Monday, January 30, 2017

Lady Liberty Weeps

I was going to write about something else this week, but the combination of the initial plans for the Mexico wall and especially the ban on immigration from selected Moslem countries wiped away my other concerns for the moment. I am sure my readers have found plenty of articles to read on both of these topics. But I don’t want to focus on the legality of these measures, or the strategic or diplomatic implications, or the fact that each measure is bad for our country in its own way. All of that is true, but when it comes to immigration, it’s personal for me. To explain why, I want to tell you a story. It may not seem relevant at first, but I will get to that.

I am the grandson of Jewish immigrants to the United States. The only story I know at all well is that of my mother’s father. He came to the United States through Ellis Island as an 11 year old boy in 1911. He made the journey alone, sustained by the dream of being reunited with his older brothers who had preceded him here. He particularly was eager to be reunited with his favorite brother Harry. He and his family were fleeing the pogroms in eastern Europe, so I seriously doubt that his papers were in order, making it unlikely that he could have made it through the screening procedures that were already in place under President Obama. But, in 1911, he was allowed into the country. He grew up to be a gentle and loving man. We never discussed it, but I think he was always grateful to the country that gave him and his family refuge in those dark days. I never heard that he had any interest in relocating to Israel after 1948. He had made a good life here by then. He had learned a trade, in the days when bookbinding was done painstakingly by hand. Years later, when he had been long retired, he rebound a set of Encyclopedia Britanicas that my parents had had for many years. Ironically, the set was from 1911, the year my grandfather came to America.

Now suppose my grandfather had been trying to get to America as someone like Donald Trump took office. He would have been taken off the boat in Europe, and told he was no longer allowed to make the trip. If his brother Harry found out somehow what had happened and came to Europe to try to find him, he might not have been able to return to the United States. All of this would have been justified by a president who believed that notorious anti-Semitic propaganda, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Rothschild banking conspiracy were real, and this theoretical president would have had a Steve Bannon figure at his side encouraging this belief. (For the sake of historical accuracy, the Protocols did not have much influence in the United States until they were promoted by Henry Ford in the 1920s, but you get the idea.)

You can tell me if you want to that the Jews and the Moslems in the modern Middle East are enemies, but these are human beings seeking refuge, just like my grandfather. Some of them have actually helped our country fight against terrorism, and it is now no longer safe for them to live in their country of origin as a result. They all have their stories, just like my grandfather, and their hopes and dreams are here. The Mexicans who seek to come here have received less attention this week, but they too are seeking refuge from poverty and crime, not bringing it with them. Donald Trump has obviously never needed to seek refuge from anyone, and he is emotionally incapable of imagining what that would be like. They say all politics is personal, and this certainly is for me.

Woody Guthrie understood that immigration policy affects real people with real lives, so his song Deportee is perfect here:

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Show of Strength

I want to thank the people who put together the Women’s Marches across the country yesterday. The period from November 9 to January 20 is a very small window to put something like this together, which makes the turnout yesterday all the more extraordinary. I want also to thank everyone who attended; I was not able to physically join you, but I was and am with you in spirit.

The pictures and reports of yesterday’s march, especially the one in Washington DC, took me back fifty years, to my childhood. Media reports yesterday noted that this was not the largest demonstration on record; that was the 1969 march against the Vietnam War. I went to that one as a nine year old boy, with my father and brothers. As happened yesterday, there were differing estimates of the size of the crowd, but it was announced from the stage that we were one million strong. The Vietnam War did not end that year or the next or the next, so we did not end it that day. Likewise, I have already seen articles which I agree with, pointing out that yesterday’s march will not in and of itself stop the agenda of Trump and the Republicans in Congress. But that does not mean that the Women’s March was not important. It was even more important than that demonstration I attended in 1969.

The election of Donald Trump on November 9 was a violation for those of us who opposed him. We were promised a Clinton presidency by all of the pundits and pollsters going in, but it was worse than that. Trump was and is the worst human being ever to win the office of President. He boasted of sexually assaulting women, mocked the disabled, and generally promoted hatred, division, and even violence on his way to victory. A popular majority of almost three million votes was not enough to keep him out. On election night, I and so many others were in shock over the results, and we were not encouraged as the new administration with its venal and unqualified cabinet took shape. Overall, we were feeling demoralized and isolated. So the cause of resisting all of this may not have been directly advanced yesterday, but it was an essential show of strength. Sure, Donald Trump and his friends in Congress know now that we are not going away, and they can not control us. But more importantly, we now have a powerful reminder that we are far from alone. I remember from 1969 what an amazing feeling it is to be part of something this big, and we needed that even more this year than we did then.

The question now, of course, is how do we translate our power into meaningful action? I hope the organizers of yesterday’s demonstrations took advantage of modern technology. If so, they now have a huge list of contacts who can receive information and calls to action. They can spread reliable information about what is going on in Washington, and generally counteract the continuing flood of distortions and outright falsehoods in the media. They can serve as gatekeepers, screening out bad information generated from both the right and the left. They can, of course, organize future demonstrations, which, with more time to put them together, should be even bigger than the ones yesterday.

But most of all, I hope they can get everyone who attended or wanted to attend to vote. That is our true power, and too many of us stayed home November 9. The ability to organize an event like the one yesterday can be translated into efforts to counteract voter suppression by helping those who need it to get their IDs in order, and arranging transportation to the polls. Where there are fees to obtain IDs, fundraising can be done. Time is a key here, because the 2017 elections are important. We will be choosing the first wave of officials who will determine what the 2020 redistricting looks like, so this is how we counter gerrymandering. Put another way, this is how we go about seating a more progressive House of Representatives to work with our next president. These off year elections also give us the best chance to seat progressives in local positions. We can build a farm team of people with experience governing for the bigger races in the future, but we have to start small and build up. This is something the Tea Party realized and began working on many years ago, but the Green Party never did. The Tea Party also understood that their best path to power was within the Republican Party. If they had tried to build a third party instead, they would have split the right wing vote as they became more powerful, giving up important races to the Democrats. We saw our power yesterday. It is enough to reform the Democratic Party and begin notching some victories. But we must go from showing and sharing our strength to putting it to use.

I want to share this in closing. It is not the slickest or most polished music video, but it seems to me to be the most appropriate:

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Cynic’s Call to Action

This past week, Cory Booker got raked over the coals by progressives for opposing a measure that would supposedly have allowed the government and citizens to save money by importing medicines from Canada. Booker was one of twelve Democrats who voted against the measure, and someone created a meme showing how much each of them received in donations from the pharmaceutical industry. Booker was singled out among this group because he is the only one who is considered to be a presidential hopeful in 2020. No one thought to ask, but if Cory Booker was a pariah to progressives for opposing this measure, does that mean Ted Cruz is a now a progressive hero for voting for it? Of course not. Which means it is time to talk about how to channel political cynicism to get as much of what we want as possible under the actual conditions in our country now.

First, understand that the Klobuchar/ Sanders amendment that Booker voted against and Cruz supported was never going to have any real effect, nor was it supposed to. It was pure symbolism. Mike Enzi, the Republican senator from Wyoming who heads the Budget Committee, would have gained the discretion to pass a bill to import drugs from Canada as a means of lowering costs to consumers, by reallocating funds approved for his committee. It’s every bit as convoluted as it sounds, and Enzi signaled with his no vote that he never would have used this power. Booker came up with the lame excuse that he opposed the measure over concerns about whether medicines from Canada were safe. Maybe he just thought that he could not explain to his constituents that he wanted to hold out for a measure that would actually do something. Considering some of the blaring headlines I saw on this vote, that makes sense to me.

It is time and past time to stop demanding it all from our politicians. Over the next four years, we will learn how much we have lost in the 2016 election. The election of Donald Trump and a Republican majority in the Senate means that Citizens United is with us for another thirty years at least. Trump will appoint justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, and the Senate only needs a simple majority to get them approved. Filling Scalia’s seat will restore the 5-4 right wing majority, and Trump might get the chance to replace both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as well. This also means there is no chance of restoring the Voting Rights Act. If you want to talk about constitutional amendments, look up the history of the Equal Rights Amendment and how it was defeated. So that means that someone like Cory Booker or Hillary Clinton has to take dirty money for their campaigns, or risk being outspent into oblivion by their Republican opponent. They can not count on the minority vote, because voter suppression tactics like those used in the 2016 election will go unchallenged by this Court. Booker in particular must take donations from the pharmaceutical industry. Booker is from New Jersey, as I am, and pharmaceuticals are our major industry. Bristol Meyers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson have their corporate headquarters here, and many other big pharma companies have a major presence in the state as well. So does that mean Booker is influenced by big pharma? Probably, but the better question is would we be better off if his Senate seat fell to a Republican? I hope everyone can tell by now that there are vast differences between the corporate Democrats and the insanity that is today’s Republican Party. If not, the next four years should be very instructive. For starters, we can not hope for any meaningful check on Trump’s conflicts of interest until and unless the Democrats win a majority in either the House or the Senate. That would give them all of the Committee chairmanships, which are necessary to start any meaningful investigation. In the Senate, a majority would also give the Democrats the power to oppose at least the most extreme Trump choices for the Supreme Court.

