Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Political Expediency versus Political Morality

A dilemma now stares at an increasingly divided Democratic party, having now been handed by Robert Mueller, a road map for impeachment of Donald Trump, a bible, if you will, of misfeasance and lawlessness, Nancy Pelosi and her minions must now decide which route to take--the dreaded "I" word or a substantive campaign for electoral victory.

On the one hand, many advocates for impeachment, including Elizabeth Warren, argue that it is the constitutional duty of the congress to protect our democracy from an unfit president by introducing a bill of impeachment.   Nancy Pelosi believes that it is too soon to decide, knowing full well that the election is only 18 short (or long) months away, depending upon one’s point of view, and that impeachment hearings will create a distraction, paralyzing government, playing into Trump’s wheelhouse exacerbating his victimhood.   He still holds his 40% approval among his base, many of whom believe in the Trumpian ability to shoot someone on 5th avenue, and suffer no consequence, possibly Nancy Pelosi or an undocumented immigrant, take your pick.

Moreover, the two-thirds vote for removal in the polarized senate is probably not possible, magnifying the arduous, Sisyphean moral imperative of how congress should act under present circumstances.

Others believe that this President is dangerous and is capable, through his masterful control of his base, able to manipulate public opinion escalating his “poor Donald” into another term.  Nothing frightens Democrats more.

Watergate-like hearings take time.   The parade of inevitable witnesses creates boardrooms full of fulminating cable network executives exalting over the volume of pharma medications they can sell to old people, watching 24/7.  On the other hand, a full examination of the facts and testimony might very well convince many voters to vote against the president even if a bill of impeachment is not passed in the house or that he is not removed by the senate.

A currency to the moral obligation of congress quickly to proceed now with impeachment is persuasive.  There is clarity to removing a president who, many think, has no regard for our institutions, the law or the consequences of his narcissistic fulminations.  Mueller’s argument that DOJ regulations prohibit the indictment of a sitting president, because he would not be able to “clear his name” through a trial, resonates to some. Therefore, the only remedy is a trial in the Senate through impeachment.

Machiavelli proposed that governments do not function well on morality.  Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, and after Pearl Harbor Franklin Roosevelt interned loyal Japanese Americans in camps, ripping families apart and from their homes without judicial process.  Clearly, these two actions violated the Constitution, but saving the Union or national security was the imperative, not historical rectitude.  That came much later as would many questions about the stains of the American past, including slavery.

Legions of governments in the world modeled their constitutions after ours, and the lack of forbearance among the polity effectively abnegated the paper document, allowing the rise of totalitarianism.  In our country, argue Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in a new book, How Democracies Die, argue that our institutions are under threat by the loss of forbearance in our polarized society.  The more polarization results in less forbearance, increasing the threat to our institutions.  The tolerance needed to listen to others with whom we disagree is the foundation of our democracy, not a paper document alone, they argue. That tolerance has lately disappeared, to our detriment.

So, what is Congress to do?   Bringing a bill of impeachment now, many think, poses a political risk to the Democrats but not bringing it poses a risk to the Republic by leaving an unfit president more time to erode our institutions, the very ones congress is charged to protect.  Democrats must think long and hard whether the moral choice will ultimately lead to a more perfect union or whether it will lead to more disunion.  A long and nasty impeachment resulting in the removal of this president might provide more fodder for his base than a resounding loss at the polls a mere 18 months from now.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Cruel and Unusual

Cruel and Unusual.

At 3am Friday, April 12, the Supreme Court of the United States contributed to our national voyage towards injustice and perhaps even totalitarianism.

The court ruled that a prisoner who chose to die by nitrogen hypoxia, more or less proven to be painless, was trying to delay his execution because he had not chosen this methodology in a timely fashion.  The court ruled 5-4 along predictable lines, that the inmate, granted, a brutal murderer, did not, within the time limits imposed by the state, and therefore for procedural reasons, would have had to wait for a new death warrant to be signed.  So, the court vacated the stay of execution of the lower court so that there would be no further delay in putting him to death.   As though he would not be available for such purpose 30 days later.

