Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Thinker

Lessons in campaign histrionics

I am politically active so I contribute to political campaigns. I don’t contribute a whole lot of money, particularly now that I am retired. During a given election cycle I try to at least throw a few hundred dollars toward worthy candidates. I must say though that I don’t enjoy it very much. This is because once you give you will be petitioned ceaselessly to give more. Worse, once you are on one mailing list your email address will be shamelessly sold or given away to others. The result is a predictable avalanche of emails in my inbox from all sorts of Democratic candidates and progressive causes pleading for money.

Pleading for money is to put it mildly. Pleading implies maybe a little humility and supplication. Not for these campaign managers. I wish I could turn them off but simply cannot. I occasionally go on unsubscribe binges but it never does more than reduce the volume of pleas a bit. My email address simply gets passed around or the candidate will conveniently forget I unsubscribed, particularly as a particular FEC reporting deadline nears.

If I had been more proactive I would have created a junk email account for this sort of mail. I don’t know why, but when I started out giving email to campaigns I sort of assumed that people of a better sort populated them. Apparently they are recruited from hucksters outside carnival sideshows.

Since I don’t have a whole lot of money to give, I have to be very selective about which candidates get my money. Fortunately, I spend a significant part of my day reading about politics, so I feel I am well informed. Most recently I gave these donations:

  • $10 to Jim Mowrer. Jim is running for Iowa’s 4th congressional district. He’s trying to win in bat shit crazy Steve King’s district. How crazy is Steve King? Well, he’s an open racist and xenophobe. He wants an electrified fence on the border with Mexico and he complains that drug smugglers crossing the border on foot have calves the size of cantaloupes from hauling drugs on their backs. Iowans are supposed to be sensible people, but those in this district have yet to prove it because they keep reelecting this clown. I hope my modest donation to Jim might help knock some common sense into these voters. But probably not.
  • $25 to Michele Nunn. She’s the Democrat running for Senate in Georgia. Polling suggests she has a better than even chance to change the seat from red to blue. Her opponent, David Purdue, is the worst sort of Republican, bragging about his ability to outsource jobs. Georgia is slowly swinging blue anyhow, and the Nunn brand carries some traction in the state. Giving to Nunn is an excellent use of my money and recent polls suggest she has a better than even chance of winning.
  • $25 to John Foust. This genuinely open seat is in my district, Virginia’s 10th, which has been filled by Republican Frank Wolf the whole time I’ve been in it. He’s retiring but the Republican candidate Barbara Comstock is trying to convince voters that she’s a moderate while voting for infuriating stuff like transvaginal ultrasounds while in the Virginia legislature. Comstock will probably win this slightly red district, as it stretches all the way to Winchester, but probably only for two years as it keeps getting bluer. Still, it’s worth a donation to see if I can live in a blue district for however short a time before we relocate.
  • $25 to Mark Warner. He is running for reelection against Ed Gillespie and is virtually certain to win. Ordinarily I would not give Mark any money, as he is quite popular and suspiciously moderate. But lately I’ve decided the dynamics in Congress won’t change unless we have more moderates, so I’m giving Warner money. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a good guy.
  • $25 to Bruce Braley, running to keep retiring Tom Harkin’s Iowa senate seat blue. He’s running against a kind of crazy Tea Party type, Joni Ernst. She’ll probably win despite her crazy views, simply because of Obama fatigue and Republicans are chomping the bit to vote, while Democrats will probably fail to engage during midterms, as usual. But maybe a little nudge from me we can keep the seat blue.
  • $25 to Mary Landrieu. She’s got a tough challenge retaining her seat in the red state of Louisiana, but her opponent Bill Cassidy is as usual pretty extreme, and maybe too extreme for Louisiana, but probably not. I disagree with her on lots of stuff, but I’d rather have her on team blue.

I’m not sure how much more I will give, but one thing’s for sure. Apparently there is no chance of Democrats winning at all unless I give great gobs of money every day to all sorts of candidates. At least that’s pretty much the crux of all the emails coming into my email box: it’s a few seconds before a nuclear winter. Most of these are beyond ludicrous and have recently reached the frighteningly embarrassing stage. Here are some from my recent emails:

  • John Foust, or at least his campaign manager says, “we’re going home” because they can’t compete against a $1M ad buy from one of John Boehner’s PACs. But there are links to instantly give them anywhere from $5 to $250 immediately in the email anyhow.
  • Mark Warner, or rather his campaign manager, says this multimillionaire needs more money in spite of being more than ten points ahead of Ed Gillespie in lots of polls. He says Ed Gillespie just bought $400,000 in TV ads, but that’s not true. Gillespie just canceled his advertising, basically understanding he doesn’t have a chance.
  • Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader of course, says disaster is imminent for Democrats, but maybe not if I cough up some money. Democrats are going to lose house seats this cycle but there was no chance they would regain the majority anyhow. Losses though should be minimal. That’s the upside of all these highly gerrymandered districts. Nancy could work on recruiting better candidates for those few districts that are open. In any event, to really change the dynamics in the House we have to work at getting a majority of Democratic governors and legislatures in place for 2020, when the legislative districts will be drawn. That’s a better use of my money.
  • There were no less than four emails from Brad Schneider’s campaign in the last twenty-four hours, which is surprising because I have no idea who he is. For some reason he thinks were BFFs.

Negative ads seem to be effective in persuading voters. Apparently campaign managers believe that histrionic emails are the only way to effectively shake the donation tree these days. Issue them frequently and the scarier they sound the more effective they believe they will be.

Whereas the truth is all of us donors are suffering from extreme campaign fundraising email fatigue. A recent shrill email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where I actually worked in the 1980s had me composing a reply:

“You know, I get conservatively 25 pitches like this a day. If I gave $25 to each plea, I would be donating $625 a day or over $225,000 a year. That’s more than double what I earn every year! Stop it! Just stop it! I’ll contribute when I can afford it to the candidates I feel deserve my hard earned money.”

Of course I followed the unsubscribe link. Unsurprisingly, the DCCC never replied back. And within days, new solicitations from the DCCC were filling up my inbox.

Perhaps a good use of my time in retirement would be to set up a donation site where donations are given anonymously, or at least not shared with candidate organizations. Donors deserve some respect, not this relentless email harassment. In any other context, it would be illegal. Yet there is no equivalent to mass opt out list like there is for telephone solicitations. In fact, everyone in Congress would be hostile to the very idea. They depend on the money tree.

I wish they would give me some peace. For a few days after the election, I may get some. But I am sure it will quickly restart.

 
The Thinker

Death by religion

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today is suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.

 

 
The Thinker

Obama’s strategy is a pretty poor strategy

Dear President Obama,

Can we go back to a lack of strategy regarding the Islamic State? Of course you were ridiculed by much of the media (and naturally Republicans) when the Islamic State started beheading American (and now a British) journalists and you confessed the United States did not have a strategy. Now apparently we have one. I realize I am in a significant minority of Americans, most of whom overwhelmingly support us going to war with the Islamic State. But I’d really prefer a lack of a strategy compared with your current strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State.

It’s not that I object to the idea of getting rid of the Islamic State. It’s the methods that you are using that are unworkable. For the moment it involves a lot of American air power. Presumably dropping all these munitions is part of a “degrade” strategy. All I see is the tail wagging the dog. We are doing just what the Islamic State wants us to do.

It’s the same thing that Osama bin Laden wanted us to do after 9/11. He succeeded. It got our dander all up and before long we were invading Afghanistan and we compounded our mistake by also invading Iraq. Have we destroyed al Qaeda? Obviously not. Have we degraded it? Perhaps. Most obviously though we have not so much degraded it as fractured it. To cope, al Qaeda became a series of snakes rather than one snake. With no central leadership, it is now harder to kill. We’ve lobbed hundreds of cruise missiles at al Qaeda encampments in Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere. We even took out Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment for which you deserve praise. And yet despite hundreds of billions spent, and trillions in eventual costs, al Qaeda is very much alive. The Islamic State is basically an offshoot of al Qaeda. As far as al Qaeda is concerned, the Islamic State is too radical.

So apparently firepower alone, and even the presence of more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops in Iraq was not nearly enough to stop terrorism and sectarian violence. What our muscle does though is make us look like an Axis of Evil, fueling the recruitment of terrorists ready to fight and die for a holy mission, which is exactly what the Islamic State wants. Munitions can be replaced. They have the means to replace anything we blow up, and much of their money is actually coming from so-called friendly states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. To grow and keep growing they need more recruits for the cause, and all the fighting is certainly doing that. Muslims across Europe and even here in the United States are going to join the mayhem, and plenty more in the immediate area are also anxious to wreak holy war. Had we not invaded Iraq it’s unlikely the Islamic State would even exist.

We invaded Iraq in order to stop non-existent collaboration between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. By turning it into a lawless country, we allowed al Qaeda to establish a real foothold in the place. Ten years later it resulted in the Islamic State, which we now want to beat into submission using the same tactics that failed to work in the past. This is an effective strategy? No, it’s the failure to learn from past mistakes. It is folly.

Mr. President, I understand the pressure you are getting. Americans are seeing these grisly videos on YouTube, so cleverly produced by the Islamic state. They are carefully designed to outrage us and push our buttons. It worked. Americans want action. I was certainly revolted by the beheading of two American journalists. My instinctive reaction was the same as most Americans: let’s show them who’s boss by dropping some bombs. An eye for an eye. When I thought about it logically though, I looked at how great it is working out for Israel. That nation does not have peace. It has indefinite and increasingly painful warfare punctured by months or perhaps years of a pseudo-peace. Degrading and destroying the Islamic State the way we plan to do it is simply setting us up for future complex and increasingly worsening games of whack-a-mole. In the long term this does not make us safer, or make the world a more peaceful place. It worsens, not helps, our national security.

Any civilized person is going to think that beheading anyone is beyond outrageous and should not be tolerated. It is, of course, evil. And two Americans so far have suffered this grisly fate. What really bugs us though is that it happened to Americans. We were far less concerned about when Saddam Hussein’s police were doing it. If I had my option, I’d much rather be beheaded than suffer the fate Iraqis routinely experienced under Saddam Hussein. His torturers routinely cut off limbs, made people endure acid baths and even boiled people alive in acid baths. Sometimes this was done in front of their families. We’re not talking about a couple of people; we are talking tens of thousands, and likely a lot more. Only they were Iraqis, not Americans. At least with a beheading, death comes quickly.

While we find such punishments abhorrent (well, except for the Dick Cheney’s of the world, who are quite comfortable with waterboarding), this is par for the course in the Middle East. Beheadings happen regularly in Saudi Arabia. Syria tortures. Iran tortures. The new government of Iraq tortures, mostly Sunnis because the Shi’ites are now in charge. What’s unusual is finding a government in that region that does not torture. Like Americans venturing into North Korea, Americans who travel to these countries in the Middle East have to have some reasonable expectation that they will suffer fates like these too.

We cannot install civilization in this area. We cannot put sufficient forces on the ground to control this region, as we proved in Iraq. For all the current calls for retribution from Americans today, they won’t support a long-term occupation of this area and we can’t afford it.

I realize you are under pressure to show some results. Americans want instant results. We cannot win this fight, at least not like this. This is not a problem that can be controlled. America must give up the fantasy that we can order the world to suit our prejudices and predispositions. Trying to wage this war on the ground through proxies, which is how you want to proceed, is a strategy with virtually no chance of success. It’s a hopelessly tangled mess that we cannot and should not sort out.

Mr. President, part of the art of leadership is to candidly acknowledge what is possible and what is not possible. This is not possible. You should tell us American this bluntly. Let’s do what we can do to make things less miserable for those affected. Let’s make life better for the refugees. But please don’t think that we can solve this problem. We can’t and attempting to do so will only make things worse for us in the long term.

You of all people should understand this.

Stop it. Change course now. Tell America you have rethought your strategy. Let it be.

 
The Thinker

Obama’s lack of a strategy so far is a pretty good strategy

Yikes! It’s almost the end of August and I haven’t written anything about politics this month! I thought retirement would give me all this extra time to blog, but so far it has not been the case. About half of the month has been spent on vacation, which I blogged about, and the other half of this first month of “retirement” has been acting as Mr. Handyman and general property manager as we stumble through the process of getting our house ready for sale.

Not that there isn’t a lot to talk about. President Obama tried to take a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard while events were (literally) exploding in Syria and Iraq, the Ukraine, Libya, the Gaza Strip and Ferguson, Missouri. Obama got bad press for going golfing right after making statements and for not being in Washington during all of this, as if a President is not trailing three hundred plus people with him on vacation to allow him to work remotely, or he couldn’t be back in the White House in an hour if needed. (Curious that these same people don’t criticize him for taking foreign trips, unless there is some domestic crisis underway.) Most lately, he is criticized for wearing a tan suit at a press conference.

All this is piffle of course. It’s probably not a good photo op to show the president swinging golf clubs after making serious statements about the Islamic State. Perhaps the most serious charge laid recently against the president is his self confessed lack of a strategy dealing with the Islamic State, which lately has been imitating our waterboarding during the occupation of Iraq, not to mention grisly beheading an American journalist.

While Obama supposedly dithers, most of the Republicans already have a strategy. Typical of the proposed strategies is one opined by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who wants us to bomb the Islamic State “back into the Stone Age”. This strategy is not surprising from a party that exercises power principally through bullying. If your weapon of choice is the club, it becomes your solution to everything.

Let’s rewind here. When we invaded Iraq, we exercised a “shock and awe” strategy that proved our mighty ability to scare people, destroyed their government, and resulted in a real al Qaeda in Iraq, which had no presence in the country prior to our invasion. Why did they rush in? Because we were there and because there was a power vacuum. Their presence helped energize groups like ISIS/ISIL. We could try to bomb the Islamic State into the Stone Age, but it’s kind of hard when they are using a lot of our leftover munitions and armored personnel carriers. Unless the quality of our munitions and equipment is more inferior than believed, this is probably not a great strategy. So naturally, according to Republicans anyhow, the way to get rid of the Islamic State is to do more of what failed us before!

The United States is not the only country in the region suffering from this cognitive dissonance. There is also Israel, which of course we provide with plenty of lethal munitions, mostly at our expense, which has been used to kill over two thousand Gazans in their latest war with Hamas, many of them innocent children. There now appears to be a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which left the political situation pretty much the same as after their previous war in 2009. One thing though has not changed: all that murder from the skies and from Israeli soldiers has simply fueled more hatred that will ensure more wars like this in the years ahead. Hamas is hardly wiped out and predictably both Hamas and Israel are claiming victories that did not in fact occur. Hamas was not wiped out because it is driven by an ideology that is compelling to many in that region. Being around to fight another day against a vastly superior military force is victory enough for Hamas.

There is no lasting peace possible through strength in our modern world, not that Republicans will ever understand this. Sane people of course are intimidated by the application of overwhelming force, but if there are enough people that put ideology over sanity, the conflict will continue. Probably ninety percent of Gazans would be happy if Hamas were overthrown, but it doesn’t matter if ten percent don’t and are willing to put their lives at risk to continue the conflict.

Bombing the Islamic State into the Stone Age may degrade its ability to wage war, but it will only fuel the mindset that will ensure future wars like this. Obama’s lack of a strategy is simply a timeout to figure out a strategy that might actually help solve the larger problem. The problem in a nutshell: how to cool the ideological fever that is causing the conflict in this region.

I suspect that Obama’s emerging strategy is a lot like mine. The main thing to understand is that most of the chaos in the Middle East is a result of our tinkering with the power structures that were already in place. Doing more of the same is unlikely to make things better but based on experience is almost guaranteed to make things worse, which it has. It fueled the breakup of Iraq and brought the Islamic State into existence.

It’s a bad chessboard for trying to make a move. In my humble opinion, the best strategy may be not quite benign neglect, but minimal involvement and using proxies where they exist, such as moderate forces battling in Syria. Which is kind of what we are already doing, albeit not to great effect so far. We can certainly work hard to cut off the source of funding for the Islamic State. We can try to keep their oil off the market, and we can try to influence states like Qatar that are helping to keep the state in business not to do so. It makes all the sense in the world to keep Americans far away from the Islamic State and to warn Americans who do go there that their lives are in jeopardy and their lives will not be ransomed.

Another exercise in feel good muscular diplomacy will have the same predictable consequences it had in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. It was a strategy that worked in World War One and World War Two, because we were working with well-defined nation-states. Because this was effective, wars are now mainly waged through paramilitary proxies that are ideologically driven. They are much harder to win because the enemy is so diffuse. You can’t kill an idea, but you can sap its energy.

Winning is a generational game, and it begins by not emulating tactics that have proven disastrous in the past. We will win these wars probably 80% through diplomacy, 20% through force of arms, and through proxies of our own that we nurture and support. That sounds like a strategy that might actually work, but it will be hard to sell. There are no instant results but if anything is likely to actually eventually work, it will.

I hope our very intelligent president and I are on the same page, which I think we are. In a way, Obama is blessed with a term limit because he can do what is right without worrying about the political consequence. I hope he does.

 
The Thinker

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

 
The Thinker

Same story in Gaza, just different year

It’s not hard to be an accurate prognosticator when it comes to wars between Israel and Hamas. Does this post from 2009 sound eerily familiar?

At what is likely to be at least a thousand dead, many more thousands injured and virtually every resident of the Gaza Strip traumatized for life, Israel may succeed in halting rocket fire for a while from Gaza. However, this action, like all the other military actions on Palestinian land will not win them peace. Others will soon be lobbing rockets inside of Israel again, or will blow themselves up at bus stations or will be finding other gruesome ways to seek retribution for the disproportionate violence inflicted on them, their families, their neighbors and friends. In reality, this incursion into Gaza simply sows the seed of future violence. Why should anyone whose home is destroyed or whose family members are killed or injured by the Israel military want to make peace? In truth, every bomb lobbed on either side simply creates a multiplier effect that ensures future military actions will be deadlier and that genuine peace will never arrive.

It’s hard to keep track of the body count in this latest battle in the extended war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Today’s press report says that at least 1060 Gazans have been killed as a result of this twenty-day (so far) battle between Israel and Hamas. It’s hard to estimate the number of wounded, but conservatively it should be at least six times as many people as those who were killed. Let’s round the number of dead and wounded to 10,000. With approximately 1.8 million people living within this 139 square mile area bordering the Mediterranean Sea, that’s roughly 1 in 200 people killed or injured within the Gaza Strip as a result of just this latest battle. To put that in perspective, if the same thing happened proportionally here in the United States, that would be 189,000 Americans dead and 1,589,000 wounded from 22 days of fighting. Over the course of this endless conflict of course, these numbers would be much higher. It would be on par, at least, with the casualties in our own Civil War, which at least ended definitively after four years.

Syrians embroiled in their own civil war can at least become refugees. Life may suck in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, but at least you are alive and in relative safety. There is no such escape for Gazans. Of course Israel won’t take them in. Egypt won’t let them in either. You would think they could become boat people, but the Israelis have banned even fishing and their navy would sink anything that dared to leave the Gaza Strip by sea. Residents there are trapped, with nowhere to escape to. They are doomed, it seems, to spend lives traumatized by war and made more miserable by poverty and a continuously degrading infrastructure.

Living in Gaza is sort of like living in a huge concentration camp, only it lasts much longer than the Second World War. Rather than dying in gas chambers or in work camps, the dying occurs principally during these battles, all occurring at close range, or afterward from wounds or as a result of the generally pervasive poverty. You would think Israelis would know a thing or two about concentration camps, but they seem thrilled that their army is inflicting punishment on these defenseless people, cheering from the highlands as their air force drops bombs on Gazans.

Not that the Israelis are getting off scot-free. As these battles go, it’s been painful for their army. 43 soldiers have died so far, and three citizens have died from rockets lobbed from the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Most missiles are mistargeted but those that aren’t are generally picked off by their Iron Dome defense system supplied by the United States. From Hamas’s perspective, they are doing well in this disproportionate battle. For a change the Israelis are hurting, at least a bit. None of this though is doing much to establish a cease-fire, at least one that seems likely to endure.

During the January 2009 battle I noted:

Israel says it will not agree to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until Hamas stops shooting rockets into Israel. It also demands international guarantees that armaments will not be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Egypt. Hamas says will not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel ends its blockade, which for months earlier has reduced living standards to subsistence levels and ratcheted up unemployment. It also demands that all Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip.

Curiously, these are the same demands both sides are making to “end” this latest battle. It should be noted that this battle was wholly avoidable. Supposedly it was the natural reaction to the murder of three Israeli youth by Hamas, as claimed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But that claim appears to be false. As a reaction some extremists Israelis killed a Palestinian youth. That was all of a spark necessary for this latest battle to get underway.

