Monday, February 6, 2017

Trans Nation

N.B. I have been working on this article for quite some time, but a development has prompted me to finish it.  More below.

I write today about the T in LGBT.  T stands for "transgender," and while transgender persons face some of the same kinds of discrimination as homosexuals and other sexual minorities, being transgender is something altogether different from sexual orientation.  Being transgender means having a gender identity that differs from the outward manifestation of your sex--for example, identifying as male when your sex organs are female, or vice versa. (This is a simplified description; there is much more to this issue and the issues that hover closely by it.)

Gender identity has been in the news quite a lot lately.  As the concept of equal rights for homosexuals has gained popular support, that support has begun to extend to other sexual minorities, including transgender persons.  Various cities of all sizes have begun to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances that expressly protect against discrimination based on gender identity.  The reaction to these ordinances has been histrionic and predictable.

The standard reaction has been to refer to these nondiscrimination ordinances as "bathroom bills," and to attack them on the basis that they provide cover to (cisgender male) child molesters and rapists, who will gain legal access to single-sex bathrooms by dressing as females, where (presumably) they will commit rape with impunity as law enforcement officers look on, helpless and incapable of acting lest they be sued for discrimination against these predators.

Of course, this sort of thing happens so rarely that it doesn't really deserve mention.  The real goal of these bills is to punish people who step outside what has been traditionally considered normal.  In fact, virtually all of the legislation in the sexual sphere is specifically designed to punish certain classes of people--essentially, everyone who is not a binary cisgender heterosexual person.  (You might, in certain cases, add "married" to that list of adjectives.)

After the backlash against North Carolina's misguided attempt to rein in transgender acceptance, which cost Pat McCrory his job as governor, the traditionalists are focusing on a different approach--setting up laws and policies that expressly permit businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities on the basis of their religious beliefs.

As I see it, there are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this question.  One of the approaches, the authoritarian traditionalist approach, focuses on crafting laws and policies, and on conforming your behavior, speech, and attitude, to express a powerful social disapproval of anything other than married heterosexual procreative sex.  The other approach focuses instead on giving individuals the freedom to chart out their own lives and to make their own decisions when it comes to their interpersonal relationships, especially their sexual ones, and their sexual and gender identity.

As a lifelong liberal, my tendency is toward the second approach on social issues. But I will be the first to admit that I have not always hewed closely to that approach, mostly out of my own fear and ignorance.  For example, I was well into adulthood before I managed to rid myself of the fear that I would be seen by other people as gay--a fear that requires some measure of hatred toward gays, simply to operate.  It takes time and practice and courage to look inside yourself and to define your personal outlook by what's in there rather than by how other people see you.

When it comes to transgender issues, it took even longer to get to where I am.  I mean, I don't think I've ever had any active dislike of the concept, but it was a topic that escaped my understanding for a very long time.  I can remember seeing a Super Bowl ad (Ooh! It's a link! He never posts those!) for Holiday Inn in 1999, when they were touting the fact that they had spent a huge amount of money renovating their hotels.  The setting was a high school reunion.  A beautiful, glamorous woman walks in and draws the attention of every man in the gymnasium, while the voiceover recounts what she's spent on cosmetic surgery.  She approaches one man who can't quite seem to place her.  Soon he realizes who she is--"Bob?  Bob Johnson?"  The tagline is something like, "Imagine what Holiday Inns will look like after we spend a billion."  I thought it was a clever idea, and really funny--and the joke relied on at least the tacit acceptance, if not the outright approval, of the concept of gender reassignment surgery.  (Unsurprisingly, outrage forced that ad off the air, but it scored Holiday Inn a major win in publicity.)

But if you had asked me then about transgender issues back then, I probably wouldn't have had much to say about it.  My outward gender matches my inner maleness.  It's hard to conceive of wanting to change that.  For many years, it was something that I didn't understand.  It is a very human thing to fear what you don't understand.  I'm not immune to that.

Several years ago, I was in the lobby of a Baltimore hotel, waiting on a shuttle to take me to the train station.  I took notice of a woman who seemed to be waiting on a taxi.  She drew my attention primarily because her build was rather masculine--she was taller than me, and I'm 6'2", although that might have been the pumps she was wearing.  She was wearing a nice blouse and a skirt, very professional-looking, but underneath she was built like a linebacker.  And it became clear after a few seconds that she was biologically male but presenting as female.  She smiled at me, and said, "It's a beautiful day today."  She seemed very nervous.  I smiled back, weakly, and agreed.  I excused myself and stepped outside.  I'm sure that my face showed my recognition that this person was "other."  My shuttle wasn't for another 15 minutes, and I could have talked to her.

But I didn't.

Later, as I was sitting on my train to New York, I reflected on the encounter.  I felt ashamed.  This was a chance for me to test the liberal viewpoint I have always talked about, and I failed, because I was nervous and uncertain.

For all I know, this was the first time this woman had shown her true face to the world.  For all I know, she was only looking for someone to see the person she felt like inside.  For all I know, she had decided to be brave and to see what the day would bring.

And for all I know, I could've been the person who gave her what she was looking for:  acceptance of the person she is, without judgment or condemnation or fear or derision.

I don't know what makes people who are genetically male feel female, or vice versa.  I don't know what makes people feel attracted to members of the same sex, or to both sexes.  I don't even know what makes me attracted to women.  It might be genetics.  It might be the environment.  It might be a choice, or simply a choice to follow your true self.  I'm not sure it matters.

Because what I do know is that each of us is a person.  None of us is better than anyone else.  None of us is more entitled to make decisions for others' lives than they are.  No religious principle or social construct can elevate any of us over others, to give some people power over the most intimate details of others' lives.

So, if your birth certificate says you are male, but deep inside you feel female, then it's up to me to respect that.  Your status as a person entitles you to nothing less.  It may be difficult for me to understand, but I don't have to understand why you are as you are to respect you for who you are.

I chose to finish this post today for a man whom I never met.  He was a twentysomething trans man, assigned female at birth, but he knew from an early age that he was really male.  He lived a troubled life, which is understandable because being in a body that betrays your mind leaves you open to the kinds of irreconcilable mental conflicts that express themselves in other, self-destructive ways.  But he was loved by his mother and by his grandparents, and they accepted him for who he really was, even as others in his life didn't.

I never met him.  I've actually never met anyone in his life.  We are connected only loosely, through a chain of acquaintances.  I don't know what might have triggered his despair, but I can't help but think things might have been different if he'd felt a broader measure of love and acceptance.

When I learned today that he committed suicide over the weekend, I wept.

So often, we do not know the damage we cause to others.  I can imagine the course of the life of the woman I met in that hotel lobby.  I can imagine that some other person extended her the kindness that eluded me on that day.  Perhaps she found the acceptance she was looking for, and that emboldened her to live her life more openly and courageously.  But I can also imagine that my giving her the slightest indication of discomfort made her withdraw from her tentative progress.  I will never know how it turned out for her.

But I do know how it turned out for that young man.  And I wept for him, and for everyone like him, almost all of whom I will never know.  I wept because these are valuable people who have much to contribute to our society, and so many take their lives, every day of the year.  They take their lives because what they experience in the world is wrapped up in hatred and derision.

If you want to understand why I believe it is so very important for us to learn to accept transgender persons for who they are, you need look no further than the face of his devastated mother, who only wanted for her child what all good mothers want for their children:  Happiness. Fulfillment. Peace.

What kind of person will you be?  Will you be part of that hatred and derision?  Or will you be kind?

When you back laws and policies that are designed to harm transgender persons, you aren't doing anything to encourage transgender persons to "be normal."  You aren't showing respect for "traditional values."  It costs you nothing to be kind, so you save nothing by being unkind.  You're just causing damage you will never see.

It doesn't have to be this way.  But it will take some courage.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

An outright moron

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

— H.L. Mencken, On Politics

I am not altogether certain that Mencken was right in his initial conditions.  That is, I don't think that democracy has been perfected.  If anything, we have gotten ourselves off track with regard to democracy.  And his approach seems rooted somewhat in the ahistorical belief that our political institutions were set up, in those heady days of 1787, primarily to avoid "mob rule."

I have no doubt that the highly educated men who wrote and debated and instituted our great Constitution were rightly suspicious of the uneducated masses.  They were fearful of the great mass of people who, lacking resources, obtained no great measure of book-learning beyond that necessary to work and pray, which in most cases was none at all, and they did not want those people pulling the levers of government directly in any sense.

