Saturday, February 25, 2017

What's really so bad about Trump?

I began thinking about this post about two years ago, when the US was already in the throes of an extended early presidential campaigning system.  I saw that many people recoiled at the things that then-candidate Trump said and did (and apparently, many other people felt an equally visceral admiration or support for him).

After a few months of the phenomenon, I for one got to a point where I couldn't even define very well what it was I so disliked about him.  If there had been just one thing, like saying that the US should launch gangster-style retaliatory murder campaigns against the family members and children of suspected terrorists, then it would be easy to point to that and explain that such a candidate would not be fit to hold office in the US, because murder campaigns are both illegal and go against the very principles at the core of our nation.  Though if he had said only one such thing, you could also argue that it was simply an unfortunate off-color remark that didn't characterize his overall platform.

Or if Trump had been more crafty with his messaging, he could resort to legalistic or rhetorical means to downplay the dangerous and scary ideas he was putting forth.  For instance, he could have been very precise in defining that he was genuinely concerned only about undocumented migrants, or immigrants that have committed felonies, or specifically about immigrants from Mexico.  This would have been cynical and misleading, since it has become clear that he was in fact setting up brown people in general as the enemy.  But if he'd been more carfeul, he may have been able to specifically demonize a rather limited group in a nominally coherent or justifiable way.

But the onslaught of tasteless and insane ideas that came out of the candidate's mouth, his Twitter account, and now from his pen in the form of Executive Orders, is so prolific and overwhelming that I (and I think many others) sometimes got lost in the haze of it all.  If I had been forced to discuss the merits or lack thereof of Mr. Trump's possible presidency with a Trump supporter (a situation I strove, quite successfully, to avoid), I feared it would devolve into primal grunting on one side and another.  "I like his style!"  "I hate his style!"  Or specious tit-for-tat equivalencies with Mrs. Clinton.  "Trump has major economic conflicts of interest!"  "Well Hillary charges a lot for speaking engagements, and the Clinton Foundation had too much access to the State Department and USAID."  These comparisons are specious because in the one case we are talking about billions of dollars in undisclosed commercial deals that would have a major impact on decision-making germane to national security, while in the other we are talking about much less money, being spent in places like Haiti that are not major economic or military threats to the US.

But even if I were to extricate myself from the hazy funk of the hundreds of lies and sociopathic proposals that Trump (and the media, which had him on a 24/7 loop) threw at the public, and were able to catalog them one by one, I fear that it would be impossible to have a productive discussion to convince someone that Trump was not a good candidate.  This is because Trump and his supporters became very adept at coming up with ingenuous, mendacious one-by-one refutations to each clear argument based on his own words.  If I were to bring up separately his inaugural campaign speech, in which he demonized an entire nation (Mexico) by telling lots of objectively-verifiable lies, then an adroit arguer could counter that NAFTA had been bad for the US worker (which I'd probably agree with) and that Trump's appeal was based less on animus and more on a sense of economic and social insecurity felt by the white working class.  If I brought up his comments on killing suspected terrorists' families, a supporter could say that he was speaking metaphorically and conveying a hard-nosed approach, but not actually advocating for committing widespread war crimes.  If I brought up his self-avowed penchant for nonconsensual pussy-grabbing, they could conced that this was indeed a tasteless comment, but he'd said it in confidence years ago.  If I harped on the steady stream of revelations pertaining to Trump's overly close relationship with Russia, people could ask me why I kept grasping at straws about that old thing.

In short, I found it difficult to pinpoint in a succinct yet robust way what my problem is with President Trump.  If I stayed at the level of my general impressions of unease caused by the barrage of what he was saying and proposing, then I would only be able to speak in terms of my subjective taste or feelings.  If I got into details and tried to discuss specific claims or actions with a supporter of his, then there were mendacious yet rhetorically effective dismissals for each individual point I might raise, like the single combatant that takes up a strategic point above a narrow pass and is thus able to pick off a sizeable army one by one.  Even if I were somehow to muster the entire unified "army" of facts and arguments in Trump's contra, not just one by one but as a massive body of evidence, it seemed not to work.  Trump had assembled a giant record of quotes that, as basketball coach Gregg Popovich put it, "All the things he said during that time, if our children would have said it, we would have grounded them for six months".  Any single one of Trump's most egregious quotes would be enough to disqualify a presidential candidate in my eyes, but somehow having three hundred of them made many people less likely to condemn him, not more.