Not only is this war unspeakably cruel, it won’t affect any meaningful change and will actually make things worse. It is the definition of insanity, which is to try the same thing again expecting it will render a different result. Israel lives in the fantasy that if it were somehow destroy Hamas, the remaining supplicant sheep in the Gaza Strip will somehow forever accept Israeli control and domination. You can see how great this is working out on the West Bank. The truth is that every time Israeli has yet another battle with Hamas, they only exacerbate their long-term problem. Hamas looks like a crazy government, but whatever replaced it is likely to be much worse. Hamas is at least reasonably secular and coherent. Israel does not have to look too far to see what would be worse than Hamas as it is emerging now in Western Iraq, and now goes by the name of the Islamic State. Hamas is not al Qaeda, but if they actually destroy Hamas, something like the Islamic State will likely replace Hamas, and it will be on Israel’s doorstep.

Conflicts like this generally succeed in hardening the positions of both sides. Israel of course is swinging more toward the right, having the effect of reducing the possibility of a solution that might actually achieve peace: a two state solution. Instead, Israel is busy tearing down more homes in the West Bank, a cruel policy of retribution against the relatives of those who hurt Israel. It’s doing this while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and more recently by picking fights on the West Bank. All of this simply inflames passions more, making future conflict and war more likely, not less.

The “clear-eyed realists” in Israel are simply shortsighted thinkers, not looking at the larger dynamics and demographics. Peace is in their long-term interest. Indeed, it is the only way the nation of Israel will survive. But peace simply cannot be achieved wholly on Israel’s terms. Momentum is already underway internationally for nations to boycott Israel, since it is practicing apartheid, not against blacks, but against non-Jews. So Israel can expect more sanctions and economic boycotts as its positions harden. As I noted in 2009, their survival is dependent on us giving them the means to do so. The United States will not support Israel the way it does not indefinitely. As some point the international outrage will be too large for our country to stomach, just as happened with South Africa.

Israel has the chance, looking increasingly far away, to change the dynamic now through a two-state solution. It’s their only hope to still be a state a hundred years from now. Stupidly, Israelis are letting their emotions rather than logic dictate where they should be going. They are sowing the seeds for their own second Diaspora. However, during the next Diaspora there may not be an escape. The Islamic states that surround them will probably not let one of them out alive.

 
The Thinker

Improving public administration one course at a time

Retirement is good, or so I’ve been told. I’ll let you know when I arrive after August 1. They say that it beats working for a living.

As I hang up my career though, I sure didn’t expect the opportunity to share my wisdom in any meaningful way. You expect cake in a conference room (got that), a dinner with colleagues after work (got that) and a farewell luncheon (that comes tomorrow). It used to be you expected a gold-plated watch, but as I’m a federal employee I won’t get that. Anyhow, in what feels sort of like a consolation prize, last month found me in Landsdowne, a conference facility northwest of Washington D.C. I was invited to help create a better curriculum in their masters of public administration degree.

My invitation came from my friend Tim, who got me into the federal civil service in the first place. Tim didn’t spend that long in the civil service. He did go back to school, got a PhD, ran a couple campaigns for Congress as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red district (and lost badly) and most recently ended up on the staff of the American Public University System (APUS). The online university teaches careers in public administration, which is kind of what I spent the last thirty-three years doing. Since Tim knew me and knew I lived near Landsdowne, he convinced me to come and educate these educators on what public administration today was really about.

These days, you would think the last career anyone would aspire to is public administration. These people run governments: state, county, local and the federal government. Actually, they don’t so much run governments as administrate them. The sort of graduates APUS puts into the workforce aspire to positions like City Manager, where they get down and dirty into issues like making sure the city picks up the trash on time and fills the potholes. Some aspire to state or federal service, and it was the latter that made me of value to them.

Only I wasn’t sure I should have been there in the first place. For example, I was sitting in a room next the former mayor of Kansas City, Mark Funkhouser. Mark is an impressive guy and I could see how he managed to be mayor for four years. He is smart, grounded, political and pragmatic, with a clear understanding of what governing is really about. The other guy at the table was Andrew J. Duck, another friend of Tim who like Tim had run two campaigns for Congress, and lost. Mr. Duck now works for Northrup Grumman, which sells his expertise on intelligence issues to the Pentagon. Two guys, a facilitator, a note taker and the rather obscure me: a nerdy guy who manages a public information system. We were there to answer the question: what should APUS do to make their curriculum more relevant? The prize, such as it was for a couple of hours around a conference table, was an insulated coffee mug and a really good catered lunch.

I felt like the odd man out. Mr. Duck, for example, had not just keen insights into the intelligence business, but totally got public administration and the imperfect art of governing including the crazy disconnect between what the public expects and what is actually possible. (Attention citizens: with limited taxes not all problems can be solved instantly.) Mr. Funkhouser had actually walked the walk, managing a huge and diverse city and walking the fine line that politicians walk: being effective and political at the same time. It’s hard to be both. I felt outclassed. We browsed the course curriculum and were asked a number of leading questions while guys with cameras and microphones occasionally came in and captured our images and voices.

Their curriculum did not particularly surprise me, but a lot of it seemed marginally relevant. At least in the federal government, public administration is a very different beast. Citizens are less in your face than they are at the local level, while the amount of rules, regulations and policies you are supposed to adhere to often feel overwhelming. It’s a wonder we manage to do any governing at all. How many people would knowingly choose to spend thirty or more years of their lives in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy?

It was never my explicit choice; it just sort of worked out that way because I lived in the Washington D.C. area. How do you prepare someone for a life in the bureaucratic trenches? How do you inspire them? Most importantly, how can they be effective in this environment? It’s a grinding and grating world for most of us inside it, pulled between irreconcilable forces. There are the rules, which frequently change. There is your senior leadership, which is also frequently changing and who will push political agendas of the current president, which are often counterproductive and downright wacky. (Bush’s faith-based initiatives was one of the wackier ones.) There is Congress, which consists of people who generally belong in rubber rooms and most of whom haven’t a lick of common sense about how the real world works. There is the workforce consisting of generally good people who are often treated shabbily. And there is the bureaucracy itself: hard to understand and appreciate until you are stuck in the middle of it, where it sort of makes sense after a while, but makes no sense to an outsider.

Fortunately, I was able to contribute a few ideas that look that it will actually make it into their program in a year or two. First was the strange absence of acquisition education in their curriculum. Governments spend boatloads of money and much of it actually goes outside the agency to the private sector for goods and services. At least in the federal government, there is this confusing rulebook, the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It was hard for me to imagine anyone doing public administration without knowledge of how to procure these things legally and get a genuine best value, and also do it intelligently.

Being in information technology, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of education in this area too. You are training to administer government, but you have no idea of an information technology life cycle? No idea that you will have systems written in house, and others that will be pulled off the shelf, and they all have to talk to each other all the time? No idea that systems are born and die, and their replacements have to be carefully planned and paid for? No appreciation for what a CIO or a CTO does? No one expects a public administrator to write code in C++, but you sure need to understand that solid and reliable information pins together public administration and something about the architecture that makes the magic possible. It all has to work together seamlessly and tell you things that are relevant. If it doesn’t, you can’t do your job.

So I did my part for future bureaucrats and administrators. If you are crazy enough to want to do this stuff professionally, thanks to Mark, Andrew and me, perhaps future public administrators will have the skills they need in today’s crazy world of government.

Okay, I gave back. Now maybe I’ll take up golf.

 

 
The Thinker

The real solution to the child refugee crisis

Approximately 60,000 children so far have traveled alone across our southern border recently to find safety and sanctuary in the United States, with doubtless many more on the way. Just the very idea of doing something like these parents have done – sending their children away alone on their own on a long and dangerous trip to get into the United States — leaves us American parents reeling. How could any parent do this?

If you take the time though to read articles like this one, the only question is why these parents waited so long to do something so desperate. Countries like Honduras are impoverished but that’s hardly new. What’s new are the drug lords, the intense competition between them, and the lawlessness it has caused, which is much worse than anything the Taliban has inflicted. In much of Honduras there is no functioning government and those that function as government are in cahoots with the drug lords. In attempts to gain dominance among rival lords and cartels, children are being forcibly recruited. Failure to say yes could lead to death, rape or many other atrocities. When recruited you may be required not just to peddle drugs and extort people, but maybe kill them as well. Getting to the United States is of course highly dangerous, not to mention expensive to their parents, but it is a rational decision for these parents. It is not just the United States that is getting an influx of child refugees, but other Central American countries as well. These children are fleeing toward safety, not opportunity. They are simply refugees.

The drug trade in Central America is hardly new, but what is new in the increased drug trade in this corridor. This is largely due to success by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Caribbean at bottling up more traditional ways of transferring illegal drugs via small aircraft and boat. This is not an option in autonomous and landlocked countries in Central America. You know what happens when supply goes down and demand remains the same. Prices go up, which makes it easier to accept risk. Right now that route is through Central America.

The crisis in Honduras has become our crisis on our southern border. It is happening largely due to our country’s addiction to illegal narcotics. When you need a fix, you don’t think about how the drug will get to you, just that you must get high. But money for your fix is being funneled through the fingers of the worst kind of scum, including beasts masquerading as human beings in Honduras who will kill and rape kids, and maybe hack them to death in the street.

It’s reasonable to ask why our country is addicted to these drugs. All countries have this problem to some extent, but our addiction is very high compared to the rest of the world. Some of it is due to the fact that we are relatively prosperous, so we can afford to get high. Of course many of our drug addicts are very poor, and these are typically the ones looking for cheap highs. Heroin seems to be their drug of choice right now.

I believe that much of our addiction to drugs is because so many of us live really painful lives. Our lives are quite stressful, not as stressful as those of children in Honduras obviously, but one constant stress after another. This was made worse of course by the Great Recession when so much of our safety net disappeared. We live in a society that doesn’t cut us much slack. We are expected to do it all. Many of us simply don’t have the skills, education and other talents it takes to fend off this much adversity, if it’s possible at all. The stress becomes oppressive and unrelenting. Aside from the many people who were unemployed from the Great Recession, other traumatic pains are making us reach for a high: feelings of worthlessness, abuse from our spouse, screaming kids and bad neighborhoods. And so we look for escape. Drugs along with other addictions like food, booze, cigarettes and dangerous sex provide a temporary escape from crushing pain. To really feel better many of us need a living wage job, a decent place to call home in a decent neighborhood, and a little TLC from society at large. These are in short supply, in part because our collective wealth has moved toward the wealthy, who don’t feel inclined to spend it on charitable causes like us.