All of this means that we can not afford the luxury of ideological purity, especially not over the next four years. If Trump is to be opposed, we can not undermine someone like Cory Booker for taking corporate donations, when the alternative is a second Trump or Pence term. By extension, we are that much further away from universal healthcare, but our present concern is to save as much of the Affordable Care Act as we can, and hope the next Democratic president and Congress can improve it. Likewise, we can not hope to see a $15 minimum wage over the next four years; instead, we may be fighting just to keep a minimum wage at all. Our first task must be to attack the cancer of gerrymandering, and that means voting in large numbers in the local elections in 2017. The governors and state legislators we elect now will control the redistricting process in 2020, so we vote this year to improve the chances of seating more progressives in the House then.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Watch Your Language

While the shock of the election result is beginning to wear off, the question of how to get through the next four years and limit the damage remains. I have seen some great articles offering actions to take. I agree that we must get smarter immediately about how to approach our elected officials, and I rejoice that people are finding and sharing ideas for this. I am glad there are people talking about organizing street protests and generally making sure that we don’t accept this presidency as normal. But I also think it is long past time that we stopped losing the language wars.

To understand what I mean, try looking up the word “liberal” in the dictionary. After explaining the political term, the British Dictionary has for the non-political meaning, “giving and generous in temperament or behavior.” How did that become an insult? How did it become necessary to replace the word liberal with progressive? It didn’t happen by accident. Right-wing commentators, even before they created a media empire for themselves, started a deliberate campaign to vilify liberals and stigmatize the word. They sold a tale of “tax and spend”, attaching it to the word liberal so often that finally they only had to say “liberal” to achieve the desired effect. This is not the only way they have used language against us. It becomes impossible to have a serious discussion of reproductive rights as soon as the term “baby killer” enters the conversation. Likewise, the campaign to weaken the Affordable Care Act started with two new additions to the language: Obamacare and “death panels”. We don’t have to accept these distortions to our language, but we have far too often.

More to the point though, we are about to begin the reign of a government that will provide us a golden opportunity to turn the tables, and we must not miss it. President Donald Trump will give us the best chance we have ever had to stigmatize the word “conservative”. Of course, the right wing today is not conservative at all; they seek to destroy, not conserve. No matter. We can and should take the word away from them, in the same way that they took “liberal” from us. We must use the word conservative at every opportunity as we discuss the grotesque abuses of power we can expect over at least the next two years. We must also explain what the constitution actually says, and in so doing wrest the word “patriotism” from their grasp. The right wing has seized on the Second Amendment to prove their patriotism. Fine. That leaves the rest of the Bill of Rights for us. We can outdo them in patriotism when it comes to freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and protest, the right to a fair trial, the separation of church and state, and on and on. It’s all a question of how we frame the argument.

For a more specific example of how this can work, consider one of the first bills introduced in the new Senate. It is S11, formally known as The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act. Simply, the bill cuts all funding for US embassies by 50% until the US Embassy to Israel is moved to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv. The actual move was approved in a largely symbolic gesture in a 1994 law, and every president since then, including George W Bush, has been wise enough to make sure that the actual move did not take place. But Trump promised during the campaign that he would actually carry out the move. So let’s make it as embarrassing as possible for him. Consider that enormous cut in embassy security funding, and let’s start calling this the “Benghazi bill”. As for the move to Jerusalem, we should discuss that part of the bill as the “Terrorist Provocation Act”. We can and should make the case that Trump, entering the White House with the lowest approval ratings of any new president, is seeking ways to provoke a terrorist attack on the United States in order to boost his popularity.

Yes, I am calling on us to play dirty. We have a war on our hands, and we having been losing it by playing too nice. We may be “giving and generous in temperament or behavior,” but we have before us a chance we can not afford to miss.

Let’s take it out with some music: