Trump had a golden opportunity to demonstrate himself as being up to the nuances and complexities of the presidency — something I previously doubted. After all, when was the last time a new president’s decisions were tested this soon after he took the oath of office? (By comparison, September 11 happened nearly eight months into George W Bush’s presidency and the standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, started a little over a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency and ended a month and a half later. Trump wasn’t even president for two whole weeks when Yakla happened.)

I may have previously doubted Trump’s fitness to be president. I don’t doubt it any more. I’m convinced that he’s unfit to be president.

Meet some low information voters

I make an active effort to see how some people whose worldview is not consistent with my own, view the world.   One website I visit with some frequency is a bulletin board called Rapture Ready, a group of evangelical Christians who look at the world and see the conditions of end times as outlined in the books of Ephesians and Revelation, thoroughly grounded in modern Christian eschatology.   They’re hyper-religious and ultra conservative, feeding each other’s fears and paranoia within the confines of their own protective bubble.  

The membership of this group is largely American, white, evangelical.   While some of them may not have supported Donald Trump from the outset, they are now almost universally supportive of him, largely due to his appointments.  
Several years ago I tried to create a profile for myself so I could troll them but I never got the promised confirmation email (to confirm that I’m neither a robot nor the victim of someone else’s spoofing campaign) so I simply didn’t make any real effort to follow up.  My original user name was a profane word in Russian but if I were to try it again, I’d likely use Matthew6-6 if it’s not taken.   If I were ever called on it, I’d simply explain that my name was Matthew and that my birthday is June 6, relying on them not knowing that particular verse of the Bible or how it basically tells them not to act the way they do…

There is a short thread on the board that I’d like to share with everyone.  In the interest of protecting people’s privacy I won’t link directly to it but it can be found in the “Breaking News and World Events” forum from the above link.   The original post is dated a little over a week ago, February 10, 2017.  I have copied all remarks verbatim.   The one link provided in the thread, I am also copying.  

Subject: Le Pen: If elected, French Jews will have to renounce Israeli citizenship

Poster 1: Le Pen: If elected, French Jews will have to renounce Israeli citizenship.

Link to Jerusalem Post article confirming same
Poster 2: a little animated icon in which one emoji is slapping another, with the label “Snap out of it”   That is what I would tell him.

Poster 1: quoting poster 2 and then issuing the correction “…her”

Poster 3: How typical of the nation of France to come up with such a ludicrous policy. However, this is exactly what you can expect from a nation without God. After all, this is the nation that held the French Revolution.

It’s obvious that neither poster 2 nor poster 3 actually read the linked article.   Had poster 2 actually read the article (or known about the election prior to it), he or she (I honestly don’t know the genders of any of the posters here…) would have known that Marine Le-Pen is a woman.  You literally need look no further than the first paragraph to know better.  

Poster 3 is the more interesting person here because of the way his or her opinion was reached.  This person excoriates the secular nature of France as a nation.  One truth about RR is their unflinching support for Israel because of its role in bringing about  the so-called end times.  

The linked article actually raises questions about the journalistic credibility of the Jerusalem Post.  The real news story is that French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le-Pen says that the only people who should have dual citizenship with France and another country, should be dual citizens with other EU countries.  By definition, that excludes Israel, and she acknowledges it as such.  

I think this is a bad idea since it drips of a modified nationalism that merely exchanges France’s borders with those of the EU, and can have horrifying implications to all immigrants in France.  

But by putting the implications in terms of Israeli citizenship rather than a greater anti-immigrant sentiment, the Post ironically risks fomenting greater anti-Semitism by claiming not that the whole policy proposal is bad, but that Jews somehow deserve preferential treatment over other non-EU members (which, let’s remember, will soon include Britain).

If either Poster 2 or Poster 3 had actually been good citizens within their worldview, they would argue not that Ms. Le-Pen’s proposal is a bad idea on its surface (as they’ve both done), but instead that there should be an exception to the policy for Israel.  

I almost want someone to let the folks at Rapture Ready know about this blog post of mine, even if it would scuttle my ability to troll them.  They claim (and try) to be informed about world events but are stuck in their own bubble and need to be broken out.  