While many Republicans continue to tell us that we must somehow all by ourselves through grit and gumption solve our personal problems, this child refugee crisis proves just the opposite: that we are all related. Worse, because the actions of one affect others, it goes both ways. Our relationships can channel hurt or healing. When our inner pain causes us to visit illicit pushers to get a high, the chain of our pain extends down to the lives of terrorized children and their parents in Honduras, among other places. The relationship is not something symbolic. It is quite tangible. It is the dollar bill.

This refugee crisis is thus best understood as a crisis of failed relationships on many levels. On the national level, it demonstrates our political failure to do the pragmatic thing, which is to legalize drugs. This will not remove the pain of our drug addiction, but it will make addicts get cheaper and probably safer highs. It will squeeze the profit motive out of the drug trade, probably ending it overnight. It’s reasonable to assume that if drugs were decriminalized and regulated within the United States there wouldn’t be a flood of children from Honduras desperately trying to get across our border. And that’s because there would be no drug trade in Honduras, at least not one that would funnel high profit margin drugs into the United States.

I believe decriminalization and hopefully the legalization of these narcotics is the permanent way to end this refugee crisis, not to mention the pointless drug war. Our drug war has always been one where we simply refuse to face the reality of our human nature. As states like Washington State are discovering, legalizing marijuana can be a substantial revenue source, and that money can be used to do lots of good things: like build roads, bridges and schools. That sure beats making miserable the lives of traumatized children in Central America!

Our other option is to send in our army to occupy Honduras. This is at best a temporary solution but it should at least dramatically slow this refugee crisis. It’s the underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Drug decriminalization won’t stop everyone from trying to get across our borders, but it will act as a fire extinguisher and solve the root of this problem.

I wish President Obama had the nerve to tell us Americans the truth and advocated for drug decriminalization and legalization. I am confident that he understands this too but is unnerved by the political incorrectness to say so. If he wanted to be remembered as a true leader, this would be the time to tell us the truth.

 
The Thinker

Unitarian Universalists moved the needle on gay marriage

Marriages between gays or lesbians seem to be a fading issue in this country. In certain parts of the country, particularly in Southern states, the issue is still radioactive. Overall it is succumbing to a number of forces, probably the most important of which is simply demographics. The people that care the most about it are dying, and those who are comfortable with it tend to be younger.

Still, it is remarkable how quickly the tables have turned. Just a few years ago I was hearing from friends who were against gay marriage that only unelected judges were allowing gay marriage, not the people. “In every state where voters have had a say, it’s been turned down.” That’s no longer true, as Maine voters approved gay marriage by referendum in 2012. We have legislators paid to make these decisions. Vermont, of course, was the first to have civil unions and was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2009, over the veto of Governor Douglas. Legislators in New Hampshire and the District of Columbia followed Vermont’s lead in 2009. In 2011, New York State joined the club. In 2012 it was Washington State. In 2013, the floodgates opened. Legislators approved gay marriage in Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois.

Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states, and it is being disputed in court in states you would not expect, like Tennessee, Utah and Indiana. These rulings were prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling made lawful gay marriages legal for federal purposes. And because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. constitution, many federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws against gay marriage. The Supreme Court will likely get to rule on the issue again, which last year was narrowly tailored. While our Supreme Court tends to be conservative, it has a libertarian streak. It is likely that within a few years that laws or state constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage in the United States will become null and void, like sodomy laws.

This kind of rapid change is pretty breathtaking, even for me. In 2006, I disparaged my state of Virginia. In 2005, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage in the state. That seemed to cement prejudice into law for decades. I wrote:

Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

So how is Virginia doing with the whole gay marriage thing in 2014? Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, our Democratic Attorney General refuses to enforce that part of our state constitution, but that’s kind of moot at the moment. That’s because in February, our federal district court in Bostic v. Rainey invalidated our state’s constitutional amendment. The judged stayed the ruling on appeal. The case went to the Fourth Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments on May 13. It’s likely the ruling will be upheld. Since our Attorney General won’t appeal the ruling if it is upheld, gay marriage will likely be legal in Virginia sometime this year. In short, it looks like it will have taken eight years, not 50. Meanwhile, the polling here in Virginia has totally switched in eight years. According to a Quinnipiac poll released March 31, fifty percent of Virginia voters favor gay marriage, with 42 percent opposed.

While some of this is due to demographic forces, it’s also due in part to a lot of people being very noisy on the issue. Most Americans get it. They may find gay marriage morally repugnant, but they can’t get over the fairness argument. It’s simply not fair to extend to one class of citizen privileges not afforded to another, and it sure appears to be a violation of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so. Increasingly most of those disgusted by gay marriage are simply willing to hold their nose rather than fight it. There’s also the general sense that fighting it is futile.

How did this happen so fast? It happened because of a convergence of various forces as well as demographics. I am proud to say that my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, was the point of the spear on this issue, at least as a social movement. Back in 2009, I wrote about our national convention that I attended in conservative Utah. We took over the convention center in Salt Lake City and had an eight story banner “Standing on the Side of Love” going down the side of the convention center. It was bold, breathtaking and in 2009 felt pretty futile, particularly since we had converged on the bright red state of Utah.