But, even then, politics and horse-trading were afoot.  The Electoral College exists, it was said in those days, and specifically in Federalist No. 68 (authored by the now-popular Alexander Hamilton), as a bulwark against mob rule by interposing an erudite, discreet body of the best qualified individuals between the easily inflamed passions of the people and the Presidency.  That was, however, merely the sales pitch.  The real motivation behind the Electoral College was to ensure that smaller states received outsize say in the election, in exchange for their support of the new Constitution.

In No. 68, Hamilton also argued that the existence of the Electoral College "affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Rather than the popular choice, the body is designed to produce the right choice, the definition of which Hamilton kindly provided.  "The true test of a good government," Hamilton said, "is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration."

In No. 63, James Madison, writing about the Senate (but in any event talking about government generally), said:

Thus far I have considered the circumstances which point out the necessity of a well constructed senate, only as they relate to the representatives of the people. To a people as little blinded by prejudice, or corrupted by flattery, as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary, as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought in all governments, and actually will in all free governments ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.

It seems Madison knew his posterity better than we know ourselves. But what he and Hamilton and the others could not have anticipated is the degree to which people of such defective ideology as the Republicans are vomiting out these days might, through gamesmanship and subterfuge, gain absolute control over the levers of power and use them to implement a bastard form of tyranny—a tyranny of anarchy (except, of course, in the bedroom).

And that brings us to Mencken.  What Mencken got right is that as we progress through our long descent into self-destruction, the "people," not a majority of us, but the loudest among us, would see the fulfillment of their apparently highest desire:  A President who lacks any reasonable qualifications and whose basic functional intent is to monkeywrench the government—or, as Mencken put it, an outright moron.

It has been said before that we were already there.  Ronald Reagan was no great shakes in the brain department, but he could say his lines and hit his marks.  George W. Bush spoke and acted like a moron until the gravity of events pulled him into a regular orbit.

But nobody tops Trump, at least not in the category of "outright moron."  (I shudder to think of who might outpoint the Fascist Cheeto on that score. Thankfully, Justin Bieber is Canadian and therefore ineligible to serve.)

And here we are, less than 24 hours away, and that outright moron will be the President of the United States—together with his record-low approval rating, his "work when I want to" attitude, his insistence on personal loyalty instead of competence and expertise, and his cabinet of idiots and sycophants.  I'll side with Hamilton:  The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration—and all signs are pointing to "unmitigated disaster."  So much for the protection of the Electoral College.  Thanks a lot, Hamilton.

I will leave it to others to hope for the best.  I believe that the ship has sailed on "the best," and if we can simply survive the next four years, that will be yuuuge.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A bit unmoored

I've been feeling a little bit unmoored lately.

On a personal level, I really couldn't be more happy.  Things are going well for my businesses.  I'm working on 20 years of marriage, and it still feels just right.  I really can't imagine anyone better to share my life with.  I've also got new friends in my life, and that's afforded me the opportunity to spend time doing things I really like to do, but haven't been motivated to do in recent years.  I'm busy at work, but the "work-life balance" has dramatically improved.

On the other hand, 2016 was a pretty tough year for a lot of people who are close to me.  A man I counted as a good friend and a family member by marriage died suddenly this summer.  The father of one of my oldest friends also died suddenly a few weeks ago, and that was merely the worst of several tragedies she had experienced.

Not to mention, 2016 was an utter disaster for the country.  Every time I think about what's about to happen, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I think a big part of the disconnectedness I'm feeling at the moment has to do with the simple fact that my mind will not allow me to process the reality of the words "President Trump."

To be candid, those words make me shudder most of the time, and when I'm not shuddering, I'm filled with furious anger at the people who made that happen.

But this is not about those people.

I'm not especially comfortable with talking about it--I think it's sort of a Southern thing; we're taught to be humble, to do our talking on the field, so to speak--but I've spent most of my 41 years as the smartest guy in the room.  Not always, of course--I've met and been awed by my intellectual superiors many times.  I also believe rather strongly that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that intelligence is difficult to measure in any instance.  But it would ring false for me to deny that I've got an awful lot of brain power on board.

I have always tried to use that aspect of myself for good purposes.  For me, the mark of a good person in my situation has always been having patience for others, a heart for teaching (and, more specifically, for educating, for that word's Latin root means "to draw out"), respect for others as individuals regardless of their status, and dedication to getting the fine details of things right.  I value these traits over everything.  It's great to be smart, even smarter than most of the people you meet--but that means nothing if you're an insufferable jackass who lords his intelligence over everyone else.

