Strange Bedfellows, indeed

Columnist George Will is an interesting person. Although he self-identifies as an atheist, he occasionally carries water for religious conservatism. Still, he seems to be backpedaling a little bit on that now that fundamental Christians actually wield a fair amount of power in the government, as evidenced by his treatise on Mike Pence earlier this month.

But I did a double take when I read his opinion piece in today’s Washington Post. The underlying thesis of this piece is that a true conservative would have voted for William Howard Taft in the election of 1912.

If you dig back among the flashbacks on this blog, you’ll find an entry that talks about a November, 2004 dinner party I attended, where we talked about the best and worst presidents. Not mentioned in that entry, was the fact that I asserted at the time, that Taft was our best president. (My host remarked that he was certainly the best lawyer/president.) I also hinted at this position when I talked about presidential greatness towards the end of 2016.

Let me be clear: I truly do like William Howard Taft for what he accomplished, both as president and after. If I had been around to vote in 1912, it’s entirely possible that I would have voted for Taft. I’m not sure I’d have been able to rule out a vote for Debs.

There are a couple of items in this new essay of Will’s that require additional discussion. First is his assertion that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were responsible for the modern imperial presidency. I should think that, depending on how you want to look at it, either James Polk or William McKinley deserve that title, depending on whether you would prefer to begin the starting point before or after the Civil War. (Regardless, it seems to begin with open warlike hostilities against a spanish-speaking country or two…)

I also take issue with the implication that Wilson was imperialist from the start. Less than two years into the start of Wilson’s first term, the European conflagration we now know as World War I started when a bomb exploded in Sarajevo, killing the archduke of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Yes, Wilson wanted to help our allies but it was a reactive measure, not a proactive one.

Finally, Will seems to wax a little bit too nostalgic for the Reagan era. Reagan, like Trump, was a populist with conservative inclinations, not the other way around. Reagan laid the groundwork for the ethical and moral cesspool that is the modern Republican Party. That’s not a conservative or liberal stance. It’s populist, pure and simple. And something Taft had no real patience for.

Does that make me a conservative? Not exactly. While I lean liberal, there are some places where my opinions don’t really hew to what modern liberals would assert.

So for now, I’ll stick with the one thing George Will and I do truly agree on: the lack of evidence for the existence of god.

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It’s starting to make sense…

I am the kind of person who is often willing to give people a second chance. Make a mistake, admit your faults, repay any debts in the process, and come out on the other side a little bit worn for wear but otherwise with a clean slate. In theory, that’s how I’d love for our criminal justice system to work.

But for the past sixty years, the Republican Party has perverted this concept. An admission of the faults and debt repayment aren’t necessary to give someone a fresh start. And now it’s all starting to make sense about this modus operandi.

It started in the late 1950s and the election of 1960. Vice President Richard Nixon was treated with, at best, disdain by President Eisenhower. So when he ran for president to succeed Ike, he lost his own bid and retired, ostensibly to become more corrupt.

But he got a second chance at — and won — the presidency in 1968, the first serious GOP rehabilitation.

Then came what is known as the Saturday Night Massacre, when Richard Nixon kept firing aides in the Justice Department until someone would fire the special prosecutor looking into his dealings. Who was that someone? Robert Bork.

Robert Bork would resurface during the Reagan administration. When Lewis Powell retired from the Supreme Court, Reagan first tried nominating Bork for that particular seat, but failed. That seat is now held by Anthony Kennedy.

Also during the Reagan administration, we saw the incident known as the Iran-Contra Affair, in which we sold weapons to Iran (in violation of ongoing sanctions) and funneling the proceeds of those sales to the Nicaraguan Contras (a guerrilla organization fighting against the Sandinista regime ruling that country). Everything about these transactions was illegal, and the masterminded of this plan — Oliver North and Malcolm Poindexter — went to jail and were unapologetic for their crimes.

There were a couple of scandals during the era of George H W Bush, but nothing too serious, relative to the scandals of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Jr eras. (His original nominee for Secretary of Defense, John Tower, was a bit too cozy with defense contractors. His nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court when Thurgood Marshall retired was marked by allegations of sexual misconduct when he worked at the EEOC, and there were a few savings and loan bailouts.)

With Bush Jr, the big scandals involved Scooter Libby revealing of the identity of a CIA agent as retaliation against her husband, and a program whereby we tortured terrorism suspects, authorized by Gina Haspel.

And now, amidst all of the scandals and unethical behavior of the Trump era (which promises to eclipse all prior administrations in terms of pure corruption), we have (1) the pardoning of Scooter Libby, (2) Gina Haspel being named head of the CIA, and (3) Oliver North becoming the new president of the NRA.

I could be wrong. Any number of these people could have turned over a new leaf and started living a good, honest, ethical life. But they’re not doing it publicly.

