The Lessons of History

December 12, 2017

General Flynn pleaded guilty to a felony, to avoid the likelihood of being convicted of even more serious felonies. Apart from the delicious irony of the man who self-righteously led the Republican mob chanting “lock her up” even as he was committing felonies, or the legal implications to the Trump cabal, there are some interesting lessons from history that are immediately apparent. I’m not talking about John Dean or other more contemporary parallels, although the implications of Flynn cooperating with the Special Prosecutor do suggest a parallel. I’m talking about the figure of Flynn, his actions and understanding their significance. I’m talking about another famous general: Benedict Arnold.

Both Arnold and Flynn were respected generals. Both were fired from their jobs and became resentful and bitter as the result. Both men felt they were intellectually and morally superior to the men who hired and fired them, and both became secret agents of a foreign country for personal gain. Their cause became personal enrichment and vindication. Both of their treachery were uncovered as the result of intercepted communications. In the end, both men acknowledged their crime, but not their wrongdoing. Their narcissism prevented them from admitting they were wrong as much as it led them to their betrayals in the first place. Theirs was not the fate of the tragic hero who falls because of a fatal flaw. Theirs was the fate of men who served themselves above all else. Their motivation was rooted in narcissism, not altruism or any genuine concern for the common good. They strove for recognition, admiration and enrichment. When they failed to get what they believed they deserved, their rage translated into self-destruction.

There is one important difference of course. While both deserved to be fired from their jobs, their bosses were markedly different. George Washington was a man with an ego kept in check by his conscience, and President Obama had a similar character. Both Washington and Obama were alarmed by the self-serving ambition, the duplicity and destructive effect of their generals and fired them. Flynn’s most recent boss however, lacks both a conscience and any sense of judgment of their abilities other than personal loyalty before loyalty to Country. Even though Trump knew that Flynn had betrayed the country, he kept Flynn on until the public exposure necessitated letting him go. For Trump, self-enrichment involving betrayal of the country was not troublesome until the public opinion began to affect his own stature. That’s the alarming aspect of how Trump handled Flynn, and maybe a portent of what is to come. He didn’t care that Flynn had been compromised by foreign intelligence agencies and had broken the law. Trump kept him on in one of the most sensitive intelligence positions of any Administration even knowing Flynn was a foreign agent. That should worry all of us. That error of judgment would never occur to Trump and worry him. At least not nearly as much as the cooperation of Flynn with Mueller. In fact, Flynn may be nothing more than a moral reflection of Trump and consequently the reason why he was willing to tolerate Flynn’s lawlessness and betrayal of the Country.

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Sexual Harassment is Not Politics

November 27, 2017

Roy Moore may be the drop that burst the dam, but the long sad history of men using power to sexualize and objectify women reaches back millennia. Recently the news about Al Franken broke, signaled by the same man (Roger Stone) using the same language (“time in the barrel”) used to announce the Wikileaks release of hacked e-mails from the Clinton Campaign. There is a political side to this issue, but this is a far more import issue than the election of a Senator (or President for that matter). The fact is that women have been abused subtly and not so subtly in our society and it’s long past the time to end it. The boy’s club should be closed.  It is not enough to reject physical sexual assault of women and tolerate verbal assault, or economic and social assault. But how to change?

Men are getting pretty nervous about now. Welcome to the experience of women. What is harassment and what is not? Is inviting a women coworker out for drinks after work harassment or a good will gesture? When is a joke a joke and when is it an assault? What is OK or not OK? Here are some suggestions guys…

If you want to share a joke, an invitation, or conversation with a woman in the workplace (or anywhere else), how about asking yourself if you would be good with someone doing that to your own daughter? How about treating women respectfully with clear boundaries until the woman knows you well enough to understand your motive? How about questioning your own motives first? How about asking women for permission and respecting their answer?

Of course, it will be hard on men for a while, and why not? It wasn’t men who precipitated this social change – it took the courage of women speaking out. Even now, victims of abuse from men are attacked and risk attempts to smear, shame and bully them into silence. Guess what? It doesn’t work anymore. We men have to change, and if we don’t know how to change then let the women around you define what that change looks like. Wow! You mean let women have some control? Yes, that’s right.

Even now, we can only begin to see the outlines of the path to change. Liberal men do it. Conservative men do it. It is a problem that transcends politics, but political ideology seems to be a defining aspect of responses. Al Franken immediately admitted the truth and apologized for behavior over a decade earlier and before he became a Senator. Trump and Moore attack their victims. Kind of ironic, if not sad, that the Party of Family Values is now becoming the Party of pedophiles. Whether it’s fair or not to be paying the price for behavior done decades ago, there is a moral difference between admitting your behavior was wrong and denying it and attacking the woman involved.

Some well-intentioned men, confused and fearful of their own past behavior being exposed, resent being put in the position where they may be “inconvenienced” by having to question their behavior toward women. Change is never easy, and for men in this society change is long overdue. We can start by rejecting the attempts to victimize women who speak out.


Hypocrisy

September 1, 2017

There are so many instances of hypocrisy from politicians of every persuasion it almost goes without notice most of the time. However, the current level of hutzpah from Texas Republicans is worthy of notice for its sheer audacity. Virtually all the Texas Republicans voted against relief for Hurricane Sandy and insisted on budget reductions to offset the costs. While some of the Texans, such as Cruz, now insist they voted against the bill because it contained pork barrel spending not related to hurricane relief, they all insisted at the time that ANY relief bill would be blocked unless the money was found by reducing funding from social safety net programs. They wanted to homeless to suffer so that the other homeless could go back home. This is what conservatives do: complain about the evil of “big government” until they need the help.

Of course, I wouldn’t want the badly needed relief not to get to Texas, but it would be nice to rub their noses in their own stuff. Maybe they should call the bill the “Hurricane Sandy Payback Bill” or something similar. As much as conservatives complain about the self-righteous hypocrisy of liberals, there is more than enough among conservatives to match up, especially among evangelicals. Remember, evangelicals wondered if Sandy was a judgment from God against New York. Maybe God is punishing states that voted for Trump, or for denying climate change … it’s a slippery slope, my conservative friends.

Enough political fun. I do hope that people in Texas, especially the poor and homeless, will get the help they need and stay safe.


The Cost of Economic Injustice

May 20, 2016

Income inequality is one aspect of economic injustice that is getting some exposure this election cycle, primarily from Bernie Sanders. The fact that there is economic inequality is now widely accepted by economists, and felt by most Americans. This may be a good outcome, even if it did take widespread suffering to crush the usual stereotypes about poverty being a function of laziness or some other pejorative.

Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” America no longer exists. Even with heroic effort and working two full-time jobs, most Americans will not realize economic security. Since the Great Recession, the wealth of 50 percent of Americans decreased an average of 40 percent, while the average hourly wages of the 400 wealthiest Americans increased to over $97,000 per hour. There are structural aspects of our economy, built by political policy, that not only created the recent “Great Recession,” but have also increased the rate of the transfer of wealth since then. This comes at great costs to many social aspects of American life.

A deterioration in health and life expectancy are other negative consequences of inequality. America in the last five years has begun to imitate the conditions of Russians after the Soviet Union fell. In the last five years, the average life expectancy for white women in America has decreased at the same rate as Russian men after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In fact, American women now have the lowest life expectancy of women in any advanced country in the world! One factor in this decline is that the American economy has decreased the wealth of the majority of its citizens, resulting in decreased access to health care. One of the objectives of ObamaCare was to remedy that lack of access to medical treatment, but that was sabotaged when the Supreme Court gave the right of states to opt out of Medicare.

So it is not just a lack of access to education, or any of the traditional vehicles for upward mobility, that have been destroyed by this economy. It is also causing a deterioration in health and other aspects of a quality life. Reagan championed the “trickle down” economic theory that set into motion the greatest transfer of wealth in the world’s history. Since then, the political system has only increased that trickle to a torrent. Our children may be the first generation of Americans to live in a Third World country.


Supreme Fools

March 26, 2016

Mitch McConnell is nothing if not a consistent fool. Make that a supreme fool. Before President Obama ever entered the White House, he publicly stated that his job (and the job of all GOP Senators) was to make sure that Obama was a one-term president. He then initiated the most obstructionist campaign against any president in history. It became so absurd that Republicans in both houses of Congress opposed the president’s initiatives that they had previously supported. It got so bad that the American Psychological Association is considering a new diagnosis of “Obama Derangement Syndrome” or what we call “black-tracking” (rejecting their own ideas whenever Obama supports it).

Perhaps the best example of black-tracking is to not even consider the current nominee for the Supreme Court. In one of the best “in your face” political dunks of all time, President Obama nominated someone that Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah) only one week earlier cited by name as a man who would easily pass unanimously if only the president would be reasonable enough to nominate him. It clearly showed the willingness of Republicans to put party before the welfare of the country, leaving a Supreme Court seriously impaired for over a year, maybe a year and a half by the time the next president nominates and the Senate confirms.

All the obstructionism Mitch McConnell and his deranged GOP Congress has accomplished up to now is to hurt the country by failing to do much-needed legislation and making the institution of Congress the most derided and least respected in history. Then again, he and his cronies may have accomplished something else. By trying to destroy the Obama Presidency, he may have destroyed his own party. The obstructionism and rhetoric of the GOP leadership has spawned the two front running candidates for their party based on platforms of rejecting their leadership. The reality is that Congress stopped serving the needs of the country shortly after the Citizens United ruling codified the creation of the “donor class” and permanent dysfunction of government.


What $50 Million Will Buy You (and Not)

October 13, 2015

With the admission from the Pentagon that the program to train Syrian fighters has failed, I have to question our priorities as a nation (again). Politicians will go back and forth about policy in the Moslem world in an endless loop of rhetorical nonsense intended to accomplish nothing more than political points.

It’s clear that all the money in our Treasury, all the weapons in our arsenal, and all the talk about the wonders of democracy will have no effect there. We spent $50 million to train five fighters, four of whom are already dead, one of whom defected to ISIL! The training program had a budget of $500 million, and who knows what will happen with that money now.

It appears that President Obama has decided on a nihilistic strategy in Syria. In the past days we have dropped dozens of pallets of weapons and ammunition in rebel held areas, like some demonic Santa Claus. It seems like the only “Christian” thing to do – mortars for Muslims … I guess he decided that if we can’t create democracy in Syria we will arm them to the teeth and let them kill each other (and a few Russians too).

Since the unnecessary war in Iraq, we have spent over $3 trillion and thousands of American lives to accomplish only chaos – and that’s only the money we have been told about! That does not include the hundreds of billions in arms turned over to ISIL, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups by the troops we have spent over a decade training. That money could have created a far better economy and society on Main Street America.

It’s clear that trillions of dollars will have no net positive effect in the Middle East, but I wondered what we could have done with the $50 million (chump change, really) in Michigan. Here’s a few ideas:

• Provide housing for every homeless veteran in Michigan.
• Provide 4 year college scholarships for 1000 of the poorest students in Michigan.
• Restore drinkable water to Flint.
• Provide free dental care for 50,000 children for a year.
• Hire 800 more police officers.

Even for government bureaucrats $50 million can do some damage:
• Buy 250,000 toilet seats for the Pentagon.
• Repair ½ mile of the Lodge Freeway.
• Hire 1,562 new Legislative Aids to assist Michigan Legislators to cover up extra-marital affairs and block all legislation.


Doctors Without Borders and War Without End

October 8, 2015

I heard an interview with John McCain this morning that was troubling. He was being asked about the situation in Afghanistan, and specifically about the bombing of a hospital staffed by Doctors Without Borders. Although the details of the incident are still unclear, some things are known, and it does not reflect well on our efforts there. The hospital was specifically targeted, and not the result of an errant bomb or miscalculation. The airstrike was requested by Afghan forces not receiving immediate fire from the hospital compound, and no American troops were being fired upon.

When asked about the incident, McCain responded that there were Taliban firing on troops “in the vicinity,” and when pressed for how close the fighting was taking place he simply said “they were in the city.” McCain denounced the description of the unjustified hospital bombing as a “war crime,” saying that if the Taliban had not entered Kunduz, then this “tragic event” would have never happened. His solution was sending more American troops to help train and assist Afghan government troops. When confronted with the fact that we had tens of thousands of troops training the Afghan army for over 12 years, and asked if the troops could ever be trained given the lack of success so far, he only responded that there may be a need for a permanent troop presence akin to what we have done in Post-WWII Europe.
I know men who have served in Afghanistan, two in particular who have served three or more deployments there. They tell me that Afghan troops (unlike Iraqi troops) do have a will to fight, but they are constrained by units segregated by ethnic and tribal identities. This creates mixed loyalties when these units are deployed in rival tribal areas. They are just as anxious to fight rival tribes as they are the Taliban. Speculation is that Afghan soldiers targeted the hospital to eliminate leaders of a rival clan, much the same as Gitmo was populated in part by innocent men who were falsely identified as Taliban by their ethnic rivals.
There is an even more compelling reason to doubt that any Afghan government, let alone army, could survive a U.S. withdrawal, and it is related to how the Taliban were able to capture Kunduz in the first place. The corruption of the Afghan government is so pervasive that residents of the city either stood by, or actually assisted the Taliban. It’s not that they want the Taliban as much as they want order and an end to corruption. Drug trade, sex trade, arms trade and demand for bribes for even the most trivial transactions is widespread. In other words, like Iraq and our long history of supporting many other unpopular and corrupt governments (e.g. Viet Nam, Nicaragua), we are on the wrong side of popular support. The widespread presence of American troops restrained the corruption of Afghan officials, just as we did in the post-Sadaam, Shia’ led Iraq. As the U.S. troops leave, corruption and ethnic violence becomes endemic.
In one sense, the nonsense of McCain did led to a valid point: without a permanent, significant American presence in Afghanistan, the country will collapse just as Iraq has. Only the most intransigent Neo-Con would advocate for a permanent presence, requiring an endless drain of resources and even more tragically, an endless stream of dead Americans not so much fighting terrorists, but supporting a corrupt, unpopular government.