If anything, then, I suppose the root of my disappointment with the November election is that it feels like a repudiation of my most heart-felt principles.

After all, from my perspective, Hillary Clinton has spent a lifetime working the same plan I've been trying to work.  She is, by all accounts, the smartest person in virtually every room she enters, but she seems to work very hard at those principles I laid out.  She's a professional in every sense of the word. 

By contrast, Donald Trump:  Not especially smart. Not patient. Not a teacher.  No respect for others. No attention to detail. No professionalism at all.  Sets embarrassingly low goals for his personal conduct, then consistently fails to meet them.  Lies, cheats, steals, rapes.  Has no sense of decorum.

Most importantly, he's an insufferable jackass.

In any reasonable world, it would not have been a contest at all.  We'd be celebrating a huge milestone in our development as a nation:  the first female president.  Instead, a minority--a motley collection of racists, underachievers, religious hypocrites, and short-sighted non-thinkers--used an electoral quirk to put this colossal failure into power, on the theory that ignorance is as good as knowledge, novicehood is as good as experience, peace is as easy as war, and lies are as good as the truth.

I suppose that if you believe these things don't matter, then it would be easy to fall into the trap of believing that any change is good.  Never mind that all of Trump's biggest campaign promises were lies.  They were lies because they had to be.  They were the equivalent of you telling your aunt Mildred that the ugly sweater she spent a month knitting for you is beautiful and that you'll wear it every day--a lie meant to soothe, even as you know you'll never be called to account for it.

That wall he promised Mexico would pay for?  It won't be built, but even if it were, it wouldn't do anything to stop undocumented aliens from entering the U.S.  And the only way Mexico will pay for it is if we horse-trade them something else that will break another Trump promise.

You Trump voters--you bought it.  You took the bait, and put him in, and now you'll be the dinner--and you won't get anything you were promised, and everything else that's good will be taken away.

In the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film The American President, there is an exchange between Michael Douglas's character (the President) and Michael J. Fox's character, one of his political aides. The two are arguing over how Douglas should respond to attacks from his reactionary Republican opponent. Fox says, "People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."

Douglas's response is something I've never really understood, until recently.  He says, "Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."


More than 20 years after I first heard that line, I finally know what he's talking about.

And I find that dreadfully, heart-rendingly, sickeningly disappointing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The "free" press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It was reported yesterday that Donald Trump summoned a variety of executives and on-air talent from five news-reporting organizations to Trump Tower for a meeting that one participant later described (in more colorful terms than I will repeat here) as a dressing-down, primarily focused on their (mis)treatment of Donald Trump the candidate during the campaign.

Many of the participants in this meeting were expecting to have an off-the-record discussion about Trump's plans for media availability once he becomes president in January.  Traditionally, the White House has made arrangements that enable the various media outlets to pool resources for coverage so that they can bear witness to important events without each maintaining a 24/7 presence.  These arrangements acknowledge the importance of a free press in a democratic society, particularly as it relates to the accountability function.

Instead, what they got was--reportedly--a 40-minute harangue about supposed anti-Trump bias in their reporting.

I am gravely concerned about the media.  I am, of course, old enough to remember the George W. Bush presidency.  After the events of 9/11/2001, Bush was given extremely wide latitude by a credulous press that was fearful of losing their access to White House personnel--something that in theory they need to be able to do their jobs.  In addition, the Bush administration used "embedding" of reporters with military units in order to induce favorable media coverage, with disastrous results (at least as far as the role of the media in our democratic society is concerned).

That was bad enough.  But what's happening now is worse.

Two events from last Friday illustrate the problem.

Late on Friday, word came down that Trump had agreed to settle the claims against him in the "Trump University" fraud case, for $25 million.  While that settlement carries not express admission of wrongdoing, there are some important factors to consider:  The plaintiffs in that case were only seeking $40 million.  The $25 million includes payment of a $1 million fine to the State of New York for violating its laws against sham educational opportunities.  Trump thus paid 60% of the amount the plaintiffs were seeking in a case that had been scheduled for trial only 10 days after the settlement occurred—which is very nearly as close to an admission of guilt as you can get without actually saying the words.