So I didn't think I could make an argument against Trump (that would convince anyone who wasn't already convinced of his unfitness) on an emotional basis, nor on a fact-checking basis, and not even when marshalling an entire body of facts.  Support for him, and the terms of the national discussion, seemed to defy any rules of reasoned argument.

At the same time as all of this was transpiring, at work I happened to be delving a bit more into issues of human rights.  I normally work on the agricultural and economic end of international development.  Making farming more productive, improving the enabling environment for small businesses, that sort of stuff.  But in many of the countries and cases I was working on, there were arising lots of issues of economic underdevelopment that were clearly linked more to social and political problems than to any sort of purely economic or agronomic limitation.  More concretely, the big problem that kept cropping up was a lack of respect for human rights.  When a community was getting left out of political decision-making or economic planning, or when an indigenous group was having their lands sold out from under them by the government, or when private companies were implementing projects that harmed surrounding communities in order to enrich a few shareholders, these were not really agronomic or even economic issues, but rather human rights issues.  Human rights and governance gradually went from being something that I found kind of boring and tried to avoid, to something that fascinated me professionally, intellectually, and morally, and that was increasingly front and center in my ostensibly economic work.

A similar thing happened as I thought about the current political juncture in the US.  I began to think more about human rights, and civil liberties, and the Constitution.  Our bizarre system of the electoral college (which I believe is actually a good way of giving smaller, less-populated areas more voice, but that should be split up proportionally to the popular vote in each state), violations of immigrants' right to travel and enter the US, gerrymandering that gives Republicans a disproportionate share of Congressional seats in each state despite their representing the overall minority of the population--all these things underlined the importance of our civic and political systems, and the human rights principles underlying them.  Again, the legalistic and civic principles that had always seemed boring to me in grammar school, that had always seemed like a bunch of wool-clad colonials saying lofty things that were sort of obvious and really nothing special, manifested themselves to me in all their glory.  I began to understand better the importance of each point or principle that the Founding Fathers had laid out, as many of them were being challenged in real time by the new President.  I don't think I'm the only one that has a newfound interest and appreciation for the Constitution and the other laws that govern us, for things we'd never much thought about before like emoluments and an objective judiciary and Congressional procedural rules.

But most of all, I became increasingly able to articulate my objections to Trump's policy proposals, as I saw that the unifying thread of most of what he has done or tried to do is a profound disdain for human rights and the basic civic principles of the US government.  From limiting the granting of asylum based on religion, to promoting widespread unlawful search in black communities, to creating a climate of fear among Latinos (not just the undocumented, but any brown-looking person whom ICE or local law enforcement might assume is undocumented), to privatizing and undermining the public education system, to limiting voting rights and creating witch hunts for nonexistent voter fraud, Mr. Trump and his coterie have consistently evinced an absolute scorn for even the most basic principles of human rights.  The flurry of Executive Orders have thus far been particularly mean-spirited, aimed at hurting people and limiting rights as opposed to ennobling our Republic or expanding our rights and wellbeing.

And in their threats and bullying of the press, their attempts to clamp down on the communication of objective fact by the different federal agencies, their personalization of the functions of government (freezing out agencies that are "against" Trump, conceiving of career civil servants as Obama loyalists, trying to get federal agencies to lie in order to justify the caprices of the President, even this insane call from Sebastian Gorka to someone who dared to publicly criticize his work and qualifications as a public servant), it is clear that Trump Inc. have little familiarity with or regard for the written and unwritten principles of our Republic.  The assumption that all people are equal and deserve the same rights doesn't seem to be shared by Trump's government, which would privilege some based on their wealth or their skin color, and leave everyone else out in the cold.  The idea that we should all try to help each other, to look out for our neighbors, that everyone deserves a dignified life and that the government should try to favor this outcome instead of hindering it; these things don't seem to figure in Trump's world view (or Bannon's, or DeVos's, etc.).  Cf the proposals to dismantle public safety net and service systems like public schools, Affordable Care, public television, public transport, national parks and protected areas, and the environment writ large.  Even on a personal level, it appears that Trump doesn't hold very dear the sovereignty of women over their bodies (if you're rich, it's okay to grope), or the right of disabled people to the same respect and regard as everyone else.

Despite the current President's apparent disregard for human rights, I think that for most people it is a cause we can agree on.  Who in the 21st century can argue against equal treatment for people, or the importance of free expression and freedom of religion?  Any claim against these principles is patently unsound and indefensible (an entire political platform based on suppressing human rights is a travesty).  We may disagree on how best to honor human rights, and our racial enmities may cloud our judgment in pursuing human rights for certain of our neighbors.  But they are principles that should appeal to everyone.  Humanists obviously, but also Classic Liberals who are really into Enlightenment-era principles of government, or Libertarians who hold dear the right of people to be free from oppression, or people who just have a gut belief that the people should determine their own government.  Even most religious doctrines center implicitly or explicitly on the idea that humanity is sacred, that we all somehow bear a spark of the divine within us, and if that's so, then it becomes crucial to respect the rights of these vessels of God.  In short, whether you're on board for political reasons, or intellectual ones, or religious ones, or whatever, I think most of us should be on board with the cause of human rights.

Granted, there seems to be a subset of US society, a la Steve Bannon, that takes a perverse glee in hurting others, in tearing down functioning systems, in extreme ideological restructurings of society "just to see how they'll work".  This is what I call the mentally-adolescent Internet-troll set.  They're those guys who in college got really into Ayn Rand and declared themselves Objectivists because they liked the internal coherence (and absolute real-world unworkability) of a simplified, extreme world view, and perhaps because they liked being contrarian and saying "fuck you" to what they regarded as risible bourgeois norms.  The problem is that these norms of decency, of human rights, of messy, real-world political systems that at once try to protect civil liberties but also to provide for the general welfare, represent a few hundred years of imperfect but ever-advancing improvements in public morality and wellbeing of the populace.  It may be fun to point out their shortcomings and poke holes in their logical inconsistencies.  It's sophomoric, but you're not hurting anyone if you're just an embittered or arrogant young person musing in your dorm room or your parents' basement.  But if you actually wield power and, either just for the hell of it or out of your genuine conviction against a government that seeks the general welfare, start to tear down these systems that lots of people depend on, then it goes from being an intellectual exercise to actually hurting real, breathing human beings.

A while ago I linked to Sarah Kendzior, who writes about economic decay and authoritarian political systems.  My cousin recently shared another thing she wrote, from just after the 2016 election.  In it Kendzior encourages all of us to take a moment to lay out explicitly our basic beliefs, the things we don't wish to change but fear might be weakened as we live under an increasingly repressive and mean-spirited government.  This way we may refer to our writings as a sort of time capsule from time to time, so that if we are gradually, imperceptibly compromising our values, we will have a baseline to measure from to remind us of who we were and what we didn't want to lose.

I hope this blog post can serve for me as this time capsule, as something I can refer to if I feel I'm losing my way or weakening my convictions.

Here's a more succinct summary of the values I hope never to lose: I believe in decency, truth, human rights.  You've got to speak up and call out injustice when you see it, treat people kindly, and not try to hurt others.  You've got to live in the real world and judge things based on reality and facts, not your ideology or what you simply wish to be true.  All this may sound so simple that it's trite.  It's just calling a spade a spade, but it's important to say explicitly.  Hurting or oppressing others can never be right.  Lying or silence in the face of lies is never okay.

And with these last two sentences, perhaps I've summed up everything that I find wrong with Mr. Trump's campaign and his presidency thus far.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Civics in education

I have increasingly been coming to the conviction that civics is an important thing for students to learn.  Perhaps the most important thing they should learn.  I didn't learn a whole lot of civics as such in grammar school, and just a bit in high school.  Maybe in the course of hearing about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Jim Crow and Civil Rights, I kind of pieced together some of the basic pillars of an education in civics.  Which  I guess is kind of the idea of a robust education in social studies and history--a student can synthesize for him- or herself the lessons of the past, and the principles that the US was founded on and that have driven so many social movements.  The explicit civics stuff, like units on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Amendments, seemed kind of boring at the time. 

