John Lewis: Portrait in Courage, Honesty and Hope

“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient,” he told the crowd. “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.” — John Lewis, speech at the March on Washington, August 1963 (Lewis was 23 years of age).

He was a warrior for justice.

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Ralph Caplan

Here’s the lede: “Ralph Caplan was the E.B. White of design writing. He disliked windy sentences and pompous clichés and was always ready to poke fun at orthodoxies. He said he wasn’t sure he saw the point of a chair, since human beings could sit on pretty much anything except a cactus.”

The headline for the obituary in the New York Times reads “Ralph Caplan, Design Critic Big on Sit-Ins but Not Chairs, Dies at 95.” He is described as “an essayist, professor, lecturer and consultant on design.” He started at Earlham in 1941, left after a semester to fight in WWII, then returned to finish his Earlham education.

A colleague (Chee Pearlman, arts and design curator at the TED conferences, who had been a longtime editor of Industrial Design) is quoted as saying ““He was observant and hilarious,” said “and his observations of design, seen through his impish, wry lens, gave a lot of stature to what designers were doing but also took them down a notch.”

Sounds like an Earlhamite.

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Meanings: Cynicism

“Everybody is cynical and few people are changing their minds. That’s the takeaway from the House’s impeachment hearings.”  That’s the opening sentence in a piece by Maggie Koerth on Five Thirty-Eight this morning. But what is a “cynic,” and what does it mean to be “cynical?”
Here’s a definition from The American Heritage Dictionary.  Note the emphases on selfishness and negativity.  (I don’t think of myself as a cynic, even when I’m at my most skeptical.)
cyn·ic  (sĭnĭk), n.
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and habitually negative.
3. Cynic A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.


1. Cynical.
2. Cynic Of or relating to the Cynics or their beliefs.
The history of the word is what especially caught my attention, how it’s original meaning was grounded in virtue and self control, but no has come to mean “one who believes selfishness determines human behavior” — a nearly total reversal.  (Also note the derivation from dog-like at a time when dogs were not so warmly regarded as today.)
No one would accuse Trump (or McConnell or Nunes or Lindsey Graham of living lives grounded in virtue and rigorous self-control.
Again, from The American Heritage Dictionary:
Word HistoryThe Greek word kunikos, from which cynic comes, was originally an adjective meaning “doglike,” from kuōn, “dog.” The use of the word kunikos to designate the Cynic philosophers may make reference to the Kunosarges, an athletic training area where Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is said to have taught the foundations of Cynic philosophy: that virtue, rather than pleasure, is the only good, and that virtue can be attained only through rigorous self-control. Alternatively, the designation kunikos may make reference to Antisthenes’ most famous student, Diogenes of Sinope, whom the people of Athens nicknamed ho kuōn, “the dog.” Diogenes himself seems to have accepted this nickname as an apt description of the life he tried to lead, stripped of all elements of civilization and social convention that he considered superfluous and detrimental to virtue. Diogenes lived without shame out of an old wine jar in the public spaces of Athens and went barefoot in the snow to inure himself to cold, all the while reproaching the citizens of Athens for their addiction to worthless pleasures and luxuries. Even Alexander the Great admired Diogenes’ determination and powers of self-denial in the pursuit of virtue. Once, when Diogenes was sunning himself outside, Alexander came up and stood over him. “Ask me any favor you wish,” Alexander said. “Stand out of the sun,” Diogenes replied. According to another anecdote, diners made fun of Diogenes at a banquet by throwing bones at him like a dog, and he responded by urinating on them. Tales like these have undoubtedly influenced the development of the meaning of the word cynic in English. When Cynic first appeared in English in the 1500s, it referred to the Cynic philosophers, but cynic and cynical were soon applied to anyone who finds fault in others in a contemptuous or sneering way. Eventually, cynic came to mean “one who believes selfishness determines human behavior”very far from an accurate description of the ancient Cynic philosophers practicing asceticism and poverty and occasionally trying to shock their fellow citizens into virtue.
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Honesty, Decency, Fairness and Democracy: a Platform

July 9, 2019

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2020 elections has begun to heat up.  We have two dozen (!) declared candidates and already a first round of debates.  The coverage of these candidates, including the coverage of that first debate, has focused on differences among them regarding their posture on issues of immigration, health care, college costs and debts and the like.