The democrats and liberal organizations aren’t immune from corruption. That much is true. But even at their worst, they don’t hold a candle to the republicans and more conservative organizations.

Some Risk, Some Reward

Anyone who reads this blog must surely know that I consider myself an amateur historian. With that in mind, then, I can’t imagine anyone being surprised that I was intrigued by an article in today’s Washington Post about modern technology and what it’s doing to the past.

In the article, they speak of colorizations of famous black and white photographs, and artificial intelligence either creating famous speeches (e.g., John Donne or Henry V) that were given before we could record them, or — somewhat ominously — speeches that were never delivered, such as Richard Nixon’s speech he was prepared to give in the event of the failure of Apollo 11 or JFK’s planned speech in Dallas.

There’s a good debate worth having here. A few years ago, I saw a fact that was simultaneously new informatio but completely unsurprising: that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were the single most documented event in world history. This is not surprising because of where it took place and the proliferation of then-available technology. (And changes in technology since then have made other events that haven’t happened yet, even more documentable…)

So it’s an interesting thought experiment: if we could somehow go back in time and instill modern technology into past events, what would we learn about those events that we currently don’t know? Pick any major battle of any major war, for example, and you can get a true, honest picture of things like the number of people on each side, who they were, the injuries they sustained, and so on… We’re always talking about how soldiers return home from a war completely changed because of what they saw on the battlefield and how, after the peace treaties are signed, we say “never again” until the next war comes around. Could technology help make that “never again” a reality without resorting to dishonest portrayals of the event?

So I think that anything that can put a human face on the limitations of then-available technology (like careful colorization of black and white photos) can be a good thing.

Creating the audio of a speech that was never actually delivered is a bit murkier and it definitely tiptoes between the question of what we can do and what we should do.

One thing we certainly don’t want to do is create the audio of one person giving someone else’s speech. I don’t think anyone wants to hear Donald Trump trying to deliver Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (And I’m not just saying that as a criticism of Trump; I should think that even his most ardent of supporters would recognize that he and King have/had two completely different speaking styles…)

But when it comes to text of speeches that someone could have delivered under different circumstances, when the text is already known and available? Isn’t it safe to assume that the speaker practiced the speech at least once? Knowing Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording things, the only reason why there is no extant recording of him practicing the delivery of a “doomed Apollo 11 speech” was because he didn’t start recording himself until two years after the fact. If he’d thought of it earlier, there probably would be a recording of him giving it, albeit not to a public audience. And by now it would be available to the public. So what’s the difference between that and a computer simulation of the same speech, given by the same person?

At the very least, a good test of the AI that pieces together a speech like that would be to compare the piecemeal part of the speech, against a recording of a speech that was actually given. Surely someone could get a computer to simulate JFK’s inaugural address based upon the text of it and clips of him speaking, to see how it sounds in comparison to the real thing?

As long as everyone involved is honest about it and what they’re doing, I don’t really see any major problems with this. There will be risks, and growing pains, and people who are less than honest, to be sure, but when all is said and done, I should think and hope that it could create more engagement, especially with amateur historians like me.

Belligerent talk

I’d like to engage in a little bit of revisionist history, or more accurately, contemplating how things would be different today if some major historical event had gone differently than the way it was recorded in history.

I have repeatedly said that, as a nation, the United States should be embarrassed by the fact that it was actually necessary to go to war to end slavery. Furthermore, many of the systemic racism that endures today is at least partially attributable to the fact that we more or less botched the peace during the reconstruction era. (Indeed, the only reason why we are having any debates at all over whether or not the confederate battle flag qualifies as “heritage” is because the losing side of the war was allowed to maintain their symbols through the peace.)

So let’s contemplate something: how would things be different today if, following the election of 1860 and Abraham Lincoln’s victory, the southern states seceded from the union and instead of engaging in a protracted military effort, the northern states effectively said, “Okay. Go. We’re banning slavery here now so if you ever want to come back, you’re going to have to be fine with that.”

Now before I continue, I want to make it clear that in this hypothetical scenario, there would still be animosity on both sides, and likely bloodshed, as incidents like Bleeding Kansas and the raid on Harper’s Ferry from the decade before the war started will attest. As a result, I can’t rule out the possibility, in this alternate timeline, of some isolated fighting and violence — especially on open waters — over slavery. I’m just saying that the war itself doesn’t happen.

Earlier this year I traced the evolution of the Republican Party from its abolitionist roots to its modern racism. In that entry, I noted that what helped the Union win the war had little to do with the moral high ground and everything to do with economics and how the north was better positioned to twist the arms of our allies to favor it over the south in trade and maybe even economic sanctions. I see no reason why this would be any different.

