How Does One Become Morally Obtuse?

July 22, 2017

I have a letter in today’s (?) New York Times.  It’s in the on-line version, the post is dated yesterday, and perhaps it will be in tomorrow’s print edition (The Sunday Review section). The letter is in a collection of reader responses to various stories about Trump: Trump Critics All Around.  Mine is one of two reacting to a David Brooks column titled Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump that appeared on July 14.  Here’s the letter:

To the Editor:

I appreciate David Brooks’s account of how Donald Trump and his son Donald Jr. were led morally off kilter by their fathers’ examples, but how do we account for the silence of Vice President Mike Pence, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan?

Did their moral obtuseness come from amoral fathers or grandfathers? (I doubt it.) For that matter, what are the wellsprings of moral clarity and courage?

Donald Trump remains president only because the Republican majorities in Congress excuse his behavior by their silence and apologetics.


I’ve had other recent letters in the New York Times:

On February 16, 2017 about Our Polarized Politics, also reacting to a David Brooks column.

On May 4, 2016, regarding A New Foreign Policy Elite.

Posted in Leadership, Responsibility and Ethics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Second Amendment Not a Blank Check

July 21, 2017

I had a letter in yesterday’s Brunswick Times Record, about the Second Amendment.  The text of the letter is below.  I wrote it in response to an opinion column by Dale Landrith Sr. the BTR published on July 18


Second Amendment Not a Blank Check

In his otherwise laudable column on “The Bill of Rights,” Dale Landrith Sr. makes an important mistake about the Second Amendment.

“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” he quotes it as saying. Landrith omits, however, the first and very important words of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State …” The idea that gun ownership and use need to be “well regulated” is right there in the text of the Second Amendment and has been since 1791.

What “well regulated” means is something worthy of public debate. Should there be criminal background checks for all gun purchasers? Should silencers be allowed? Should there be stricter limitations on ownership of automatic weapons? Should there be locations (schools, courthouses, etc.) where guns are not allowed? These and many other questions deserve our attention. I believe these are all measures we need, and all fully in keeping with the Second Amendment.

Hildreth says “When surveyed the American people do not want the Second Amendment violated. Gun owners and non-gun owners do not want restrictions on the ability to possess firearms.” That’s incorrect. Public opinion polling regularly shows that a majority of Americans want sensible regulation of firearms such as those measures listed above.

The Second Amendment is not a blank check that anyone anywhere has a right to any gun. It is not a prohibition on regulation of firearms. It never was.

Doug Bennett,  Topsham

Posted in Democracy and Rights, Politics and Policy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Collusion Investigation Update

July 20, 2017

“Jeff Sessions says he won’t resign as attorney general after public rebuke from President Trump,” reads the headline from the New York Daily News.  “Citing Recusal, Trump Says He Wouldn’t Have Hired Sessions,” reads the headline from the New York Times, whose reporters (Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman) conducted the interview with Trump that’s leading the news today.  Most of the headlines focus on this attack on Attorney General Sessions and the question of whether Sessions will or should resign following Trump’s public voicing of no confidence.

“Trump’s deeply worrisome New York Times interview reveals a lawless president” is the headline on Greg Sargent’s The Plum Line column in today’s Washington Post.  I think that gets closer to the meat of this interview.  This interview shows a president who does not understand his constitutional obligations to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

On the Lawfare blog, Benjamin Wittes makes the same point: that this president sees the Department of Justice, the FBI and all other federal police and legal institutions as his to direct as he pleases:

In an environment in which the President of the United States, in a single interview, expresses no-confidence in the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, the special counsel, the acting FBI director, and the special counsel’s staff, and in which he makes clear that the FBI should be his personal force and that all of law enforcement should be about serving him, the principle protection is having people with backbone who are willing to do their jobs and stand up for one another in the elevation of their oaths of office over political survival.

Wittes clearly thinks Sessions should resign, and Rosenstein (Deputy Attorney General), too: it’s the only honorable thing to do.  On the same blog, Jack Goldsmith (a Harvard Law Professor) disagrees.  He thinks Sessions and others should stay precisely to protect the DOJ and the FBI.  Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign need to continue.

When the President openly declares he is above the law, is there any fit remedy other than impeachment?

Posted in Governance, Politics and Policy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Western Values or Human Values?

July 16, 2017

charter08bookOn July 6, Donald Trump delivered a speech in Poland celebrating ‘western values.’ He linked together historic threats (including both Nazi terror and Soviet domination) against which Poland struggled and the current threats that the United States and other countries (Trump especially mentioned European countries) face from “radical Islamic terrorism.”  He said this:

Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.  The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.  Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?  Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?  Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?  (Applause.)

“Our values:” Over and over, Trump referred to “the West” as the source and identity of the values to which he was referring.  He was a smidge light in articulating the content of these values, but he did say this:

above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.  That is who we are.  Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.

Dignity, rights, freedom, equality: these will do as markers for what Trump was defending. For the moment, pass over the question of whether Donald Trump has any standing to stand up for these rights.  I want to ask a different question:  Is it appropriate to speak of these values as being grounded in or belonging to “the West?” Also, what is encompassed within “the West” and what is set outside the pale?

Of course it became commonplace during the Cold War to refer to the United States and its NATO allies as “the West,” and to the U.S.S.R., and its allies (China, the Warsaw Pact countries) as “the East.” In that way of speaking, “the West” was the standard bearer of those values: dignity, rights, freedom, and equality.  That was a crude characterization then (the years of the Cold War) but does it bear resurrection today, a quarter century after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.?  (That’s what Trump was doing.)

For one thing, he was celebrating “the West” in Poland, which used to be part of “the East;” Poland was a secure member of the Warsaw Pact.  Wait, you object, Trump is right to celebrate Poland in this way because its history, rightfully told, is one of standing up for these values.  But of course Poland also has another thread to its history that denies those values. Should that disqualify Poland? For that matter, how about Germany with its Nazi era? Vichy France? the racist strands of the United States? Etc.  What country can be said to have an unbroken and fully consistent adherence to these values?

We know — don’t we? — that the emergence of this package of values has a long and complex history.  The Greeks and Romans play a part in their beginning, but even at their best those societies stood solidly against human equality and didn’t understand freedom the way we do (they were more interested in the liberty of communities than of individuals).  We want to think of religion as playing a role, meaning by ‘religion’ certain aspects of Judaism and Christianity.  But we want to pass over in silence many moments when those great religious movements were a threat not a support to these values. Are we right to leave Islam out of the religious impulses that birth these values?  I don’t believe so.  For one thing, we owe a huge debt to many Muslim scholars for preserving and transmitting the great writings of the Greeks and Romans.  That Islamic history has illiberal moments is no objection to its inclusion in the foundations of these values, not when we remember the excesses of Christianity (celebration of slavery, subjection of women, defense of autocracy, justification of savage war, etc.).

I believe these values (dignity, rights, freedom, equality) deserve our fullest commitment, but we do them no favor when we tell ourselves fake history about how they have emerged.  And here is where it is important to remember that Donald Trump represents the obverse of these values more fully than their positive expression.

All these thoughts are especially on my mind because of the passing of Liu Xiaobo.  Among the deeds for which he was imprisoned was signing (to his peril) Charter 08, a document signed in 2008 by more than 2000 courageous Chinese citizens affirming these very values.  (Read the document: I urge you.)  China? An affirmation of Western values? Charter 08 does not call them “Western” values. Instead it calls them “basic universal values.”  As “fundamental principles” it names freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutional rule.

Charter 08 did not limit the dominion of these values to “the West.” Instead it lifted them up as universal and basic.  It stands squarely in the tradition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed and proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. In its original form, eight countries abstained from its approval: Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine, the USSR, and Yugoslavia.  All subsequently became signatories.

What needs defending are not us-against-them values, not “our values, not “Western values,” but rather basic, universal, human values.  They are the foundation for our living together in dignity, peace and justice.

Posted in Leadership, Politics and Policy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shout Out to Xiaobo

July 15, 2017

From Liu Xiaobo’s speech accepting the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, delivered in absentia (it was read by Liv Ullmann):

Liu Xiaobo empty chair

Nobel Peace Prize Committee members Thorbjorn Jagland and Kaci Kullmann Five sit beside empty chair reserved for Liu Xiaobo

Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.

Liu Xiaobo passed away this week, still imprisoned by the Chinese government.

In an era when the President of the United States tells untruth after untruth and regularly attacks journalists who publish factually accurate accounts, in an era when speakers are shouted down on college campuses, I stand with Liu Xiaobo. I honor his clarity, his courage and his generosity.

Also from the speech:

But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed in my “June Second Hunger Strike Declaration” twenty years ago ‑ I have no enemies and no hatred.


Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.

Posted in Academic Freedom, Leadership, Politics and Policy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Collusion Update

July 11, 2017

The Russia story is very much in the news cycle just now:  the possibility of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign with an eye to affecting the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  A meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. with a Russian lawyer (and also including Trump son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner and campaign chair Paul Manafort) is what’s making the news today.

Is this the smoking gun that proves collusion? asks Newsweek today.  The whole piece, by Bob Bauer (White House counsel under Obama), is worth reading, particularly because it traces the legal implications under campaign finance law of what’s been learned so far.

I’ve written before about what would need to be shown to prove collusion, asking if we don’t already have all the evidence we need, in plain sight.

Today, the blog Lawfare has a useful, clear-headed piece on collusion.  Here’s a key paragraph:

The problem with dwelling too much on the covert forms of collaboration, which we have come to call “collusion,” is that doing so risks letting Trump at least a little bit off the hook for what is not meaningfully disputed: that the president publicly, knowingly, and repeatedly (if only tacitly) collaborated with a foreign power’s intelligence effort to interfere in the presidential election of the country he now leads. Focusing on covert collusion risks putting the lines of propriety, acceptable candidate behavior, and even (let’s be frank) patriotism in such a place where openly encouraging foreign dictators to hack your domestic opponent’s emails falls on the tolerable side. It risks accepting that all is okay with the Trump-Russia relationship unless some secret or illegal additional element actually involves illicit contacts between the campaign and Russian operatives. Yet it’s hard to imagine how any scandal of illegality could eclipse the scandal of legality which requires no investigation and has lain bare before our eyes for months.

Collusion in any meaningful sense has already been admitted, Lawfare is saying.  It’s been there in plain sight all along (as I argued earlier).

The focus of the Lawfare piece is that the White House defense — which already admits a great deal — has begun to crumble.  It isn’t simply that there was Russian interference publicly encouraged by Trump, it’s that there is beginning to be evidence that there was covert, active cooperation.  Close-in members of the Trump family and campaign team are now implicated in seeking active cooperation with the Russian government to affect the election outcome.

Through a spokesman, Donald Trump (senior) released a chilling twelve word statement: “The President was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”  I guess that’s in answer to the Sen. Howard Baker question during the Watergate Hearings, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  Nixon was willing to throw Haldeman and Erlichman under the bus until the tapes showed his active role in the misdeeds.  The Trump statement sounds like he’s prepared to throw his own son under the bus.

ThinkProgress provides a round-up of the worst apologetics from Republicans attempting to absolve Donald, Jr.  I’d add this one, too.

Whether all this matters depends very much on what Republicans in the Congress make of it.  Some are more concerned than others.  Ross Douthat of the NYTimes admits today he was wrong to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

I say Watch What Happens Next.


Posted in Leadership, Politics and Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Watch What Happens Next

July 6, 2017

Since the election I’ve urged people not (NOT) to pay attention to what Donald Trump says.  It’s a circus, it’s a distraction.  Some people think his tweets (etc.) are meant to be a distraction, but I have my doubts he’s strategic or thoughtful about his insults, his re-tweets or his doublings-down.

Months later I have to admit I am finding it hard to avert my gaze as I urged.  The distractions are simply too attention-grabbing.  So here’s follow-up advice.

When you can’t stop yourself from noticing what appalling thing he says, be sure to watch what happens next.  Of course there will be (and there should be) some kind of response (an ouch, a riposte, a defense) by or on behalf of the person he has attacked.  You’ll likely notice that or at least some of what’s said by or on of behalf of the person attacked.  But that’s not what I’m mean. I mean watch what happens after that.

Two things reliably happen, and they are worth noticing — and worth remembering.

First, some internet trolls among Trump’s supporters will post or tweet truly ugly things, often even uglier or meaner things than the tweeter-in-chief has led with.

Second, the Republican leadership will stay silent. That silence, that standing by acting innocently: I acknowledge that this is hard to see or hear–precisely because it’s nothing.  It doesn’t flash, it doesn’t echo or resound, but it’s the most important thing to notice.

If you were on the street and saw someone attacked by a bully, you’d go to the person’s aid, wouldn’t you?  You’d offer assistance or comfort or protection.  But some people do nothing.  That doesn’t speak well of them.  Look around and notice who’s acting like it’s none of their business when they could do something positive.

Watch the hands-in-pocket, gaze heavenward posture of the Republican leadership (the members of Congress) next time Trump says something appalling.  Watch the nothing that happens next.  Remember these are his friends and his enablers.  These are his posse.

Watch what happens next, and make a mental note.



Posted in Leadership, Politics and Policy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment