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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the randomhousebooks.com electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).

 

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics, Religion, Philosophy, Culture, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election

Posted by nliakos on July 10, 2019

by Robert Mueller (and presumably other unnamed writers from the investigation staff) (The Washington Post, 2019)

I read the Washington Post e-book, which includes an introduction by Post writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky and concludes with Marc Fisher and Sari Hornstein’s Feb. 2018 article comparing and contrasting Mueller and Trump. In between is over 500 pages of report: Volume I, on the actual Russian interference (brazen and well-documented), and Volume II, on Obstruction of Justice, on the various ways Trump and his underlings sought to fire the Special Counsel, impede the investigation, and keep what was done from seeing the light of day. Each volume has its own Executive Summary, and there are lots and lots of notes, timelines, lists of characters, legal explanations, glossaries, transcripts of interviews, emails, and letters, etc. There are also lots of redacted parts, sometimes just a few words, and sometimes several pages in a row. We don’t know what we don’t know, and I wondered as I read whether other, more knowledgeable readers can make educated guesses as to what is hidden underneath.

The prose is lawyerly, clear and precise, but not scintillating, and often repetitive. (What did I expect?) There was not much that did not have a familiar ring to it; I’ve been paying attention (listening to the news, reading the newspaper), and most of this stuff has come out in one way or another. But the report puts it in chronological order, relates actions to other actions, and in so doing, makes its case. It does not come out and say that Donald Trump masterminded a conspiracy with Russian bad actors to rig the 2016 election in his favor; Mueller and his staff were unable to prove conspiracy on the part of any Americans (only that they were eager to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and didn’t care who was offering it to them). But the case for obstruction of justice is clearer. In each case, Mueller presents the evidence and then analyzes it in terms of three requirements: Was there an obstructive act? Was there a connection (nexus) to an official proceeding? And was there an intent to obstruct justice? Intent is the most difficult to show. Mueller often confesses that the investigators were unable to establish intent. Trump’s refusal to be interviewed or to give real answers to Mueller’s written questions made this more difficult. Mueller was working under very difficult conditions. He did the best he could, and then handed the baton to Congress, which continues to dilly-dally when it should be firing up an inquiry into the case for impeachment of this President.

Every American should read this book. But it’s long and tedious, so for Vol. II, I recommend watching The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts, written by Robert Schenkkan and produced by Law Works. It is also very helpful to watch the videos at the Mueller Book Club, which feature interviews with major players, like Rep. Jerrold Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

You can buy it (amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com), download it (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/18/politics/full-mueller-report-pdf/index.html), donate a copy (or several) to your local library, community center or senior center, do group readings or watch parties of The Investigation with friends or family, or watch Robert Mueller’s live public testimony before Congress on July 17. Then call your Member of Congress and tell him or her that the Mueller Report is just the beginning, and that it is past time to launch an impeachment inquiry into the unprecedented corruption of this administration and this president.

Robert Mueller ended his report with the words,”While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”  Mueller was unable to reach that conclusion because it is Congress alone that can hold a rogue president accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors like corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power. Congress must act, but they won’t, unless and until enough constituents demand it of them.

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Fascism: A Warning

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2019

by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward; HarperCollins, 2018)

Madeleine Albright sets out to define and describe fascism, to follow its history since its inception in 1930s Italy, and to consider whether the United States, under Donald Trump, is now flirting with fascism as a replacement for our democratic government based on the law. She begins with her own personal history as a refugee from Czechoslovakia after it fell to the Communists. She asks why we are where we are, twenty-five years after we “won” the Cold War, and answers herself: One reason, frankly, is Donald Trump. If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab. No confusion about where she stands on that issue!