Even later on Friday, Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, the smash-hit Broadway musical that centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton.  The attendance was notable for two reasons; first, Pence was booed by the audience (not by the actors, as some alt-right fake news outlets reported).  Second, after the show, the star read a short, respectful statement to Pence advising him that they were fearful of the new administration's history and plans and urging him to consider the views of others, particularly including the LGBTQ community, whom Pence has famously and unrepentantly attacked over the course of his career.

Later, Trump tweeted about how disrespectful the Hamilton cast had been toward Pence.  Never mind how fallacious those tweets happened to be.  The media ate it up--allowing it to dominate the headlines for most of three days.

Look, I don't expect the media to skip the Hamilton story.  It's an interesting story.

But the fraud settlement got virtually no media coverage,* and I'm struggling to understand why.

* My morning news show of choice, CBS This Morning, devoted about 15 minutes of its first hour on Monday to the Hamilton story, but did not mention the fraud settlement at all.

If Hillary Clinton had just been elected, and had just paid $25 million to settle a fraud claim against her, what are the odds the media would (largely) ignore the story?  There would be inch-high headlines in the New York Times, top of the front page.  After all, when James Comey wrote a letter to Congress 11 days prior to the election saying that the FBI had discovered some new emails that might have a bearing on its investigation of Clinton's email server, the Times devoted 100% of its above-the-fold front-page space to the "story."

Meanwhile, Trump essentially admits to conduct that if he were less rich and less famous probably would have seen him indicted for fraud, and our "free" press can do no better than a yawn.

Trump is already the least-transparent candidate in modern political history, having refused to release his tax returns.  When presidents are elected, they traditionally put their assets into a "blind trust"--every investment they own is sold, and the funds are handed over to a trustee who manages those investments without the president's knowledge or input.  Trump has refused to do that.  Instead, he is turning his financial empire over to his children, whom--by the way--he is planning to include as close advisers.  Already reports are rolling in about foreign dignitaries who are seeking to curry favor with Trump by doing him business favors like booking rooms in his hotels and greenlighting projects in which he's involved.

These acts are truly unprecedented.  Even if past presidents weren't predisposed to recognize and avoid the potential for conflict, they were at least motivated to avoid the shame and political scandal that would result if they did not appear to be working solely for the country and not for their own personal financial advantage.  Not Trump.  He is giving every indication that he plans to use the next four years to line his pockets at every opportunity, the country be damned.  Nowhere is that intention more evident than in his plan to live most of the time at his residence in Trump Tower--presumably so he can continue to manage his business affairs.

We deserve better than a part-time President.

But we will never get better than that unless the media do their job, fearlessly and with only one constituency in mind:  the truth.

Unfortunately, after their dressing-down, it appears that they are instead going to serve as yes-men for this fraud of a man who has somehow slipped into a chair he should never have gotten near.

What are they afraid of?  They have all the power, if only they would simply use it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Eating your vegetables

It's no secret that I weigh more than I should.  The reasons for that are simple:  I eat more than I should, I eat the wrong kinds of foods, I don't exercise enough.  I'm not a fan of vegetables; I tolerate them, mostly because I have to.  I'm on a diet now, and part of that diet involves eating vegetables I don't like--but I do it because I need to lose weight to improve the length and quality of my life.

Over the last 10 days, as I've watched the Trump transition move forward, it occurred to me that the eat-your-vegetables analogy can be used to describe the Trump/Republican approach to government.

I have heard several people tell me, in all seriousness, that they voted for Trump because, as a successful businessman*, he can do a better job of managing the federal government than a career politician like Hillary Clinton.  The theory, I suppose, is that running a vast business enterprise requires skills that, properly applied, will make the government run more like a business (and, by extension, like a successful business).  Meanwhile, the lack of business experience means that a politician will make all the same mistakes the supposedly inefficient government makes, and things will never get better.

* I think that at best the jury's still out on whether Trump qualifies as a successful businessman.  But we'll take that at face value for the moment.

This strikes me as the kind of argument that stupid people think sounds smart.  It's fraught with problems, and it takes for granted certain things that just aren't so.

First, the federal government is an enormously complex organization that has 320 million customers and 320 million owners.  With the possible exception of Facebook, no private business has that many different constituents to try to please.  (Facebook has, what, a billion accounts?  But it has an extremely narrow focus, compared to the federal government.)