The evolution of the Republican Party 

In 1860, a sharply divided electorate resulted in the election of the first ever president whose political affiliation was with the relatively newly formed Republican Party.  This party was generally opposed to slavery, although there were two major viewpoints within the party: those who wanted an outright ban on slavery throughout the United States and those who sought simply to prevent its expansion.   

The newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, was a smart lawyer and canny politician, which is why the pro-slavery forces were so afraid of what he would do.   Most of the southern “slave states” voted to secede from the union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and a handful of counties in the state of Virginia didn’t join their slave-holding confederates), and, as the northern army sought to prevent this separatist movement, plunged the nation into a civil war.   

The official reason for the fighting was the argument over preservation of the union or autonomy of the slave states.   And that looks good on paper, of course, but that ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the room: we essentially had to go to war to end slavery.  

The war lasted about 4 1/2 years, with heavy casualties on both sides, and ended with a demoralized south and a now-constitutional ban on slavery (the 13th amendment passed congress and was sent to the states shortly before the confederacy surrendered to the Union forces at Appomattox Court House in Virginia).

It makes for a compelling narrative to say that the north won the war because they were on the right side of history and were the ostensible “good guys”.  After all, the leaders — Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, and countless others — of the confederacy were skilled military tacticians who were more than capable of waging the battle and who arguably had the easier job: holding the troops from the north at bay.   

But that narrative overlooks the fact that the confederacy misjudged one very important advantage the northern states enjoyed: economics.   While the ideological differences between the northern and southern states centered around slavery, there were several other differences that, simply put, favored the north in just about any other match-up, moral high ground be damned.  

The big non-ideological difference between the two sides of the war, was the contrast between industry (the north) and agriculture (the south).   The south may have relied too heavily on its perception that the goods that it provided to American trading partners around the world, were more valuable than those provided by the north.   Indeed, it’s not a surprise (at least in hindsight) that Egyptian cotton exports surpassed American cotton exports in 1862.   

The Republican Party rightly could claim victory in the management of the war and bolstered their claims on the grounds of both moral high ground and industrial acumen.   Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s victory, the republican presidential candidate emerged victorious in every quadrennial election from 1860 through (and including) 1928 with only four exceptions in that entire time period (1884 and 1892 when Grover Cleveland won it, and then in 1912 and 1916 when Woodrow Wilson won), although many of these elections were extremely close (especially 1876, but it’s the stuff of a completely separate essay).  

Over time, the business interests that underwrote the victory in the war, started to gain power within the party.  It’s tempting to say that they didn’t care about the needs of the newly liberated slaves.  That is a bit harsher than the reality but not entirely wrong: as history has repeatedly taught us, apathy and indifference often do more harm than active antipathy.   The former slave owners never truly stopped resenting the loss of their slave labor and, in many cases passed that resentment onto their children and grandchildren.  Meanwhile, the business leaders started to focus more on growing their business interests, at most paying lip service to the needs of the former slaves in their employ.   

The contentious nature of the election of 1876 was only settled when the Republican Party agreed to end the reconstruction of the south in exchange for being able to declare victory. After all, the business leaders didn’t really care one way or another for reconstruction.  Some might have even seen it as an unnecessary expense anyway.   

By the time Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, the Republican Party focused less on civil rights and more on business and free market interests.   While Roosevelt himself was quite progressive on these matters, especially given the time period, his successor, William Howard Taft, was more of a pragmatist.   It’s why he vigorously prosecuted corporate monopolies under the Sherman Antitrust Act and prompted Roosevelt to come out of retirement, paving the way for Wilson’s victory in 1912.  

Wilson, only the second democrat to be elected president since Lincoln won the presidency more than half a century before, won re-election in 1916 on a platform of how he kept us out of the war that gripped Europe, despite the pleas for help from our allies.   As often happens with wars, though, by the time it ended, the world as a whole became a very different place from what it was when the first shots were fired.   We entered the war after the Germans sank the cruise ship Lusitania and, at about the same time, the Russians pulled out of the war, having fallen victim of a revolution that created many far more pressing needs at home.    

And the rise of socialism in Russia, complete with the upheaval aimed at the upper classes in the larger cities (especially Moscow and Petrograd) was more than enough to shake the wealthy businessmen and women who by now were both the power brokers and core constituency of the Republican Party.   The earliest “red scares” date to the 1920’s during another decade of Republican control over the White House.   And they played to the fears quite deftly: they could appeal to the ultra-religious by pointing to the official atheism of the Soviet regime and to the wealthy by pointing to the official economic policy.   We still see both of these fears in the rhetoric of the modern Republican Party, nearly a century later.  