According to Albright, there is no single definition of fascism agreed to by all. She suggests that “Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.” It is neither right nor left; it is a tool. It draws its energy from the anger and resentment of people who have lost something (a war, a job, respect, confidence. . .), who are guided by a (usually) charismatic leader who  brings “deep and often ugly feelings to the surface”–Albright calls such a leader “a secular evangelist” who channels people’s desire “to be part of a meaningful quest”. Fascism is “an extreme form of authoritarian rule”, usually characterized by extreme nationalism; in a Fascist state, citizens have no rights; their mission is to serve, while the government’s mission is to rule. Albright winds up her introductory chapter with this definition: “A Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary–including violence–to achieve his or her goals.” (As I write this, I wonder why she capitalizes fascism. In fact, I don’t think that is correct; see the answer to this question on Quora.com. This makes sense to me, and I will not capitalize it in this post, unless I am referring to Mussolini’s Fascist Party.)

Most of the other chapters concern specific cases where fascism has reared its ugly head, beginning with the first instance when the word was used in this way (In 1919, “a few dozen angry men” began a political movement and chose a bundle of elm rods (fasces) together with an ax that had been a symbol of a Roman consul’s power; their movement became known as the Fascist movement.). Albright writes, “This was how twentieth-century Fascism, began: with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.”

I was struck by several eerie similarities between Mussolini and Trump: it was Mussolini who first promised to “drain the swamp” (dranare la palude). He trusted himself absolutely, feeling no need for advisors; he thought his instincts were always right. He thought shaking hands unsanitary, and he had little interest in what other people had to say.

The next two chapters focus on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain; other chapters deal with  the British fascist movement of Sir Oswald Mosley, American and European fascist movements, Hungary, Stalin’s USSR, Perónism in Argentina, Omar Torrijos of Panama, and Bosnia’s Milosevic. Then Albright brings us into the present: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro,  Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Duterte of the Philippines, and the Kims of North Korea. “The President of the United States” gets his own chapter, and Albright is polite but damning. She doesn’t hesitate to call him out for favoring autocrats over democrats, for undermining the freedom of the press and American institutions like the courts, the FBI, and the electoral system. She notes how Trump’s bad behavior serves as a model for autocrats everywhere and gives them license to turn back democratic reforms in their countries. “His approach is that of a demagogue,” she writes. Nothing new there.

Albright includes many anecdotes from her time as Secretary of State. These are interesting, but I don’t think they add much to her argument.

As you would expect, the final chapter suggests what we might do to counter the rise of fascism in our time. She raises the following questions, and more, about political leaders:

  • Do they suggest treating people who are different as being less valuable as human beings?
  • Do they inflame the anger and resentment of their core supporters?
  • Do they encourage contempt for government, elections, the press, the judiciary?
  • Do they use patriotic symbols to turn people against each other?
  • Do they accept or contest political defeat?
  • Do they claim to be able to solve every problem? . . . .

You get the idea. . . . a good description of 45 and his authoritarian buddies around the world. The answers to such questions, she says, “will provide grounds for reassurance or a warning we dare not ignore.” There is little question as to which of these Americans will discern if they answer these questions about the current occupant of the White House. We aren’t ignoring her warning, but Trump and his hypocritical Republican enablers in the Congress will not easily give up the power they have already amassed. We are living in a perilous moment, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Posted by nliakos on December 30, 2018

by Richard Rothstein (Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W. W. Norton & Co., 2017)

Color of law refers to an act done under the appearance of legal authorization, when in fact, no such right existed. It applies when a person is acting under real or apparent government authority. The term is used in the federal Civil Rights Act, which gives citizens the right to sue government officials and their agents who use their authority to violate rights guaranteed by federal law.  <https://definitions.uslegal.com/c/color-of-law/> 

In this book, Richard Rothstein argues that segregated neighborhoods all over the United States resulted not from de facto segregation (incidentally, due to the decisions of millions of individual private home-buyers), but from de jure segregation: racist governmental policy. As such, it violates African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and we now have the exceedingly difficult task of remedying the situation.

