This shouldn’t even qualify as an opinion piece

I admit it. I stopped paying attention to Lou Dobbs years ago. Before he left CNN for Fox News, actually. According to Wikipedia, that was in 1999. And he was starting to go off the rails back then, seeing immigration as being the biggest scourge of this nation. Late last year, I wrote up some of my thoughts on immigration.

He’s got a new “opinion” piece on Fox Business that’s been trending for reasons I’m honestly not sure I understand. I put the word “opinion” in quotes here because I’m not entirely sure it qualifies as such. You can read it for yourself if you’d like. I’ll wait.

In this article, Dobbs rattles off a laundry list of things that are moving their way through the California state legislature that he clearly doesn’t approve of: the move to declare the entire state a “sanctuary state”, to efforts to protect climate change research, to the requirement that presidential candidates release at least five years worth of tax returns in order to be eligible to appear on the ballots. Once he’s done with that list of things the state is doing, he just ends with “California is simply a mess, and not getting any better at all.”

Everything California is doing, is in response or reaction to overreach by Donald Trump and his administration. And I approve of it all, although I do hope they don’t secede from the union.

Take the sanctuary state. There are reasons to deport immigrants and when they happen, they should be deported. But if the states do what Trump is asking, it will creates a class of people who are afraid to reveal themselves as either crime victims or as in need of health care for fear of deportation.

The global warming efforts are to defend valid science. There are two things you can do in any scientific endeavor when the evidence doesn’t match the hypothesis: you can change the hypothesis (which is what good science does) or you can change the evidence (which is what Trump wants to do with climate change).

Take the tax returns. It’s a relatively recent development in American history that candidates have released their tax returns and there has never been a legal requirement to do so. I think it’s a great idea. Without them, how can we possibly know if a person is seeking power for their own gain or if they want to serve? Every state ought to do this, since they can control who gets to appear on a ballot.

Dobbs gave no reason why these acts of the California legislature are bad things. Indeed, I see them all as good things. The kinds of things that make me cheer for states’ rights.

To paraphrase the headline and the depth of his “opinion” of the Lou Dobbs piece, he’s a mess and not getting any better.

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Not my president

The first half of my blog entry on presidential greatness focuses on requests by surrogates for then President-Elect Trump to “give him a chance” to prove himself.

I have given him a chance. Whether you agree with someone politically or not, once they actually have access to the levers of power, it’s in your interest to hope he or she does well and acts wisely with that power, whether that interest orients itself towards finance, physical security, or something else.

Since taking the oath of office, Donald Trump’s achievements and public statements have almost universally been an appeasement to the people most strongly committed to him, acting with contempt, scorn, or ridicule towards literally everyone else.

The philosophy of the marketplace of ideas has been around for nearly 400 years, almost 200 of which have been grounded in purely economic terms. In theory, this is a good thing, like free speech. In reality, though, it’s not the best ideas that persist and thrive but instead it’s the ideas that have an appeal to some group of people with clout. In short, the problem with the marketplace of ideas is the fact that we need to have marketing to sell any idea.

You would think, for example, that white supremacy could not possibly thrive in a truly functional marketplace of ideas. There’s just too much out there that counters and contradicts the claims of the white supremacists. Whether we talk about the idiocy on display by the adherents to that thesis, or the disgust at their overall methods (see Charlottesville), or the legions of evidence from genetics that the more inbred a group is, the greater the risk of allowing harmful mutations to thrive, or even the fact that children of mixed-race parents are almost universally quite attractive. As a marketing tool, though, fear and anger do sell product.

So why are we even talking about white supremacy in terms that are anything other than the butt of jokes?

The short answer is Donald Trump. If he represents anyone other than himself, it’s the basket of deplorables that Hillary Clinton spoke of last year. And nobody else. The people who deny the irrefutable evidence of climate change who cheered the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreements. The people who support his Muslim ban, his border wall with Mexico, the pardoning of unrepentant criminal Joe Arpaio, and now his proposal to end DACA. That last one is particularly cruel and myopic since you’re talking about sending people to a country they may have no active memory of (if they’ve even ever been there) at a huge cost to the economy they currently contribute to.

And I’m not even going to talk about the dangerous war of words he’s been waging with Kim Jong-Un.  Or his plan to ban transgender people from the military. 

Give Donald Trump a chance? Ha! At this point he needs to demonstrate that he has even an iota of compassion or competence. If he represents the modern Republican Party in any way, they need to be voted out of public office at every level as soon as possible.

A message for Sen. Pat Toomey

On August 24, 2017, I received an email from Senator Pat Toomey, about whom I’ve written before, most recently in my entry on why I can’t vote republican in good conscience. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, since I’ve been on his mailing list since he took office and inherited the email mailing list from his predecessor, Arlen Specter.

Here is the text of the full email, unedited other than to add the HTML tags necessary to display it on my web page:

This past week our nation was rocked by tragedy in Charlottesville, VA. The acts we saw were a horrifying reminder that there are still those who seek only to divide us.

The racism, hatred, and violence seen in Charlottesville were vile and unacceptable. I am disgusted by white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis and believe the racism and hate spewed by these groups have no place in our society.

Furthermore, there can be no moral equivalency between neo-Nazis, bigots, white supremacists, and those who oppose them. Our country has no room for corrupt ideology or violent acts.

I hope that what occurred in Charlottesville will be an isolated incident. Moving forward, I pray that members of Congress will put politics aside, unequivocally condemn hate and bigotry, and find ways to work together to protect our shared American values of equality and justice for all.

My response to the senator is a simple one: go fuck yourself.

All right. Maybe a little more explanation is needed. On first reading of this statement, it’s hard to find anything to disagree with in the Senator’s words and I readily concede that. But there are three glaring facts that must be explained satisfactorily before my response would become anything close to a positive reflection on the senator or his words.

  • The timing of his email. It was sent out twelve days after the Unite the Right rally that he himself cites in his message. Nearly two weeks passed between the message of that rally and his condemnation. More than a week between the most recent statement of the president of the United States and his attempts to draw an equivalency between the protesters and counter-protesters. (And I’m not above being the target of the same criticism as I’m writing this blog entry a week after I received the email. My excuse is that I haven’t been feeling well and I don’t have a paid staff to compose talking points…)
  • The cowardice of what wasn’t mentioned in his message. You will note that he doesn’t specifically call out anyone who was making the false equivalency between the xenophobic individuals and those who would oppose them. Is he assuming that people will just conveniently forget that it was Donald Trump himself who made that asinine statement? The president of the United States and the leader of the political party of which Senator Toomey is a member? This isn’t the first time that Toomey has shown himself to be a coward with respect to Donald Trump. Recall that he didn’t even reveal that he had voted for Trump until late in the day on Election Day… Even though he was an early member of a political movement that made Trump possible.
  • And the most damning of all, he has been pitching racist dog whistles for years. You see it every time he makes arguments against sanctuary cities or affirmative action. His biggest pushes have always been to reduce or eliminate taxes that disproportionately hit white, well-to-do men, sometimes to the benefit of women and minorities. He is right in the middle of an economic and political movement that seeks to divide us along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. And now that that movement has clearly aligned itself with people he’d rather not want it aligned with, he sees it fit that he look the other way. Call them a basket of deplorables if you’d like, Senator, but they’re still your people.

So I’ll say it again, Senator: go fuck yourself. You’re a disgrace and a coward who doesn’t deserve to hold the seat in the senate that once belonged to such great people as Robert Morris, Boies Penrose, George Pepper, Richard Schweiker, Arlen Specter, or even James Buchanan.

The modern Republican Party

In late 1981, when I was in the fifth grade, I had an assignment to write a letter to a famous person. I chose Ronald Reagan. In my letter I told him that I thought he was doing a great job as president, among other lines of praise.

I received a response a few months later, thanking me for my letter and "for being my friend."

I don't know what happened to that letter. One thing I do know, though, is the betrayal I felt four years later, when I watched him making a speech on television. The part of this speech that stood out at me was his use of the word "liberal" as though it were an insult.

There was a Mad Magazine article from a few years prior that highlighted the differences between liberal and conservative in a humorous way and I knew that I leaned more liberal than conservative, although I would be quick to point out that neither liberals nor conservatives have any "lock" on either the truth or the best solutions to a given problem.

That speech motivated the teenage version of me to take a much more honest look at the Ronald Reagan I had praised a few years earlier. Indeed, the praise my nine-year-old self heaped upon him stemmed entirely from the understanding that he wanted to cut taxes and not even from the consequences of those tax cuts. And I didn't like much — if anything — that I saw in this new assessment of the man who would remain the president for more than two years still.

For two side notes to this assessment, I strongly suspect that my high school bully hated that I did this, and my feelings towards Michael Dukakis's campaign stop in my high school skewed in his favor at about the same time.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that I registered as a Democrat when I reached the voting age of 18 in 1990. The only election since then that I've missed, was in 1993 when I was an exchange student in Russia.

I still maintain that neither liberals nor conservatives have a lock on the best solutions. I am open to trying most proposed solutions and will reject only the ones that are too costly to implement, too unlikely to succeed, or which have been demonstrated not to work. (Easy example: the problem of teenage pregnancy. Comprehensive sex education has been demonstrated beyond any doubt, to reduce the rates of both of teen pregnancy and STD infection. It is the correct solution. Abstinence only education fails at both and is unnecessarily expensive.)

So this means that, despite my official registration as a Democrat, I am open to voting for other political parties, even the Republicans. I watched in horror throughout the 90s as members of the Republican Party followed Reagan's lead in using the word "liberal" as an insult, as if that were the end of the debate. An ad hominem attack that, if you leaned to the left, shouldn't even be thought of as an insult.

I further watched the GOP cling to the thoroughly disproven hypothesis that tax cuts for the richest members of our society somehow creates jobs and spurs economic growth. What it does do is allow them to hide their money away and keep it to themselves while offering relatively few benefits to the rest of the country, especially at a time when the infrastructure is crumbling and ethnic hatred is on the rise.

Then came 2004. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), was running for reelection as the senior senator from Pennsylvania. I liked the man, having met him on at least two occasions previously. He had some ideas I didn't entirely care for but for the most part, he served the state and the country well. He received a primary challenge from a congressman named Pat Toomey, who modeled himself as being similar to my other senator, Rick Santorum.

Now let me make it clear that at no time during his twelve years serving as my junior senator (1995 to 2007) did Mr. Santorum say or do anything of note that made me think of him as deserving of an important position within the government. If he represented the future of the Republican Party, then I expressed my concern for that future.

So that scared me about Pat Toomey. And it frightened me even more to have to watch Sen. Specter hew rightward to fend off the challenge from Toomey. Although Specter did fend him off, the vote was far too close for me to feel comfortable. It was at that moment that I realized that I could not, in good conscience, vote republican.

This was not an automatic giveaway to the democrats, mind you, but that feeling has persisted for thirteen years now, and the Republican Party has only gotten worse in the intervening years.

I know I've said this already in this essay, but it bears repeating: neither liberals nor conservatives have a lock on the best solutions. We should not categorically dismiss any proposal or policy solution on the basis of either the identity of the person proposing it or whether the proposal is considered "liberal" or "conservative". (Those two terms are quite fluid anyway… Ideologically, for example, Barack Obama seemed to hew relatively close to the opinions of Dwight D Eisenhower but regularly got criticized by Fox News for being among the most liberal presidents in history.)

So Reagan started the vilification of his political opposition. The two Bushes fostered it. It spread to the House of Representatives when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the house but his successor as speaker, Dennis Hastert, made things worse by creating a new rule that effectively rendered the minority party in the house impotent.

And now we have a legitimate Nazi in the White House, next to a white supremacist, at the hand of a president who based his entire campaign on xenophobia and white resentment. After the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA last weekend, Trump couldn't call out the people who were responsible because they're the only ones who still support him unequivocally.

Donald Trump doesn't love his country. He loves himself and little else. He himself is a symptom, a natural progression from the enmity that started within the Republican Party nearly 40 years ago.

More than a month before the election, I wrote that, of all major party candidates for the presidency in American history, Donald Trump was the least deserving of any votes. I'm not going to say "I told you so" but I will say that I may have been too kind to the man in that essay. He's a disgrace and an embarrassment to the office he holds, his political party, and his country.

Movieguide’s New Low

I've written before about the Christian movie review site Movieguide. I've come to expect dishonesty if it furthers their worldview but they've got a new article that's appalling even by their standards.

Entitled "Wake Up Google," I first thought (hoped?) that maybe they'd take a stand for simple human decency and condemn the so-called Google manifesto that's been circulating on social media for about the past week. That manifesto is the stuff of another essay, but I'll just say that diversity is almost always a good thing and you look stupid if you try to argue otherwise.

No, Movieguide is up in arms about the supposed hypocrisy of Google for simultaneously supporting The Equal Justice Initiative while lobbying congress in opposition to changes to the controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that whatever lobbying is done by Google's parent company, Alphabet, is completely unrelated to its social outreach. But the CDA is problematic on simple first amendment grounds. If any right guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct, it's the freedom of speech. No matter how outrageous the speech is, it is protected. It's why we have the right to protest outside of military funerals with signs reading "god hates fags." If that kind of speech is legally protected, I can't imagine what wouldn't be.

Certainly not pornography. And the CDA is thinly veiled censorship. When you hear people say things like "what about the children?" you know they don't know how to protect their children from some of the less desirable aspects of the world and/or things the children are not yet old enough to see and hear. Google is right for not wanting to expand the CDA.

Movieguide then goes on to list six murder victims in defense of their position that we need to get violent pornographic images off the internet. Since they didn't provide any links to their stories, I decided to google their stories (ironic, I know…). And damn, did they mislead its readers about what happened in their cases.

What do the six victims have in common besides being female? First off, they were all citizens of the UK, which means that nothing related to changes to American law would have made a difference in their cases. Five of them were strangled, and the sixth we simply don't know how she died because her body was never found and the killer isn't talking. Of the other five killers, only one could claim to be influenced by violent pornography he found online. But even he said that he was interested in erotic asphyxia before he found the porn of it. And the sex was consensual with his girlfriend/victim as he choked her. He went too far and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of murder anyway.

I get that sites like Movieguide are big on censorship and they have no use for sexually charged imagery. But let the truth get in the way of a good narrative when the lie serves your purposes much better?

Huh?

When I was in high school, I had the privilege of going to a university-level lecture on one occasion (at a local university). The topic of the lecture was Abraham Lincoln. I remember two aspects of the man's life that stuck out at me from that lecture:

  • In his younger days, he and his lawyer friends debated "why men have tits" and came to the conclusion that it has to do with contingencies in case men should ever bear children
  • After a rainy night, he looked out the White House window and declared that "there's enough mud and bullshit out there to make a politician."

The point of both of these points is to disabuse people of popular contemporary imagery that results in a tendency to lionize, if not deify, our sixteenth president. Lincoln's critics in his day perceived him as a joker and a buffoon (at times with good reason). One critic called the Gettysburg Address "silly, flat, and dishwatery" and referred to the man who presented it as "a man who must be pointed out to foreigners as president of the United States." (Although, given that the daguerreotype was a relatively new invention at the time, that's probably a true statement of all of his predecessors, too…)

I mention this because Donald Trump made a comment during a recent rally where he said he's been more presidential than anyone other than Lincoln. And that seriously raises questions of what it means to be "presidential".

I've pondered things like this before. Without regard to what else may or may not be true about the 44 unique people to claim the title of "President" (including their ability to perform the duties and the quality of the job done), it's probably fair to say that some were more presidential than others.

There are some names that, if you know nothing else about them, just sound like they could be a president. Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. James Buchanan. Or more recently, John Kennedy or Bill Clinton. Others, not quite so much. Martin Van Buren. Millard Fillmore. Richard Nixon. Barack Obama. The name Donald Trump feels like it could be somewhere in the middle. Probably below James Polk but above Grover Cleveland.

Then there are just certain looks that seem presidential. There's a certain mythology to the iconic images of presidents who have gone on to appear on our currency or have dedicated memorials to their legacies, that they look presidential. And it's hard to argue against that. Would Andrew Jackson be perceived as "presidential" if he didn't appear on the $20 bill? (We may learn in a few years…) What about Teddy Roosevelt and his appearance on Mount Rushmore? (With erosion, we'll probably find out in a few million years.) With the possible exception of Gerald Ford, we haven't had any truly presidential looking presidents since JFK.

What about grand oratory and passionate, moving speeches? This is one of the arenas where a president can truly shine, both on his own and with the assistance of speechwriters. And I'm talking about the whole package: the words themselves, the tone of voice, the gestures and body language. Both planned speeches and off-the-cuff remarks. There have been some truly remarkable speeches in presidential history. The beauty of the Gettysburg Address is its simplicity. Which speeches have the most memorable lines? "Steer clear of any permanent alliances" (George Washington's farewell address). "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." (FDR's first inaugural). "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." (JFK's inaugural). "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America." (Bill Clinton's first inaugural…)

I could probably go back significantly further back in history than I am, but in the post-World War II presidents, there has been a huge disparity between the democratic presidents (who, as a whole, were excellent orators), and the republican presidents (who, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, have gotten progressively worse at giving speeches). I remember commenting on a news forum in January, 2002, after George W Bush's state of the union address (the first such speech after September 11), that his delivery turned an otherwise interesting speech into a cure for insomnia. Trump has to be near the bottom of the pile here, and that's saying a lot.

Presidential? Trump could be, but he sure isn't acting like it now….

What does it mean, anyway?

There’s an excellent article over at The Washington Post, that points out — accurately — that we need to stop throwing around the word “treason” in the context of any parts of the political scandal that currently engulfs the White House, or any aspects of what is increasingly looking like many illegal activities that culminated in Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November.  Whatever crimes were committed in the greater process, treason is not one of them.   

The definition of treason is outlined in article 3 of the Constitution. And nothing done by anyone associated with the Donald Trump campaign — even if every allegation against everyone happens to be true — rises to the level of treason by simple virtue of the fact that we are not at war with Russia.   

So yeah, there are lots of crimes worth exploring.   They range from campaign finance violations to conspiracy, to obstruction of justice, to perjury, to countless other crimes I can’t even begin to guess.  But treason is not one of them.   So we really shouldn’t bandy that word around in the context of the election or the Trump White House.   

But at least the word “treason” has a practical working definition.  There’s another word — a phrase actually — that is being used a fair amount that doesn’t even have that.   The phrase is “constitutional crisis.”  I’ve always interpreted the phrase to mean a situation that the constitution doesn’t address in terms of how to govern (and Wikipedia seems to back me up on this) but all too often we see it in the capacity of infighting within the government and when there are scandals that could affect the day-to-day performance of government activities.  When Bill Clinton was impeached a lot of people called it a constitutional crisis and I thought back then that it wasn’t a crisis.  Indeed, it might have been a personal crisis for Clinton himself, but the constitution definitely allows for it.   

That’s not to say there haven’t been constitutional crises in American history:

  • In 1841, William Henry Harrison died a little over a month after taking the oath of office, and the constitution didn’t have any provisions as to what should happen upon the death of the president.  There was no shortage of people who argued that his Vice President, John Tyler, didn’t automatically become president, and the appropriate title would have been interim president or caretaker or, mockingly, “His Accidency”.  From a purely legal perspective, this question wouldn’t actually be resolved until more than 120 years later with the passage of the 25th Amendment (after the death of the most recent president to die in office).
  • In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, several states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.   The constitution did not (and still doesn’t) provide for any circumstances under which a state may secede from the union and even before the election there were actually three schools of thought with regard to secession: those who felt that states have the right to secede, those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede but the federal government has no authority to prevent it, and those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede and the federal government is empowered to prevent it.   (If that second school of thought sounds wishy-washy to you, welcome to the presidency of James Buchanan.)
  • In 1876, the actual electoral vote count was in dispute and it was only actually resolved with a compromise tied to the end of the post-Civil War reconstruction.   

There have been others, but they were usually resolved relatively quickly.   Whatever is going on at the White House, at all levels, it’s not a constitutional crisis.  There’s certainly no real leadership going on, and I’m actually quite thankful that Trump isn’t actually getting much of his racist, xenophobic, sexist, myopic agenda to pass, but it’s not a constitutional risks.   

I do wonder, though, if the people who are truly in legal trouble (and I include Trump Jr in that group) realize the trouble they’re in.   There’s a scene in the recent HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, in which Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro) goes off the rails on his eight year old granddaughter because she was asking simple questions about Wall Street.  Madoff was a man who knew for years the damage he was going and the stress finally got to him.   I can picture Don Jr acting the same way right now…