The court did not even allow for Justice Bryers’s request to wait for a court conference the following morning in order to discuss the issue.  The stay was vacated at 3am.

Recently, I visited London.  A very knowledgeable guide told me and my grandsons how the English executed people in the 15th century as we traversed the innards of a venerable Westminster Abbey.   First, they hanged them until almost dead.   Then, they disemboweled them, burning their intestines in front of them, whilst they attached their limbs to four horses to draw and quarter them.  Now, that is a real deterrent for stealing or treason or murder.  My youngest grandson 11, his eyes wide open dropped his jaw.  He will remember that tour, surely.

Now the Supreme Court of the United States is debating the efficacy of lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia as the lesser of what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” as a definition of what the Constitution proscribes.   In fact, the practices as described in the previous paragraph is what prompted that prohibitory language in our constitution.

Arguably, the guillotine is a more humane form of punishment than the painful three-drug cocktail as utilized in the progressive state of Alabama, which only 70 years ago, preferred lynching as a methodology for enforcing its cultural ethos. 

More crucially, capital punishment itself should be reexamined under the “evolving standards of decency” criteria as set forth by Chief Justice Earl Warren in Trop v. Dulles (1958), a case that articulated what punishment the courts may impose upon a defendant.

In Furman v. Georgia (1972) capital punishment was constituted as cruel and unusual in and of itself, leading to a 4-year moratorium on the medieval practice, until regressive state legislatures struggled to overcome the shortcomings of the system and Gregg v. Georgia (1976) effectively reinstated it by addressing the shortcomings of the system in Furman.   Space does not here allow an extensive discussion here, but the reader is invited, if interested, to read the history of this sordid abuse of state power.

In his dissent in Dunn v. Alabama (2019) Justice Breyer, clearly upset, argued the priorities of the court as being skewed.  And it is indubitable that capital punishment has no place in the pantheon of criminal justice in the 21st century.   The idea that the state takes a life and that the highest court in the land, decides life or death based upon a procedural technicality, ludicrous in itself, strikes at the heart of our democracy.  The murderer dies, the victim is not restored to life, the vengeful family gains nothing, deterrence is not effectuated, and the poor suffer the penalty disproportionately.  More importantly, our societal humanity suffers a damaging blow.

The very idea that the Supreme Court of the United States occupies its time deliberating the timeliness of death appeals while scrutinizing the finality of execution and whether the condemned should die by hanging, firing squad, three-drug cocktail, nitrogen gas and the uncertainty of pain inflicted by the methodology in the context of the Constitution as it should be 2019, appeals only to the ghoulish instincts of people like Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and even Clarence Thomas,  all products of a crypto-masochistic society that refuses to change the interpretation of an 18th century document.  Chief Justice Roberts, who has recently shown some reason has joined in this charade, to his discredit.

Totalitarian states traditionally employ capital punishment as a method for keeping dissent under control as well as for apostacy, stealing bread, homosexuality, and other crimes not really eligible in the US for this most extreme of penalties.  Other methods include torture, and in the case recently of Saudi Arabia, dismemberment by bone saw. This was clearly an act of state murder, and hard to distinguish from what is still happening in our country, differing only in pretext.  As Justice Blackmun wrote in 1994, that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” so should the present Supreme Court no longer do so.

We sit with Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, and other totalitarian states in our employment of this barbarity, which is still applied unfairly against racial minorities, and the poor.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Profiles in Courage or in Cowardice—please choose, America

In Andrew Robert’s brilliant biography of Winston Churchill (a thousand have been written, including the official multivolume tome by Martin Gilbert), Roberts spins a tale of the overwhelming and crushing challenges faced by arguably the greatest political individual of the 20th century.

Facing derision for most of his career, and blundering by advocating for an invasion on the Gallipoli peninsula during World War I, as derided as well as upon  many domestic issues,  Churchill faced insurmountable problems on the path to the vindication of his wisdom during the  1930s when he was in the “wilderness,” pitting himself against the appeasers of Nazi Germany and the sentiment of a war weary British public with his calls for rearmament.

The story has been well-told and often, but it made me think of those Republican members of congress who sat in a hearing this week, during the testimony of Michael Cohen, who themselves had nothing to say except remind the public that Cohen was a liar and soon to go to prison for lying to the American public for his boss, the lying liar, Donald J. Trump.  They mounted not a word of condemnation for their rogue president.

America, including the Trump base, have we, as did the appeasing British public during the years when Hitler was arming himself to the teeth in order to gobble up fledgling European democracies, taking the Rhineland, annexing Austria, taking the Sudetenland as part of Chamberlain’s deplorable bargain, are doing similarly in order to remain loyal to a president whose vision of loyalty is an abject lesson in the opposite.

Is there a point to the lessons of history that tell the tale of appeasing nations or leaders who deserve far less?   What of character and morality?  Do our new times abrogate such sentiments?  Is the easier path simply to stare blankly into our little screens, abjuring the thundering storm of potential totalitarianism and deceit?

Franklin D. Roosevelt labored very hard, using much of his political capital during the great depression, enduring the scorn of his own class,(“I welcome their contempt”)the hatred of the America Firsters, the underlying anti-Semitism of America in the 1940s, the isolationist congress, to join the battle against fascism.

Edward R. Murrow used his courage as a journalistic icon to battle the evils of Joseph McCarthy and quote Shakespeare, “Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” driving home the jeopardy to the Republic presented by the demagogue from Wisconsin.

Walter Cronkite announced to the American Public, the misanthropy of the Viet Nam war and the disinformation of our own government in perpetuating the “Bright and Shining Lie,” as David Halberstam wrote in his book.

Martin Luther King spoke out about the injustice of segregation and the evils of discrimination in the American South, still the victim of a government that disemboweled the reconstruction as intended by Abraham Lincoln, himself slaughtered by racial hatred.

I have read recent articles in respected publications, seeking to understand how our nation has reached so low a plateau, so vituperative, so intensely polarized.   Articles are being written about whether there will be a new civil war in the event the President loses the election and must be forcefully evicted from the White House after the results, refusing to concede to the will of the people.

We labor under an increasingly dysfunctional electoral college, originally conceived to perpetuate slavery, in order to compromisingly ratify the constitution, and which college has become an increasingly undemocratic institution, by magnifying the power of  a small percentage of the voting population.

We labor under the partisanship of members of congress who fear the loss of their jobs more than the diminution of democracy.  

Racism has no place in an America becoming increasingly diverse; “Make America Great Again,” exhibits a profile in cowardice, not courage, a thinly-veiled siren call to days of yore no longer possible, economically, demographically, or socially.  People who rail against the tide of History, including President Trump, will be swept aside, eventually, but at what cost?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The True Believers of FOX News

Lies told often enough become alternative facts.....

Recently, I attended a dinner party at old friends’ house, and I expected a relaxed evening.  The food was spectacular, a very finely nuanced codfish, served on a bed of exquisite lentils.  That dish was preceded by a mango-yellow tomato soup, with really fine wines and a desert of homemade pie, fresh blueberries rolling off the top of a delectable key lime filling.  Our hosts were flawlessly polite and gracious.  Most of the meal was spent on polite conversation, where are you from, do you have kids, and other pleasantries.

Another couple attended, whom we did not know, and whom, I believe our hosts had just met. A neurologist on the staff of the University of Miami school of Medicine.  Born in Mexico, he had been in the United States, I believe, for twenty years.  He was an intelligent, soft-spoken fellow and but had some infuriating opinions, including a denunciation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and that President Obama was the worst president of the United States ever to inhabit the White House.  He reluctantly admitted that Obama had been born in the United States, but had Muslim sympathies and was anti-Semitic.
He also professed his deep admiration for Benjamin Netanyahu and the excellence of Donald Trump’s moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem as a symbol of American strength, “the only things the Arabs understand.”

Other perorations included the inherent bias of the New York Times, The Washington Post, anti-Semitism of Thomas Friedman, and the bias of the American media, against Donald Trump.  Although he said he did not object to a two-state solution, he defended the settlements and that Israel had no partner for peace negotiations, citing the result in Gaza when Israel pulled out and stating that the same thing would happen to the West Bank, should Israel cede sovereignty to the Palestinian authority.

He presented himself as an authority in these matters by stating that he had been to Israel many times and therefore was in a better position than American Jews to analyze the situation than those of us who had only visited a few times. Also, that since he came from Mexico, he understood America and its constitution better than ordinary Americans.  He made no mention of the corruption of Mexican politics having any potential influence on his ideas. 

I hate condescending people who confer greater expertise on themselves simply because they have visited a place a few more times than others or they simply had a different life experience. 

He did recognize that 70% of Israelis wanted peace and were willing to give up the settlements for a peace treaty with the Palestinian authority but said that Israel would still have to occupy the territories to provide security for Israel.  I did not disagree with him.

I argued with him, however, that most secular American Jews now believe that religious zealotry among those who are in the settlements are an impediment to a peace treaty, that the borders are basically already decided, and that with minor land swaps there could possibly be a settlement.

At that point the conversation returned to his advancing the argument that Trump was a great president, and that the economy was booming.  Moreover, he claimed that Obamacare had destroyed the private practice of medicine in the United States, that President Obama was the worst president ever, and had lied about people keeping their own doctor.  I was enraged that he created a false moral equivalence between the constant lies and criminality of Trump and Obama.

When I pointed out to him that 30 million people now were covered and that before they were not and that insurance companies could dismiss clients for preexisting conditions and now, they could not, it fell upon deaf ears.

I asked this gentleman where he got his news.  He said he watched the FOX news channel, which he claimed was an unbiased arbiter of the facts, unlike the Times, the Washington Post, or the other biased news media such as MSNBC, ABC, NBC, PBS, and CNN.   That all these organs had it in for the president and were purveyors of fake news.

He told me I should watch FOX between 6-7 pm for an unbiased news menu, ostensibly to prove that all of FOX was therefore “fair and balanced.”    I said,” let me get this straight,
You want me to watch FOX for one hour and thereby come to the conclusion that the rest of the day is not propaganda?”

This gentleman, who had set himself up as a latter-day Mexican Alexis de Tocqueville was judging the American constitution based upon his marginal understanding of it.  He thought the electoral college was set up as a fair governance of space, rather than a sorry compromise to get the constitution adopted in 1787 that enabled slave states to perpetuate their injustice throughout our turbulent history.

He sounded like a rerun of FOX and friends and had no understanding of the forces that should be dominating our national discussion:   Climate change, technological displacement, and nuclear war.  The distractions of the FOX news propaganda machine are not limited to the uneducated.

This led me to inevitably conclude:

FOX is an Orwellian propaganda channel that has been profoundly destructive of our national polity and that education is often no defense to persistent lies and propaganda, as Orwell had told us long ago.

FOX sits by itself as an organ of Trump and its hijacked Republican base, who despite their minority, have managed until now to dominate the legislative and executive branches of government, exploded the deficit, shut down the government, encouraged racists, divided the country, fed lies to the public, shredded the dignity of the Presidency, alienated our allies, conducted a needless trade war, provided subsidies to large corporations, disrespected the rule of law, obstructed justice, sullied all those around Trump, conducted a revolving door for respected diplomats and public servants, trashed our national intelligence services, including the CIA and the FBI, presided over the shrinking of the middle class, and is enraptured by a president who is a blaggard, a crook,  a buffoon, a  knave and a scoundrel.

I went home with a major headache despite the graciousness and charm of the hosts of the dinner party.  I guess people really cannot talk any more.