Four Things I Admire About Dr. King

M L King 2On this day of remembrance for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to lift up four things I admire about him.

He was hopeful.  His message was consistently optimistic.  He had goals and he believed we could achieve them.  “I have a dream,” he told us.  There are no more memorable words from any American.

He was clear and forthrightHe spoke the truth.  He spoke with clarity and conviction, often saying (and doing) more than some of his supporters thought he should say.  He consistently took the time to explain himself.  He was determined to speak truth and pursue justice as fully as possible.  If that took him to jail or even death, so be it.

His vision embraced all of us equally.  His dream was for all of us.  He truly believed in equality.  At the Lincoln Memorial, on August 28, 1963, he said to to the huge crowd assembled,

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

He was courageous.  He took on challenges and causes that others thought were beyond hope of winning, and he continued to do that all of his life.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first of these challenges, and he was just 26 when he stepped up to that challenge.  But later, after he had become famous and with many supporters urging him to stay focused on race issues alone, he spoke out against the Vietnam War, and after that mounted the Poor People’s Campaign.

Can we find leaders like this, today? Can each and every one of us be more like King?

On this day of remembrance, we need to make this a day on, not a day off.  We need to follow his lead.

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Voter Suppression in the United States

January 10, 2018

President Trump has dissolved his Voter Fraud Commission.  Usefully, Steve Almond of Cognoscenti makes this call:  It’s Time For Democrats To Investigate Voter Suppression. 

He’s right.  too few Americans have a real opportunity to vote.  And that isn’t just by chance.  It’s a result of deliberate efforts to make it difficult for some Americans (poor, non-white, more transient Americans, mostly) to register and vote.  We need to identify and remove those obstacles.

He lifts up this nugget:

About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%.  Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).

That’s from a bracing report by Phillip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights*, who made a recent official visit to the United States.  The whole report is worth reading.  It’s not too long and it will give you valuable perspective on the United States of America today.

There’s a good deal about the general state (and causes) of poverty in the United States, but Alston also says this about the state of democracy in the United States today:

The foundation stone of American society is democracy, but it is being steadily undermined.  The principle of one person one vote applies in theory, but it is far from the reality.  In a democracy, the task of government should be to facilitate political participation by ensuring that all citizens can vote and that their votes will count equally.  In the US there is overt disenfranchisement of vast numbers of felons, a rule which predominantly affects Black citizens since they are the ones whose conduct is often specifically targeted for criminalization.  In addition, there are often requirement that persons who have paid their debt to society still cannot regain their right to vote until they paid off all outstanding fines and fees.  Then there is covert disenfranchisement, which includes the dramatic gerrymandering of electoral districts to privilege particular groups of voters, the imposition of artificial and unnecessary voter ID requirements, the blatant manipulation of polling station locations, the relocating of DMVs to make it more difficult for certain groups to obtain IDs, and the general ramping up of obstacles to voting especially by those without resources. The net result is that people living in poverty, minorities, and other disfavored groups are being systematically deprived of their voting rights.

Repeat: “people living in poverty, minorities, and other disfavored groups are being systematically deprived of their voting rights.”

I want to add a coda on the dissolution of the Voter Fraud Commission.  Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap either caused or hastened the demise of the Commission by (!) insisting that he be treated as full and equal member of the Commission.  He had sued in federal court for timely notice of meetings and access to all materials, and he won a judgment affirming that.  Shortly after, the Commission was dissolved.

It won’t disappear, however.  Its agenda will now move to the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency wholly under the control of the Trump administration.  Dunlap’s request for Commission materials was then denied by the Department of Justice.  Why? Because DOJ said that with the Commission’s dissolution, its materials were no longer public records.  (Baloney!)  Dunlap has said he will persevere.  We should all cheer him on.


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A Demagogic Leadership Style

January 8, 2017

From a post by Bob Bauer, on the Lawfare Blog.  An astonishing but straightforward statement about the current president of the United States.

Trump displays  characterized by the pathological personalization of his office. Of primary importance are his personal ends and ambitions: those ends justify the use of virtually any means. If to make a point or to inflict a penalty for crossing him, he feels he must climb down from the presidency to threaten litigation and perhaps become a litigant with no apparent concern for the costs to the institution, then that is what he will do. Norms are meaningless to the demagogue, who delights in ignoring them or who views them, as his chief of staff , as an impediment to running things as he would like.

He was commenting on Trump’s threatened lawsuit(s) against Steve Bannon, Michael Wolff and the publisher of Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury.