Anyway, here's an article that shows firsthand what a useful, interesting, modern civics education might look like, one based not just on the founding documents of US democracy but on direct action to improve and help govern the polity.  The ethnic and social diversity at the San Francisco high school the author writes about is also harnessed by resourceful professors as an opportunity for students to learn about coexistence, tolerance, shared human rights and respect, etc.  As the author notes though, most white students in the US, which is to say most of the population that most needs to hear divergen, minority viewpoints and to learn what it means to live in a diverse society of mutual respect, are in fact in segregated mainly-white schools.  It is one more manifestation of a trend I've seen a lot--ethnic minorities and other oppressed groups are called upon to and increasingly do widen their circle of tolerance, civic respect, and the like (blacks learning to respect Latinos, Muslim Americans embracing their gay neighbors, etc.), but the people who most need to become more tolerant, the whites who dominate public spaces, political power, and economic privilege, are by and large not in contact with ideas and realities that would challenge them to make society better for all.  And their very power means that they will not and cannot be forced to become more civic-minded.  I don't know what the answer is to improve this state of affairs.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Foreign Policy on Trump's first month

In honor of Presidents' Day, I'm sharing this assessment from Foreign Policy magazine on Trump's first month.  I think it is a fair assessment, and it is pretty damning.  They do find some bright spots in that it seems that many of the checks and balances in the US are working (including perhaps most prominently the dogged resistance from civil society of many of Trump's authoritarian measures).  But on the other hand, the magazine notes that all this chaos has arisen in a relatively uneventful, crisis-free time, contrasting it with Obama's entry into office in the middle of an economic crisis and two major foreign combat/occupation engagements.  If this is how the current administration handles peace and prosperity, then it bodes ill for when a crisis does strike.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

An insightful Rust Belt progressive

My cousin recently introduced me to writing from Sarah Kendzior, a St. Louis-based journalist and political analyst.  The day after the Presidential elections last November, she wrote a prescient piece on the implications of the rise of fascism in the US.  This led me to check out some of her other writing, which includes an interview with her in which she offers a cogent criticism of what she calls the "prestige economy" of young people seeking credentials through expensive college degrees and unpaid internships.  I also like Kendzior's hopeful take that the dilapadation and distress of the Rust Belt may be precisely the crucible from which arise new ideas for a better future.  She argues that in happening, booming places like San Francisco or NYC, everyone is so caught up in the rat race and reaching for the same status quo credentials that they don't have much time or freedom to propose radical reimaginings of how our society is to work.  Where as if you live in a depressed city that's been left behind by the gloss of the modern economy, you already have a critical awareness of the shortcomings of the current model, and the cheap cost of living mean that you can afford to fail in trying new things.  I hope she's right.  I don't know where Chicago would fit in this dichotomy.  It's got features and neighborhoods that look more like the booming coasts with creative, high-earning, high-spending Millennial types.  But it also has vast swathes of blight, and there are lots of people experimenting with new ways of living in these deprived surroundings.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A concise yet detailed definition of fascism

I recently ran across this definition of fascism:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
This comes from Robert Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism, quoted by this article.  I think it is a very accurate description of many of the forces driving the current political juncture in the US as well as in many other countries that have taken a turn towards authoritarianism.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A white guy speaks of rivers



A few months ago I posted Sam Cooke's song A Change is Gonna Come, which is a favorite song of mine.  I've long noticed that it has a lot in common with the Showboat song Old Man River.  The opening violin sequence ends on a snippet of Old Man River's melody before Cooke starts singing, Cooke paraphrases that he's tired of living but scared of dying, and both songs reference the [Mississippi?] river in the first line and as a central motif.  But I've often reflected that, while Old Man River is about static people and a river moving along, Cooke's song is about people forced to run and scramble just like the river.  Neither situation is empowering, but Cooke paints the suffering of black folk in the US as something dynamic and aggressive, not just the staid, stolid oppression described in Old Man River.  Cooke's representation is more poignant and accurate for me, for oppression is dynamic, aggressive, active, not just a motionless block on our shoulders.  And likewise Cooke's reading gives a glimmer of hope, for if oppression is consciously enacted, not just an impersonal contextual condition, then it can be consciously opposed and fought, which is why Cooke affirms that a change will eventually come.

Anyway, I was curious if anyone else felt the same way or thought along the same lines as me, and I stumbled across this cool article from the New Yorker, precisely comparing A Change is Gonna Come and Old Man River.