Monday, April 06, 2020

We Voted For Inaction

Many have claimed the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been inept due to a collapse of leadership. Critics write about this collapse as though it were a failure.

The problem with that view, however, is that it ignores how, for years, Americans have been supporting leaders who've promised to hobble the Federal government.

A lack of Federal leadership is what many Americans have been demanding, and during this crisis, Trump's decision to leave all the difficult decisions to the states is a victory for those voters.

There is a large block of Americans who believe the following:

  • Most government services are inefficient
  • Most government spending is wasteful
  • Most government workers are incompetent
  • Most elected officials are corrupt
  • The government stands in the way of freedom
  • The smaller our government gets the better our nation will become

Voters who hold those beliefs fueled the rise of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, the Tea Party, debt ceiling shutdowns, the House Freedom Caucus, and President Trump - among others.

These voters have a core belief that informs their choices: The only acceptable role for our government is to support the growth of private industry - the real power in America.

Because these voters do not believe the government is able to effectively respond to anything, they will seek to strip it of the power to respond to everything. Trump has been happy to contribute to that effort, branding any of his policy critics from within the government as "deep state operatives." 

So, to cite one example, no one should be surprised that in 2018 this administration disbanded a National Security Unit focused on pandemic response despite repeated warnings of the risk a pandemic posed. After all, the administration was acting on its promise to streamline the government. When this move resulted in the departure of Thomas P. Bossert and Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, leading experts in pandemic response, this was more evidence that the administration was shrinking the government. The departure of pandemic experts was a victory.

To provide another example, people should not be baffled that the Administration has still not enacted the Defense Production Act despite A) the clear need for increased production of ventilators and B) the need for a powerful purchaser capable ending bidding wars that result in an unnecessary spike in prices for care during a crisis.

This Administration does not believe in wielding the power of our government for anything other than supporting the growth of private industry. This belief gives them the right to deny responsibility for the American people. 
Voters sought out leaders who do not believe the government is responsible for the safety and security of its people. We found those people and put them in charge. 

So, we need to stop acting surprised at the non-response we're getting from the White House, and we have got to start discussing what the role of government should be as we prepare for new leadership.  

The group behind Trump's rise does not value public education, publicly-funded scientific research, environmental protections, consumer protection programs, privacy protections, publicly-funded efforts to empower marginalized groups, safety regulations, advancements in infrastructure, or publicly-funded arts.

Attempts to appeal to them on any of these issues will go nowhere.
Those policies either directly impede efforts to support the growth of private industry or they complete for the resources required for such support.

The good news is most Americans don't share the beliefs that inform this Administration. As we struggle through this crisis without a leader, let's use this time to reexamine what we expect from our government when the opportunity to select real leader arrises.

What do you expect from our government?

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

I No Longer Support the Troops

I am not anti-military.

The training and discipline service requires have always impressed me.
I recognize the military as an excellent way to gain the skills and experience needed to succeed.
I grew up with people who served in the armed forces and, as individuals, I know them to be good people.
Many of the best students I've taught are veterans.
I have friends who served.
I have family serving.
One of my most powerful childhood memories is watching my father find the name of an uncle I never met on the Vietnam War Memorial.

I want to support the men and women of our military, but I can no longer do so.

I feel horrible saying that, but this is bigger than my feelings. My withdrawal of support is about ethics and morality.
An informed citizen can no longer join today's military and honestly believe it is a virtuous institution designed to protect America. This has been true for some time now, but in recent months it has become too clear to ignore.

There are friends on one side who will tell me I should have stopped supporting the military long ago. They'll tell me what I've written here today has been obvious to them for years.

There are friends on the other side who will condemn me for withholding my support. They'll tell me that I have no right to deny support to men and women who risk their lives protecting my freedoms.

From here in the middle, I say it is time we acknowledge a hard truth:
Our military's primary mission is no longer to end conflicts, protect America, or fight for democracy.
We are engaged in a number of conflicts with no clear definition of victory.
Many of those have spurred additional conflicts, each requiring more military action.
The evidence is clear, America's use of our military creates conflict and works to expand the use of deadly force.

Since the end of the Cold War, our military has become exactly what Eisenhower warned against when he said,
We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Neither that speech nor this post is anti-military. Eisenhower stated, and I agree that a "vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction."
But as American citizens, we have failed to compel the proper meshing of the military-industrial complex with peaceful methods that prioritize liberty. 

Mike Pompeo, our nation's Secretary of State (not Defense), is publicly arguing that the best course of action in our effort to reduce tensions with an international adversary was an extra-judicial execution carried out by our military. As a result of this action, we are deploying more troops to the region where it occurred.

The Secretary of State was asked today for evidence of the imminent attack that made military action necessary. He did not provide any such evidence. And he won't have to. He can tell us it's a secret, and we will accept that as sufficient.

But I can't do that anymore. I cannot trust that our military keeps secrets to serve an honorable mission. Not after our President insisted that our military honor a man convicted of "posing with the dead body of a teenage Islamic State captive he had just killed with a hunting knife." Not after the military fired an active leader who - with good cause - refused to honor such a man.

With that, I am being asked to support an institution that publicly honors people who disregard the value of human life.

Will people serving in such an institution recognize the imperative to disobey illegal and immoral orders? I thought I knew the answer to that question. But now our military publicly carries out executions, honors the dishonorable, and works to create a perpetual state of war.

I cannot support the people who volunteer to join such an institution.
Again, I am not anti-military, but I am no longer able to support this military.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Time to price moving vans

If your home state enacts laws that do not respect your personhood, you have to seriously consider leaving the state.

That may sound extreme, but let's consider the word "extreme."

The religious right started working to overturn Roe versus Wade in the 1970s. They engaged in a hostile takeover of the GOP in the 80s. Since then, they have subverted all of the party's other priorities in favor of this one issue.
  • The GOP is no longer the party of small government 
  • The GOP is no longer the party of personal freedom
    • They work to legislate marriage, family planning, and medical procedures
  • The GOP's current leader has backed away from international military alliances
  • The GOP's leader does not value free trade
  • The GOP isn't even the party of family values anymore
    • The religious right helped the GOP elect a divorcee who has extramarital affairs with porn stars
In a single-minded effort that has taken over 40 years, the religious right dismantled the platform of a major political party and replaced it with a pro-life agenda... and nothing else.

This is their only issue, and that's why they are making progress. 

They aren't making progress because their position is more popular. Even the most generous polls have the nation split. Most polls show more Americans are pro-choice.

No, it isn't the merit of their view. The religious right is making progress because they are single-minded. They are willing to bend the entire US government to their will in this effort. 

The GOP is being held hostage by people seeking to enact laws based on their religious beliefs, and after a few decades, a kind of Stockholm syndrome has set in. Conservatives believe the religious right has been taking care of them, helping them win elections. Nevermind that the party's values no longer mean anything, the GOP can win state houses and the White House. Not even democracy can stand in their way!

I would love to provide some kind of reasonable strategy for overcoming their efforts, but if people are willing to betray all their values save one, they are pathological. There is not a reasonable way to stop them. 

So, leave them. 

Walk away.

If the religious right has a hold on your state house, they will take your right to choose and then they'll go after birth control. They think it is a woman's job to have babies for men, and they want to enact laws to enforce that. 

If those are not your values, move to a state that respects your values. Take your skills, your income, your family, your friends, your vote, and your values; go find a community that will embrace them all.

By leaving, you will enrich the community you join and deprive extremists of all you have to offer.

Let's see how they do without us. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

OxyContin, the Special Olympics, Charity, and Taxes

"But the wealthy are so generous in their support of charities and non-profits."

It's a point I often hear from people when discussing taxes.

It's in the news right now.

Here's how:
The White House Budget proposal would cut funding to the Special Olympics. This part of the proposal is an easy target for critics of the White House, but I am much more interested in the way the Administration has defended the cut.

In response to questions about it, Besty DeVos said, “I think that Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well.”

And there it is. The assumption behind DeVos's statement is this:
The rich are generous with their money and that is why we should cut government spending and stop taxing the wealthy so heavily. The wealthy provide jobs and give to charities. If they were able to keep more of their money, they would give more, and the government wouldn't need to support causes like the Special Olympics or universities or the arts. The wealthy will step up and make sure those causes are supported. 
That argument sounds nice. It plays into our perception that people who succeed must be good people. Look at this list of generous billionaire families; it practically proves success is a sign of a person's inherent goodness. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Unfortunately, even bad hombres are able to succeed from time to time.

For example, take one of those very generous billionaire families.
The Sackler family give a lot of money to charities and non-profits, and that's nice.
But it is worth noting that the family owns Purdue Pharma, the company that brought  OxyContin to market in 1996. Much of their wealth has been accumulated through the sale of a narcotic painkiller - a narcotic painkiller that, according to a recently settled lawsuit, has been deceptively marketed in ways that fueled the opioid crisis.

They are drug dealers.

They make and market an addictive drug. They actively worked to get that drug into the hands of as many people as possible. When people started dying, the family did not stop trying to find new customers. When the drug they sold was named as one of the sources of a national crisis, they continued to defend their efforts to sell the drug.

I'm sure the Sackler family does not think they are bad people. After all, they are only working to support themselves. They are enjoying economic success. They shouldn't be punished for that.
And, here's the important part, they give generously to museums, charities,  and universities around the world.

But they are bad people.

They started the opioid crisis.

They sell the drug that kills tens of thousands.

They sought customers in places where their drugs do harm, and they aggressively sold the drug there.

They still sell it.

Our government has not stopped them from selling their drugs in irresponsible ways.

The Sackler family's generosity cannot make up for the harm they have done.

So, don't ask me to consider the generosity of the wealthy when forming my views on tax policy.

I support policy intended to prevent the pooling of wealth.
I believe economic inequality is a serious issue, and that the past thirty-five years of tax policy have contributed to that issue.
I support a return to the top marginal tax bracket that was in place from 1965-1981 when top earners paid seventy percent income tax on anything over a certain level of income.

People don't have to agree with my policy preferences, but I am going to argue with people who tell me my views are wrong-headed. When I discuss such policies, I will try to respect the arguments people use support lower taxes on the wealthy.

But I will no longer listen to arguments that invoke all the good done by wealthy Americans who give to charity.

Nor will I listen to arguments that suggest the philanthropic sector can take on the work of a strong government.

Those arguments ask me to hand over authority to people simply because they have wealth, and I do not believe such people will consider my interests when making decisions.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Attacking the Sensitive

So, I'm bracing for the conservative backlash that is bound to splash across my social media feeds today when pundits start lampooning a NYT op-ed by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner about Mary Poppins wearing blackface.

USA today is already covering Twitter's reaction (btw, really, USA Today?).

I expect to see a lot of people pointing and shouting at this example of "LIE-berals being TOO sensitive!!!!"

And yeah, I think the Mary Poppins thing is silly.

But this "too sensitive" thing, like the derisive use of "politically correct," is worth some attention.

Sure, there are times when people are being too sensitive (I'm looking at you Pollack-Pelzner).

However, there is a much longer history of guys like me telling other people, "Don't be offended. This is the way things are. You're being too sensitive."

Due to the accident of history, our cultural landscape was shaped by a lot of straight white dudes catering to all the other straight white dudes. If you find that statement controversial, I don't know what to tell you. The evidence is literally everywhere. And it's not just that the world is built to make us comfortable; it's also the absurd backlash to razor commercials, #BLM, #metoo, female science fiction writers, female game designers, black actors in comic book movies... Oh. My. God. The irony that these are the people accusing others of being too sensitive surpasses the level of satire.

But I get it. Because for people who are comfortable in a world built for straight white dudes (and that includes a lot of people are not straight, white, or dude-like), "this is the way things are."

And living in a moment when people are challenging the way things are can lead to some disturbances. In fact, it should disturb some people.

It disturbs me and my understanding of my world. I have to accept there are some things I do not understand as offensive, but those things offend others.

And when people assert themselves and expect to be treated with dignity, I may have to reexamine the way things are.

I may find that the world I thought of as so comfortable was actually a lot less comfortable for people I hadn't taken into consideration.

Making room and treating others with dignity is going to change my world.
It'll disturb my world.

There's going to be times when I have to admit I do not - and cannot - understand why someone is offended, because they have a point of view I am unable to share.

So, I have to be more careful with that accusation of "too sensitive." It may, after all, be me that has become too sensitive.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Democrat Bogeyman

Have you heard people refer to the "Democrat Party?"
They drop the "ic" from the Democratic Party - even though "Democratic Party" is the name of the party.

Maybe you dismissed this as a mistake -- or as D.C. slang from folks in the know.
But it's actually childish namecalling.

Pay attention to who uses the shortened, harsher sounding, ungrammatical "Democrat Party." It's primarily conservative commentators, along with a few of the conservatives working in government.

It's not an accident or accepted slang. It's a cheap shot that, according to NPR's Ombudsman, started in the 50s when a conservative decided he didn't like the opposing party's name because it includes an adjective with positive connotations.

