Monday, October 9, 2017

Commas and Periods

I wrote most of a perfectly good post last week, and then set it aside for some finishing touches. Before I could get to those, however, Las Vegas happened. This past week has seen the usual outpouring of articles on gun violence in America. “The usual…”. How it pains and disgusts me to write those words on this topic! Each time one of these senseless tragedies occurs, the Republicans line up to do the bidding of the gun lobby with the ritual parroting of the same tired excuses for why there is nothing to be done, and each time I make the same observation: if he had only been armed with a knife, a lot of lives would not have been wasted, and a lot of people would not have been injured. So let’s talk about the Second Amendment.

The mad disciples of Wayne LaPierre love to misquote it as:

“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
They even got the Supreme Court to accept this text as the true one in the Heller decision in 2008. But the actual text in full reads:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It makes a big difference, but it also scans for the modern reader as so much gobbledygook. The placement of the commas is particularly bizarre. But the extra words and clauses are important to our understanding of what was intended. So is the study of the history of the period in which it was written.

The founding fathers did not intend to establish any individual right to own weapons, and certainly not stockpiles of the types of military weapons we find in too many cases today. The right to bear arms was deliberately limited to the context of “a well regulated militia”. The clause about “a free state” tells us more. The Constitution was born in a highly contentious meeting, and ratification was only possible because an agreement was made that several points of conflict would be resolved later. That later resolution became the Bill of Rights. Keep in mind that the whole point of the Constitution was to establish a single nation from what had been thirteen semi-autonomous colonies under British rule. The new states did not want to give up that autonomy, so the Constitution devotes a lot of attention to the rights of the individual states. The Second Amendment is a continuation of that theme. In historical context, it established that there would be no national army in peacetime; instead, each state would maintain “a well regulated militia”, and these state militias would be welded together into a national army only when the entire nation was threatened with war. To the modern mind, this is a bizarre and unworkable arrangement, but to the founding fathers, it meant that the national government could not impose its will on the individual states by military means. That was vital to obtaining the cooperation of the new southern states, who feared that a national army would be used to impose an end to slavery.

Technology has rendered all of this obsolete. The weaponry we need today to pose a credible threat to other nations can only be built and managed on a national scale. Even the most avid gun rights supporter is not calling for the individual states to have tanks and military aircraft, and certainly not nuclear weapons. And just as certainly, no one has said that the Second Amendment guarantees any personal right to such an arsenal. In fact, a national army did impose the end of slavery 150 years ago. So I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Second Amendment should be repealed. Politically, that would be impossible without a replacement that makes individual gun ownership a right, but that is the conversation we should be having, instead of how to twist the founding father's intentions to fit a twenty-first century agenda.

Let’s start by agreeing that state militias with the military technology necessary to defy the national government are not the goal. Let’s also remind ourselves that we all understand that cars are dangerous. For that reason, we have enshrined in our laws that owning and operating a car is a privilege that comes with legal responsibilities. State laws vary, but broadly we expect and accept that a person must demonstrate that they understand the laws that govern the use of a car, that they have completed training that allows them to operate it safely, and that they maintain it in a safe working condition. We also assign legal responsibility for any harm that comes from operating a car. And we assume that a person must be mature enough to operate a car. In our laws governing alcohol, we further assign liability to an adult who allows or encourages the use of alcohol by a minor. All of this should apply to guns as well.

Then there is the question of which guns to allow, and how many. I personally do not feel comfortable with the idea of owning any guns, but that is my personal decision. It is also a reflection of what might be called rural privilege: I live in a small town where I feel safe, and I do not feel that I need to defend myself. It seems to me that self defense is the key. Any provision that allows a person to arm themselves with weapons that suffice for their personal defense and the defense of their loved ones should also be sufficient for hunting. So the question then becomes, defend themselves from what? If you believe that you will have to personally fight off a horde of well armed and trained terrorists, or a raid from US government agents, you need much more powerful weaponry than if you believe the greatest threat you face is a group of three armed intruders in your home. But the terrorist and government agent scenarios are simply fantasies promoted in our popular media. In Las Vegas, there were plenty of “good guys with guns” among the bands performing, but they realized that drawing their weapons in that situation would have only increased the confusion of the situation, thereby making it more dangerous rather than less. Even in a war, highly trained soldiers can miss and inadvertently claim the lives of innocent civilians, so no one can assume that they would only hit their intended target in the heat of the moment.

From all of this, we can formulate a new Second Amendment that would modernize and clarify the rights and limits of gun ownership. It might read something like this:

The right of individuals to own and bear arms shall be recognized, but Congress and the states shall have the responsibility to regulate their nature and use in the name of public safety and the greater good.
The final language would be worked out by constitutional lawyers, but it must strike this balance. People should be allowed to have their guns, but government bodies should have the obligation to regulate them in sensible ways. Balance is something that has been hard to find in discussions about guns, but we will not make progress without it.

Let me leave you with some questions that may help someone who believes in gun regulation have a calm conversation with someone who owns guns. What kind of gun do you own? How did you learn to use it? If you have it for self defense, what kinds of threats do you believe you might need it for? I am not opposed to self defense. I think we should work to end rape culture, but until that happens, I would support any girl who wants to learn karate, for example. I believe that a majority of gun owners would like to have a national conversation about gun control, but they must feel that we are not judging them when we bring up the subject. I hope some of the ideas I have discussed here can help us have that conversation.

I could have chosen any number of songs that relate to guns this week. Some of those would be in poor taste in light of the Las Vegas tragedy. Others present a strong opinion, and would serve to block conversation, rather than encourage it. So I have chosen instead a song about conversational gambits to avoid:

Monday, September 25, 2017

What Makes a Hero

I am getting tired of hearing John McCain hailed as a hero. Let me hasten to add that I am not casting aspersions on his military service. McCain spent a long period as a prisoner of war, and that could have broken a lesser man, Instead, McCain returned to civilian life and devoted himself to continuing to serve his country, and in a very public way. Even given my frequent disagreements with him on policy, I salute him for that. But his recent no votes on Republican healthcare bills do not make him a hero in my eyes. He has said of the current threat, the Graham Cassidy bill, that he would vote for a similar bill if it had been developed as part of the proper process. At least he is willing to stand up against the shadow law making of Mitch McConnell. But the true heroes here have been Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who have been willing to oppose the bill because it would hurt their constituents and the nation. Even so, none of them to my knowledge has taken the next step of speaking out forcefully against these bills and the manner of their crafting on the floor of the Senate, and shaming their fellow Republicans. Keep in mind that Mitch McConnell has insisted on completely shutting the Democrats out of the process of crafting these bills. Here is what such a speech might sound like:

“My fellow Republicans,

“Let me remind you that Donald Trump lost the popular vote last year. We also lost seats in both this house and the House of Representatives. Further, as we have shown the American people bill after bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, their support for the ACA has grown to the point where poll after poll shows majority support for it. So let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that we must repeal ‘Obamacare’. We have no such mandate, and in fact the American people have now instructed us to do the opposite. Faced with the repeated threats of the bills Senator McConnell has presented us with, the American people have come to understand that they care how we improve or replace ‘Obamacare’. They do not want us to remove it, unless we can give them something better, and the current Graham Cassidy bill dismally fails that test. We can expect the American people to tell us as much in next year’s election if we pass this bill. We can also expect, after three years of living under Graham Cassidy, that the American people would remove our control of both the White House and both houses of Congress, and that they would do so forcefully. And we would deserve it.

“Senator Cassidy, you especially should be ashamed of putting your name to this bill. As a physician, you know better than any of us the great harm it would do to the people of your state and our country. You have allowed your devotion to the President’s campaign promise of ‘repeal and replace’ to blind you to the medical needs of your constituents. You have forgotten your professional oath to ‘First do no harm.’

“Senator McConnell, we followed your lead from the beginning of the Obama administration to refuse to govern responsibly, and that has brought us here. To our shame, we have failed to prevent you from having these healthcare bills developed in the shadows, without any input even from us. We have failed to insist that open hearings be conducted, and that we be open even to the input of the Democrats, so that we can truly develop a responsible healthcare bill that serves the people who put us here. We have allowed you to place the needs of a few wealthy donors to our party above the needs of the people we truly work for. That must now change. We have what we wanted. Our party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. You have led us in trying to use the power of that, but now it is time for us to accept the awesome responsibility that comes with it.

“That responsibility begins now. We must begin by rejecting the bill before us. Then, we must move to immediately begin open hearings to improve the healthcare system in this country. We must invite the Democrats to participate, to give their imput, and we must listen and truly consider it when they do. We must ignore our president, who has not cared enough to try to understand the bills we have proposed up to now, and solicit the testimony of experts in medical care and policy.

“Let us truly make America great again. Let us start to learn to govern again, and let it begin now. Let us commit ourselves to winning back the trust the American people once placed in their members of Congress. My fellow Republicans, my fellow Senators, thank you for your time and attention today. Let us now go and do the right thing.”

Such a speech would be very risky within the Party for the Republican who delivered it. They would risk the complete withdrawal of Party support for any future campaign, as well as the ire of the right wing media machine. But that is what heroes do. They take risks in the name of doing what is right. John McCain has annoyed the Republican establishment, but he has not shown this kind of courage. Perhaps it is too much to ask of him right now especially. But I will not hail him as a hero for making sure he is the last Republican to announce opposition to a terrible bill. I will thank him for his help, but I will not forget that the united opposition of the Democrats and the actions of other Republicans were needed to make it meaningful.

There can really only be one song with this post:

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Few Words

I have written before about how right wingers are much better than us at marketing. One of the places this comes up is in the weaponizing of the English language itself. Words have power, and controlling their meanings is a very powerful thing. Let me explain with a few examples.

Let’s start with a win for the good guys (and gals). I recommend reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass if you haven’t already just because they are wonderful books. But notice also the way the words gay and queer are used. Gay simply meant demonstratively happy. To be gaily festooned meant to be dressed or decorated in bright colors in celebration. When Alice said, “How very queer!”, she meant that she had noticed something odd that merited further investigation. Author Lewis Carroll was a mathematician who would have strongly believed in the value of such investigations. Carroll wanted his readers to see the value of creative thinking. But later, of course, the words gay and queer were coopted as insulting terms for homosexuality. Still later, what we now know as the gay rights movement fought to reclaim these words, and they are now used as rallying terms that denote a shared identity that is worth fighting for. We still need to remind ourselves of this history when we read Lewis Carroll, but the words are no longer weapons of hurt.

Now consider the word liberal. It was once an honorable thing to be a liberal. The word means generous and inclusive. Liberal arts is a term for an education that is broad based, encompassing many disciplines and finding value in each. Likewise, as a governing philosophy, liberalism indicates the belief in a society that is broad based, finding value in all of its citizens. A liberal believes that it is the responsibility of a government to provide fairly for all of the people. We believe in a system of laws that asks the more fortunate to provide support for those who are less fortunate, for the good of all. We believe, in the wealthiest nation on earth, that we have the economic resources to take care of all of our citizens. And we believe that this is a worthy goal in the context of an elective form of government. But the right wing managed to turn “liberal” into an insult. It is no longer necessary for them to refer to “tax and spend” liberals, as they once did; this negative branding campaign got us to the present day, where the “tax and spend” part is implied. The right wingers won this language war without us firing a shot, and now we call ourselves progressives, until they ruin that word for us as well.

Conservative, on the other hand, contains the root “to conserve”. It implies a belief that economic resources are limited, and must therefore not be taken from those who worked so hard to earn them. What is being conserved is individual wealth, with no regard to the common good. Government exists only to provide services like law enforcement and the military, to further the accumulation of wealth. Put another way, the job of government is to remove uncertainties, for the benefit of what conservatives see as the natural economic order. Seen this way, it should not be difficult to create a negative branding campaign against the word conservative. In 1860, the conservative outlook would have favored the preservation of slavery, seeing abolition as a source of uncertainty. In 1930, they would have viewed the New Deal the same way. But also notice that conservatism, taken literally, can find common ground with liberalism. Today, assaults on Social Security and Medicare would increase economic uncertainty, so those who favor these assaults are not truly conservatives. Here we are on the firmest ground we have. We must stop accepting the labeling of today’s Republicans as conservatives. They seek not to conserve but to destroy. Led by Grover Norquist, they seek to drastically cut taxes on the rich not to preserve any perceived economic order but to “starve the beast”, that is, to impair the ability of the government to function at all. We should start calling these people what they are, which is right wing anarchists. The Tea Party movement named themselves after an act of terrorism that was a direct assault on the economic order of the day. It suits them, but it hardly makes them conservative. Seen this way, Trump’s embrace of neo-Nazis and Klansmen is entirely consistent with his economic priorities. The Republican Party has been going in this direction for many years; Trump is simply the first one to openly embrace this form of political anarchy. As a skilled marketer himself, he is happy to be labeled conservative by others, but he is no conservative. The word conservative implies a measure of safety that he hardly provides.

Finally, let me add my two cents regarding the word antifa. This is not a corruption of the existing language, like gay and queer. This is an attempt at branding using the coining of an entirely new word, and it must be done with care. Sure, antifa is short for anti-fascist, and who could object to that? But abbreviating this way strips the word of its meaning. As a brand, we are left with the provocation that being antifa means you are acting in a negative way; you are against something, not for anything. To see how this works, ask yourself if you would find it more appealing to be anti-abortion or prolife. Coming back to the question of who could object to being against fascism, the answer is those who feel that they are being unfairly labeled as fascists. We all saw Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables on the march in Charlottesville, but it was still a stupid thing for her to say during the campaign, because it made a much larger segment of the population feel that she had written them off. Antifa contains the same danger. If you leave it to me, I would let the term antifa die, and replace it with a word that says what we are for, not what we are against. Antifa pushes people away, at a time when we need a word that invites them to join us.

Words matter. We must be clear not only about what we want to say, but also how we say it. Queer and gay show that the language wars can be won, and that it is worth the fight. We must reclaim liberal, and insist on accuracy in the use of conservative. In coining new words, we must take care not to create weapons that can be used against us. We have enough to do defending the language we already have.

A song that asks, “What are words worth?” is my obvious choice this week:

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Storm Before the Storm

This is not the time to praise or criticize Donald Trump with regards to Hurricane Harvey. For now, he is simply one man who is as powerless as most of us to do anything concrete in the face of the disaster that is continuing to unfold. As president, he can make sure the right words are said, which he chose to do on Twitter. But the concrete work of a president in the face of a natural disaster comes in the aftermath of the event. Trump should be judged by how well he helps to mobilize federal relief efforts in the days ahead. For now, our thoughts and prayers must be with the people of Texas who are being struck by the storm. I have already seen one article pointing out that the storm is hitting a state whose Republican Senators both voted against aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy; this too is inappropriate now. I would hope that anyone who has the ability to volunteer to help the victims of the storm would not make life and death decisions based on how the victims may have voted last year.

A natural disaster of this magnitude can make or break a political career, so it comes at a key moment for Donald Trump. In 2005, George W Bush was serving the first year of a second term that he won by a landslide, based on the idea that he was leading the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. In the 2004 elections, the majority of the voters did not question whether he was the most competent man to serve the nation in an emergency; nor did they consider the question of whether he lied to get us into the war in Iraq. Hurricane Katrina changed all of that. Bush had, as part of his push for huge tax cuts for the wealthy, made savage budget cuts, particularly impairing FEMA and other programs designed for emergency responses. He had also appointed as the head of FEMA Michael Brown, a man who had no qualifications for the job. The federal response to Katrina became part of the disaster, and the American people turned on Bush, with his approval ratings plummeting. Suddenly, everything he had done up to that point became fair game, and people began to accept that he had led us into war under false pretenses. The American people as a whole never trusted him again.

In 2012, another Republican met another disastrous storm. Like Bush, Chris Christie, then and now the governor of my state of New Jersey, had imposed cuts to key programs in the name of providing large tax cuts to the wealthy. Like Trump now, Christie was known for his abrasive personality. He was considered a political bully, although the Bridgegate scandal would come later. The Democrats had good reason to believe that they could foil his reelection bid in 2013 until Hurricane Sandy hit. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie took full advantage of the fact that Barack Obama had rebuilt FEMA and the federal government’s disaster response capabilities in general. Christie even took advantage of Obama’s visit to the disaster area for a photo op with the president, allowing Christie to share the credit for the success of federal relief efforts. At the time, this photo op was consider fatal to Christie’s chances of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016, but played well in my state, which had gone for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Christie then vandalized a state fund which was supposed to go for public service announcements to help further with disaster aid to create the “Stronger Than the Storm” ad campaign that unofficially marked the beginning of his gubernatorial reelection campaign. In the wake of that, the Democrats made no serious effort to oppose him the next year, holding back their most promising candidates for this year instead.

All of which brings us back to the present. If you have been reading this blog, you are well acquainted with all of the reasons Donald Trump is historically unpopular. Like George W Bush, Trump wants to severely impair the federal government’s ability to respond to a disaster in the name of providing a massive tax cut for the wealthy. But that has not happened yet. Hurricane Harvey comes at a time when the government is still operating under president Obama’s last budget. Trump also has the benefit of the efforts by Obama to rebuild the government’s disaster response capabilities in the wake of the damage done by Bush. Where Trump does deserve some credit is in the confirmation of Brock Long on June 19 to lead FEMA. Long is no Michael Brown; he is by all accounts highly qualified for his new job, unlike so many other Trump appointees.

We can hope for the sake of the people of Texas that this all means they will get the help they deserve and need. We can expect Trump to try to take credit for this, and it could easily turn his approval ratings around. Going forward, we as progressives should celebrate the successes of the relief efforts, while making sure we keep shining a bright light on Trump’s failures in so much else. If you are able to make donations to the victims of Harvey, or even provide material aid now, I would hope you would not withhold such aid for fear that Trump will take credit for it. We as progressives support an agenda that helps all of the people of this country, and our concern now must be for them.

My song choice this week could not be more obvious:

Monday, August 21, 2017

Simple Truth

I was disturbed this morning by the reporting in my local newspaper of the events this weekend in Boston. They reported that a small group of “conservatives” had to end their demonstration early because of the actions of the “anti-hate activists” who showed up to oppose them. Language matters, and the paper was taking sides here. Substitute “white supremacists” for “conservatives”, and “civil rights groups” for “anti-hate activists”, and you will see what I mean. Technically, the “conservatives” in question were not white supremacists at all. They were not invading the streets of Boston, carrying swastikas and Confederate flags, and they were not armed to the teeth. They were assembling for what was billed as a free speech rally, but there can be no doubt that their interest in “free speech” applied mainly to the hate groups that terrorized Charlottesville VA a week earlier.

There is a sick irony in the fact that we are still talking about this a week later. President Obama had to respond to hate crimes during his time in the White House with appeals for a national conversation on race, but it is the reprehensible reactions of Donald Trump that have kept this conversation alive this time. Donald Trump looks at swastikas and Confederate flags, and hears hateful chants of torch bearing peasants, and he sees “great people” marching to honor “beautiful statues”. Many people have chimed in with all of the reasons Trump is wrong about this, so I am going to keep it simple.

When I see a swastika, I don’t see “great people”. I see a brutally broken family tree. I am a Jew. My immediate family came here long before World War II, so we have no stories of narrow escapes from the Nazis, or of relatives who died in the concentration camps. But I have no doubt that I have distant cousins who have such stories. That I can not find them in my personal experience does not matter. Nor does it matter that I was raised an atheist. We are all one people, and we celebrated that fact every year at Passover when I was growing up. What was done to any of us was done to all of us.

I can speak even less authoritatively of what a black person sees when they view the Confederate flag. I have had many black friends over the years, but this was not something we discussed. But I imagine that they also do not see “great people”. I imagine that they see these symbols, and these “beautiful statues”, and they think, “we were slaves”.

We were slaves. In Hebrew it’s avadim hayinu. In my family, we equated the time of slavery in Egypt with the time of oppression under the Nazis. We celebrated the freedom fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. And we also always included Martin Luther King in our seders. Maybe Jared Kushner’s seders when he was growing up were different. All we know for sure is that Donald Trump does not understand this simple truth about these symbols, and there does not seem to be anyone close to him who can explain it to him.

I could choose a Hebrew or Yiddish song this week, and go into a long explanation of my choice. But I am keeping it simple, so Bob Marley gets the nod:

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Invasion of Charlottesville

By Thursday of each week, I try to have the basics of each week’s post written in my head. This time, the weekend had other plans for me. I can not be silent about the events in Charlottesville VA. The question is, what can I add to the conversation? Let me just say that I still believe in our system of government, even in the face of the apparent contradictions embodied in these events. Robert E Lee fought to defend a system of slavery that was defined in the Constitution, but he was wrong, and he was no hero. I agree with the Bill of Rights, which means that I will defend the rights of those I vehemently disagree with to freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble and protest, but the hate groups that came to Charlottesville this weekend abused both of those rights.

You might expect that I would agree with the “protestors” that the statue of Robert E Lee that stands in what is now Emancipation Park should not be removed. After all, I deplore those who try to scrub our children’s textbooks of inconvenient history in the name of promoting their agenda. This is not the same, however, and I can invoke history to prove it. The Constitution defines those who were forcibly brought to this country as three fifths of a person, thereby justifying them being traded like livestock. Even at the Constitutional Convention, there were those who thought this was wrong, but they were overruled at the time. But the Founding Fathers expected that future generations would improve on their work. That is why the Constitution has provisions built in to amend it. By the time of Robert E Lee, the nation as a whole had found its moral compass, and defending the institution of slavery meant betraying the United States and fighting a war to secede from the country. That does not make you a hero or a patriot, unless you live in an alternate universe where the Confederacy won the war. Further, the statues that were constructed of Robert E Lee and other Confederate “heroes” were not memorials to those who fought and died in the Civil War. Most, including the one in Charlottesville, were built about fifty years after the war ended. Reconstruction had just ended, and Jim Crow laws were about to become a way of life in the former Confederate states. Supervisors from the north were being kicked out, and the southern states were erecting these statues as statements of defiance and newfound sovereignty. The statues were built as a message that blacks would once again be treated as three fifths of a person, despite any Constitutional amendments to the contrary.

So I deplore the neo-Nazis and other hate groups that gathered in Charlottesville to promote their false history. I am proud that my father served the United States and his conscience in World War II, in an effort to defeat such views and their implementation. But I defend the right of these groups to express these views. There are, however, limits on how they can be expressed. Donald Trump began to stretch these limits during his campaign last year. He actively sought the support of such groups, and then used them as muscle at his campaign events. Oh, I know he did not formally request that they beat up protestors and even reporters at his rallies. Trump always does things in such a way that he can deny responsibility, but he encouraged these “enforcers” from the stage. He made it obvious that he would take no action to reign in any excesses. So the hate groups that participated in the invasion of Charlottesville could reasonably assume that, as far as Trump, and by extension the federal government, were concerned, they could do whatever they wanted to in Charlottesville, and there would be no effort to control them. This has mostly proved to be the case, except where lives were lost. But this was no protest as defined in the Bill of Rights. There was nothing peaceable about it. These people came armed for battle. They carried makeshift or actual weapons, including homemade shields that resembled riot gear. This was a provocation, not a protest. This was a schoolyard bully hoping to provoke a fight he expected to win. This was in no way protected speech. There was a scheduled rally that would ostensibly have been a protected version of free speech, but it is hard to believe, given how events unfolded, that the rally was ever the point for these invaders, and it never happened.

I am proud of a sign on my lawn that says “Hate has no home here”. We got it and put it up in response to Trump’s first attempt at a Moslem ban, and to celebrate the fact that the town I live in had voted to become a sanctuary city. But I say again in the face of the Charlottesville invasion, “Hate has no home here.” I have known in my life people of various pigments, faiths, and nations of origin. Some, not all but certainly some, have become friends. All were a full five fifths of a person, deserving of all the dignity and respect that that implies. If I choose to attend a protest to affirm that, I will not be armed, except with my voice. That human beings are human should not be a provocation to anyone, so I should not need any weapons to say so. It pains me that, after all this time, any one should want to start a fight in the name of saying otherwise.

I often give a lot of thought to my song choice for these posts. This was not one of those times. The choice of song became obvious as I wrote, with the only question being what version to use. This one is a live performance in Japan, which serves nicely to reinforce the universality of the song:

Monday, August 7, 2017


I usually try to keep up with the news all week, and try to organize my thoughts around a single topic for these posts. This week, however, I am going to take off from two items, and wander in several directions, to see where I wind up. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Generally speaking, the jobs report is released on the first Friday of every month. A positive report, such as we had this week, is an occasion for a sitting president and his allies to crow about how well they are doing, and Donald Trump is not one to pass on such an opportunity. The opposition has the task of trying to punch holes in the report, to explain why a positive report is really not so positive after all. In fact, all of the jobs reports since Trump took office, taken as a whole, present a pretty solid case that the economy is doing well. So I propose that we stop trying to find negatives in each report, and instead ask a simple question: what action or actions Trump has taken can explain the strength of the economy? Put another way, what has he done to deserve any credit for this? Because the simplest explanation is that the strong economy is the direct result of the continuation of Obama policies that Trump has been unable to eliminate or change yet. Most significantly, the federal government is still operating under President Obama’s last budget. Beyond that, we have Trump’s brainless executive order that two regulations must be eliminated each time one new one is created. This is largely political theater, since the laws Congress passes mandate that the executive branch must come up with regulations to enforce these laws. With that in mind, it can not be so easy to simply do away with a regulation, and doing so could be challenged on constitutional grounds. In any case, I have not heard of any specific regulation Trump has eliminated that has had any economic impact.

So, if Trump has not contributed to our economy through deregulation, as he would like us to think, what has he done? That brings me to the second event from this week that I wanted to talk about. Trump’s greatest impact so far has been on immigration. His directives regarding immigration enforcement have created an atmosphere of fear for both legal and illegal immigrants in this country. The threat of deportation has had a chilling effect on industries such as agriculture that are highly dependent on immigrant labor. The jobs impacted by this are ones that most native-born Americans refuse to do. Yet Trump continues to blather on about how he is keeping illegal immigrants from taking jobs away from Americans. His announcement of a new green card policy this week is deliciously ironic. He seeks to limit green cards to those entering this country who speak English well and have demonstrable job skills. Put another way, he wants to only let in those who actually will compete with native-born Americans for jobs. I wish CNN’s Jim Acosta, in his now infamous exchange with White House spokesman Stephen Miller, had not bothered arguing about the history of the Statue of Liberty, and had pursued this instead.

Acosta also had another line of questioning open two him that could have been very powerful. He could have asked Miller if he thought Acosta’s family should be in the United States. Jim Acosta’s father came to the US as a refugee from Fidel Castro’s brand of communism. Jim Acosta, in his choice of journalism as a career, represents perfectly the special American freedoms his father was seeking when he came here. It might not have been considered “journalistic” to talk about immigration policy in such a personal way, but this is one of the most personal issues we face, and I wish someone would say so in a highly public forum.

I work as a customer service representative. It is part of my job to talk to whoever comes up on the call list, and that includes people whose English is not the best, to say the least. These people are still our customers, and we must treat them accordingly. On the other hand, we are evaluated in large part by the volume of calls we take, and calls where we have to use an interpreter really slow us down. So you might think that I would be in favor of limiting green cards to those who speak English well. But I remember where I came from. Just this week, a coworker was venting about customers who don’t seem to learn English despite how long they may have been in this country. I reminded him of the Jewish heritage that he and I share. Did he have a relative who arrived here speaking only Yiddish, as I do? It turns out that my coworker had a grandfather who lived in the United States for 60 years and never learned English. That was possible because immigrants often live in communities where most neighbors share their heritage, and they work and shop in businesses that serve those communities. These communities are largely self-sustaining, but they also represent unique pockets of economic activity that Trump wants to get rid of. Go into any bodega today, and you will see products on the shelves from both Goya and Kelloggs. Those products represent American jobs.

Immigration is also a vital part of American culture. The melding of cultures to achieve something wonderful and new can be clearly heard in the song Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. The title phrase is Yiddish, but the song is unmistakably jazz. Klezmer musicians arrived here as Jewish immigrants, and heard jazz for the first time. It influenced their music to the extent that any klezmer you hear nowadays includes this jazz influence, but it was a two way street. That is how jazz legends like Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw made the clarinet a jazz instrument. I can think of no better way to celebrate the melding of cultures in our country than a video of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen set in New York City’s subways: