Civil servants and true patriotism in the age of Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

Many people who wouldn’t ordinarily petition the government are petitioning the Trump Administration and Congress these days. They include my wife and me who have petitioned, assembled and protested many times since Trump’s inauguration.

Perhaps the most effective of these were members of the disability rights community that visited House and Senate office buildings recently for sit-in protests. The images of Capitol Police removing these protesters by force fighting for their Medicaid benefits, some in wheelchairs and with oxygen masks, was devastatingly effective. It likely contributed to the defeat of the so-called health care reform bill the Senate rejected last week. Mainly though protesters make a mark through persistence and by showing up. In some ways the reactions due to these protests are more telling than the protests themselves. Republican legislators by in large are canceling town halls, not meeting with their constituents and when they meet only meet carefully screen partisans of a similar bent.

Some ways of protesting are more opaque. I am speaking of our federal civil service, comprised of approximately 2.8 million people. Until three years ago, I too was in the civil service. And I remember the civil service oath to which I swore allegiance:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Notice that the oath requires civil servants to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. It does not require civil servants to follow blindly order by the president or their chain of command. By inference civil servants must uphold laws both just and unjust, even if they personally object to the laws. (An obvious example was Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for her refusal to issue same sex marriage licenses.)

Since most civil servants are in the executive branch, the President is their ultimate boss. The President’s job is to also uphold the constitution and its derived laws. It’s abundantly clear to civil servants that Trump is not being faithful to his oath. This leaves civil servants between a rock and a hard place. When their directed duties conflict with their oath to administer the law as written, what should they do?

Some are resigning and being noisy about it, including the U.S. government’s chief ethics officer. Those resigning though are but a tiny portion of the total civil service. Few civil servants have the option to resign and find another comparable job elsewhere. Others are opting for retirement rather than violate their oath. Some unknown numbers realize that Trump has crossed a line and are fighting for the Constitution where they can. They are resisting in ways that they feel are appropriate by slowing down the gears of government in what looks like passive aggressive if not unlawful behavior.

In my 32 years in the civil service I served six presidents, from Carter (briefly) through Obama. The two most disturbing presidents I served under were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. I was deeply disturbed by Bush, but one area where I worried Bush’s actions might be in conflict with my duty to the constitution was when he created offices of faith-based initiative in all departments. These offices amounted to special gateways within federal departments for religious communities to get federal money. At the time I worked at the Humphrey Building on the Mall, headquarters for the Department of Health and Human Services. The faith-based initiative office was right there in the lobby on the first floor. I felt the conflict every day when I walked into my building. I was fortunate that I did not have to support the office with my I.T. skills. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been required to do so. It’s quite possible I too would have resigned because the office was in my mind a very clear violation of the constitution, which requires separation of state from church.

As bad a president as Bush was, Trump is magnitudes worse. Virtually every department is affected by changes he is trying to bring, and many of these changes introduce serious ethical conflicts. The EPA is being directed by Scott Pruitt not to enforce laws that it is required to enforce and is being forced to remove climate change data from its website even though it is part of its mission, the information was collected with taxpayer dollars and is by law available to anyone. The FDA is being asked to speed up the approval of drugs at the potential cost of safety. The State Department is being hollowed out. Our new Secretary of the Interior is trying to reduce the size of national monuments already approved, like the Bears Ears monument in Utah. He is also trying to open up other monuments and parks to commercial use, such as mineral extraction and drilling violating both the spirit and likely the law itself. Most recently, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions is directing his department to engage in blatantly discriminatory work. What should an ethical civil servant do?

32 years in the civil service taught me that presidents come and go, but laws are relatively static. Laws have staying power, so directives by the administration to abborgate or ignore certain laws tend to be short lived. The Trump era will pass, and likely long before his term ends. Civil servants though have a duty first to the constitution. Moreover they, not their bosses, are the ultimate enforcers of the law. So civil servants can (and are doing plenty) to slow down and obfuscate directives that change the intent of Congress or violate the spirit of the constitution. Mostly these are career middle managers. Obviously there is controversy when they take these actions, most of which are hard to see.

Are their actions lawful? Ultimately it becomes a matter of individual judgment and conscience, although if a criminal case is made of their behavior a judge might get to weigh in. Some are not happy that civil servants have any higher duty. One bill by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) would allow a civil servant to be fired for any reason or even no reason. The civil service was formed in the 19th century specifically to prevent cronyism and help ensure that civil servants can faithfully enforce the rule of law. Right now civil servants have an independent grievance process (ultimately overseen by the U.S. Merit System Protection Board) for adverse actions.

Secretaries and agency heads also swear to uphold the constitution and the law. The president can fire most of these who don’t do so. But what if the president does not believe in his own oath to uphold the constitution and our laws? That is Trump’s obvious problem. The remedy is impeachment and removal from office, although Trump may qualify for removal via the 25th amendment.

Meanwhile, those civil servants who choose to stay and work to enforce existing law (and they are usually in the best position to understand what the law is) remain in a sort of Twilight Zone, with no clear guidance and only their conscience as their guide. In spirit though those called to conscience to put the law before their orders are patriotic and faithful to their oath, even if their actions are hard to detect and seem sneaky and covert. As long as they adhere to the intent of the law they enforce (unlike Kim Davis) their actions are patriotic.

True Americans should applaud their courage and their patriotism. I certainly do!

Kindling in search of a spark

The Thinker by Rodin

About a month ago, I expressed my alarm with certain members of The Tea Party movement. Since I wrote, my alarm has grown. The FBI conducted a well-publicized raid of the Hutaree Militia in southern Michigan toward the end of March, arresting nine members who seemed dangerously close to attempting armed insurrection.

In fact, militias are popping up all over the place. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports an increase of 363 new “patriot groups” in 2009, an increase of 244 percent from 2008. You can bet these patriot movements are more about locking and loading guns than planting flags in veterans’ cemeteries. Randy Brogdon, a candidate for governor of Oklahoma is calling for the formation of a state militia to presumably protect Oklahomans from some sort of unnatural act, like the U.S. Army occupying the state and instituting martial law. (News to Brogdon: the state already has an armed militia. It’s called The National Guard.)

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin seems to be endorsing the idea of some sort of theocratic, or at least Christian-Judea state, when she actually said:

Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers.

Ms. Palin clearly has not read her constitution, which explicitly separates church from state and specifically disallows any religious test as a condition of holding office. In fact, separation of church and state was a crucial aspect to our formation as a country, as centuries of witnessing what happened by merging church and state in Europe showed what a bad idea it was.

Just yesterday across the Potomac River, about 75 mostly white men brandishing semiautomatic weapons demonstrated their new right to bear arms in a national park. Who signed this bill into law? Why, the president of the United States. No, it was not the last conservative one, but the new liberal Democratic one named Barack Obama. Strangely, because they apparently inhabit a different world than the rest of us, they are convinced that Obama is trying to take away their right to bear arms. If words were bullets though, the words uttered at this rally would cause PTSD in any survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing who tuned in. Mike Vanderbough, leader of the “Three Percent” movement, had previously called upon followers to break the windows of thousands of Democratic Party offices in response to the passage of health care reform. He enlivened the group by smashing a brick on the stage at Fort Hunt Park. According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post:

“I was trying to get the attention of people who are pushing this country toward civil war, that they should stop before somebody gets hurt,” Vanderboegh said of his brick-throwing campaign. He then read the philosopher John Locke’s words that there comes a time when people are “absolved from any further obedience” to their government.

The armed citizenry cheered. “This is what the other side doesn’t understand!” Vanderboegh shouted. “We are done backing up! Done! Not one more inch!”

One thing is clear. Democrats will not be starting any new civil war. With these sorts of remarks, the Hutaree Militia example and the increase in so-called patriot movements it is clear that a small minority of Americans is dangerously close to open insurrection. The kindling seems to be stacked. All that is needed is a match. It won’t take much to set these groups off.

They have made it abundantly clear that they feel America is drifting toward socialism, but they seem to be slowly absolving themselves of the need to enact reform through our constitutional system of government. So-called patriot Sarah Palin seems to be encouraging them. When pressed she will doubtless say that she was meant to be taken metaphorically, but it is abundantly clear that some critical mass of these militia members are not playing with a full deck. What are they to think when Sarah Palin says, as she did on April 9th to Southern Republicans to not retreat, but reload. Armed insurrection must be okay, because Representative Michele Bachmann (MN) at a rally also attended by Sarah Palin referred to the federal government as a “gangster government”. I guess the 2008 elections must have been rigged or something but it’s clear if anyone is openly brandishing arms, it’s these “patriot groups” not the Obama Administration.

It sure sounds like many loose-hinged people are piling up reasons for the ends justifying their ready means. Those who do or have held public office, like Palin and Bachman, are being irresponsible and possibly seditious by alluding to unlawful means to change government. No one who calls him or herself a patriot would ever start an insurrection against their own constitutional government. A true patriot values our republican government, in good times and bad. They know that however extreme things might appear at any one time, natural forces will tend to counterbalance other forces in time. That’s why we have elections and three separate but equal branches of government. Republicans will doubtless pick up seats in elections this fall. The only question is how many. If political power is what you yearn for, then insurrection is the worst way to go about it. The vast majority of us are not wingnuts. We value our democracy and the rule of law. While Democrats gaining seats this fall seems unlikely, there is no surer way to make this a reality than by engaging in some serious armed insurrection. Nothing makes property values and portfolios drop faster than a civil war.

President Obama is not a moron, and he realizes these so called patriots are a real threat. He is trying to reduce the threat in two ways. First, he has the FBI working closely with state and local law enforcement officials to figure out which of these groups are truly dangerous by defanging them before they cause loss of life. With so many groups, it is probably impossible to keep up with all of them. Second, he is keeping a low profile and not publicly talking about the obvious threat of domestic terrorism. Perhaps with a bit of luck none of these sparks will catch on this very dry kindling.

The sad reality is that the socialism these groups see is largely a figment of their fevered imaginations, and shows how out of touch they are with reality. Obama has not tightened gun laws. He has loosened them. Health care reform is not socialism, unless doing the same thing nationally that states like Massachusetts did is socialism. If so, Mitt Romney is a socialist. Requiring people to purchase health insurance is no more socialist than the vast majority of states requiring people who drive to buy auto insurance. If anything, health insurance reform enhances personal responsibility. It means that people have to take responsibility for the cost of their health, rather than foisting it off on the rest of us who are insured. It costs each of us insured about $1200 a year to pay in additional premiums to cover these irresponsible people. Why would any of these rugged individuals object to making people carry their own freight?

The truth is that if John McCain had won the presidency, proposed these same things, and enacted these same laws, the opposition would have been largely muted because these laws are actually quite mainstream and look very close to what Republicans were calling for back in the 1990s. What is the difference? Well, Obama is clearly a Democrat and McCain in a Republican. Most of us are not fooled, even if these wingnuts cannot admit it to themselves. The real issue is that Obama is a black man with power. That is the animus driving these people. If something ignites this kindling, it will be the flame of racism, which, sadly, is not yet extinguished in our country.

The scourge of faux patriotism

The Thinker by Rodin

Apparently, the latest thing in political correctness, at least among politicians on Capitol Hill, is to wear an American flag pin attached to the left lapel of your suit.

Yep, it seems like all you have to do is pierce that flag pin through your lapel and your patriotism will never be questioned. Go ahead. Spend your weekends funneling money to terrorist organizations or building explosive suicide belts in your basement. It doesn’t matter you see because by wearing the pin that proves you are a true patriot. It’s Washington’s version of a “Get out of Jail Free” card. It’s like having Uncle Sam behind you with a hand on your left shoulder and Betsy Ross with a hand on your right shoulder. Don’t you dare question my patriotism, boy! Can’t you see I’m wearing an American flag pin?

Most of us with brain matter realize flag pins say zero about your patriotism. Astoundingly, a sizeable number of people, particularly on Capitol Hill and in the right wing media actually think that the absence of a flag suggests that you are unpatriotic. Sadly, this says volumes about the state of patriotism in our country. Many can no longer detect the real thing when they see it. Really, it’s time to give these people some emergency oxygen because they are starting to hallucinate. I always thought that saying you are patriotic and actually being patriotic were two different things. But I guess I must have been raised by godless, left wing commies.

Really, I could care less whether a politician wears a flag pin since it means nothing, nothing! However, I am interested in knowing what actions during the course of a politician’s life they can point to that demonstrates their patriotism.

To me the most patriotic thing anyone can do is fight for our country. John McCain fought for our country as part of what turned out to be a wholly misguided war in Vietnam. He was held as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese, who abused and tortured him over many years. While I did not agree with the war, I honor and respect John McCain’s patriotism. Unquestionably, John McCain is a patriot. The same is true with John Kerry. Granted not all soldiers put their lives in danger but those that do unequivocally demonstrate their patriotism, even if sometimes they do not feel particularly patriotic for having done so. Anyone who would criticize John McCain or John Kerry’s patriotism because they do not wear an American flag lapel pin is a damned fool.

Clearly, there are ways to demonstrate patriotism other than becoming a soldier. Our government’s efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina may have been half-hearted, but ordinary citizens by the thousands showed their patriotism. They spent time, effort and money going to the Gulf Coast to help in its rebuilding, a process that is still underway nearly three years later. I gave money for rebuilding, which did not feel particularly patriotic but was expeditious. My friend Renee’s son spent a year working for Americorps including some months in and around New Orleans rebuilding housing. He invested a year of his life helping his fellow citizens. He is a patriot.

In the recent ABC News debate, Barack Obama pointed to his work in the Senate on legislation for veterans as one way that he demonstrated patriotism. No, Obama never served in the armed forces. However, after graduating from law school he did make the choice to foreswear a more lucrative and moneyed life in favor of community organizing. He certainly had the talent to be a six-figure lawyer. Instead, he chose civic engagement, initially through community organizing and later by spending eight years in the Illinois Senate and subsequently the U.S. Senate. He and his wife carried the burden of their student loans into their forties. He might still be paying off his student loans had he not written a few best selling and not so best selling books.

To me Obama’s patriotism is beyond dispute. So why are some, including many in the press, obsessed that he only sporadically wears an American flag lapel pin? It beats the hell out of me. Frankly, it says much more about their character than it does about Obama’s. It’s like, “What was all that other stuff he was doing since he graduated if not an expression of patriotism?” Community organizing to better the lives of the working poor is no more patriotic than shuffling papers for well moneyed clients at expensive Manhattan law firms?

As I once noted, beliefs are irrelevant. I could believe I am a patriot, but if I do not demonstrate my beliefs in time, effort and money then patriotism simply amount to beliefs. Actions however matter very much because through action we change the course of events. How you choose to spend your time provides all the insight you need into someone’s character.

It appears to some that unless your actions conform to some strange right-winger’s idea of patriotism then you are not really a patriot. It is curious that many of those criticizing Senator Obama and others for not wearing an American flag lapel pin have done little to nothing to demonstrate their patriotism other than wave the flag. Few of the people who led us into an unnecessary war with Iraq served in our armed forces. President Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard but it was widely understood that he did so in order to avoid being drafted. He ended up in the Texas Air National Guard only because of his father’s influence. Vice President Cheney had “other priorities” during the Vietnam War. He successfully dodged five draft attempts using educational deferments. Condoleeza Rice never came close to serving in the military. Richard Perle, who served on the Defense Advisory Board, which advocated the war, never served in the military. Nor did his special assistant Douglas Feith, who ran the Defense Department’s controversial Office of Special Plans, which advocated for the war. Most of those who shrilly promoted the war for the media did not serve either. Rush Limbaugh managed to attain 4-F draft status based on a football knee injury. Many of those who had, such John Kerry and Colin Powell, were at least grounded in the magnitude of these actions, and worked to prevent them.

While I find much to admire about the United States, I also find much about it that appalls and disgusts me. These include our bloated defense budget and our tendency to use guns instead of diplomacy to solve our international problems. I certainly feel like a stakeholder of my country, as I was born here and will probably die here. While I have and will keep working to make this country a better place, I am also concerned about the world as a whole. I see little value in xenophobic patriotism.

Nonetheless, I do occasionally feel patriotic. I do not wear an American flag lapel pin, but I feel fine putting our flag out on major national holidays. I can get misty when I hear the nation anthem played even though, frankly, it is poor choice for a national anthem. (Why not “America the Beautiful”?) I do take pride in our military, which is the best trained and equipped in the world. I am grateful for competence and professionalism of our military and deeply respect those who serve for our country. I am not naïve. I realize that it is due to our military that our homeland has remained at peace since the Civil War. I am not naïve enough to think we do not need a military. I certainly do not ascribe to the slogan, “My country, right or wrong”. My patriotism informs me that when my country is wrong, I have the duty to make it right.

Which brings up something else that annoys me about these lapel pins. The real statement is that unless patriotism is reflexive, it is not real. If you are not a mouth organ for the state, particularly at a time of national crisis, you are not patriotic. Capitol Hill was awash with faux patriots in the days after 9/11. Politicians overwhelmingly marched in goosestep with the President when he said we had to invade Iraq. I did not. I worked like hell to prevent this war.

A few politicians at the time bravely said no, this is a war we should not start. He was just a state senator at the time, but Barack Obama stood and spoke at a public antiwar rally and spoke out against this war. In doing so, he demonstrated that he is a true patriot.

If either side “wins” the country loses

The Thinker by Rodin

About a year ago when the war in Iraq was starting I ordered some bumper stickers. I was appalled by the preemptive war my country was about to strike. I felt helpless and frustrated about the whole thing. Writing to my senators and congressmen was of course utterly futile in my Republican state. But I wrote them anyhow. I wrote letters to the editor. I attended community meetings. All the protest was a waste of time. We had hundreds of thousands marching on the Mall but Bush was in Camp David. As we learned from Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack the decision to go to war had been made months earlier. It was a matter of when to attack, not if.

One of the bumper stickers I ordered was from a place called democracymeansyou.com. Here it is in all its glorious color. All it has is an American flag on a blue background with the words “These colors don’t run the world!” I stuck it to the bumper of my 13-year-old Camry. I’m sure it got read by lots of people. But I never got any feedback on it until today.

Today was my day to hit the BJ’s Wholesale Club. I looked for a parking space and as usual I tucked my sedan carefully between two SUVs. It’s always a tight fit and it was made tighter today because one of the SUV didn’t seem to see parking lines. Or perhaps they think with a SUV they don’t need no steenking parking lines. Anyhow I squeezed in and loaded up on the essentials for the week. After my mission was accomplished I carefully backed out of my parking space. Of course I had to be mindful not to hit the two new SUVs on either side of my Camry. It was then that I noticed someone had left a note on my windshield. It read: “America. Love it or LEAVE it!” The word “leave” was underlined several times.

I pondered this letter writer’s perspective on my way home. I elected to think that this bumper sticker had something to do with it, since the other one was one promoting Unitarian Universalism. That could have done it too because you know how unpatriotic we UUs are. But I assumed that because I had doubts that my country should when it felt necessary run the affairs of the world through force that I was perceived as un-American. I felt almost unmutual.

I guess this lady (and from the penmanship I assumed it was a female) would prefer I took my family and my 13-year-old Camry and emigrated. Apparently because I don’t toady in line with the latest neoconservative think she felt I was unworthy to be an American. Actually I think the real message was: “Because you don’t think an awful lot like me you should not be a citizen of this country.”

It would be easy for this entry to devolve into a diatribe against anyone who votes to keep their state red. But later on this afternoon while puzzling through the issue on a ten-mile jaunt on my bike I realized that I didn’t want everyone in the nation to think just like me. This country would not be a paradise if we were all Unitarian Universalists, conversed at regularly at DailyKOS, were all vegetarians and everyone had access to universal health care.

I think we all have viewpoints that contribute to making this country great. I celebrate American liberalism. Without liberalism we would not have had unions, social security, Medicare, women’s rights or the end of slavery. On the other hand conservative values have also served our society well at times. The plucky “we can do it” energy that drives entrepreneurship comes from the deep desires of many to give their all to show what they are made of. Of course one can be an entrepreneur without necessarily being a neoconservative. But my point is that conservatives have many valid points to their philosophy too. I’d be a fool to say that everything a conservative or a Republican believes should be dismissed out of hand.

Fortunately there are people on both sides of the political fence who understand this. John McCain is a Republican and conservative who gets it. I was very pleased to see him speak out for John Kerry and to decry blatantly false advertisements that accused Kerry of not really earning his three purple hearts. Both McCain and Kerry are patriots. They know what it means to put your life on the line for your country. Our soldiers toiling away in Iraq and elsewhere at the moment are no less patriotic because their inclinations happen to be Democratic.

Unfortunately there are plenty of others like this woman who don’t get it. A monoculture is not a good thing. We need liberals and we need conservatives in our society. We need lots of moderates too. We need rich people. We need immigrants. We need a middle class. We need Christians and atheists. We need fat people and vegans. This seemingly continuous clash of ideas that comprise much of our national discussion these days is probably healthy for everyone. It means that opinions and feelings can be freely vetted. In many countries this would result in civil war. Diversity on all levels seems to only strengthen our country.

I think that the American melting pot is something of a myth. We are a nation full of people with different interests and values. Like oil and water most of the time we don’t mix. But because we don’t always mix does not necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.

I would hope whatever our political stripe that we would cherish the freedom of thought that we have in this country. It would be nice if we could respect one another even when we profoundly disagree. I know for my part that even as much as I dislike George W. Bush as a president I would never encourage him to emigrate. He is as American as I am. We are both part of a great country. And I feel in my heart the conversation of values must go on for it to remain a great country. If either side “wins” the country loses.