The stock market crash on October 29, 1929 created the worst economic crisis in American history, now popularly known as the Great Depression.   Numerous factors made this economic downturn worse than previous ones but the increasingly globalized economy was certainly a factor.  (And if we thought things got bad in the US, that’s nothing compared to Germany, still hurting from the aftereffects of the war a decade earlier.   Stories of how a comfortable life savings one week became insufficient to buy a loaf of bread the next are not much of an exaggeration from the realities of what led to the rise of Hitler.)

When Franklin Roosevelt swept into the presidency in 1932, he rode a sentiment that correctly viewed the wealthy as having created the crisis but put the suffering on the middle and lower classes.   In purely economic terms, the lines separating the two parties had become well-defined.   The democrats focused more on workers and the republicans focused more on the wealthy.  

I recently wrote about how it’s impossible to predict the long-term consequences of any individual decisions made.   If FDR hadn’t sought a third term as president in 1940 (on a platform not unlike Wilson’s in 1916), we might not have the 22nd Amendment today, which limits a president to a total of ten years in office.  Since it came into effect, only 1980 stands out as an exception to the rule of eight years in the White House by one party followed by eight years of the other.   (And although this is unknowable, there is evidence that an event five years earlier is the reason why FDR sought a third term: the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey Long; had Long lived, FDR might have stood aside for Long to run in 1940.)

After the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the republicans revived their anti-communist rhetoric, and it became much louder than it had been in the 1920s.   Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy personified this step-up in rhetoric.    With McCarthy, the very words “communist” and “socialist” became insults, extending far beyond the economic implications of these terms.  

(Side note: this is the stuff of another essay, but the true beauty of Karl Marx’s theories, is that he applied Wilhelm Friederich Hegel’s dialectic philosophy to history in purely economic terms.   He wasn’t wrong with the assessment of history even if his predictions for the future were overly idealistic.)

The election of 1952 is an interesting one.  The slow evolution of the Republican Party to what it is today took a bizarre turn that year.   Both the democrats and the republicans tried to recruit popular World War II general Dwight David Eisenhower to be their candidate and he chose the republicans because he wasn’t sure he liked the direction the democrats were moving in.  I don’t think this has much to do with the “Dixiecrat” revolt four years earlier when the more racist elements of the Democratic Party walked off the convention floor, but it definitely enjoyed the fruits of the aftermath.  Between 1948 and 1964, the KKK and other white supremacist groups had no political home, and this was good for both parties.  

But in the 1950s, the seeds were sown for the more undesirable elements to be welcomed into the GOP.   Sure, the business wing of the Republican Party saw the Soviet Union as an economic threat, but channeling this into something supported by the masses was … difficult to say the least.   Enter Billy Graham, who linked the economic platform of the USSR to something more easily feared by the populace: atheism as state religion.   

The United States has always had a bizarre relationship with religion.   In the realm of jurisprudence, we learned the hard way that the proper way of conducting a trial is to put the burden of proof of guilt on the accuser, not rather than putting the burden of proof of innocence on the accused.  Religiously-based witch hunts more than a century before our independence proved this.   The US constitution is a truly godless document as the only references to religion involve how there shall be no religious test for office and how the government can’t stop you from worshipping as you see fit.  Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation” between church and state, and the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated during the presidency of John Adams, says that the US “is not in any sense a Christian nation”.

But there’s no denying that the majority of residents of this country are Christian and, as is true for any group that enjoys the privileges of the majority, it can be difficult to draw lines that separate the privilege from official government sponsorship.  It’s why they push back so hard when they sense losing their privilege.  

The 1950s saw a significant amount of blurring of the line between government and religion: the addition of “under god” to the pledge of allegiance and choosing “in god we trust” as the official motto.   See my recent essay on the Johnson Amendment for more on that topic.   But moves like that are highly symbolic and it’s fair to say that moves like these are more symbolic than anything with regard to actual day-to-day governing.  

When (democrat) Lyndon Johnson wrangled congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (a brave move, considering that it was an election year), he reawakened the racists in the deep south.  Indeed, he figured that this move cost the democrats the votes from that region for at least a generation.   He was right, unless you count the fact that he underestimated the amount of time.  

It’s fair to say that the election of 1968 may have been one of the worst choices Americans ever had to make.   Two incredibly flawed candidates who would have lost to a more energizing, inspiring candidate on the other side.   The chaos outside of the democratic convention in Chicago only underscores this.   Later that year, folksinger Phil Ochs reflected that “the saddest thing about Chicago — it was exhilarating at the time but incredibly sad afterwards — was that something truly extraordinary died there, which was America.”

You can hear a recording of this quote on the album There and Now: Live in Vancouver in the spoken word intro to the song “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed”.  We can debate the accuracy of this statement but there is a truth to the fact that the so-called “establishment” effectively emerged victorious over those who sought to upend it.   

But Nixon emerged victorious in 1968 and with his victory came a renewed influence of Billy Graham.   The 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision served as a mobilizing force for the religious extremists within the Republican Party.   This emboldened other members of the religious right, namely Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, culminating in the takeover of the southern baptist convention in 1979.   

In 1980, the Republican Party was still smarting from the corruption Nixon had ushered in and needed a charismatic populist who would appeal to the business wing, the religious wing, and the relatively newly emboldened racist wing.  They found it in an actor who had been president of the Screen Actors Guild during the Joseph McCarthy “witch hunts” of the 1950s, who later went on to be governor of California.   Ronald Reagan gave enough red meat to all three of these groups and it’s no surprise that many republicans today idolize him despite the damage he did to the country.   

For a truly fascinating read, check out the Wikipedia entry on Ronald Reagan in music.  Protests against Reagan didn’t have the same effect on the greater populace as the protests of the 1960s primarily because the 80s were a time of peace while the 60s were a time of war.  

Bill Clinton once looked back on the hippie movement of the 1960s, complete with civil rights actions and the liberation from prior roles and expectations and remarked that if you thought this was a good thing, you’re probably a democrat and if you thought this was a bad thing you’re probably a republican.   

Since Reagan, two Presidents Bush further emboldened the religious right and their racist peers.   Indeed, the power brokers in the so-called Bible Belt do their best to disenfranchise minorities and have been since the end of the civil war.  It’s just been a question of which political party they affiliate with.   

And now Donald Trump sits in the White House, his closest advisers not even hiding their racist, anti Semitic, neo-Nazi sentiments.   He may have his day, and he will do a fair bit of damage to the country.  But what emerges from the ashes may be stronger, kinder, and more humane than anything this great nation has ever known.   And maybe, in the process, the Republican Party will finally disavow the racist, sexist, theocratic notions to which they currently cling.   That’s my hope.  

Weltschmerz

Donald Trump took the oath of office today at noon, becoming the 45th president (44th unique president) of the United States of America.  I didn’t hear his speech but I did read it afterwards.   All things considered, it wasn’t a horrible speech, as speeches go.   He seemed to hammer on the points that endeared him to the people who voted for him: the economy is in the tank, crime is unbearable, the military is weak, and all of the other things he said on the campaign trail without a lick of evidence to support it.  

(Note that with regard to the economy, there is a nugget of truth to the pronouncements in that far too many people are working their asses off only to enrich the already wealthy and still have trouble making ends meet but the solution to that is not tax cuts for the rich, as he and his team have proposed.)

I do think there’s something disingenuous about proclaiming to have responded to the will of the people when he actually lost the popular vote, and badly.   Indeed, if the popular vote at all levels actually worked out to the actual results, we’d be celebrating our first female president and a democratic majority in congress.  But that’s not the way the constitution and the congressional districts are designed.  

So we enter into a period of uncertainty about the future of the nation.   As a straight, white cisgender male, I know that I will be all right.   That’s my privilege talking.   But it’s not me that we should be worried about.   It’s all of my friends who don’t share in that privilege: my female friends, my trans friends, my African American friends, my gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends.  Those are the people for whom I worry.  

The word that is the subject line of this essay is a German word for the pain, angst, or anguish of watching things happen around you and how little control you might feel you have.   It literally means “world pain”.   I think it fits.  

A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the New York Times about why rural America voted for Trump.  It’s interesting reading, to be sure, but there was one characterization of the difference between liberals and conservatives that I, as a liberal, take exception to: it said that conservatives view people as inherently bad and liberals view them as inherently good.   I disagree with such a facile, oversimplified view of humanity.   I think we have the capacity for doing both good and bad deeds.  While there are some bad people in our prisons, most of our inmates aren’t so much bad people as people who’ve made mistakes.  There’s also no shortage of bad people who are running free, maybe even serving as the president of the United States.   I think it takes a lot of work to bring out the best in many people but it can be done.  

And that’s what’s next on the docket.  Bringing out the best.  I shall hold out my hand to anyone who might want to join me.   It’s time to show the people in that article who characterize liberals as lazy, that we’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and get to work.   

Modern Day Israel

One of the most repugnant conspiracy theories in existence today is that of holocaust denial.  There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories that selectively deny evidence and focus on one tiny sliver of ambiguity or doubt in order to make the claim that the greater narrative should be discarded in favor of some alternate version of reality.   But holocaust denial stands alone in terms of both the mountains of evidence being ignored and the agendas of those who would further the alternate thesis.  

At times like this, I like to examine the true crux of the argument they’re making.  The fundamental argument that the deniers make, is that there’s no way that in the approximately 5 1/2 year period beginning in late 1939 and ending when Germany surrendered to end the European stage of World War II was not enough time, given then-available technologies, to massacre six million Jews and other minorities.  

Let’s ignore the fact that, if there were a mandate that everyone on the planet must fight exactly one other person to the death every day, the death toll on day 1 would be more than 3.5 billion and that we’d wipe out pretty much all of humanity in just over a month.   And the only real technological limitations would be for the survivors on any given day to locate their next opponents.  

I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that the six million figure might be wrong.  After all, it is truly impossible to know the exact number.  It took the best statisticians in the world more than a decade to land on that number in the first place.   Even today, there’s no shortage of bona fide historians who argue that the true number might be closer to 8 or 9 million.  If we’re willing to argue that the number should be larger, surely there’s room to argue that it’s closer to 4 million, right?

And that’s not even getting into the old canard about how there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.  After all, those gum ads don’t say “4 out of the 5 dentists we surveyed recommend sugar free gum to patients who chew gum.” It’s amazing what the addition of two tiny words can do to the interpretation of the numbers.  

So at the end of the day, denying the holocaust its place in history serves to undermine what happened next: the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.   It’s not unreasonable to assert that a major reason why the nation was carved out of the territory it now holds, because of a degree of European guilt over what happened to the Jews during the holocaust.  Deny the holocaust and you deny the justification for the founding of the nation.  

And that’s unacceptable.  

An argument can be made that the Palestinians who lived in the area in 1948 weren’t adequately informed of what was happening or they weren’t properly compensated for their land and for their troubles.  With that fact in mind, they can’t be faulted for resentment towards Israel and its leaders.  Nearly 70 years have passed since Israel was first founded, and she’s been in a near constant state of alert for hostilities ever since.  

Israel has every right to defend itself and its citizens.  But at the exact same time, if the Palestinians in the area are kept in slum-like conditions without the same privileges enjoyed by the state of Israel, there’s no way around the resentment aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.   To make matters worse, Israel has been building settlements in lands earmarked for the Palestinians.   

I’m not trying to argue that Israel deserves any terrorist attacks committed by the Palestinians but its leadership sure as hell isn’t doing itself any favors by not being willing to listen to their grievances.  Yes, the Palestinian charter calls for the destruction of Israel. It’s what Israel is trying to do to the Palestinians.   

When Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech before congress a year ago, I heard his words and came to the conclusion that he may be one of the most dangerous people on the world stage.  

That fact was underscored a couple of weeks ago when the UN Security Council condemned Israel’s continued building of settlements in the territory it has been occupying for nearly 50 years.  At the very least, it’s a violation of the Geneva conventions.  

I want to reiterate that Israel has a right to defend itself against foreign attacks, and it. has been doing so quite effectively for as long as it has existed as a nation.   But Netanyahu and nearly the entire Israeli government are either being shortsighted, foolhardy, or both when they continue sowing the seeds of resentment that can only result in more attacks.   

The Palestinians don’t need to have the moral high ground in this debate.  But as long as right wing hardliners are in charge of Israel, the Palestinians are getting it anyway.  