With others, I’m struck at the partitioned quality of media/public attention to the Democratic and Republican campaigns.  On the Democratic side, the focus is on fairly small policy differences among the candidates, and on (again) fairly small personal foibles and bobbles in their past.  On the Republican side, there is Trump with his exposed huge faults of character and honesty as well as the huge policy tilt towards the already entitled and wealthy.

I simply want to urge the Democrats to lift up four broad commitments that all of the declared candidates share and that set them/us apart from Trump and his enablers.  I urge them to do everything they can to lift up these four commitments and to regularly applaud their rivals for sharing the same four:  honesty, decency, fairness, democracy.

Honesty: to tell the truth, to be accountable to the facts, to be transparent and accessible.

Decency: to treat everyone with respect, to demean no one, to be observant of rights — human, civil and political, to insist that everyone’s life matters

Fairness: to work on behalf of seeing that every American has a genuine chance to make something of himself or herself, to work against unearned advantages or shortcuts.

Democracy: to see that every vote counts and as equally as possible, and that no voice gets extra, undeserved weight.

Honesty, decency, fairness, democracy: this is the platform.  Try to keep the focus on these commitments.  Yes, there are policy differences among the Democratic candidates, but they are tiny in the face of their common adherence to these four commitments and the Trumpists’ failure to honor these.

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Trump’s End Game

I haven’t written anything for quite a long stretch about our national crisis. To my mind, there hasn’t been much to say. Trump continues to show daily why he is completely unfit to be President. He does terrible things, and the Republican party shows no inclination to do anything to rein him in. (See for example, my March 21, 2018 piece on Susan Collins.) Daily I read many interesting, illuminating things, but consistently I find I have little to add to the regular commentaries of (for example) E. J. Dionne and Andrew Sullivan.

Every day brings fresh dangers, but deep down they are the same ones over and over. Denigration of national purpose, corruption, risk of war, abuse of power: never rinse and yet repeat endlessly.

On the impeachment question, of course I see the case for impeachment now, and nearly as clearly I see the prudential reasons not to rush into impeachment with the McConnell wall holding so firmly. Moreover a fresh problem could lie in removing Trump to put Pence in a place to run as the incumbent in 2020.

Now I find myself thinking a new thought. The situation is changing. Trump is seeing the same thing that I am: that nothing is changing. He lost the 2018 midterms. His own approval ratings are stuck. (He’s currently at 41.7% approval; 53.0 disapproval.) He has a year and a quarter to secure not just his re-election but his legacy, and that matters to him. He craves ‘greatness’.

Realizing this stuck situation, he is realizing he needs to do dramatic things to unstick the situation. What sorts of dramatic things? Two kinds.

(1) Create crises, blame them on the Democrats (calling them traitors), then conjure a solution of only his own devising. He has used the declared national emergency on the southern border to justify funding for the Wall without Congressional approval and to justify tariffs by fiat.

That cycle of crisis/resolution has the added effect of binding the Republican party leadership (especially those in Congress) more tightly to him. Each crisis embodies an abuse of power. When the Republicans do nothing, they ratify that abuse.

(2) Stonewall completely every investigation or inquiry into his conduct. He’s realized if these investigations/inquiries are going to continue (and they will and they should) then his best defense is a completely forward position. Yield nothing. Allow no testimony. Hand over no documents. Moreover, whatever accusation is made against him, use the Executive branch and the Congressional Republicans to accuse the Democrats (traitors!) of exactly the same behavior. Better to bluster about Executive privilege than to yield an inch. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t things he’s wanting to keep out of the light of day, but it doesn’t matter; the stonewalling is itself abuse of power.

This stonewalling will also have the effect of further binding the Republican party leadership to him. As they do nothing in the face of each episode stonewalling, they ratify these abuses of power as well. What’s more, this binding reaches into the courts, too, even more than the manufactured crises.

He will also continue to slander and lie and divert attention, but he has been on that path from the beginning.

These new dynamics will encounter no meaningful countervailing force so long as only Democrats are opposing him. Trump will stay completely on the offensive. That will be his strategy. The pressure can only continue to build. He needs to up the ante. Otherwise: stuck. He cannot and will not cede initiative to the House leadership. Nothing will change unless he wins it all by crashing the Constitutional order or unless some in the Republican Party decide something else is important to them than having Trump remain in office.

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