Sunday, March 21, 2021

Income inequality will cause a revolution or another Trump

"When I give food to the poor, I'm called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I'm called a communist." -Archbishop Dom Helder Camara. 

  

If Jeff Bezos gave every one of Amazon's 876,000 employees worldwide a bonus of $100,000, he would still have a higher net worth than he did less than four months ago.

Although Trumpism was firmly rooted in bigotry, it also tapped into the belief that the economic and political systems of this country are rigged against honest people who work for a living. And while Trump's prescription of bilking the taxpayers for his own personal gain made this worse, the diagnosis was spot on.

Failing to address these systemic issues will no doubt lead to another Trump-like charlatan. Democrats could repeal the massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires rammed through by the previous regime but even that negligible change is not on their agenda.

We cannot have a system where the well-being of the hard working many is entirely dependent on the charity whim of a tiny elite. The result will, without doubt, be another demagogue, outright revolution or both.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote, "As riches accumulate in few hands, as luxury prevails in society, the tendency will be to depart from the republican standard. It is what neither the honorable member nor myself can correct. It is a common misfortune, that awaits our state constitution."

 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The pathogen is gone but the poison remains

Most Americans have breathed a sigh of relief that Trump's reign is finally over, that the Confederate coup attempts failed and that Biden got through day one without being assassinated.

But don't you dare say that you want things to go back to how they used to be. Because "how it used to be" is the conditions that led to Trump and, more dangerously, Trumpism in the first place.

Trump did not change us. He caused many to reveal who they really were. He goaded people to remove the mask. The tinder was there; he just lit the match and kept adding kindling.

He did not invent white supremacy and other forms of bigotry. He did not invent misogyny. He did not invent cult behavior. He did not invent nihilism. He did not invent contempt for the scientific method and for the environment. He merely exploited those things which already existed. They will remain even after he's hopefully thrown in prison or, at the very least, banned from all future public office.

We need to be better people as individuals. And we need a better system, better public policies as a country. Both need to be more human and more humane. Either by itself is not good enough.

Medicare for All - getting what we're already paying for via our taxes - and right-sizing our military - making it serve primarily as the national self-defense unit our Founding Fathers intended - are two good starts.

But whether it's these two specific policies or others. Our tax money should be used to help people - primarily American citizens. I've no problem with the current small percentage being used to help refugees or other foreigners in need.

Our tax money should not be subsidize corporations. And it should never be used to harm foreigners in far away lands who've committed no sin against the United States and her people.

Trumpism came about because people felt the political system was fundamentally broken and that Trump would be the Lord and Savior who could fix it all. They were catastrophically wrong in their prescription but spot on in their diagnosis. We must implement a better remedy.

The Nazis failed in their first attempt to seize power. But the sclerotic, out of touch mainstream parties of Weimar Germany never learned the lesson. The Nazis did not fail the second time.

We cannot "go back to the way things were" because we are certain to get another Trumpist monster. And the next one may be smarter and more disciplined. And then we truly will be screwed.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Dr. King's full dream: dignity for all

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is doing nothing more or less in this area than collective bargaining; bargaining for human dignity, bargaining for decency. He is fighting to redeem the soul of America.” - Jackie Robinson

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. 

He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor  people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.

King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.

King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.

This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.

During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have  tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.

Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.

King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.

(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)

To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.

He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:

We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Stop blaming working class people for fascism


One of the laziest liberal conceits is that the core of Trumpism is fundamentally people who one might snobbishly refer to as white trash. 

How often do you hear someone from the professional or pundit classes bemoan "poorer people voting against their interests"? The clear implication is they are too stupid to know they're being screwed. 

Blaming poorer people for those doing them harm is not simply lazy, it's incredibly damaging and helps the agents of fascism.

The core of Trumpism is not people working three jobs to barely make ends meet. 
 
The core of Trumpism is people so comfortable they can take several days off, buy a plane ticket, spend money to buy tactical gear and go to Washington, DC to play Rambo. 

Trumpism, like Trump himself, is not the workers; it's the bosses.

Exit polls reveal that those who made less than $100,000 voted for Biden by a margin of 13 points. Those who made under $50,000 voted for Biden by an 11 point margin. Those who made more than $100,000 voted for Trump by a margin of 12 points. 

Margins in US House races were almost identical.

These were much higher margins than the relatively small difference in voting between those with a college degree and those without.

Hannah Arrendt described the working class as "the only class in Germany which…had never been wholeheartedly Nazi.” 

This ties in to a recent article in The Nation about a 40 year old book Who Voted for Hitler?

The book exams data in German elections in the 1920s and 1930s to chart the Nazi Party's rise from a marginal faction to seizing control of the country.

The article states: Three-quarters of a century have passed now since Hitler came to power in Germany, leaving in place two enduring myths about how it happened. One claims that Hitler’s rise was born of the frustrations of the middle class in post-WWI Germany. The other holds that Hitler’s support came from the disenfranchised and uneducated working and out-of-work poor. But neither myth is accurate, and both are based on hearsay—half-truths people are comfortable with, rather than hard truths that emerge from the data.

Hitler, like Trump, never came close to enjoying majority support in any election. The book's author finds that the Nazis were a party that organized people, especially in rural communities; that it was largely a Protestant phenomenon; and that it coincided with an with an inability and disinterest on the part of the major parties of the left to organize.

The Democrats have largely abandoned rural America, ceding it to a Republican monopoly. This has played perfectly into Trump's martyr scam.

The failure of the complacent mainstream parties in Weimar Germany to respond to changing social conditions led to the rise of extremism and bolstered the demand for a strongman, someone the public might describe as "He may be crude, but he's a man of action." Sound familiar?

The press of the time may not have all supported the Nazis but they did not condemn them outright either, treating them more as rascals whose heart was in the right place.

The book adds: As for the violence, these newspapers provided an easy excuse: it was a justified response to the provocations or attacks that had come first from the other side.

Cue the old objectivity vs neutrality debate in journalism - sometimes called "both sides-ism" - an abject failure in the face of unvarnished evil.

The data consistently showed below-average support for Hitler in working-class districts, and higher support in upper-middle-class and wealthy ones. There were pockets of rabid support for the Nazis in rural areas.

Protecting the elites from the Communist boogeyman was central to the Nazi sales pitch, perhaps explaining why several members of the deposed Kaiser's family joined the party.

Eventually, the traditional conservative parties surrendered to the Nazi cult: one after another, the traditional conservative parties...  began in the late 1920s and early ’30s, as the worldwide economic depression took its toll, to form alliances with the Nazis.

The article concludes that the greatest danger with a movement like the one embodied by Hitler’s militant National Socialists does not stem from the movement itself, always a minority, but rather within the larger society and its halfhearted disavowal of the Nazis, together with a kind of secret brainwashing of the educated and well-off middle class that is vulnerable precisely because they think they aren’t.

Fascism is not for the unwashed masses. It's the last gasp rage of elites who feel their privilege threatened.

But fascism  needs just enough minoritarian support from non-elites to gain a critical mass. And that's precisely why blaming the poor for their own oppression is catastrophically counterproductive for us all. 

The Nazis' first putsch failed. Their second didn't.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A sliver of optimism in a dark time


The coup attempt of Jan. 6 and its aftermath have been distressing, but upon historical reflection, I think there *could* be a cause for a tiny sliver of optimism.  

The unearned privilege of a group always ends. But it's usually ugly. Apartheid South Africa. The French and Russian Revolutions. The partial evolution that was the end of legal segregation in the US.

It never ends with the group voluntarily giving up their privilege - ie: sharing the wealth and power with everyone - because they think it's the right thing to do. It ends with the rest of the people demanding a fairer system and the privileged group realizing they can no longer stand against the inexorable march of history.

The end is often the most turbulent and violent period, as the privileged lash out vainly fighting the inevitable. It's unfortunate but this seems to be the only path from which more equitable societies emerge.

White people are going to be a minority in this country in the near future. Many are not white supremacists - overt or apologists for such a system - but a significant percentage are. And they are the most dangerous ones at this time.

Many assume that they, as a minority, will be treated in the same way that they themselves  have traditionally treated minorities. The thought of such karma terrifies them. They literally can't imagine a society in which minorities are treated fairly and decently.

I hope that we are in the death throes of a centuries-old white supremacist based society. White supremacy is often described as America's Original Sin, but it's more accurately referred to as America's Foundational Sin. It's not incidental to America's history. It's central to it.

There will not be magical transformation when the Biden administration is sworn in. It will probably get worse before it gets better, which is not a reassuring thought.  

Such evolution is not driven by politicians but by the people. I think the values of the younger generation may be what saves this country by ushering in a more open and meritocratic society. But a more humane society is not guaranteed. It must continue to be fought for by all who want it.

Friday, January 15, 2021

American un-Exceptionalism

I once lived in Guinea. It's a West African country that has been independent for a shorter period of time than my parents have been alive. It has had 3 coups d'état, multiple dictatorships both military and civilian and a fair degree of electoral and social violence seeded by ambitious, divisive politicians. It's only really been democratic - and it's debatable to what degree - for about a decade.

A Guinean friend of mine just reached out saying he wanted to see if I was safe after what he's been following on the news and that he would be praying for God to save my country.

This is Trump's America: people who live in fragile, nascent semi-democracies are concerned for us Americans.
They are also a lot better human beings than we are. They are concerned about human beings who live halfway around the world. Our perverse notion of "liberty" means many of us don't even care about the human beings who live around the block.

Friday, January 01, 2021

The achilles heal of liberal democracy

Camus said "totalitarian tyranny is built not on the virtues of tyrants but on the faults of (classical) liberals."  We are in an illiberal time helped in part by the fault of classical liberals.

One of the bases of liberal democracy is that the way to change behavior is more public and civic education (not solely in the schooling sense). It's based on the premise that failure to make wise decisions is based on lack of information or lack of credible information and can be remedied simply by filling that void. 
 
What liberal democracy responds to poorly is situations like the country and world are in now where credible information and misinformation or deceptive information are widely accepted as being equally valid. 
 
I'm constantly recalling an essay in The Guardian describing Trumpism as reminiscent not of 1984 but of Brave New World. We suffer not from an absence of information but an overload of it making it harder to know what to believe). 
 
This occurs when widespread trust in public institutions declines precipitously. What happens - and we are certainly seeing this with the rise of conspiracy theories - is that people have legitimate and well-founded concerns (such as malfeasance by big corporations) but decide to make the leap from "X is plausible" to "X must be true" when there's little or no specific evidence to actually make that leap. 
 
It can't simply be remedied by official sources offering "education" because those official sources lack the trust on the part of the people who really need to hear it. This is why I've been advocating for key systemic reforms for years. Best to avoid getting here in the first place because liberal democracy not well equipped to deal with this situation once we get here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Broadband internet and rural economic development

The juxtaposition of a story about New York state's failure to deliver broadband internet to the North Country and the story about the closure of Dannemora and Watertown prisons is insightful.

State prisons were added in the north country in the 1980s by the current governor's father and Republican Senator Ron Stafford as a rural economic development program.

Now with the prisons being closed as the inmate population plummets, the state and localities have to come up with a sensible and sustainable rural economic development plan(s). Broadband internet is essential to any such plan.

With the pandemic (and terrorism concerns before that), many people have been looking to get out of densely populated urban areas. The Adirondacks' stunning natural beauty is a great draw. But they're not going to move somewhere without access to high speed internet... even less so when they are working and their kids going to school from home.