It’s a small consolation for the horrors its people are facing, by the hands of a group of people who, quite frankly, ought to know better.  What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians may not rise to the level of another holocaust, but they still harbor an attitude that surely resembles Germany around about 1936.   

I worry that Netanyahu may be emboldened to make life worse in that part of the world, thanks to the incoming administration in the US.  

And that’s a bloody shame.  

Presidential Greatness

A lot of Donald Trump surrogates are saying that we need to give him a chance.  Of course I’ll give him a chance and so far, if I want to be at my most polite, he is on track to becoming easily the biggest disaster of a president since World War II.   

When Bill Clinton won the presidency after having taken only 43% of the popular vote in a three-way presidential race, the highest ranking republican in office, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas tried to justify his obstructionism by claiming to represent the 57% of the country that didn’t vote for Clinton.  When Obama won the presidency, the republicans in congress stepped up the obstruction even more and it persisted throughout his eight years in office. I don’t see them as doing anything that can even be remotely considered “giving [them] a chance.”

But the bigger point here is that I question why someone might say that we should give an incoming president “a chance” in the first place (beyond simple civility). It sounds to me as though this is a means of saying that we shouldn’t criticize them. And that’s just bullshit. You can always find things both to praise and criticize in any presidency. My general approval of President Obama doesn’t stop me from criticizing the NSA under his watch, or what happened with Edward Snowden, or the drone strikes. Hell, a year ago I faulted him for the fate of ACORN, the now-defunct community organizing group.  

And that got me to thinking about the greater process by which we judge our presidents.  The Wikipedia page on historical rankings of US presidents is an excellent resource here.  It’s easy to argue that FDR and Lincoln were among the best presidents and that Buchanan and Harding were among the worst.   But why?  What did they do to earn those rankings?  How hard would it be to find something worth criticism for FDR and Lincoln and/or something to praise for Buchanan and Harding?

And I’m not just talking about individual decisions that are important but ultimately not relevant, like FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court.  I’m embarrassed that it was necessary to go to war to end slavery.   We should have been able to do that without so much carnage.   But is it fair to say that Lincoln deserves criticism for his apparent eagerness to go to war in the first place?  Be my guest if you want to make the argument that the fault just as readily might have lain with those who wanted to continue slavery.   You wouldn’t be wrong but the escalation of belligerent rhetoric during the decade or so prior to the war should be a blight on both sides.  

I guess that’s one of the reasons why, when I was in high school, the Advanced Placement American History test put a heavy focus on the 1850s in their questions.  (And the 1790s and the 1930s).  

But fundamentally, it’s not always easy to judge any given president.  Take Ronald Reagan, who championed tax cuts and deregulation.   If we regard these concepts as his primary legacy, were they successes or failures?   It depends on who you ask, of course.  Even if we recognize that they were worthwhile experiments (and I do), can we say, for example, that supply side economics serves nobody but the already rich?  Is it not unreasonable to say that privatizing the prisons was a bad idea?   Regardless of their merits or demerits, he got them done.  

Where is the dividing line between effectiveness at implementing and/or maintaining a given policy, and your disagreement with the policy in the first place?  

Andrew Jackson comes to mind here.  He said he’d force the native tribes to relocate, and he did.  For however horrible the policy was (and it’s a part of the reason why I don’t care for him or his legacy, and I will be grateful when his image is taken off of our $20 bills) but you can’t deny the fact that the goal he set out to achieve, got achieved.  

Just compare Teddy Roosevelt and George W Bush, two men whose interventionalist approaches to foreign policy appear quite similar to each other.   Why is TR so highly regarded but W so low on the Wikipedia page I cited above?  Did TR just get lucky where he swung the big stick?  

It’s interesting that Lincoln and FDR both succeeded presidents whose rankings are close to the bottom of the list.  Is there a degree to which we’re comparing them against their immediate predecessors?  Earlier this year I wrote a blog entry about the gun problem in this country and compared it with the inaction on the part of Herbert Hoover at the start of the Great Depression.  I gave a semi-defense of Hoover who likely had little reason to think this particular economic downturn would have been any worse than prior ones.  James Buchanan was probably correct when he took the position that the federal government had no legal power to prevent states from seceding and certainly would have overstepped its boundaries by forcing them back into the union.  

It’s tough work upholding the constitution, especially when it runs counter to public opinion or need.  Just ask any of the lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union, which probably does more to defend our constitutional rights from government overreach than any other organization.  They’ll get criticism from the left when they defend the KKK’s right to hold a rally, and from the right when they point out that nativity scenes on public property violate the establishment clause of the first amendment.  That’s enough to make me wonder if the constitution would even pass a popular referendum today.   

How long after a president leaves office can we truly grasp his legacy?  In some cases, it’s immediate.  George Washington was given a blank slate as to how to run the executive branch.   In others, not so much.   We can pin the assassination of President Garfield (in 1881) on the system of patronage introduced by Andrew Jackson (when he won the 1828 election).  

If it seems as though I’m picking on Andrew Jackson a fair bit in this blog entry, you’re right.  Without regard to how good or bad a president he was, I do consider him one of the most overrated.  

JFK is another interesting example.  Popular, likeable, and, quite frankly, inspiring: many Americans have a soft spot in their hearts for the man, and likely would even if he hadn’t been assassinated.  But when you look at his foreign policy (specifically), the best thing we can say about it is that he was shortsighted.  Just look at his policy towards Cuba during the missile crisis and then later during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.   

His successor exemplifies the dichotomy between domestic and foreign policy successes and failures: he deserves accolades for the Great Society programs he instituted, and criticism for the way he handled the quagmire we know as Vietnam.   Indeed, Vietnam was the reason he became the only president since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to choose not to seek reelection.  (As opposed to being constitutionally prohibited from doing so…  I’m not counting the three presidents who lost their reelection bid who could technically have challenged their successors four or more years later but chose not to.)

How does dying in office change the overall perception of a president?  After all, that’s another thing that Lincoln and FDR have in common.  A total of eight presidents have died in office (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK) of whom three — Lincoln, McKinley, and FDR — had already served at least one full term as president when they died.  Of the remaining five, two served less than a year (Harrison and Garfield) and probably should be exempted from any lists ranking the presidents since the fact of their deaths probably had a greater impact on the direction of the country than anything they did in life.   This is especially true for Harrison since he was the first and nowhere in the constitution was it written that the Vice President becomes president upon the death or resignation of the president.  

Side note: I use the word “was” here because the 25th amendment to the constitution settled that question in 1965.  Only 124 years later and after the death of the most recent president to die in office…

It certainly does seem as though popular opinion of presidents who died in office seems to be frozen in time based upon how we felt about them at the time and the relative suddennness of the death.  It’s at least partially why JFK is so loved today while Harding ranks near the bottom.  

But does that mean that the post-presidential activities of the 35 men who lived long enough to become ex-presidents ought to have a bearing on how they’re perceived?  I’d like to think that both Nixon and Carter managed to redeem their relatively uninspiring presidencies once they were unencumbered by the needs of the position itself.   That’s not a new phenomenon.  John Quincy Adams also looks better in the lens of history when you consider his work in congress to abolish slavery.   (Plus, he was portrayed in the movies by Anthony Hopkins.)

And no discussion of post presidential activities (at least the ones that redeem the presidency) would be complete without a huge shout-out to William Howard Taft, who went on to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  According to legend, he wanted to be on the court more than he wanted to be president.   Without regard to the validity of the legend, he certainly executed the duties of the president most consistently with the way it’s spelled out in the constitution.  It’s why he pissed off Teddy Roosevelt so much.   

There are so many moving pieces to what does and does not make for a good president, that it seems almost impossible to gauge it all.  I haven’t even gotten into the stuff we don’t (and can’t possibly) know about what happens behind the scenes, either because it’s classified or just not exceptionally relevant.   

In the end, it’s probably most fair to say that Lincoln and FDR were our best crisis managers.   And that likely means that they’ll rank near the top simply by virtue of the historical circumstances that happened to lead them to he presidency.   Yes, that gives the short end of the stick to those presidents who weren’t tested the same way.   But what can you do?

A robo-call

This past Saturday, I came back from a nice day out with my kids, to find a call waiting for me on the answering machine, transcribed verbatim herewith:

Hello, this is Jerry Falwell Jr, calling to urge you to go to the polls on November 8 or better yet, vote early by mail or absentee ballot. I believe Jesus was instructing us all to be good citizens and to vote when he said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” I hope you will elect candidates who will defend the right to life, our religious liberties, the second amendment, and the state of Israel. The stakes could not be higher with the balance of the Supreme Court for the next generation at risk. Please urge your friends and family to vote as well. Thank you and god bless you.

Paid for by Faith and Freedom Coalition. Callback number 770-622-1501.

I have no idea how this group got my phone number, so I’m acting on the assumption that they just called everyone. I consider Mr. Falwell’s father one of the most repulsive people to ever walk this earth, and, as far as I can tell by the public pronouncements of the man whose voice graced my machine, he himself isn’t much better.

I question whether anyone actually believes that that particular passage in Mark 12:17 actually meant for people to go out and vote. Yes, I know that a lot of Christians have used this particular chapter and verse to justify the notion that separation of church and state is somehow biblically sanctioned (despite scores of contradictory passages). But even that interpretation is more reasonable than what Mr. Falwell said in the recording in question.

If we take the Biblical reference here to be a statement of fact, then Jesus was telling his followers that he wasn’t there to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jerry (if I may call him that) conveniently left out the “Render unto God what is God’s” from that same chapter and verse.

I do defend a right to life. It’s why I’m pro-choice and vote for pro-choice candidates when I can. I think I’ve written enough on that topic that I don’t need to rehash it here. I do think it would be interesting to know, though, the reasons why women who have abortions, have chosen to have them. That ought to humanize the decision a little bit more and maybe cause those who would insist on an absolute ban on the procedure to realize the wrongheadedness of their position. (Especially in a climate that offers neither preventative measures nor post-birth assistance.)

I also defend religious liberties. I must draw the line, though, on things that Mr. Falwell and his ilk try to do, when they seek to impose their religious viewpoints on others. It’s why I have been saying since 2004, when Pat Toomey challenged Sen. Arlen Specter for his senate seat in Pennsylvania, that I can’t in good conscience vote republican until such time as the party exorcises itself of the demons of the religious right.

I recently wrote about how the second amendment seems to hold a unique place in the American fringe right in terms of their adherence to the constitution. Without downplaying its importance on a grander scale, it’s nowhere near as important as the rights guaranteed by the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments to the constitution. And it’s the right enumerated within the constitution that actually requires a person to purchase something in order to exercise that right. (Unless you count the right to an attorney a “purchase”, and a strong argument can be made that it is, at least in the current environment and the way it actually works, rather than the idealized theory behind it.)

And yes, I support the state of Israel and its right to exist, but, much like the religious liberty point above, there is definitely room for criticism of the state when it oversteps its bounds. And I have no qualms whatsoever about say that Benjamin Netanyahu may be one of the most dangerous people currently living. (I think he might be competing with Vladimir Putin for the title, and I think Kim Jong-un might be gunning for that title, but he’s not quite there yet.

The Supreme Court can always make good and bad decisions. We’ve seen how the conservative-dominated court has given us some very bad decisions. In recent years, Greece v Galloway, Burwell v Hobby Lobby, and Citizens United v FEC are all laughably ridiculous rulings on their face. We need justices who would, in the event of a new challenge, overturn them.

It’s funny. Sometimes I’ve asked myself if my current (low) opinion of the Republican Party is somehow analogous to the ridiculous sentiment expressed a few months ago on the Christian film review site Movieguide, when they reviewed the Dinesh D’Souza hack piece Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, when they spoke of the documentarian’s “battle to find out how the Democratic Party became so evil.”

I’m not a fan of the word “evil”. It has connotations and implications that do little to further rational discourse. I do not consider the Republican party “evil”. Just misguided for providing a voice to those whose opinions belong in the dustbin of history. It’s not a new phenomenon; indeed, we can point to Ronald Reagan in 1980 for first allowing the party to have a platform that comes from the Religious Right and the natural descendants of the John Birch Society. Back in the 1960’s, their views were rightly ridiculed. Now in 2016, they are attending Donald Trump rallies.

Messrs Falwell, D’Souza, and scores of other individuals need to be reminded that their ideas are so regressive, so anachronistic, so incongruent with both what America should be and is, that the only path forward is a complete repudiation of what they stand for. And the best way to do that, is through our votes.

So, I agree with Mr. Falwell about one thing: get out there and vote on or before November 8. And show him and his ilk that his brand of hatred, tribalism, and morality have no place in the America of 2016.

Here’s the recording of that call if you’re interested in hearing it.