Chapter 1, “If San Francisco, Then Everywhere?” – examines how the federal government segregated the northern California city of Richmond during the Second World War. It looks in particular at the life of Frank Stevenson of Louisiana, who came to northern California to work in the shipyards and other war industries. Richmond, supported by the FHA, built whites-only housing for war workers; African-American workers were not permitted to take advantage of this housing and instead were forced to find shelter wherever they could. This usually meant sub-standard housing, over-crowding, and very long commutes.

The story of Ladera, where my aunt and uncle raised my two cousins, illustrates what happened in many places. A cooperative of mostly white Stanford faculty purchased a tract of land next to the campus, intending to develop it with affordable housing. But because there were a few African Americans in the cooperative, banks refused to lend them the money to develop the land because the FHA refused to insure the loans. The cooperative eventually admitted defeat, and the land was sold to a private developer, who built the whites-only subdivision where my relatives lived.

Chapter 2, “Public Housing, Black Ghettos”, tells the sorry story of public housing projects, originally conceived during the New Deal to house white people. Public housing was segregated from the beginning, and black people were only allowed to live in segregated housing, which was never adequate and, being separate, was never equal (after Brown v. Board of Education, the general counsel of the Housing and Home Finance Agency claimed that the decision was not applicable to housing).  As the suburbs were developed and white people moved out of public housing projects, black people were slowly permitted to move in; the projects were never built in majority-white communities to begin with, as it was easy for anyone who disapproved to stop construction. So after a while, public housing only existed in black communities, and only served black people–and served them poorly, with few services and poor upkeep.

Chapter 3, “Racial Zoning”, describes the development of Jim Crow in the South following the end of Reconstruction, as well as the increasing mistrust and hatred of African Americans which developed in other parts of the country. Woodrow Wilson, who grew up in the racist South, then segregated the federal workforce when he became president in 1913. Examples of early government-sponsored housing segregation include Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis, and many others. During this period, blacks were not permitted to live on majority-white blocks, and whites were forbidden to buy on majority-black blocks, so over time, these blocks, and later neighborhoods, became more and more segregated. Then the resulting majority-black neighborhoods were rezoned for industrial use, and they turned into undesirable, unhealthy, over-crowded, poorly served places–slums, where African-Americans were stuck.  The 1917 Supreme Court case, Buchanan v. Warley, ruled against racial zoning laws (not because the justices found segregation to be wrong but because they believed white owners should be able to sell to whomever they pleased) but was widely ignored.

Chapter 4, “Own Your Own Home”, examines the push by the Hoover administration to get white Americans to buy homes in the newly developed suburbs rather than rent them, subsidized by HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation), FHA, and VA loans, which were unavailable to African-Americans. Not only that, but the FHA refused to insure loans in African-American or integrated communities. If they could qualify for loans at all, African-Americans were eligible only for installment plans known as contract loans, which did not let the borrower accumulate equity and enabled the lender to evict a family for missing even a single payment. In this way, white people were on their way to accumulating wealth as their property values rose; African-Americans were excluded not only from white neighborhoods but from this opportunity to increase their worth. The discriminatory policies were clearly laid out in the FHA underwriting manual. Rothstein points out over and over that these and other indications of racist guidelines in government agencies constitutes a clear violation of African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the 13th and 14th amendments.

Chapter 5, “Private Agreements, Government Enforcement”, considers federal government tolerance of exclusionary practices such as restrictive covenants, which prohibited sales of homes in certain neighborhoods to people of color. Though these covenants were already illegal, neighborhood associations, realtors, and local governments figured out ways to get around the law. Those blacks who bought in segregated white areas were forcibly evicted. In 1948, another Supreme Court ruling, Shelley v. Kraemer, held that the enforcement of restrictive covenants by state courts to be unconstitutional. As with Buchanan, this decision was widely ignored as government at all levels continued to turn a blind eye to violations. For example, if covenants did not contain explicitly racial language but effectively excluded African-Americans from moving into majority-white areas, the FHA continued to approve loans for white buyers and to finance new segregated developments, while “redlining” other neighborhoods zoned for African-Americans where loans would never be approved.

Chapter 6, “White Flight”, is about the self-fulfilling prophecy that people of color moving into an area inevitably caused property values to decrease, and how unscrupulous speculators called “blockbusters” callously and deliberately panicked white homeowners into selling their properties at below-market prices so that the speculators could later sub-divide the properties and rent or sell them to African-Americans at inflated prices (because housing was at a premium in African-American neighborhoods, they routinely paid higher prices for comparable dwellings). If property values fell, it was due to the FHA’s prejudicial policies. Rothstein writes, “In the end, whites fled these neighborhoods, not only because of the influx of black families, but also because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools and crime. . . . But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving a declining neighborhood before their properties were paid for in full–if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date. Whites could leave–blacks had to stay.” (p. 97)

In Chapter 7, “IRS Support and Compliant Regulators”, Rothstein says that the IRS was complicit in the segregation of America because it continued to grant tax-exempt status to institutions (churches, universities, hospitals. . .) that “promoted residential segregation”. In addition, government regulators tolerated racial discrimination in the banks and businesses that they supervised. Many examples are given of church officials and others who actively promoted racial segregation, but the IRS routinely ignored these cases. Banks had discriminatory loan policies through much of the twentieth century, but the FDIC under Eric Cocke and others declined to intervene. Some discriminatory activities have persisted into the present century; for example, the preponderance of subprime mortgages in African American communities, which were the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Homeowners of color who lost their homes were forced back into slums. Rothstein writes that “borrowers should have been more careful before accepting loans they could not understand or reasonably repay, but they were victims of a market that was not transparent–in some cases deliberately not so.”

Chapter 8, “Local Tactics”, focuses on “the extraordinary creativity that government officials at all levels displayed when they were motivated to prevent the movement of African-Americans into white neighborhoods.”  They denied access to public utilities, suddenly decided to zone housing sites for parks, built highways through and around African-American neighborhoods to isolate them, condemned properties, manipulated zoning designations, and more. Examples in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina support this claim.

Chapter 9, “State-Sanctioned Violence”, describes how white mobs rioted, burned crosses, vandalized homes, threatened bodily harm, firebombed homes and otherwise violently resisted African-American encroachment into segregated white areas while police looked on or actively aided and abetted the perpetrators. Rothstein pointedly remarks, “During the mid-twentieth century, local police and the FBI went to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate and disrupt liberal and left-wing political groups as well as organized crime syndicates. That they did not act similarly in the case of a nationwide terror campaign against African Americans who integrated previously white communities should be deemed, at the least, complicity in the violence.” (p. 148)

Chapter 10, “Suppressed Incomes”, considers all the governmentally-supported ways in which African-American incomes were kept low, resulting in less accumulation of wealth and a resulting inability to buy into the housing market. These included denial of access to free labor markets in the post-Reconstruction South, exclusion from most labor unions and subsequent inability to apply for many categories of jobs because they were not union members, discriminatory hiring practices during both the Second World War and the New Deal (e.g., the TVA, NRA, and CCC), keeping workers of color in menial positions without possibility of advancement (even when they had acquired skills in the  military that should have made them eligible for higher level jobs), lack of enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board and the Fair Employment Practices Committee (whose first chairman, Mark Ethridge, was an avowed segregationist–kind of like putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA).  In some cases, African-Americans fought back, but the discrimination was so widespread that it was very difficult to make real progress against it. Furthermore, HUD over-assessed the value of African-American homes and under-assessed the value of white ones, effectively subsidizing the white homeowners on the backs of the black ones; and blacks routinely paid higher rents than whites, with the result that they needed more wage-earners per unit to pay the high rents, another factor in over-crowding.

Chapter 11, “Looking Forward, Looking Back”, contrasts the relative difficulty of desegregating public transportation and accommodations, workplaces, and voting with the more complex task of desegregating neighborhoods: “Ending de jure segregation of housing requires undoing past actions that may seem irreversible.” Reasons for this include multi-generational poverty (the concept of American upward mobility is a myth, but even more so in the African American than in the general population), injustices in the tax code (e.g., homeowners get tax breaks, but renters don’t), and federal subsidies for low-income housing that perpetuate segregation.

Chapter 12, “Considering Fixes”, suggests more or less feasible ways to get ourselves out of the mess we have created with de jure segregation (“Many of our serious national problems either originate with residential segregation or have become intractable because of it.”). First, Rothstein considers it imperative that all Americans understand the role that governments (federal, state, and local) have played in this debacle, starting from the history books our teenagers learn about our history from, two popular examples of which barely mention the government’s role in creating and sustaining our uniquely American form of apartheid. Other suggestions include a ban on zoning ordinances prohibiting apartment buildings in suburban neighborhoods, encouraging “inclusionary zoning” ordinances such as the one we have here in Montgomery County, Maryland; loss or decrease of homeowner tax deductions in communities that are not actively working to encourage integration; increased housing subsidies for lower income families that choose to move to integrated areas; and expanding the Section 8 voucher program. (“The housing subsidy that the federal government gives to middle-class [mostly white] homeowners is an entitlement; any homeowner with enough income to file a detailed tax return can claim a deduction both for property taxes and mortgage insurance. The government does not tell homeowners that only the first few who file can claim the deductions and the rest are out of luck because the money has been used up. But that is how we handle the Section 8 subsidy for lower-income [most African American] renters.” (p. 209) But Rothstein does not minimize the difficulty in setting right this enormous wrong that has been done in our name, by our elected and appointed officials, to a group of citizens whose only fault was to be of African descent.

Rothstein ends the last chapter as he began the first one: with the family of Frank Stevenson. He muses, “What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated Milpitas, not in a de jure segregated Richmond? . . . How much farther on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb if they had grown up in a well-educated household as a result of [their mother] and her sisters being permitted to attend a high school that was designed for students ‘who can profit from the academic program’, rather than one that instead offered manual training? How different might the lives of the Stevenson grandchildren have been were it not for the federal government’s unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents, and their parents as well? What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill this obligation?”

In the Epilogue, Rothstein opines that as a nation, we (whites) have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are not responsible for these patterns of segregation. He observes what might have been had government acted differently and promoted integration rather than segregation. He believes that before we can begin to remedy the problem, we must first accept responsibility for it.

Finally, in the “Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions:, Rothstein responds to some of the questions he has been asked since he began his research into this topic. For example, How can you hold people today accountable for what happened in the past? Why do you want to force people to integrate? Shouldn’t African Americans take responsibility for their own success? What about Hispanics and other minority groups who have suffered from racial prejudice? To each question, he gently but firmly reiterates his position that a great wrong has been done; we are responsible for that wrong whether or not we participated actively in it; and it is up to all of us to fix it as best we can.

This is an important book. Every American should read it! Certainly, it should be in the library of every Member of Congress, every Supreme Court justice, every federal and state judge, every state senator and delegate, every county executive and council member, and every mayor and city council member. To say nothing of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet members. (Not that this President would every read a book.)

N.B.: The current issue of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance magazine features an interview with Richard Rothstein entitled “Segregation by Design”. You can read it here.