Second, for what it must accomplish, the federal government is incredibly efficient.  I'll use health care as an example:  The federal government provides health care to the poor and the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid.  The cost ratio of those programs--the percentage of each program's budget that goes to "overhead expense" rather than health care services--is under 3%.  Private insurers, who by law are compelled to spend 80% of the premiums they collect on health care services, struggle to meet the implied cost ratio of 20%.  Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid must insure everyone who is eligible for them, while private insurers can choose the kinds of customers they want to serve, to some extent.

Third, private businesses exist primarily to serve their shareholders.  If a business line isn't serving the shareholders (i.e., it's losing money), the business will generally shut that business line down.  Private businesses have broad latitude to make those kinds of choices.  The government has to find a way to do the things that are needed, even if they are costly.

The problem with the Trump transition--and, I suspect, an enormous wake-up call that happened when Trump met with President Obama last week--is that Trump is used to running his organization as a top-down, hierarchical organization.  Trump has the authority to decide for his companies what they will do, to hire whomever he wants to do those things, to fire people when they don't meet his expectations, and to change directions when his businesses fail (and he has repeatedly done so, apparently with few consequences).

As President, Trump will not have that authority.  The President is powerful, but he is still subject to the law.  He cannot simply do whatever he likes; the law imposes on him certain duties that he cannot shirk; before he can spend money, Congress must agree that it should be spent; and the Constitution imposes still other limitations on his activities.  There is a process and procedure associated with doing things.

Which brings us back to the business of governing.  Only totalitarian dictators get to impose their will upon the governments they head.  Governance in a democratic republic like ours, with the separation of powers like ours, requires compromise and negotiation; it requires knowing the rules and following the procedures.  In short, being the President requires a special set of skills that is completely different from those of a standard--or even a celebrity--businessman.  It requires being able to eat your vegetables, even if you don't want to, because the instant gratification of a meat-and-dessert diet isn't worth the long-term problems.

There are many things about the government that could be improved.  Trump has focused lately on our free-trade agreements, Obamacare, and taxes.  Many of the people who voted for him did so because they liked his message on those topics--they see problems with these things, and they thing that simply removing the thing will solve their problem.

Lost your job because the company moved production to Mexico?  End NAFTA.

Can't afford health insurance anymore?  Repeal Obamacare.  (Or repeal parts of Obamacare.)

Don't have enough money?  Cut taxes.

The problem with these "simple" solutions is that the system exists as it does because the system was designed to solve a problem--perhaps a different problem than one you are experiencing, but a problem nonetheless.  We might take a broadsword to the establishment, but the yesterday's problems will still exist.  NAFTA came about because it was difficult for us to sell enough goods to our nearest neighbors because of trade barriers.  Obamacare came about because 45 million Americans didn't have health insurance and mostly resorted to emergency care.  Our tax code exists as it does because deciding who pays for what is a matter of negotiation and compromise.

It might feel good to end NAFTA, but what about the American companies that sell products to Canada and Mexico?

It might feel good to repeal Obamacare, but what about the 20 million Americans who will lose their access to health care?

It might feel good to cut taxes, but how do we fund the programs that you rely on?

Governing is hard work, and it requires smart work from people who know what they're doing--from people who are willing to eat their vegetables because that's required for the best outcome.

I have more to say on this topic, but it's been a long week.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A duty to oppose

If you know me—and, let's face it, if you read this blog, you probably know me personally—you know that I'm unhappy with the results of Tuesday's election, to put it in the weakest terms possible.  Over the last 36 hours, I've been fending off some of the darker aspects of my personality and experiencing some emotions that I don't often feel:  anger, fear, depression, anxiety.

About a year and a half ago, I challenged the Republicans to nominate Donald Trump.  I believed at the time that there was no way that the American people would see fit to put him into office.  It's sort of the equivalent of electing Elvis as president.  Sure, he's popular, but he's utterly without qualifications.  (Those who watched the 1990s Teri Hatcher-Dean Cain version of Superman will recognize the election of a "surprise, I'm alive" Elvis as a minor plot point.)

So, I guess, the lesson is "be careful what you wish for."

But make no mistake:  His election cheapens the Presidency.  And that he was apparently elected with the second-most votes cheapens his election.

Various responses to this development suggest themselves.  My first thought was to move.  That's not a hysterical reaction, steeped in hyperbole.  Rather, it's a pragmatic solution to a central question:  Do I really want to live in Donald Trump's America?  Why not move to Australia or New Zealand, or to Canada, or even Belize (where they speak English, not that it's a problem)?

