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.

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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.   

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.

The Myth of Unity

In recent weeks, a lot of surrogates for the Donald Trump campaign have been making arguments in his favor that effectively say that he is the only candidate who can unify the country.

This is kind of statement is, to use a phrase steeped in a long history of political science, complete and total bullshit. (Although, in Trump’s case, he has unified a fairly large percentage of the country against him…)

That’s not to say that Hillary Clinton will unify the country either. But she’s not talking about it. She has probably learned something from watching both her husband and Barack Obama get stymied by the Republican Party on just about every major initiative they proposed. In both 1992 and 2008 the republican leadership in congress stated that they had a single goal: to make the democratic president a one-term president.

While they failed in that goal, they did a great job of sowing disunity despite the more than conciliatory tones of the presidents themselves. (Indeed, President Obama can be criticized for his somewhat idealistic attempts to appeal to and appease the opposition more than his supporters.)

In a true democracy, unity among the electorate on just about any topic, is an impossible goal. It’s why 55% of the vote for a given candidate is considered a landslide. To put that in perspective, in American football, a team that wins 55% of its games (in a 16 game season, winning 9 games is 56%) will probably end up watching the playoffs from their living room. Hockey and baseball teams with a 55% winning percentage have a slightly better shot at being in the playoffs. Basketball teams with that winning percentage might make the playoffs but will certainly go down in flames early on.

Disunity is a natural consequence of having different priorities. Donald Trump’s message does not resonate with me at all. This is at least partially because I don’t see immigration — legal or otherwise — as a pressing concern to our country. I happen to work with a large number of non-US citizens (both immigrants and people living in other countries) and they contribute quite a bit to a healthy and vibrant workplace.

I’m much more concerned about the environment, women’s rights, and healthcare. With regard to one sub-point within this list (and it overlaps all three items here), I am decidedly pro-choice on abortion. Other than drawing a line in the human gestational period after which the procedure shouldn’t be performed unless there were a danger to the mother’s life (and I’m certainly open to discussion of where that line ought to be; I should presume it might be around about a point where the fetus is viable on its own outside of the womb) I see no reason for any restrictions on the procedure. I might even come close to arguing that we need to perform more abortions every year.

That last part might come a bit too close to eugenics for my own comfort so I’m not quite going to make that kind of an argument, but overpopulation is a serious problem. So let’s just ask the question of how many more abortions would be performed every year if we were to lift all unnecessary restrictions.

The very fact that I take this position means that, if I were to seek elective office, there would be no shortage of people who wouldn’t vote for me. Depending upon the overall political leanings of the region I would represent, it might even doom my candidacy. (As might my atheism but that’s the stuff of another blog entry…)

One of my oldest blog entries on this site was about how the phrase “under god” in the pledge of allegiance undermines the word that immediately follows it: indivisible. Indeed, the very mention of a deity sows a great deal of disunity.

A shrewd political candidate should not be seeking unity. He or she should seek tolerance and respect, even for positions with which they disagree.

And we can start by having two functional political parties in this country. Right now there’s one functioning party and one that is constantly doing nothing other than wasting time investigating minor missteps by people in the other party.

Extending Skepticism Even Further

A good friend of mine read my recent blog entry on getting past preconceived notions where I confessed to not being as good a skeptic as I ought to be. He pointed out that the first seven paragraphs, which were little more than a bit of trivia the answer to which might surprise you, seemed a bit too much.

And he’s not wrong. The truth is that that was actually the third anecdote I toyed with before writing that article. I decided against using the first two because they are both the stuff of separate blog posts, either of which would have detracted more from the fact that I wanted to make a public mea culpa than a bit of historical trivia about Andrew Jackson.

The simple truth of the matter is, when people are shown evidence of their incorrect assumptions, they are prone to become defensive. That’s human nature. And it’s part of why I deleted the facebook entries I wrote about in that earlier entry. I still maintain that I did it because it ceased to be funny; you can draw your own judgment about it.

But it does become dangerous when that defense mechanism results in doubling down on the incorrect information, and that’s where I originally went as I contemplated what I would write.

The first person I thought of using, was Andrew Wakefield, whom I wrote about in the middle of a lengthy entry on the responses to a posting I had made on the facebook site of the Institute for Creation Research.

While it would be wrong to argue that, without Wakefield, there wouldn’t be an anti-vaccination movement, but his easily debunked “study” (I use the term loosely) has almost definitely done more to enable the movement than any other single person or event. Wakefield himself, when he doubled-down on his critics — sometimes trying to use courts of law — has become a poster boy for what not to do when the evidence isn’t in your favor.

I realize that what I say comes dangerously close to an ad hominem attack, but I don’t think I can ever trust a word coming out of Wakefield’s mouth, especially when it comes to vaccines, preventative medicine, or overall well-being. I think the only thing keeping it from being an ad hominem would be if he were to acknowledge his own wrongdoing and then actively demonstrate that he has heard the voices of his critics and learned his lesson.

For those who don’t know what an ad hominem attack is, it’s a logical fallacy whereby a person attempts to discredit the opinion of a person by discrediting the person him- or herself. A few years ago, the satirical website The Onion, in one of their mock radio-news segments, demonstrated the use of the fallacy to humorous effect. Go ahead. Listen to it. It’ll only take a minute of your time. I can wait.

Which brings me to the current king of ad hominem attacks and the second person I considered talking about in my posting the other day. A man whose words should be frightening to anyone who actually wants to see real progress get made in this country. Someone whose words, if spoken by a person who doesn’t have the same clout and name recognition, would be easily dismissed so that the grown-ups can have a grown-up conversation.

I’m talking, of course, about Donald Trump.

If you look closely at Trump’s speeches, there’s actually very little in terms of policy in them. In fact, if you look away from the proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border (and make the Mexicans pay for it), and the list of names he said he would nominate to the Supreme Court should an opening arise, he hasn’t offered any specifics on any of his policies.

His speeches are otherwise a mixture of two things: first, self-serving pronouncements about his own greatness and that he can “win” at whatever the topic is; and second, attacking those who disagree with him (either personally or as a group).

There’s way too much that he’s said and done that illustrates this, and I’ll let the professional pundits do all of the fact checking and refutation. My foray into directly addressing it, was in the form of the following exchange on Twitter:

Trump response

The very existence of the Spoils System, as introduced by Andrew Jackson, feeds corruption.

I do find it interesting that Ronald Reagan, a man currently revered by Donald Trump’s political party — to the point of deification — has the dubious distinction of having had the most corrupt administration in American history, at least if measured by the sheer number of times a prosecutor has had to look into the goings on within the administration itself. (Other measurements would certainly put Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding ahead of Reagan, to be fair…)

But note that Trump doesn’t actually say anything about Secretary Clinton’s policies should she be elected president. He calls her “crooked Hillary” just like he called the senators he faced for the nomination “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz.

It’s really amazing how he has run a completely substance-free campaign, with more effort dedicated to ad hominem attacks than anything else and has yet to be truly called out on it by the voters.

Yes, Trump is dangerous. Let’s not let him get closer to the White House than he already is.

Edukayshun in Pencilvainya

My parents bought a house in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, when I was five months old, and my mom still lives in that house. Langhorne is located in the Neshaminy School District and my entire undergraduate career was spent in the schools of that district.

Earlier this week, the Neshaminy School District School Board voted to close two of the schools in its district, including the elementary school that I attended from Kindergarten through 4th Grade, and then 6th Grade as well.

My interest in the fact of this closing is more sentimental. If I still lived in the district, I would probably oppose the closing on the grounds that the plans to replace the closed schools involve building a massive, sprawling school that would have far too many students in it. But as a resident of a different school district in the state of Pennsylvania, I’m simply watching it closely and hoping that something similar doesn’t happen where I live. But yeah, I’m sad that the school where I have so many memories soon will be no more.

The decision to do so is undoubtedly a cost-cutting measure. I would like to believe that, no matter what else might or might not be true about this vote, the long term results will be some degree of cost savings, regardless of the question of whether or not it would actually improve what the students actually learn.

On the same date as the vote to close those two schools, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee approved House Bill 1640 and sent it to the greater PA House of Representatives. I don’t know when they’ll vote on it, but I’ve already called my local representative to tell him to vote against it.

This bill, if passed, would compel the phrase “In God We Trust” to appear in every school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

I’ve written before about the phrase “In God We Trust” as our national motto and feel that it’s shameful that it is our motto.

I think it’s interesting that the text of the bill that’s coming up for a vote lays out in no uncertain terms that the person who first pushed for the usage of the phrase on our currency, Pennsylvania Governor James Pollock, was known as “The Great Christian Governor”.

Doesn’t this fact alone contradict the 1970 Federal Court Ruling in Aronow v. United States, which held that

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. …It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted ‘In God We Trust’ or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality.'”

No. It’s not obvious that the national motto has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. In fact, it certainly seems to push for exactly that.

As I said above, I called my local representative and asked him to vote against the bill. I gave three reasons, actually.

I maintain that direct references to any deity in official government writings is absolutely an establishment of religion as not all religions worship the same deity. It effectively excludes any different religion as well as non-religion. It shouldn’t be our national motto but as long as it is, there’s no compelling need to post it everywhere unless you want to pander to Christians who are pushing for their religion in places where it doesn’t belong.

Second, it actually wouldn’t do anything to improve education in the state. At best, it would do nothing (positive or negative) in a given school. At worst, it could create two classes of students as officially recognized by the state: those to whom the statement applies in their day-to-day religious life and those to whom it doesn’t.

And finally — and probably most importantly — is the cost. I hardly think that the Neshaminy School District is unique in having budget issues. Why waste scarce educational resources on something like this?

If it’s a foregone conclusion that my elementary school will be little more than a pile of rubble in the near future, let’s at least not let the same thing happen to the concept of education itself.

If you live in Pennsylvania, call your representative and ask him or her to vote against it, just like I did.