With this in mind, it’s probably reasonable to think that in this alternate timeline, Lincoln wouldn’t have been assassinated, Andrew Johnson would never have been president, reconstruction wouldn’t have happened (and therefore wouldn’t have been messed up), the election of 1876 wouldn’t have been so contentious, and I would hazard a guess that sometime between 1890 and 1910, the southern states would have been in such dire financial straits, they would have begged the north to be readmitted into the union (on the condition, as stated above, that they ratify the 13th amendment banning slavery).

Let’s not contemplate the implications of not having the 14th amendment in this essay… What I’m saying is that the intended result of banning slavery would have been achieved by the time William Howard Taft left office anyway.

So there’s a trade-off: war with all of its pain, suffering, and sorrow, or allowing slavery and the dehumanization of human beings to persist for longer, at least in parts of the country. In 1860, I probably would have said that war was the preferable path. In the hindsight of how badly reconstruction went, I’m not so sure.

That was an interesting thought experiment, to say the least. Feel free to criticize me for taking an overly simplistic view of the way history might have played out (up to and including the assumption that William Howard Taft actually became president) but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that Lincoln and his successors could have done some arm twisting with our allies not to engage the south, economically. Especially those that already had a distaste for the institution of slavery. Maybe the southern resentment would still be there.

I mention this because we are at a similar threshold now. It’s much more complicated than it was 150-plus years ago because it is an international, rather than a domestic issue, and nuclear weapons are not off the table. Donald Trump did a lot of sabre-rattling when he spoke to the UN, most of it aimed at North Korea.

His speech was angry, and filled with red meat for his base. He claimed to represent America but he sure as hell didn’t represent me as an American in his speech. Some of his rhetoric was downright embarrassing. But what I want to focus on is the very real threats he aimed at North Korea (and to a lesser extent, Iran and Venezuela).

Kim Jong-Un is not a stupid person. He has seen, under the previous two US presidents, dictators we deposed, and he doesn’t want to go down the same road previously trod by Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. Without defending those dictators and their actions, they were the victims of American aggression. And it’s not a coincidence that surveys after surveys around the world view the US as the greatest threats to world peace. Kim’s actions clearly demonstrate that he’s unwilling to be to Trump, what those other dictators were to George W Bush and Barack Obama.

There is a truth to the observation that, in the past 60 years, we haven’t really been able to get North Korea in line with, well, the rest of the world, the threat posed by North Korea to the USA and the rest of the world has increased since Barack Obama left office. So I don’t know if negotiations and entente are the correct solution, as that’s how we got here in the first place. But if we launch a strike aimed at Pyongyang, the North Korean military will retaliate. The casualty rate, military and civilian, would be appalling. It will affect both Koreas, China, Japan, possibly Russia, and many US territories in the Pacific Ocean.

There is evidence that the current sanctions against North Korea are working, albeit slowly. And the sanctions are stricter now than they have been at any time since the cessation of hostilities almost 70 years ago. And with a nod to my alternative history, Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln. Recent pronouncements of his have demonstrated that, like most bullies, he’s more words than actions. (Is he repealing DACA or isn’t he? Are we pulling out of the Paris Accords or not?)

Donald Trump is playing a dangerous game of chicken. We can debate whether or not letting the southern states secede after the election of an abolitionist president might have been a preferable alternative to war. There are no good arguments for going to war with North Korea, though. I’m not saying the status quo is working, but let’s at least try not to blow up the planet as an alternative.

Unfair media treatment 

A few minutes ago I got this bit of breaking news on my phone:


I’m not trying to argue that you’re not being treated unfairly by the media, but I figured I should list the US presidents who probably could make a similar claim that the press and/or their political enemies treated them unfairly:

  1. George Washington
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
  8. Martin Van Buren
  9. William Henry Harrison
  10. John Tyler
  11. James Polk
  12. Zachary Taylor
  13. Millard Fillmore
  14. Franklin Pierce
  15. James Buchanan
  16. Abraham Lincoln
  17. Andrew Johnson
  18. Ulysses Grant
  19. Rutherford B Hayes
  20. James Garfield
  21. Chester Arthur
  22. Grover Cleveland 
  23. Benjamin Harrison
  24. Grover Cleveland, again
  25. William McKinley
  26. Theodore Roosevelt 
  27. William Howard Taft
  28. Woodrow Wilson
  29. Warren Harding
  30. Calvin Coolidge
  31. Herbert Hoover
  32. Franklin D Roosevelt 
  33. Harry Truman
  34. Dwight D Eisenhower 
  35. John F Kennedy
  36. Lyndon B Johnson
  37. Richard Nixon
  38. Gerald Ford
  39. Jimmy Carter
  40. Ronald Reagan
  41. George H W Bush
  42. Bill Clinton
  43. George W Bush
  44. Barack Obama

I’m pretty sure this is an exhaustive list as of the present point in history and I neither left anyone out nor included someone who doesn’t belong.