How Do We Gauge Human Potential?

January 17, 2018

We know Donald Trump is a racist. The ‘shithole’/’shithouse’ controversy adds nothing to what we have known for some time, and has become a distraction from efforts to provide legal status for DACA/Dreamers.

Skillfully or chaotically (we’ll never know) he has used the controversy to advantage in blowing up a potential deal. What fills media attention today? Not immigration but rather this controversy about his crude language.

Also obscured is what Trump has revealed about how he gauges human worth or potential.

What makes one person more valuable than another? Wait, you protest (and well you should), ‘each person is equally deserving of merit.’ Or, more famously, “all men [sic] are created equal”…”endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” True enough, and supremely important, but that doesn’t prevent us from choosing some people over others for certain tasks or opportunities. We do it in hiring, in admissions to colleges, in electing or choosing leaders, even in choosing friends and neighbors. Be honest, now, don’t we?

So how do we gauge human worth? Or perhaps how do we gauge human potential is the easier or more appropriate question to address.

We’ve seen how Donald Trump answers that question. Those who are wealthiest or most successful are those we should prefer, says he in word and deed. That’s why he would prefer to have immigrants from Norway rather than from Haiti. That’s why he would prefer to have Betsy DeVos as education secretary – or why he would prefer any of the other plutocrats he has placed in positions of authority or responsibility. Deep down, it is probably part of why he has signed tax legislation that gives massive tax advantages to the already wealthy: he believes those with wealth will do better things with the money. Trump’s answer is an offensive answer, isn’t it? And it seems far more important to reject what Trump has said on that basis. We cannot allow public policy to be framed by always giving preference to the already successful.

But what is our answer? If we should not prefer those who already have shown external success by whatever means, how should we choose? Choose those who have greater merit? Greater motivation? Better character? If merit is your answer, what is the measure of merit? If character, same question.

Take immigration policy. If we can’t allow everyone to immigrate to the United States who wants to, how shall we choose? Focusing on the Dreamers allows us to sidestep that question. The Dreamers are already here, and they weren’t responsible for their making entry into the U.S. Of course we shouldn’t deport them; of course we should give them a path to citizenship. Once that’s settled, however, to whom should we give preference? It’s a difficult and awkward question.

I’ve encountered its difficulty and awkwardness before in college admissions.

Those colleges and universities that are the wealthiest (largest endowments) are also largely the ones that have the most applicants. These institutions mostly choose those applicants that are already the best educated – the ones who have shown the greatest marks of success in education (high test scores, high grades).

That’s a great deal like Trump’s answer, isn’t it? (I know that’s uncomfortable to say.) We’re a nation that says that everyone should get a good education, but we lavish the most resources on those who are already the ones farthest ahead in education. We do that, don’t we, because we believe those students will turn out to make the biggest contributions to the lives of others: they will be leaders, and wealth creators, and exemplary service providers.

I came to be uncomfortable with this line of thinking in college admissions, especially when I realized those wealthiest/most in-demand institutions (the ones that choose the already best educated) claimed for themselves the title of ‘best colleges’ – those that ‘rank’ the highest. That seemed upside down. I came to admire most those colleges and universities that made the most difference in the capabilities of their students, whatever their students’ starting situations. I came to admire (as best I could discern it) those colleges and universities that helped students develop their potential.

For many decades in immigration we could duck this question of who we should choose because we didn’t try to control the flow. People just came whenever and by whatever means they could. Then the only question we had to answer was ‘what now?’ What efforts should we make to help the newcomers settle here, find a place, make a life? Some thought we should do little: sink or swim. Others thought we needed to show some hospitality.

Now that we are trying to limit and control the flow of immigrants, whom should we choose among all those clamoring for entry? Those already the wealthiest? Those who have waited in line the longest? Those with the greatest potential?

And if ‘greatest potential’ is your answer, how do we gauge human potential?

Surely not by wealth.

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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

GUEST RESPONSE

BY DOUGLAS C. BENNETT

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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