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One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported

Posted by nliakos on December 9, 2018

by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann (St. Martin’s Press 2017)

The authors claim that this book will leave the reader feeling more optimistic about our country’s future. I’m not sure that I feel particularly optimistic after reading it; the fixes they offer seem very daunting to me (e.g., strengthening civil society in America). But their basic premise, that the election of Donald Trump and the ensuing chaos have politicized a lot of people to fight to save the country, is certainly true for me. From a passive (and mostly uninformed) voter, I have been transformed into an activist. I am a more or less active member in many progressive groups. I regularly contact my Members of Congress to urge them to act one way or another on legislation and appointments. I have marched and rallied and protested at the White House, at the Capitol, in downtown Rockville and Frederick, and in Annapolis. I have signed hundreds of petitions. In the run up to the 2018 midterm elections, I canvassed, phone banked, led phone banks and canvass launches, and wrote postcards to voters. I have attended meetings and made donations. I can hardly recognize myself, but I know I am a better citizen now than I was. But are there enough of me, and can we maintain our outrage and energy for another two years? Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann are hoping that there are and that we can. I hope they are correct. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.

Quick chapter summary:

Introduction: When a Crisis Is an Opportunity: The Perils of Trumpism and the Call to Engagement – The purpose of the book is to encourage citizen engagement in the resistance to Trumpism. There is an overview of the coming chapters.

Part One: Trump and Trumpism

  1. Trumpian Misconceptions: What Trump’s Election Meant, What It Didn’t, and Why Trumpism Doesn’t Own the Future – The election was extremely close, and the majority of Americans do not like or support Trump. The support of the fabled base is diminishing (in early 2017). As the American population becomes more (sub)urbanized, the Electoral College system negates our 1-person/1-vote democracy by awarded more power to rural voters in more sparsely populated areas. (Ditto for the Senate)
  2. When the Truth Doesn’t Matter: The Crisis of the Media and the Rise of “Alternative Facts” – “In the battle against Trumpism, the fight for truth may be the most important struggle of all.”  They discuss the issues surrounding the state of the (mainstream) media and point out how the idea that the mainstream media are not objective but “liberal” is not new but began in the 1960s. They mention false balance, the idea that media outlets must give voice to an equal number of conservative writers, commentators, and panelists who do not share professional journalists’ dedication to objective reporting. The rise of FM radio left AM stations without programming, a dearth that was quickly filled with conservative talk shows. These people eroded the public’s trust in the media, until we reached the point where we are now, when Americans get their information from entirely different news sources. The Internet offered expanded options and put traditional television stations and newspapers and magazines on the defensive with shrinking funds to pay for the kind of reporting we depend on to get the facts. Opinion is much cheaper than the “journalism of verification and fact.”
  3. Bad Behavior: The Disappearing Norms of American Politics” – How Trump personifies the loss of civilized behavior and tolerance of opposing views. Violations of uncodified norms (expectations of social behavior), like Trump’s constant lying and name-calling, inspires others to adopt the same behaviors, but the norms were already being violated before Trump came to power. The authors quote Rod Dreher: “George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.” They discuss the role of parties in American politics and party norms; Newt Gingrich and the rise of tribalism; Mitch McConnell and his breaking of Senate norms; and the unprecedented attacks on President Obama as the GOP sought to delegitimize his presidency. All these contributed to the belief of many citizens that our democracy was broken. Then Trump came to power and magnified all these negative things.
  4. A Penchant for Authoritarianism: How Trump Intimidates Opponents, Promotes Kleptocracy, and Challenges the Rule of Law” – Name-calling, tweeting, admiring autocrats and strongmen, denying facts, attacking the media and the intelligence community, violating the Constitution and other laws (explanation of the famous emoluments clauses), conflicts of interest, judicial responses, responses to judicial responses: how Donald Trump “combines incompetence with autocratic instincts”. Musings as to whether our institutions can survive this.  The authors are hopeful that the resistance to Trump, which began so forcefully the day after his inauguration with the Women’s March, will contain his worst abuses and will be supplemented by a quiet show of resistance from within his administration (e.g., leakers, which we have already seen in the months since the book came out)
  5. Phony Friend of the Working Class: Trump, “Populism,” and the New Politics of the Far Right – Trump the campaigner vs. Trump as President: “true to his nativist promises” but not to his promises on trade and the economy: “Where money was concerned, his populism was bankrupt.” Details of the #TaxScam, rolling back of rules and regulations constraining big industries from maximizing profits to the detriment of public health and safety, the fight to repeal the ACA.  Musings on populism (“a philosophically slippery concept”): its history and Trump’s use of it as a marketing strategy. Breitbart and Steve Bannon (“Trump used the Bannonites and the populist nationalist right to win the election. They used him to get to power.”).
  6. Race, Immigration, Culture, or Economics? The Complicated Motivations of the Trump Voter –  addresses the legitimate gripes of the white working class and reminds us that we cannot ignore them. Increases in immigration have historically been accompanied by increased anti-immigrant policies. The authors examine the reasons for the decline of the Rust Belt and American manufacturing. Trump’s use of racism, immigration backlash, the fears of older voters, and his astonishing popularity with white Evangelicals, who relinquished their focus on morality to support Trump. Much of Trump’s support came from people motivated by economic distress.                                                                                                                 Part Two: The Way Forward
  7. With Opportunity and Justice for All: Building a New Economy Here the authors admonish the American “governing class” that  their past behavior brought about the disaffection of a large number of Americans who have been “left behind” in the era of globalism, and they challenge us to use our ingenuity to better distribute the benefits of the wealth of this country (“the challenge of shared prosperity”). Social mobility is way down; inequality has reached a new high. Conservatives don’t want to acknowledge that there has never been a time in our history when government was not involved in/did not constrain business at all. (We saw unprecedented growth between 1940-1970 despite increased government involvement to protect workers’ and consumers’ rights.) Corporations need to realize that increasing value for shareholders is not their only concern, because social capital is necessary if democratic capitalism is going to survive. While we cannot recreate the past, we can restore the public-private partnership we once had, if we are realistic about what government can achieve. The authors suggest a Charter for American Working Families (decent jobs and housing, health care coverage that includes treatment for mental illness and addiction, education, reasonable working hours, freedom from discrimination, fair and efficient law enforcement, security in retirement, opportunities for career advancement), with a GI Bill for American Workers (protection, training, education) and a Contract for American Social Responsibility (new standards for corporations). Supporters of Clinton and Sanders, moderate Republicans and Independents, whites and people of color, and younger and older people must unite in coalitions to fight against Trumpism and for what is right. “Progressivism without a robust economic agenda will be neither attractive nor credible.” There is some discussion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) but the authors doubt that it could replace programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They mention some proposals that have been put forward already.
  8. Yearning to Breathe Free: Discovering a New Patriotism – It’s important to be clear about our vision for our country (diversity, shared values and ideas) and to distinguish between that patriotism and Trump’s nationalism (blood, soil, ethnicity). Trump’s disdain for America and for our best and brightest is contrasted with his adulation of dictators and demagogues. The important role immigrants have played in America’s success throughout our history is emphasized, We need to have “a new patriotism built on a capacity for empathy” (“a mutual, universal obligation to try to understand the situations in which others find themselves and the complexities of their thoughts and feelings”).
  9. Our Little Platoons: The Urgency of a New Civil Society –  This chapter talks about the importance of community in people’s lives (and the nation’s life) and how it has deteriorated since the 1970s: fewer people belong to a church, a union, a league, a club–leading to a “weakening of civic culture”. This civic culture must be rebuilt somehow if we are to regain people’s trust in our institutions. On a positive note, organizations play a major role in the resistance movement; religious institutions, law firms, scholars, environmental organizations, etc. have all stepped up to meet the challenge in different ways. The authors propose more place-based policies to help Americans in need because these help to maintain community ties. Service programs like AmeriCorps can play a vital role in developing empathy and understanding. Schools, community colleges, colleges and universities should double as community centers/”hubs of local engagement”.
  10. What “Draining the Swamp” Really Looks Like: Bringing a New Democracy to Life –  The right to vote is the most basic part of a representative democracy, so our most urgent task right now is to fight efforts to suppress voting rights. Besides updating and strengthening the eviscerated Voting Rights Act, we should schedule Election Day on the weekend and making it a national holiday, facilitate early voting, offer online registration, update our voting hardware, and consider universal or mandatory voting (like in Australia). One section focuses on the Electoral College and the challenge of getting rid of it when the low-population states it benefits would surely refuse to pass a constitutional amendment. Lacking an amendment, the authors suggest two possible ways to cripple it: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact  and the enactment of “instant runoff” systems. Another section discusses gerrymandering and proposes several possible ways to solve this problem. Another talks about reforms to the Congress and the Supreme Court. Finally, executive branch challenges like protecting the integrity and autonomy of the civil service must be tackled. Finally, the problem of too much money in politics could be dealt with by requiring full disclosure, empowerment of small donors through a 6-to-1 matching system or providing each voter with an amount of money to assign to political campaigns (I am proud to note that two Maryland lawmakers, Chris Van Hollen and John Sarbanes, have sponsored legislation to do just that.)
  11. “Show Up, Dive In, Stay at It”: Building One Nation After Trump –  The final chapter focuses on the various elements of the resistance movement: the Women’s March and the other marches of 2017 (Tax, Climate, Science), all of which I participated in; the Indivisible Movement; Daily Action; and Eric Liu’s Citizen University. The necessity to unite behind the Democrats to defeat Trump and Trumpism is noted, not because the Democrats are always right or deserving but because the Republicans have abdicated their right to be part of the solution. But the authors hold out hope that conservative voters and thinkers, if not for their present representatives in the Congress, will join the rest of us in standing up to Trump and Trumpism. The authors advocate “a new politics. . . that takes seriously the need to solve the problems that Trump has exposed. It will reclaim our country’s faith in the future and its natural inclination toward hope. And it will nurture our dedication to the raucous but ultimately unifying project of democratic self-government. For it is our shared commitment to republican institutions and democratic values that makes us one nation.”

 

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Fear: Trump in the White House

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2018

by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster 2018; Nook format)

By the time I read this, there were no surprises, but Woodward includes minute details from conversations (via extensive interviews) between with a conversation between David Bossie and Steve Bannon about the possibility of Donald Trump running for President (Bannon scoffed: “Of what country?”), jumping six years ahead to 2016 and the campaign and election, and ending up several months into 2017 , for no particular reason that I can see except that while every single day has brought new horrors from this White House, Woodward had to stop writing and publish the book at some point, or he would still be writing. He probably is still writing (Volume II).

I am quite put off by the frequent use of fucking as both an adjective and adverb. It’s as if the English language has no other modifiers. Just a few examples: Bannon: “I don’t have time for fucking nonsense.” (adjective) Bannon again: “Twelve million fucking dollars in cash out of the Ukraine!” (adjective) and: “Fucking absurd” (adverb).   Trump : “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made.” (adjective) and: “I always knew Gary was a fucking globalist. I didn’t know you were such a fucking globalist, Rob.” (adjective) and: “If it weren’t Sunday, you’d shut the markets down, that’s how fucking hard you fucking go!” (adverbs)  Well, you get the idea. Just the men. Do they really talk like that? Woodward dutifully records every “fucking” that was ostensibly uttered. . . . It reminds me of the Nixon tapes. Presidents and their staffs, unedited.

In fact, I have somewhat more respect for Trump than I did before I read the book. In the reported conversations, he often seems more aware of keeping his campaign promises and the potential consequences of various actions than I gave him credit for. Not all the time, but sometimes.

The book is about 100 pages shorter than one expects, with the last 80 pages or so given over to voluminous notes and an index. I thought I had a few more days of reading, but then suddenly, it was over. The final sentence: ” . . . (John) Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying ‘Fake News,’ the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.'”

As the future unfolds, we will see if this “tragic flaw” will be the undoing of this president. One can only hope.

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