Now, if I have an acquaintance named James who has told me he prefers to go by the name "James," but I insist on calling him Jimbo, there is not a lot James can do. He can explain to others that I am a petty and small-minded person who does things simply to make others uncomfortable, but he can't make me stop.

In fact, taking a stand on such a small thing should be beneath a guy like James.

So, I normally take a cue from this hypothetical James and try to ignore it when I hear conservatives use their disparaging nickname.

But it is an effort to ignore it. I always hear it - of course, that's the point.

Recently, I heard Stevie Miller use "Democrat Party" in an interview about the Administration's plan to shut down the government if Congress doesn't fully fund a wall building project. In the interview, he said, "The Democrat Party has a simple choice. They can either choose to fight for America's working class or to promote illegal immigration. You can't do both."

That's when I found a new way of hearing that name, "Democrat Party."

Stevie Miller is not talking about the actual Democratic Party. He's talking about an imaginary group of horrible people who want to destroy the country. The fake party he's talking about is made up of policymakers who would gladly watch this country burn. He gave this imaginary party a name - a name no actual political party has. His monstrous political party is the Democrat Party.

Of course, there is no such party. He (and others) made it all up. It is a horror story used to make sure Trump's base doesn't ask too many questions.

You want proof, look at his quote from that interview:
"The Democrat Party has a simple choice. They can either choose to fight for America's working class or to promote illegal immigration. You can't do both."
Wait... What? That doesn't make any sense.
That is the logic of a man trapped inside an imaginary fantasyland where the villains of an evil political party are working to destroy America.
The name Democrat Party is an exercise in imagination by people who need make-believe villains to justify the actions they are taking in reality.

Friday, November 09, 2018

We need to talk about the value of liberal studies

from @meakoopa
Honestly, I was about to write about the NRA telling doctors to "stay in their lane" on gun violence because... I mean do I even have to explain?
But I've written about the erosion of the public's faith in experts here before, and while drafting a new version of that, I stumbled across something that is more fun, and it approaches the same issue from a very different angle: The value of an education that develops students who "read critically, write cogently and think broadly."
from HattertheThird

It started with a meme, of course.

The image and the commentary made the "most viral" page for a lot of reasons, nudity certainly being one of them. But something like this does not get to that spot on Imgur without being a commentary on the times.

And that is phenomenal because just a little digging turns this meme into powerful evidence for an argument on the value of the liberal arts.

  • Art history 
  • European history
  • Political science
  • Cultural studies
  • Media Studies
  • Classical studies
  • Philosophy
  • Mechanical Engineering
Those are some of the disciplines that contribute to just how much this meme has to say. 

The painting Truth Coming Out of Her Well was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Art historians suggest that the painting not only represents Gérôme's hostility towards Impressionism, they have also noted that it was likely a comment on the Dreyfus affair

The Dreyfus affair revolved around trials for spying and espionage. It fueled an intense political division within France that gave rise to both nationalism and antisemitism. 

The man who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans and then sentenced to life in prison was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a man of Jewish descent. Two years later the French found evidence that it was actually a man named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy who had leaked secrets to the Germans. Esterhazy (a descendant born out of wedlock to the prominent Hungarian noble family) was tried behind closed doors and acquitted before he was secreted off to the United Kingdom where he wrote for anti-semitic newspapers until his death in 1923. 

The coverup was revealed via an open letter titled J'Accuse…! which was published in L'Aurore, a French newspaper. 

The country of France was split by this scandal in profound ways that played out in media outlets with political agendas. 

The painting gets its title from the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who said, "Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well."

And all of this started because someone (probably Esterhazy) passed secret military plans to the Germans - plans discovered by a counter-intelligence agent working as a cleaner in the German embassy. This woman found, among other things, the torn-up plans for the new French artillery gun, the 120mm howitzer. 

Which is interesting; that fact led some to theorize that Esterhazy was actually a double agent. At the time of the leak, you see, it seems the French had already scrapped the 120mm for the famous French 75 - an artillery weapon widely regarded as the first piece of modern artillery.

And I'm sorry, but if that web of facts from across several disciplines doesn't draw you in and inform your understanding of current events, then you are missing out big time. 

It is interdisciplinary knowledge that allows us to interact with the world in a modern way - a way that helps us understand what art means, what history tells us, what political leaders should do, what racism looks like, what corruption can lead to, what we should expect from the media, what truth means, what kinds of secrets need to be kept, and what the tools we build can do.