American Tribes

June 23, 2017

The shooting at a ballfield in Virginia of congressmen and aides is tragic and how we respond to it will affect our country in important ways. It might take a while to understand the causes, the meaning and the results of this violence because so many aspects of our culture are involved.

Will the extraordinary polarization of Washington continue to calcify and will the malignant divisions continue to spread into the broader society? Many academics trace the hardened and personal partisan divide that has so characterized Congress in the last two decades to something as mundane but as consequential as Gerrymandering. Congressional districts have been redrawn to virtually assure that the only fear most representatives ever have is a challenge in their primary from someone in their own party. The result is that congressmen consistently appeal to their base and comply with the policy interests of money lobbies. It is as though the job of representative is one of making calls to donors and issuing inflammatory rhetoric to satisfy their base. The House of Representatives have lived within its self-created bubble until the angry rhetoric and gun violence that many of us suffer has busted that bubble. Children being slaughtered in Connecticut or Georgia resulted in absurdly partisan responses with conservative GOP representatives calling for arming schools rather than common sense laws to limit assault weapons. I haven’t heard many congressmen opining that maybe the congressmen and their aides should start carrying assault weapons to softball practice. Maybe it is too early yet, but maybe congressmen facing the same carnage of assault weapons we face will result in some good legislation.

Another aspect of the broader culture that has contributed to the bitter and now violent political divide is hate radio. The Rush Limbaughs, Alex Jones, etc. have deliberately encouraged a personal characterization of politics that attacks their targets not so much for their policy positions as the result of evil motives. Liberals want to “destroy” freedom, individual politicians are “traitors” who should be executed. For example, Mr. Jones consistently talks about the upcoming “Civil War II” and encouraging his listeners to arm themselves and be prepared to shoot neighbors and even family. He allegedly has over 6 million listeners. Donald Trump exploits the anger and fear when he calls the media “enemies”, and depersonalizes and denigrates Democrats. Leadership makes a difference. History is replete with the lessons that people are vulnerable to fear and too easily encouraged to violence. How do we lance the poison of hate radio without impinging on freedom of speech? It has to come from leadership… from political leaders responding to issues with courage and inspiration. Playing the softball game as exercise in solidarity and support for each other as human being as well as members of the opposite parties is an example of something that can make a difference to society in general. Hate radio already has promoted the shooting as a reason for partisan rage and fear, but it seems that the game itself may have created goodwill.

Let’s hope that the political courage to treat fellow Americans as equally patriotic and worthy of respect, at least the respect to listen to their ideas and consider them in relation to solving a problem instead of an exclusive focus on re-election by appealing to the base – a term that is an appropriate adjective as it is a noun.

Obstruction of Justice

June 22, 2017

The actions prompting accusations of the Trump Administration engaging in obstruction are as numerous as they are clearly intended to interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation. Firing the three people investigating his campaign, the threat of firing the fourth (Mueller) along with the personal attacks and thinly described threats, the constant public attacks on the rule of law… these are obvious acts of obstruction. The only issue is meeting the legal criteria, which Trump ought to be rejoicing in, because motive is an element of the crime. Already apologists of the president are defending his motives, not his actions. Paul Ryan suggests that Trump asked Comey to stop a criminal investigation because he is “new to Washington and doesn’t know the long-established protocols”. Forget about the fact that Trump asked everyone else to leave the room before he talked with Comey, suggesting knowledge that he was doing something wrong. Forget the fact that Trump has repeatedly ignored both the advice of his own lawyers, let alone common sense to tweet admissions and threats.

Another line of defense emerging is shaping public perception that the legal process is just a political process. Trump attacks judges as well as the rulings of judges. The normal process of law is being characterized as a “witch hunt”. The net effect of this line of defense is ominous, no matter how you look at it. There is a valid fear that Trump and his apologists are actually attacking the rule of law and if obstruction charges are filed then there will be an attempt to use mob law to cower House members faced with a choice for impeachment. They claim there is “no evidence” of collusion, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence and there must be credible, direct evidence to convene the Grand Jury. The fact that investigators are not releasing the evidence and that they are following legal protocols should be reassuring to Trump supporters, but they are exploiting the legal process to whip us the popular opinion that “there is no evidence”.

It is early in the process of investigations, but the fact that the administration is unwilling to allow the legal process to unfold and is already attacking investigators before the investigation in itself suggests obstruction, if not a guilty frame of mind. The danger of what Republicans are doing now is that they are eroding the trust in the rule of law, which ultimately may do more damage to the country than any impeachment.

What Bothers Me Most …

June 9, 2017

We live in conflict, division. This is nothing new to Baby Boomers such as me. Civil Rights, Viet Nam, Women’s Movement – all issues that caused bitter divisions in American Society. Yet, I can’t help but to feel that somehow, this is different. Many of the those conflicts were generational – it wasn’t as much a shift in values as it was a reinterpretation of the same values. What it meant to be a good citizen, a patriot, or a good human being was changing. The interpretation of facts was changing, but there was always a sense of shared reality – a sense that facts drive the interpretation and not vice versa. The challenge to authority was based on the inconsistency between the authority and facts.

Authorities told us that Viet Nam was necessary for our national defense, that separating races was essential for society to survive, and that women were not capable of fulfilling any other role. The facts of life, what we saw when we interacted with other races, or when women performed male defined roles very well when necessary (such as factory work during WWII) collided with demands of authorities. The questioning of authority from my generation was not about facts, but the interpretation of those facts and what they meant to build a better, more just society.

Today I speak with people… people I have known for years, who have shared the same convictions as me, who seemed to have abandoned those beliefs not so much as a result of a rational process, as much as an insistence of emotions. They are the 38% – the people who support Donald Trump no matter what. I know people who canvassed door to door for Obama who are now one of that 38%. People who based their politics on a sense of empathy for those who had no power, who never would approve of philandering, lying, fear-mongering in their personal lives who now support Trump despite the ample evidence of what the man is about.

I know active duty military, people who love their country who readily dismiss the interference and possibility of collaboration of Trump surrogates with an enemy State to undermine our election because the results justify treason. It is as though the facts of Trump and his policies were irrelevant to the need to support Trump.

Perhaps the irrelevance of facts is a function of an emerging tribalism in American society… where being identified as a member of the tribe is more important than what the tribe is or is not, does or doesn’t do. It’s not uncommon in other societies, especially in the Middle East. However, what defined our country was the fact that we were members of different tribes who came together over an ideal. I don’t know what the ideals of the 38% are, other than hate or fear – hating “Liberals” and the “mainstream media” and Muslims.

People who have acted in the past to help those less fortunate, now dismiss the idea of millions of Americans without health care if it meant that “Obamacare” was ended and their insurance premiums are reduced by pennies. People who identify with religious values that compel them to feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked who support a budget that abandons those people in favor of tax breaks for the rich. Evangelicals support Trump by significant majorities! I know very well educated and intelligent people who used to agree that science should dictate policy, who now dismiss scientific facts and methods as less important than supporting whatever Trump says because of what he has come to signify to them.

What could change these people, not an insignificant number of people, to dismiss facts in favor of their need to be a part of this movement – a movement that increasingly shares the qualities of a cult more than a political movement? Fear? I don’t know, but I worry that this is a conflict that we may not survive as a Country.

What Does It Mean to “Make America Great Again”?

June 8, 2017

This is what I think would make America great: a reassertion of American leadership and exceptionalism.

Before WWI, we were a country defined by our exceptional national character. Leaders of other countries pointed to our collective character as worthy of emulation. This included our “pioneer spirit” – our eagerness to explore and discover. It included our “can do” spirit – the persistence and courage to overcome any obstacle. It included our independent spirit – the insistence on liberties to live our lives free from government mandates. These qualities came to full blossom during WWII, when we were forced to assume the mantle of world leadership. Since that time, American leadership in the world has also become part of what has defined our greatness.

In other words, what made America great was more related to national character and the natural results of that character than economic policy. As the world becomes ever more inter-dependent, it has put more pressure on American leadership. The world needs American leadership. Without our leadership, the world will be far more dangerous with the vacuum filled by the authoritarian power of Russia or China.

One could debate America is no longer great, but it seems to me that any progress we do make depends on restoring those parts of the American character that made us great in the first place. Therein lies the problem with Trump. How does his defunding of scientific research and imposing a political litmus test on scientists in government service square with the pioneer spirit? How does his withdrawing American leadership on climate change, retreat from NATO leadership, and realignment of alliances with authoritarian regimes and the whole “America First” rhetoric square with American exceptionalism and leadership?

I understand the appeal of “America First” because so many Americans are suffering economically. However, I would argue that most of these problems are self-imposed. Allowing money to be considered political speech, bad trade deals (mostly as a function of allowing moneyed interests to dictate the terms), and the devolution of the media from a source of facts to alt-facts based on advertising constituencies has created far more problems than terrorism, or any other external factors. Appeals to fear and exploiting divisions may enable the existing power structure to keep power, but it does nothing to make America great. Our greatness is rooted, and will be revived, by appeals to the “better angels of our nature”.

Why I Might Run for Governor

June 7, 2017

There are far more reasons not to run for Governor of Michigan than to run, but not necessarily the better arguments. When I ran for Governor against John Engler, I was naïve to the political system. I thought that with appeals to popular support based on policies, I could overcome the gravity of Party leadership and money interests. That strategy worked in the primary, when I was able to meet and talk with individual citizens and debate the candidates ordained by the Democratic Party leadership.

However, the same populist campaign that helped me win in the primary, became the source of resistance not only from the GOP, but also the Democratic Party leadership. If Hillary had a valid complaint that she got “absolutely nothing” from the DNC, she should have seen what happened here. Not only did the party leadership give me nothing in terms of financial or logistical support, they actually worked with the media and the GOP to undermine the campaign. I stepped on a lot of toes and it was a lesson I had to learn: doing what was best for the citizens of Michigan was not enough, and pointing out how the Democratic leadership had not served the interests of Michiganders first was fatal. The most important thing is to play ball with the leadership and the money interests that funded them. The experience left me soured to politics, but not to the rank and file.

The system of party obeisance may still be entrenched, even though the party has lost almost every level of government. I don’t know about party politics, but I do know that Michiganders are starving for a government that is less ideological than it is practical. The only valid issue is “what works?” Michigan under the GOP does not work. In fact, the situation in Flint proves that they are criminally negligent in some regards. I do believe that a Governor should have a foundation of values that guides their decisions. However, those values should begin and end with what will work best for the health, wealth and success of citizens. The days of passing laws to appeal to ideology alone are ending. People care less about banning transgender bathrooms as they do about having safe drinking water, well-paying jobs and getting their children a good education. They want solutions, not rhetoric. The question is … can the political party system in Michigan produce a candidate that are more interested in solutions than power?

So, as much as I disdain the political process of running for office, and as much as giving up my law practice for a few years will be a sacrifice, the best arguments are in favor of offering solutions to our problems. Maybe if we ran campaigns based only on policies and not on personality we could find our way out of this dysfunctional political wilderness, and I wouldn’t feel this sense of guilt for not trying to do something to change the system. Now we seem desperate for something, anything, to change the system.


Science and Politics

May 31, 2017

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Flint water crisis was the behavior of the scientists involved — from the people in the DEQ who failed to question, let alone test, the feasibility of switching water sources, to those who falsely reassured citizens that the brown water coming from their faucets was safe to drink, to lab techs falsifying results, to the EPA administrator who wrote a memo stating that maybe Flint “wasn’t the community to go out on a limb for …” even as thousands of children were being poisoned with lead. Not testing, not applying the standards of scientific methods and reporting the results, or even worse yet, not acting on results when lives are at risk is so much at variance with what we have come to expect (and rely on) from scientists. However, the problem of scientists ignoring their ethical and moral duties is more endemic than the Flint situation.

Science has always faced pressure from politics even from the time of Socrates, and ultimately it was the willingness of scientists to stand by their methods and results that advanced the greater good. I wondered if we have so corrupted science with capitalism and politics that we can no longer rely on it. Certainly, the debate over climate change is an example of economic and political concerns as one example of rejecting scientific research and consensus. However, I think that science is fine. It’s the lack of moral/ethical development by some of the current generation of scientists that is the problem.

The scientific method, involving testing hypotheses and the replicating results remains the most reliable source of knowledge we have. When the same results are reproduced by different scientists then the facts are established. What meaning or interpretation we put on those facts is a different issue, but facts used to be facts that mattered. How is it that so many people trained in science and working as scientists can find justification to ignore facts and their ethical and moral obligations as the result? What produced a person with a PhD who questioned the political implications of revealing life threatening results in Flint? Science can weed out research from people with political agendas, but can it survive without scientists who lack an ethical or moral framework? Science has the ultimate goal of enhancing our collective lives by generating knowledge and translating that knowledge into action. Galileo pursued the truth regardless of the results and what it meant to his employability or his political/religious beliefs, and was willing to defend his findings. History is full of scientists that were willing to risk their lives to conduct their research, wherever it led.

In this emerging time when emotional beliefs “Trump” facts, we need scientists who have the moral courage to insist on the importance of objective and reliable facts as necessary for the collective good.


May 31, 2017

Some reflections from this past Memorial Day …

Ricky Best, one of the men murdered in Portland, was a combat veteran. He wasn’t in uniform, but he certainly died in combat protecting the lives of fellow Americans. That’s what veterans do, and that’s why we should honor them.

The fact that Mr. Best died combatting a right-wing terrorist who was acting as though the expression of his hatred toward teenagers he thought were Muslims would, somehow, be acceptable to other passengers is even more disturbing. There is no doubt that the rhetoric of the Trump Campaign has communicated permission to express hatred toward Muslim-Americans, even to act on that hatred. When did open expressions of hateful threats become acceptable again in this country? Certainly, the election of President Obama produced a lot of very public hatred. However, that hatred for the most part was indirect such as the whole Birther movement. I think the unapologetic hatred started when Trump announced his intent to run for President (Mexicans are rapists, etc.) and if you ever attended a Trump rally you know what permission to hate is like. It is true that not everyone at a Trump rally would stand with Nazi salutes, call for violence, etc., but there were plenty of those types there and the failure of Trump and everyone else to stop the hatred makes them complicit.

The attack on teens who did nothing to provoke it other than look like Muslims, is only one of hundreds of violent actions and threats in the past year against Americans who are Muslim. However, these attacks somehow seem less threatening than a hypothetical ISIS attack and public discussion of right wing terrorists is almost non-existent. Why? Why would the reality of murder on a public train seem somehow less threatening to us than that of a hypothetical attack from ISIS? The answer is obvious. What is the solution? Love. Love is the only thing that can conquer hatred because love compels us to overcome our fear and act. Love compelled those men to defend those girls. In fact, the dying words to the people around from one of the heroes in the Portland attack, Mr. Namake-Meche was that he loved them.