Playing Dr. Larch

The Thinker by Rodin

“Here in St. Cloud’s,” Dr. Larch wrote, “ I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for those moments when it is possible to play God – we should seize those moments. There won’t be many.”

John Irving, The Cider House Rules

When I was young and a good Catholic, I assumed that abortion was wrong and evil. I remember thinking, “What if we abort the next Einstein?” I never pondered its opposite: “What if we had the chance to abort the next Hitler and didn’t?” Once pro-life, as I pulled away from the Church, I became pro-choice. As a man though it’s a largely theoretical position. I can father a child and did, but I can’t choose for the mother whether to carry the child to term or not. (Technically, I can’t father another child, at least not without getting my vasectomy reversed.)

Still, sometimes we get opportunities to be Dr. Larch. He’s a fictional doctor from John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules (made into a movie starring Michael Caine). Such an opportunity came in my inbox recently.

A site that helps women get abortions in a country where it is illegal needed my help. Their web host tossed them out when someone complained. They managed to find new hosting, but had to find a way to disguise their most pertinent information: where to get abortions and who can reliably provide them in that country. This comes mostly from women trading experiences and they do so in an online forum. They needed their forum not just upgraded, but tuned to keep it harder for prying eyes to discover their paid dirt: their listings of these providers and the experiences of women who used them. Once a woman was vetted as real and sincere, they would let them access the more sensitive part of their site.

So here was my opportunity to play Dr. Larch. I wouldn’t be providing abortions but I did have a choice to make. Like Dr. Larch, I could help women do what needed to be done if they made the choice to have an abortion, or I could turn away the business.

I chose to help women. I don’t expect to make a whole lot of money from the job. The woman who runs the website will at least get my noncommercial rate. It’s only the scale of the work that made me charge her at all: it’s quite complex what she needs done. It’s a half-week of labor at least, and for about a week I’ve been trying to nail down the requirements. They are so complex I wanted to chat with her on Skype. That was not an option. She was too afraid to use it.

Yes, abortion is still illegal in her country, though it can be obtained, particularly if you are a woman of some means. The same was true here in the United States when it was illegal. The Washington Post recently republished an article from 1966 discussing how Washington area women did it back then. States that outlaw abortion won’t stop women from getting them, but will make it financially infeasible for a lot of poor women, which is the basic point. They may also be able to imprison those women they catch. It will also kill or maim many other women as they resort to self-induced abortions using coat hangers. Meanwhile, in Alabama, which arguably has the strictest anti-abortion law, it also allows rapists to have custody rights.

If I didn’t do the work, this woman might find someone else to do it, although it’s pretty complicated and I have a specialized niche. At best it would have delayed her a few extra weeks.

Some would suggest I am abetting a crime somewhere. My work is quite legal in the United States, where I work. Others might suggest I will be going to hell. If so, at least I will have plenty of company. On the other hand, I may also be saving the lives of a lot of women who might try the old coat-hanger trick, or end up with a quack for a doctor, or behind bars from a sting operation. If I help just one woman save her own life, it’s a worthy and noble mission.

This woman has a lot of courage to persist. Like Dr. Larch, the least I can do is to seize those moments when I can play God. And I choose to do what I can to empower women to have custody of their own bodies.

Autocracy and why Trump’s firing of his Secret Service director is extremely alarming

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m getting the sick feeling that we are this close to an autocracy. Things seem to be going rapidly from bad to worse to ohmigod this is incredibly dangerous!

The feelings got real when I learned what Attorney General William Barr was planning to do with the Mueller report: redact as much of it as possible and work as hard as possible to keep the full report from ever getting to Congress. It got worse when I watched our petulant Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brush off Congresswoman Maxine Waters: the idea of wasting his time talking to Congress when he had important things to do! Also, he seems to be aiding and abetting keeping Congress from getting Trump’s tax returns, even though the law requires it.

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of other signs. For example, Donald Trump is thinking of dumping migrants in sanctuary cities. Why? Because he thinks he can and he wants these cities to pay for having the audacity to oppose him. Then there’s his de-facto concentration camps that separate immigrant families and new reports that suggests he wants the U.S. military to build a whole lot more of them and run them, much like the German military ran its concentration camps. And if that weren’t enough, Trump was recently on the border urging CBP employees to break the law by not letting these asylum seekers in. Trump is implicitly saying: I can get away with anything, because Congress won’t hold me accountable in the end. And if you do break the law, I’ll pardon you!

All this is sickening enough, but then there’s the imperial way his administration seems to be blowing off the courts. He’s been under a court order for about a year to resettle these unaccompanied minors with their parents, or at least place them with relatives in the United States. Instead, most of them linger inside former Walmart stores under lock and key and out of sight. Recently, three congresswomen weren’t allowed in to inspect a detention facility for minors in Homestead, Florida. Trump doesn’t care that Congress has the responsibility for executive oversight.

More and more the Trump administration seems to be simply ignoring the courts. Until now, we’ve sort of assumed that if the courts tell you to do something, you must. More and more the Trump administration seems to be just ignoring the courts. After all, what can the courts do but issue more rulings? I guess there is the U.S. Marshal Service, which is supposed to enforce court orders if necessary. But the courts do not control it; it’s controlled by the Justice Department. And our new attorney general Bill Barr seems quite happy to take orders from Trump, even though he is supposed to uphold the law.

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The constitutional remedy for executive overreach is congressional oversight, subpoenas and when all else fails impeachment. Trump’s lackeys are ignoring most congressional subpoenas. Nancy Pelosi has ruled out impeachment, mostly because she knows Trump has no possibility of being convicted in the Senate. And that’s not just because Republicans control it narrowly, it’s because Republicans are very clear that they don’t care about the rule of law. All they care about is expanding their power or, failing that, holding on to their power.

And it’s not like they feel the least bit compelled to follow the rules or precedent anymore. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an erstwhile conservative, broke with more than 230 years of precedence to speed up the debate on the nomination of federal judges and no longer allows home state senators to block these nominations either.

Meanwhile, deeply red states like Alabama and Texas are going out of their way to turn their states more authoritarian. In Texas, they are debating a law that could potentially give the death penalty to women who get abortions. Wow! The breadth of this should be astounding, but it’s par for the course these days. Ohio’s governor just yesterday signed a law that outlaws abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. These states are simply trying new tactics to see what might overturn Roe v. Wade now that Brett Kavanaugh is a justice. It’s all supposedly about being pro-life, but at least in Texas they are willing to kill people to do it. It’s all absolutely insane, particularly when you consider that not one of these states wants to give women contraceptives to not get pregnant in the first place, won’t subsidize their pregnancies and do their best to keep these kids off food stamps once they are born. Since so many are nonwhite, they’ll be happy to disenfranchise them when they reach voting age too.

Of course, these red states continue to do their best to gerrymander districts and suppress people of color from voting. Florida wants ex-felons to pay all judgments before being allowed to vote, essentially a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. Its state legislature is also working to overturn the referendum, which allows ex-felons to vote in the first place.

So it is crystal clear to me that Republicans will let nothing stop them from achieving their aims. Increasingly they are simply ignoring courts and Democrats in Congress. In essence, they are wholly abandoning democracy in favor of autocracy, and using inertia built into our system of checks and balances and Republicans open willingness to allow Trump to get away with stuff to bring it about.

Frankly, to me the most alarming sign of all was not Trump’s firing of his Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, but his firing of Secret Service Director Randall “Tex” Alles. Think about it. Let’s assume that Democrats do win the presidency in the 2020 election. And it is ultimately up to the Secret Service to evict Trump from the White House. Will his hand-picked lackey evict him? When push comes to shove, who decides to hand over the nuclear codes to the next president? And if you have a Republican senate that won’t fight back on Trump against anything, if he refuses to leave, how do you get rid of him?

It all makes for a constitutional crisis already well underway that looks like it will come to a crescendo on January 20, 2021, but which is likely to all come to a head much earlier than this.

These are crazy, deeply dangerous and incredibly scary times. We are facing what looks like the probable end of a 230 year old democracy.

The Justice Kennedy resignation and dialing it up to 11

The Thinker by Rodin

The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, while not surprising, nonetheless has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Our only swing justice, it means that anyone Trump nominates is very likely to vote reliably conservative. Obviously this has huge implications, the most obvious of which is that Roe v. Wade is now under serious jeopardy. A 5-4 conservative court won’t wait long before accepting a case that will give antiabortionists the win they’ve been craving since 1973. Women are going to become chattel again, at least in some states that have decided that even before three months of pregnancy they don’t have the right to control their own pregnancies.

Such a court though is unlikely to declare that abortion is unconstitutional nationwide. Rather, it will give states permission to outlaw abortion within their boundaries. States like Texas have already made it impractical for most women to get abortions, so in some cases this won’t change too much. Abortion should still be available to those with the means to cross state lines. Of course, the women conservatives most want to disempower are those who are poorest, which should be odd because at the same time they will expect these women to support these children they will be forced to bear with little in the way of government help.

There will be plenty of other ways that a conservative court will make the vast majority of us unhappy. And the conservative majority could easily grow, as its liberal members tend to skew toward the older side. As bad as Kennedy’s retirement is for progressives, it could have been worse. Instead of Kennedy, it could have been Justices Ginsburg (85) or Steven Breyer (79) that opted to retire instead, or simply died in office. In his last year, Justice Kennedy has been no friend of progressives.

The script has been memorized; the die has been cast. We know how the next few months are likely to unfold. Trump will pick some nominee off his ultra conservative list and is likely to do it sooner rather than later. Senate Majority Leader McConnell will bend over backward to move the nomination for a vote ASAP, bypassing the Judiciary Committee if possible. There is a little hope that the Senate will ultimately vote against the nomination. Senator John McCain presumably won’t make it back to Washington to vote one way or the other, and may pass away during the interim. So in theory just one Republican senator breaking ranks could undo the nomination. Senators like Maine’s Susan Collins or Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski are possible swing voters. At best, the Democrats’ odds are 50:50. Trump could dramatically improve his odds by nominating someone just a tad mainstream. In a way, it’s better for Democrats if he doesn’t, providing the nominee ultimately fails to be confirmed.

So everyone is hoping a nomination will fail and that somehow Democrats can hang on through the election and retake the Senate. At best the odds for Democrats is turning the Senate are 50:50 too, so this is quite a long shot as well. If they control the Senate though they definitely control the nomination process as well. That’s their best shot at replacing Kennedy with someone similar to him.

Since McConnell created a new rule that deferred action on President Obama’s nominee, should Democrats regain the Senate then they will be under pressure to get even. One idea going around is that Trump’s nominee should be denied consideration because Trump is under active criminal investigation. If you believe in the Law of Karma, it would be appropriate for a Democratic Senate to refuse to vote on a Supreme Court nomination until the 2020 election. Democrats though aren’t very good at being evil. Republicans though have perfected it.

And that’s what this nomination is all about, really: the culmination of decades of work by Republicans to gain ultimate power while consistently ranking up a minority of votes nationwide. At best their approach has been morally dubious. Republicans have been ruthless, taking a mile when they should have taken an inch. They had no qualms about gerrymandering districts to the extreme and openly suppressing the voting rights of those who are likely to vote against them. Justice Kennedy helped cement these oversized privileges with recent votes on gerrymandering cases that came before the court. Ultimate power though rests not in the presidency or in Congress, but in the courts because of federal judges receive lifetime appointments.

Democrats’ hope of course is for a blue wave this November. Democrats were already fully engaged but this retirement will only add to their animus. It may also bring Republicans out to vote disproportionately too. The case for Democratic control of Congress though only grows as a result of this retirement. The already high stakes have grown even higher.

Our cacophonic political scene already deafening is going to grow even louder as the amp now gets cranked up to 11.