The banner since then has been everywhere. It is hard to find pictures of any march anywhere for gay marriage without seeing the banner. In demonstrations and marches, the banner is prominent, with mostly Unitarian Universalists (UUs) carrying the banner. It’s not a hard message to grasp: UUs take the side of love, not hate. The banner is still in use, and its use is not just to help gays and lesbians acquire marital rights. It is also being used for the many of us UUs that support immigrant rights, and other endeavors that require love and compassion as a solution. Of course, the movement is more than a banner, it’s people, and our current president as well as past president has been leading our denomination on the issue.

I wish I could point to other great successes like this among UUs. There have been many prominent UUs throughout the years (including Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin) and more than a few presidents, but as leaders of social change we have often been laggards. (I am thinking about racial tolerance and sexism in particular.) That has changed. UUs have proven instrumental at moving the needle on this fundamental issue of civil rights and fairness. UUs everywhere, but the Standing on the Side of Love team in particular, have certainly earned my gratitude. I’ve never been prouder to be a UU.

I hope we can keep this streak going and keep moving our country toward acting as if love and compassion is the core of who we are as a nation. We are now trying to move the needle on the child refugee crisis on our southern border, among other issues. I hope that you will join us.

 
The Thinker

When did conservatism become so radical?

Halloween should be rescheduled for the last week of June. This is the last week of the Supreme Court’s annual session and they tend to leave their juiciest and most controversial decisions to the very end. The Supremes did not disappoint this year with two decisions yesterday that should leave sensible people reeling.

I’ll concentrate on the first, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and leave the public unions decision Harris v. Quinn perhaps for a future post. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, we got a decision that grants “closely held corporations” religious rights. Previous Supreme Court decisions had already granted corporations personhood status, a preposterous assertion given that corporations do not breathe, have children, die, get checkups, walk, talk or vote. On the latter, given the court’s breathtaking decision in this case, it’s probably only a matter of time before corporations get the right to vote as well. (Given the way the Supreme Court sees these things, they will probably get a number of votes proportional to their status, maybe based on the number of employees.) Justice Alito went so far in his decision as distinguish between corporations as people and actual human beings, “natural persons” as he calls us. You have to ask yourself: WTF? Was he sober when he wrote this?

All this, you see, is to protect the precious rights of the people that own these companies, as if in their role as “natural persons” they don’t already have the right to vote, or to spend their own money on campaigns, or speak out at rallies or take out ads in the newspaper. This means, of course, if you are an executive of a corporation you effectively get twice the rights, but effectively a lot more as you can wield the assets of your company to the extent you have money or can borrow money to speak out as much as you want. The Koch Brothers epitomize the ability of the very moneyed to drown out much of the rest of us. And now because your corporate personhood is so precious, you can also take away the rights of others. Unsurprisingly, certain companies like Hobby Lobby feel the need to screw it to women, which thanks to this decision means that they can prohibit contraceptive coverage from being covered in their health insurance plan. Why? Because it’s against their religion. Like corporations can go to church!

You would think this decision could not possibly make the pigs any “more equal” than the other farm animals (that’s an Animal Farm reference, in case you missed the allusion), but you are forgetting one of last year’s stunner decisions. Almost a year ago, on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law required certain states like Mississippi with a long history of racial discrimination in the voting booth to get preclearance for their voting methods. Mississippi was one of many mostly Southern states to set up more onerous criteria for voting: you had to show an approved photo ID, something that is difficult, expensive and inconvenient if you are poor. The Justice Department didn’t like it, of course, so it nixed the idea, but the state appealed to the Supreme Court. Of course, keeping blacks and minorities from voting was the whole intent of the law in Mississippi. By this decision, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was written specifically to get rid of decades of Jim Crow laws that made it hard or impossible for minorities to vote.

So the Supreme Court, which claims to be so concerned about maximizing freedom of speech, gives virtually unlimited speech to corporations which aren’t even human beings while allowing states to make it harder for certain actual human beings, minorities and the poor naturally, to exercise what limited speech they have due to their financial state. In other words, it’s more freedom for those who can afford it, including entities (corporations) that are legal fictions, something Justice Alito in his decision candidly acknowledged. And due in part to last year’s decision, it’s less freedom for those that can’t. This is not surprising from a court that was very plainly equated money with speech. Last I checked, a dollar bill did not have lungs, a tongue and lips.

This is conservatism? This is not radically changing what has worked in the past? I don’t know what word it is, but it is not conservatism. It’s crazy and radical stuff. Rather it was the Supreme Court that inferred that corporations must be treated as people. These latest shocking decisions take this to a further absurd and quite frightening level.

Given that these radicals will be on the court for some time a harder a more permanent solution is needed. It’s already underway but as a practical matter to actually make it happen will require Democrats to have large majorities in both the House and Senate. It is simply this: we need a constitutional amendment that unambiguously states that corporations are not people and only have such temporal rights as Congress deigns to give them. If I were in charge, corporations would be forbidden from giving a dime to any political candidate, any PAC or any group that works to influence public policy on any level whatsoever.

What kind of glue are these conservative justices sniffing? Have they read the preamble of our constitution lately? It simply starts, “We the people”. There is no “We the people and corporations”. That is original intent. The so-called constitutional conservatives on the Supreme Court who voted for these unwise and radical decisions have simply proven the opposite. Instead, they are part of a cancer that is killing our democracy.

 

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