Bauer is a Professor of Practice and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at New York University School of Law, as well as the Co-Director of the university’s Legislative and Regulatory Process Clinic.  He also served as White House Counsel to President Obama.  The Lawfare blog, to which Bauer is a regular contributor, is must-reading in these times.

I continue to believe it is important to let the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller run its course. And then I am brought up short by something like this.  Even if there is nothing to to the Russia matter, or nothing that touches Trump himself, there are many other reasons to think that Trump’s continuation as president is deeply wrong and harmful.

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Trump-Russia Ties Must Be Investigated

Wednesday’s Brunswick Times Record had an opinion piece aimed to cast doubt on Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign andRussian efforts to steer the election towards Trump.  The piece was by Paul Ackerman and titled Is the Current Special Counsel Effort Comparable to Watergate?  I found it objectionable in whole and in part: wrong as to emphasis and deliberately inaccurate in a number of ways.  So I wrote a letter in response.

The letter appeared in today’s BTR and ran under the title “Trump-Russia Ties Must Be Investigated.”  Here’s the text of the letter.

Trump-Russia Ties Must be Investigated



Paul Ackerman sets up a straw man to attack in asking, “Is the Current Special Counsel Investigation Comparable to Watergate?” (Dec. 27). And in attacking that straw man he fires off a number of misstatements and slurs.

No, the current Special Counsel investigation is not Watergate. It is a quite different, serious investigation. The Watergate investigation showed conclusively that one Republican candidate broke laws and told lies in the 1972 election. The current Special Counsel is investigating whether a different Republican candidate broke laws and told lies in the 2016 election.

Ackerman nowhere acknowledges the beginning of this investigation: the joint finding by several federal intelligence agencies that the Russian government engaged in electoral interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That finding should disturb us all and make us eager to know all that we can about who else cooperated with or encouraged the Russians. The focus of the Special Counsel investigation is to investigate “ any links and/ or coordination between Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”

Ackerman characterizes the work of the Special Prosecutor as a “ steady stream of innuendo through leaks from anonymous — and mostly wrong — sources so far.” This is untrue and a smear on the Special Prosecutor. His investigation has been virtually free of leaks, and he has made no public statements of his findings. Robert Mueller has behaved with a high degree of integrity and professionalism — notwithstanding Mr. Ackerman’s slurs and innuendos.

Ackerman denies the investigation has learned of any Russian connection to the Trump campaign. That, too, is a lie. The Special Prosecutor has obtained guilty pleas and indictments of Trump campaign officials. And from responsible journalists we have learned that several Trump campaign officials ( Manafort, Sessions, Trump Jr., Kushner, others) failed to disclose meetings with Russians before the election and in its immediate aftermath. What they were hiding we have yet to learn. The Special Prosecutor is seeking to learn.

There is plenty of reason to continue the investigation. We know the Russians tried to interfere with the 2016 election. We need to know whether anyone in the Trump campaign encouraged or assisted them.


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The Trump Presidency as Covering Fire

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 11.06.41 AMDecember 1, 2017

Can you picture the bit in most war movies and many westerns where someone says, “cover me while I make a break for it,” or “cover me while I get behind them,” or some such.  Always, “cover me….”  What we see is the person doing the “covering” shooting off dozens or hundreds or thousands of bullets while the person being covered performs some other act.  The covering fire acts as a distraction.  (“In military science, suppressive fire (commonly called covering fire) is “fire that degrades the performance of an enemy force below the level needed to fulfill its mission.”)

It strikes me this morning that Trump is providing covering fire for McConnell and Ryan as they shove through a truly awful (unfair, dangerous) tax bill.  While work on the tax bill continues in secret, in appalling haste, and in violation of regular order, our attention is distracted by the mad antics of the man occupying the Presidency of the United States.  His tweets and lies, his soap opera dramas about who’s in or out of his confidence, his insults to allies and praise for thugs, all turn our attention away from the work on tax policy.

I don’t think this is conscious strategy on Trump’s part.  And I have no idea whether this is deliberate on the part of Ryan or McConnell or other Republicans in the Congress. But there is no question they are using Trump’s unhinged behavior to partisan, short-term advantage.  They are doing nothing to restrain this mad performance.  It is a dangerous maneuver for all of us.

Any responsible member of Congress would be putting on hold the legislature’s policy work and turning instead to protecting the core institutions and principles of the American republic.

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The Corruption of Media Culture

November 29, 2017

In this morning’s NYTimes, Tom Friedman leads off his column with these words

In a recent MSNBC interview I described President Trump as a “brain-eating disease.”

I did so because his indecent behavior, and nonstop outrageous tweets and actions, force you as a commentator into a terrible choice: either ignore it all and risk normalizing Trump’s excesses or write about him constantly and risk not having the time to learn and report about the big trends now reshaping the world — trends that one day will surprise your readers and leave them asking, “Why didn’t I know this?”

True enough, and/but I fund myself increasingly thinking about how I follow the news: what I read and what I don’t; how I pay attention in a thoughtful and constructive manner to the passage of events. 

One of yesterday’s big stories was the Washington Post’s exposure of a brazen effort by Project Veritas to plant (and presumably later expose) a fake sexual misdeed story about Roy Moore.  There is fake news aplenty, and much of it is deliberately sowed to confuse and confound.  There were also several stories about Trump tweets and slurs [no links].  All in a day’s boiling cauldron.

In the midst of this, I came upon this remarkable fictional portrait of a media mogul.  He’s the central character in Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar (Hogarth, 2016) and clearly is meant to remind us of Roger Ailes, late of Fox News.

Like a puppetmaster who pulls the strings but still has to do the the voices for his puppets, Dunbar was partially, if superciliously, merged with his ideal reader: the person who hates chavs and welfare scroungers and perverts and junkies, but also hates toffs and fat cats and tax dodgers and celebrities, in fact the person who hates everybody, except the other people like him, who hate the things that make him feel fear or envy. Dunbar was the man who placed the wafer on their outstretched tongues, transubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred. As the high priest of this low practice, he had to admit that in his astonishing new circumstances the view from the altar rail was barely distinguishable from blindness.

In the book, St. Aubyn retells the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear, portraying the king now as Dunbar, the CEO of a media empire. Dunbar has just been pushed aside by the scheming of two of his daughters; these are the “astonishing new circumstances” the passage mentions.

“…[T]ransubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred:” that’s the most incisive portrayal of Fox News and its ilk I’ve yet seen.  Truth-telling is no part of the endeavor here. Drawing eyeballs through the manipulation of raw emotion is the core of the effort.  Blindness, indeed, is the consequence.

Strange that it should be in a work of fiction?  Not at all. The best of fiction shows us the truth of the human condition in a deep and different way.

Question: how do we bring truth-telling back into the center of what we watch and read?

[Note: if you’re unfamiliar with the word “chav” here’s a clue.]

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Marilynne Robinson Calls Out Twaddle

November 17, 2017

In this week’s New York Review of Books, Marilynne Robinson makes a public declaration of her disgust with deconstructionism. Robinson is a 2012 recipient of a National Humanities Medal, and teaches at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  I don’t believe there is a novelist or essayist whose clarity and honesty I value more.

She doesn’t just see “deconstructionism” as silly or wrong-headed, she sees it as harmful. She says,

To be painfully candid, I consider a great part of what is offered to students as intellectual discourse, at least in the humanities and social sciences, to be a sort of higher twaddle. This so-called learning, most recently “theory,” seems harmless in so far as it has no meaning outside the classroom, or beyond the journals and conferences that sustain it and establish the hierarchy of its practitioners. But it is deeply harmful in that it wastes time and teaches students to think and write badly, to master as they can the terms and assumptions of twaddle.

And this,

In-group language usually signifies and defends an elite of some sort, and the tendency of this particular jargon is to imply that books, history, experience itself, are not to be understood by the uninitiated. Indeed, there are interpretive dogmas ready to demonstrate that the writer actually meant the opposite of what he thought he meant, or something else altogether, being inevitably implicated in the biases of his period and social class, and an entrenched defender of these interests, whatever his words might say. This notion is elitist in the worst sense, and divisive as well.

Deconstructionism is not honest, analytic thinking, says Robinson, it is ideology, and that is why it is harmful.

The good society depends for its life on insights into present circumstances and into present tendencies in the culture, insights that arise out of honest and open discussion, that is, on intellectually competent citizens, people capable of clarity and attentiveness. Yet we have allowed our thinking to be conformed to the model of ideology, which is the old enemy of ideas, as it is of plain realism. The language of ideology has all its conclusions baked into it. It is wholly unsuited to the life of an open and evolving society. Our higher education has been in part responsible for our decline.

Calling out deconstructionism as “twaddle” matters because in this present crisis of the Republic we need our Humanities at their very best.  We need our Universities at their very best.  We need honesty and clarity, discussion and deliberation.  Deconstructionism gives us none of these.

These are claims Robinson is making, not really arguments against deconstructionism, but I believe they are the right claims to make.  Bravo Marilynne Robinson for writing this, and bravo NYRB for publishing it.

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