See, for the first time in my lifetime, in Wednesday's early-morning hours, I felt ashamed to be an American.

I didn't feel this way when George W. Bush was elected, because even though I thought he was a buffoon, he did have significant experience at the business of governing.  In fact, I believed--and still believe--that Bush was and is a good man who tried his best, sometimes under very difficult circumstances, to do his job in a way that would benefit people.  While we have strong disagreements about the best way to do that, I believe that his goal was to leave things better than he found them.  He may have failed, but I'm talking about motivations.

Donald Trump, by contrast...I can't speak to what's going on inside his mind.  But his words, his plans, his rhetoric, his behavior—all of them point to a classless, uncouth person who lacks decorum, who acts exclusively in his own self-interest, and who is willing to access his constituents' darker inner hatred of others to achieve his goals.  He is a disgusting human being who has no place in the Oval Office.  Unfortunately, the framers of the Constitution failed to include "not being a disgusting human being" among the qualifications for the Presidency.

I thought we were better than that.  I thought we had finally turned the corner and moved past that.  Unfortunately, we have not.

I should make clear, of course, that I do not believe that everyone who voted for Trump hates racial and sexual and religious minorities.  But everyone who voted for him is willing to tolerate, activate, and use that sort of hatred, as long as it doesn't interfere with their goals.  In a way, that's far worse.

See, the problem with Jim Crow wasn't only that the laws and the policies themselves we so onerous and degrading--it was also all the ostensibly good people who stood by and let it happen, who couldn't be bothered to take a stand.

So let's not mince words:  Even if you don't personally hate black people and Latinos and homosexuals and Muslims and disabled people, and even if you personally think that women shouldn't be subjected to sexual assault and degradation, if you voted for Trump, you said, loud and clear, that you are completely OK with people who do think that way having access to the levers of power in this country.

And that, my friends, is a viewpoint that I find shameful, and I'm not afraid to say it.  If it offends you, tough. It's up to you to repent of that particular sin.

So, in the end, the most important question is, "What do we do now?"

The next four years are going to be tough.  Even if Trump ends up resigning or getting removed from office—I think the odds of that are far greater than any president in my lifetime (I was born more than a year after Nixon resigned)—the next guy in line is no better and is in many ways much worse.  So our goal is to spend the next four years limiting the damage that these people have caused us, as best we can.

We will not be able to do a lot to stop this runaway freight train, but maybe we can slow it down, and maybe we can make sure that if anyone has to feel the pain this causes, that pain is visited on the people who caused it.  I don't have specifics on that point, but I do have the general solution. 

We oppose everything.

We use every available lever, every parliamentary trick, every delay tactic, everything we have at our disposal, to oppose this hateful agenda.

We use the courts and the court of public opinion.  We protest. We sue. We kick and scream and yell.  We rise up.  We say no, even if it's something we might like.

We make them earn everything.

Above all, we stay and fight, because this is our America, too, and we have a duty to save her.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

America is already great

One of the genuinely bizarre aspects of this election cycle is the slogan that's central to the campaign of Donald J. Trump, emblazoned in plain script on a baseball cap:

MAKE AMERICA
GREAT AGAIN

I have spent much of the last year pondering what that slogan is intended to convey.  It implies that America was once great, but that it no longer is, and that some change needs to be made to make it great again.  I will admit to being deeply ambivalent about this slogan.

It would be easy to write off Mr. Trump's supporters as mostly white, mostly male dim bulbs whose principal lament is that they are living during a time of the ascendancy of the minority.  These people view prestige and prosperity as a zero-sum game; they believe that the body of straight American white men, of which I am one, must lose something in order for a black person, or a woman, or an immigrant, or a homosexual to gain something.  It's a better time today to be a person of color, or a woman, or gay, or transgender, than at virtually any other time in our history, so it must be a worse time to be a straight white man. 

And maybe there's something to that.  It's hard to tell someone who has very little that the little they have came as a result of some privilege they didn't realize existed.  Perhaps on some level, they recognize that competing without the advantage of the cultural weights placed on minorities might result in them losing some fights they now win.

It's no wonder they're angry.  And it's no wonder they would get behind someone who tickles their emotions in all the right ways.

In the opening scene of the Aaron Sorkin-led HBO series The Newsroom, Jeff Daniels, playing newsman Will McAvoy, is giving a panel seminar at a university, and he is asked what it is that makes America the greatest nation on earth.  After seeking three times to demur, the host pushes him for a "human answer."  McAvoy shocks the audience, then, by saying that it's not, then proceeds, in a classic Sorkin monologue, to explain why we used to be great and why, having lost so much of that, we're not.  And there is some justification for the position.

The truth is that we have never quite lived up to our promise.  Slavery is a deep and permanent stain, not only on our history, but on our Constitution, which enabled it and allowed its exploitation.  We have never done right by our First Nations peoples.  We have exploited immigrants from Ireland, from China, from Mexico.  Despite the almost unimaginable wealth of resources we have, millions of Americans live in crippling poverty.  We have oppressed women, sexual minorities, racial minorities, religious minorities.  We have burned up far more than our share of the world's energy reserves, and contributed massively to at least three global environmental crises in my lifetime:  global warming and climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer, and the pollution of the world's oceans and resulting damage to food fish stocks.  We have interfered in democratic governments around the world, often contrary to our own principles.  We have started wars and led coups d'etat.  We remain the only nation to use nuclear weapons in combat.

The debit side of our ledger is full of misdeeds, so full, in fact, that it would not be difficult to imagine an objective observer concluding that, on the whole, the American Experiment has been a disaster for the world.

And yet...I take a different view.

In spite of all of these terrible things, we are still great.

In fact, you might even say that we are great now because of all of these things, and because of what we have done to correct them.

After all, it is my belief that whether you are great or not depends not so much on whether you commit wrongs, but on what you do to right them.

This is as true for nations as it is for individuals. No one is perfect.  We all do things that we shouldn't.  We all do damage to others.  It's inescapable.  So there must be some other way to judge whether a person or a nation is great.  I choose to believe that greatness resides in the impulse to right wrongs.  And no one is better at that, as a nation, than we are.

I can remember being about 8 or 9 years old, and reading about a famine in Africa, in Ethiopia specifically, and seeing pictures of young children with bellies distended from malnutrition, and of impossibly thin people, quite literally starving to death.  There were famous appeals--Band Aid and USA for Africa, among others--centered on raising money to send food aid to Ethiopia.

At that time I was also becoming politically aware, not just in terms of politics in this country, but of the geopolitical events that shaped the 1980s.  We learned about glasnost and perestroika, Russian words meaning "openness" and "restructuring" that defined the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union, and that caused me to think about what, precisely, they were "restructuring."

The significance of these things in my own consciousness and self-image cannot be understated.  They were important to developing my concept of what it means to be an American, what our place is in the world, and why we do the things that we do.  Perhaps most importantly of all, I began to recognize what a stroke of luck it was for me to be born here.

I believe, despite all of our many faults, that this country is great, that it has been great since its founding, and that, all things considered, on balance, it is indeed not only the greatest nation on earth, but also the greatest nation that has ever existed.

Yet Trump and his followers disagree.

My first instinct, with confronted with personal conflict, is introspection.  Where is the error in my own thinking? I ask.  If Donald J. Trump, or any other political figure, or my next-door neighbor or closest friend implies rather strongly that America is not great, what are the factors that lead them to a vastly different conclusion than I have drawn?

I've watched them, the Trumpites, very carefully, to learn the answer.  And they have spoken their answer loudly and clearly.  They believe that America is not great, that it has lost its way, precisely because of all of the reasons why I believe this country is great.  They resent the broadening of civil rights.  They resent the equality of women, of racial minorities, of sexual minorities.  They hate marriage equality and they would dearly love to turn back the clock to the 1950s, or, sadly, the 1850s.

See, all those reasons that I cited above, about how we've fallen short of our promise from time to time--for the average Trump voter, those are good things.  When Trump says he wants to make America great again, he's talking about rolling back the progress we've made--depending on your perspective--over the last 50-150 years.

This is not the kind of "greatness" to which we should aspire.  We're better than that.

In short, to quote Mr. Trump's opponent, America is already great, and we are great because we are good.  We are great because we want to get better.  We want more people to live in freedom and to prosper.  We want to lend a hand to those in need.  We want to cure disease and end wars and protect the innocent and to stop the crimes of the guilty.  We know that our strength is only as good as what we do with it, and we know that we are stronger when we work together to do good things, rather than when we emphasize our divisions and work to exclude others from the American Dream.
We have come too far, fought too hard, shed too much blood and sweat, and suffered too much heartache to return to the "bad old days."