Republican Party today and yesterday

In my last post I observed that the Republican Party has changed their platform fairly significantly over the past generation or so, and that Reagan would be unlikely to recognize the party today, let along Barry Goldwater, Dwight Eisenhower or even conservative icon William F. Buckley.

Let’s take a look at some of the views that conservatives like Goldwater and Buckley embraced. I deliberately exclude Ronald Reagan from this this discussion in spite of the fact that he’s the yardstick by which most conservatives measure themselves today; I leave him out because I’m not convinced he was a great thinker in the mold of Buckley, nor an ideologue like Goldwater. He was a spokesperson, and a very effective one at that, but I don’t think anyone would accuse him of a deep intellect.

While I don’t agree with everything either Buckley or Goldwater wrote (or said), there is much of the Republican Party of the fifties and sixties to be admired, and in contrast with some of what is seen today. For example, it seems that Republicans (or at least Trump and his ardent followers) have little problem with racism. When David Duke (head of the KKK) endorsed Trump, he pretended to know nothing about Duke and refused to disavow any endorsement. The whole “kneeling by football players is an act of disrespect to our beloved national anthem” has been a dogwhistle to racists. The players (virtually all of them African-Americans) made it clear that they were protesting police brutality directed disproportionately against African-Americans, and Trump turned it into an act of disrespect for the anthem, even going so far as to try to get them fired for this exercise in Constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights. And when neo-Nazis marched in Charlotte, one of them ultimately running down and killing a young woman, Trump’s response was “There are good people on both sides.” In contrast, when the ultra-right wing John Birch Society was cozying up to the Republican Party, Buckley explicitly and specifically disavowed them and made sure they would not gain a foothold and made it clear that racism was most definitely NOT a conservative ideology.

Ayn Rand is the intellectual godparent of many in the current Republican Party; I’ve read that Paul Ryan counts her as his major economic and political influence, and makes The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged required reading for his staff. And while it’s true that Barry Goldwater also found her writings influential, William Buckley did not. He found her strident, rigid and off-putting, and went so far as to write negative reviews of her books, and encourage others to write as well.

Eisenhower coined the term “military-industrial complex” and warned against the unchecked expansion of the military. I’ve cited in an earlier post a speech he made decrying the cost of an aircraft carrier or fighter jet when that money could be better spent building schools or inexpensive housing for the poor. The most recent news indicates that, to pay for the trillion-dollar tax break (which goes predominately to the wealthiest), Paul Ryan is advocating reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits, which the poorest so desperately need. Ike must be turning over in his grave.

And the list goes on. A recent meme I saw in Facebook compares the plank of the 1956 Republican Party in electing Eisenhower, and it reads more like a liberal’s dream. Here are the seven planks:

  1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities
  2. Protect Social Security
  3. Provide asylum for refugees
  4. Extend minimum wage
  5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people
  6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union
  7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex

I did a bit of checking, and while there might be a bit of a misleading spin on a couple of the planks, in essence it’s pretty accurate. (Here’s an article evaluating the accuracy of the 7 points, and here’s a link to the actual platform for 1956).

Contrast that with the Republican Party today. Yeah, things change and change is often good. But the changes in the Republican Party from the late 50’s to today is not something to be proud of. It’s gone from an inclusive and supportive party of small government and fiscal responsibility to a mean-spirited and often bigoted party of the uber-rich where hatred of the federal government is so deep that Grover Norquist could say he wanted to “shrink government to the size that you could drown it in the bathtub.”

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Everything changes

Growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I didn’t pay much attention to politics other than to think “those conversations” were something to avoid. Witnesses are publicly “apolitical,” meaning we didn’t get involved in politics at all, and at least to appearances, had no leaning left or right. Thinking back, I really have no idea how my father voted before he became a Witness (he was in his late 30’s by that time, so I’m quite certain he had voted). My grandparents politics were equally a mystery to me; they weren’t Witnesses and I’m pretty sure they would have felt that voting was a responsibility of any citizen. I don’t recall any conversations that would reveal a preference for either party, but I suspect they were probably Republicans. But if they were, they were a brand of Republican that you don’t see today. My Grandmother used to collect donations of books and school supplies and travel into the deep south to distribute them to impoverished (mostly black) communities and schools. She took very seriously her obligation as a Christian to “care for the needy and those less fortunate,” so this was a religious, rather than a political statement. But I’ve been reading some of Eisenhower’s speeches from the late 50’s and early 60’s, and some of his views then sound like things my grandparents (and probably my father as well) would have believed. A very different tone from the Republican party of today.

Anyhow, I was talking to a friend the other day who saw that I was reading Barry Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative” and asked what I thought of it (he’s more libertarian than anything, but he leans Republican). I made the offhand comment that the Republican party of today would be unrecognizable to Goldwater and likely Reagan as well, and he said “Probably the same for the Democratic party too.” That kind of caught me off guard, because I had been thinking “Dang, I never knew Republicans used to think like that. They sound more like Democrats! I wonder where the Republican party lost its way.” Or something like that.

So I did a little digging and sure enough, both parties have gone through pretty significant philosophical changes over time. Republicans are very fond of reminding everyone that they are “the Party of Lincoln” and they freed the slaves. And while true, I’m not sure that it’s fair (or even appropriate) to attempt that connection, as ideologies have changed so dramatically over the years. If you go back to the origins of “liberalism” and “conservatism” in history you’ll find that either of them bear little actual resemblance to the terms as they are used today.

But I think that’s the nature of things. I know I’m not the same person I was 40 years ago, or for that matter even 10 years ago. I think anyone who says otherwise is either deluding themselves or completely lacking in introspection.

So now, the question is whether those inevitable changes have been a good thing or a bad thing. Or neutral. And while I know that’s extremely subjective, I think we can look at it from a more global perspective and arrive at a few conclusions.

Stay tuned.

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Hypocrisy is becoming the norm

Someone posted a video on YouTube that I have now seen a few times but it continues to carry a strong message. It shows vignettes of Fox News commentators commenting on the same exact situation:  the President’s willingness to meet with the thuggish dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. In the first series (filmed while Barack Obama was in office), their outrage that a sitting President would be willing to even THINK about meeting with Kim knows no bounds. “President Obama is willing to meet with a DICTATOR!!” Horrors!! It simply cannot be countenanced!! In the second set, filmed more recently during the run-up to Trump’s trip to Singapore, they are practically slobbering over themselves in praise of Trump doing exactly the same.

If we hadn’t become so used to it, the hypocrisy would be staggering.

The image of Trump returning the salute of one of Kim’s generals is another example. I read up a bit on military protocol (I don’t pretend to have any expertise), and while it’s not unheard of for a President to salute a senior officer from another country, it is also generally not done; the more appropriate response is a smile and handshake. But when it is done, it is done as a show of respect and almost without exception, the officers are members of an ally. To salute an enemy officer is simply not done.

My point is not whether or not Trump had the right to do so, or if it was a breach of protocol, but to contrast the reaction that Obama would have gotten had he done the same. Hannity and the other talking heads at Fox would have come completely unglued. Remember the reaction Obama got for bowing to the Japanese Emperor by Fox? “Kowtowing to a foreign leader” was how it was described, when in reality bowing slightly is a traditional show of respect, not subservience.

Probably the richest example comes from Sessions, quoting scripture in defense of separating families at the border. The scripture he used was Romans 13, which states (I’m paraphrasing) that since governments are put in place by God that we have a moral obligation placed upon us by God to obey their laws. The irony in his use of this scripture is that there have been two major times in US history when people invoked that scripture. One was during the Revolutionary War when it was used by Loyalists to attempt to show that the British government was there by God’s will and it would be going against God’s will to support the revolution; the other time was prior to the Civil War, when it was used to support slavery. Neither time a particularly honorable or even appropriate use of Scripture. Again, Sessions’ use of the Bible to support his deplorable practice is not the point here; instead I’m waiting for the outrage of right-wing Republican Christians. So far, crickets. To be fair, a number of Christian organizations (the Catholic Jesuits, Mormons, Episcopalians and a few others) have spoken out against his hypocrisy, but the Huckabees and Falwells of the world have been noticeably silent.

I would guess that there could be found examples of not practicing what is preached among the Liberal world, but the fringes of the Republican party (who seem to have taken over the entire Republican agenda) wrap themselves in piety and patriotism to support their actions, when an objective evaluation of both the Bible and the Constitution would lead a reasonable person to the opposite position.

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Failure to communicate

I just finished reading Barry Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative” as well as Jeff Flake’s book of the same title. In my last post I included a quote from a speech Eisenhower gave in the early 60’s that carried a tone very different from most Republican speeches today, so I decided to see if that version of the Republican Party was in fact that different from what we see today.

Spoiler alert:  it was.

Jeff Flake is not running for his seat in the Senate in the next election, partly because he feels estranged from his own party. He characterizes it that his party left him rather than the other way around. And lest we think this is unique to Republicans, I would suggest that a Southern Democrat would have said exactly the same thing back in the late Fifties. But change in party positions isn’t so much my topic here as much as it is why we have such acrimony in Washington, and the legislative gridlock that goes with it. The Orange Cheeto who’s in the White House right now is not the cause of that; he’s simply the most current symptom. Understand please that I believe that he’s the most unqualified, incompetent, ignorant dishonest idiot imaginable, but he’s simply the manifestation of a movement that’s been building for a long time.

Most people trace the current Republican Party philosophies back to Goldwater or Reagan. And while a broad view of today’s Republican Party shows some of the same things that Goldwater and Reagan believed (small central government, lower taxes, a strong military), after reading both Goldwater’s and Flake’s books, I would suggest two things:  the Republican Party of today, in spite of the three aforementioned Party planks, has abandoned most of the other positions they had before. Second, the strategies used by today’s Party are vastly different than back then. I’ll reserve the change in Party planks for another post and focus on their tactics in this post.

I believe most would agree that we have a national Legislative body that is broken. They seem to be incapable of getting anything of significance done. This criticism is not new; people have been critical of the legislative process practically since there was one. A saying attributed (probably incorrectly) to Otto von Bismarck was “Laws are like sausages. Better not to see them being made.” The process of crafting laws was meant to be deliberative and slow, so Congress (most specifically the Senate) was set up to ensure that would happen. People complain about how it takes forever for Congress to respond, forgetting (or never realizing in the first place) that is exactly what was intended by the framers. Legislators knew that in order to get anything passed into law, they had to work across the aisle. This led to a lot of horse trading and arm-twisting, but that’s just how things worked.

Still, things did work.

But what’s going on now is way worse. Any cross-party collegiality disappeared in the mid-nineties. The “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich took over both houses of Congress. True, the Democratic Party participated by misreading the tea leaves; I have argued elsewhere that Republican wonks worked out what they needed to do to gain power after the drubbing they got in the Goldwater/Johnson election in 1964 (Johnson won in a landslide with 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s miserable 52).

Anyhow, the Republican strategy worked and the Democrats didn’t see it coming in time. In 1994, Republicans gained control of both the House and Senate. Newt Gingrich is credited with developing the strategy that brought Republicans that victory; IMHO he did it partly by stirring up the Religious Right and partly by dog-whistle politics that pandered to fear among the disenfranchised middle class. And while it is very true that the economic growth of the country over the past 20 years has left many behind, Republicans have successfully sold those very people that giving big tax breaks to the uber-rich will somehow help them get out of poverty or allow them to send their kids to college. I’ll talk about trickle-down economics later, but for now just say that it’s never worked anywhere it’s been tried.

Anyhow, Gingrich’s strategy include a scorched-earth component. Democrats, instead of respected colleagues who had different ideas of governance, became the Enemy. Any compromise, cooperation or even collegial relationship with them by any of these new Republicans was enough to get that person frozen out of positions of power. It became “my way or the highway” politics, which led to using parliamentary tricks and legislative legerdemain to get bills passed rather than any compromise. During Obama’s first year as President, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell famously (and odiously) said that under his “leadership,” the single and most important objective of the Republican-controlled Congress was to “deny President Obama a second term.” Forgive my naivete, but I thought that actually doing the business of Congress in getting laws written and passed might have been a more important objective.

To quote Strother Martin’s character in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here, is failure to communicate!”

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Senator Jeff Flake is not running in the next election.

Jeff Flake, the junior Senator from Arizona, has stated that he will not be running for office at the next election. He has been an outspoken critic of Trump for some time, but my interest in him started when I heard him interviewed a year or so ago. Before I knew anything about his politics I was struck by his genuineness and humility during the interview. He has made it clear that his decision to leave the Senate is driven largely by his unwillingness to stay silent as Trump leads the Republican party with lying, divisiveness intimidation and bullying, He said that the Republican party of today would be unrecognizable to Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater and even Ronald Reagan. So I decided to do a little checking. I found an excerpt of one of Ike’s speeches and was pretty impressed. He said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

Recall that Eisenhower is the person who coined the term “the military-industrial complex” and warned of the effect that juggernaut would have on our society. And what he foresaw has indeed happened. We have the largest military in the world and spend more than the next 10 combined, in spite of the fact that most of them are allies (or would be, except for that idiot currently in the White House doing everything possible to alienate them), so it seems Ike’s warning was well-founded.

It’s not Eisenhower’s concern about the amount spent on the military warping our national economy that I want to discuss, but his underlying concern for the poor and hungry that struck me. If you listen to many Republicans today, the poor and hungry are that way because they aren’t industrious enough or are simply lazy. And the public aid programs (named “entitlements” by those wishing to do away with them) are part of the problem, not the solution.

That concern for those less fortunate than us that Eisenhower was referring to, comes across as well from Jeff Flake. His conservative credentials hold up against any challenges, but he tempers his desire for smaller government with the awareness that the government is uniquely (and perhaps solely) able to help those in need. He is more than willing to work with Democrats to govern, yet he finds himself no longer comfortable in his own party. This is largely because he calls out the incompetence of Trump as the leader of the Republican party and the willingness of the rest of the party leadership to fall in step behind him (at least publicly. There’s talk that in private, many in the Republican party feel they’ve created a monster in Trump that may lead to the downfall of the party. But that’s grist for another post).

I probably disagree with much of Mr. Flake’s politics, but he strikes me as someone that I would truly enjoy getting to know. I respect his candor and his honesty; maybe those are exactly the things that are driving him from the Senate. More to the point, he has respect for others and their opinions even if he disagrees with them. I recall that Bob Dole was known as a great deal-maker (as was Lyndon Johnson). Both of them understood the need to “cross the aisle” to reach a compromise, recognizing that is how law is made. It’s meant to be a slow, deliberative process. Our branches of government were specifically put in place to be checks and balances against one another; for nearly 250 years I’d say it worked pretty well.

Until now. I understand Flake’s decision; I can’t even say I wouldn’t do the same thing if I were in his place. But he’s exactly the type of person that we need in politics.

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Facebook, Little League and Respect for a Symbol

I saw a FB post today about a Little League coach who was teaching his young charges how to act during the Pledge of Allegiance and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before games; that they should stand quietly and respectfully, take their caps off and all that. There were a bunch of supportive comments and “Likes” to this, and on the surface, who could object to teaching respectfulness and manners to a gaggle of rowdy kids? Certainly not me. But there was a deeper conversation that bubbled up, and that’s my topic for this post.

When I was a kid growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Illinois farm country, every school morning started out with the Pledge, and music class generally had the National Anthem as part of it (we had a music teacher who apparently felt that would somehow instill patriotism and hopefully better behavior in us). As Witnesses, we of course didn’t salute the flag or sing the Anthem, and I still can feel the awkwardness and ostracism that inevitably came our way for that. But it was also very clear to me that the reason for our behavior was not out of disrespect for the flag, for the country, for the sacrifices made by members of the military or anything you can say the flag stands for; we simply viewed God’s laws as higher than the governments, and having dedicated our lives to God we could not also dedicate our lives to the United States, or perform what we interpreted as an act of worship to the government (the flag salute is actually interpreted to be a prayer). It may seem odd to equate saluting the flag or singing the National Anthem with dedicating one’s life, and I suppose it could be argued that wasn’t what those actions actually represented, but Witnesses believed that they did. (And for what it’s worth, how else would you interpret “I pledge allegiance”?)

But back to my point. While Witnesses didn’t feel that we could in good conscience perform these actions, we were taught to have great respect for the laws of the country. We paid taxes, obeyed speed limits, didn’t lie, cheat or steal not because we didn’t want to get caught in bad behavior, but because God commanded we respect and obey the laws on the land. In fact, not doing so carried a much greater stigma, because we would have been disobeying not just “Man’s laws” but God’s as well, and that would be bad. Very bad.

So all in all, JW’s are outstanding citizens. They just don’t participate in voting, military service, etc. because of their belief that God’s laws supersede Man’s. With that in mind, let’s take another look at our Little League Coach. If all he’s doing is teaching these youngsters respect for a symbol without tying that to a deeper lesson, he’s doing them a huge disservice. Respect for the flag and the National Anthem are hollow unless they drive day-to-day behavior. They need to be taught that the flag and the Anthem stand for something; they’re symbols rather than the reality. They stand for respect for other people, regardless of their race, religion, background or economic status. They stand for acceptance of many different viewpoints. They stand for the right of others to think whatever they choose and to speak their mind, even when what they say is completely contrary to what you might believe and may in fact be abhorrent. They stand for the right to worship any religion one may choose, or none at all.

It’s easy to salute a flag or sing a stirring song at baseball games. What’s hard is living a life that honors that symbol and truly represents what that flag stands for.


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On my own terms

In my last post (on the suicides of Kate Spade, Craig Turner and Anthony Bourdain) I wrote of how tragic it is when someone feels that their life is no longer worth living, or that the world would be a better place without them. Others have called suicide the ultimate selfish act, but I don’t agree; I don’t think it’s self-centeredness that leads someone to that decision. I don’t pretend to know all the variables that do, but I don’t think it’s fair to call it selfishness.

In fact, I can think of situations where the exact opposite emotion drives someone to take their own life. Or at least contributes to it. The whole Death with Dignity movement is predicated upon the decision to end one’s own life on one’s own terms and at a time of one’s own choosing, partly to eliminate strain on a family’s finances or to avoid having a loved one have to care for them on a painful (both physically and emotionally) and inexorable one-way journey.

I confess I have very mixed feelings about this topic.

On one hand, it’s heartbreaking when people decide to leave friends and family (thus depriving them of their company) when faced with their inevitable demise from an illness or infirmity. On the other hand, I can think of few worse fates than knowing that I am going to die after a protracted illness (especially one as frightening as ALS or Alzheimer’s) that would gradually but inevitably incapacitate me, while simultaneously draining whatever financial resources I have. I can unequivocally state that I would want the right to end my life if I find myself in that scenario. And it would probably be necessary to do so fairly early in the disease progression; at some point I would no longer be able to do so (either physically or mentally) and it would be too late. Even in the absence of a specific disease, I can foresee a time when I can no longer care for myself or do the things that make existence worthwhile. I’m thinking of David Goodall, the 104-year-old Australian scientist who, while with full control of his cognitive functions, could no longer teach, travel, hike or do any of the things that he loved to do. Because Australian law doesn’t allow for Death with Dignity without a terminal illness (and apparently being 104 years old doesn’t count as a terminal illness), he traveled to Switzerland where he was allowed to take his own life.

That seems eminently sensible to me. And a choice I would insist upon for myself, if and when I reach that point in my life.

But when it comes to others close to me, I find it much more challenging. I would be devastated if Cathy, or my brother or sister were to say to me that they no longer want to keep living because of age or infirmity; I am pretty sure I would try to talk them out of it. I admit that my reasoning would be selfish; I don’t want to think of life without them.

But as I say above, I know for certain that if the situation were reversed I would want the right to make that decision for myself. Frankly, I hope we never have to confront either scenario.

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The 10th leading cause of death in the US

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both celebrities and on the surface at the top of their personal worlds, took their own lives a few weeks ago, and just yesterday Tina Turner’s oldest son was reported to have taken his own life. As frequently happens events like this focus attention for a short period. Sometimes that’s all; after a time people go back to their normal existence and forget about whatever drew their attention. Other times it stays longer in the public consciousness and on even rarer occasions leads to a dialogue and rarer still to some kind of sea change.

I don’t know if that’s likely with suicide. NPR’s program “All Things Considered” did a piece on suicide hosted by Michel Martin (her brother committed suicide), interviewing a journalist whose father committed suicide 20 years ago and a researcher from the Centers of Disease Control who had studied suicide. As might be expected this is an emotional and heart-breaking topic; anyone who has had someone close to them take their lives is forever changed.

The CDC study (read it here) states that in 2016 more than 45,000 people in the US took their own lives, most of them using guns (although the prevalence of handguns probably made it easier for them to do so, that’s not what my topic here). It’s one of only three causes of death that are on the rise in the US and is currently the 10th leading cause of death.

The metaphor the journalist in the NPR interview used is the story of a person who finds themselves in a Minnesota blizzard where the snow is falling so fast and the wind blowing so hard that it is impossible to see even a couple of feet in front of them. They give up and simply freeze to death in the storm, to be discovered when the storm is over just a few yards from safety. It’s so tragic to think of people who feel they have no reason to keep living and make this most final of all decisions, when help is nearby in the form of friends or family or professional counseling. While I am sure that some number of suicides are suffering from a terminal illness and choose their own time and manner of departing this life, I think that is a totally different situation; I suspect the vast majority are just so full of hopelessness that they can’t continue.

My cousin’s daughter died by suicide; she was in her early 20s and seemed to be at the beginning of a bright adulthood. No one knows why she did this but it devastated her parents (who have never really recovered, even 20 years later). I have a couple of friends with family or close friends who died by their own hands as well. It’s surprising (and sad) how many people can say the same.

Part of my point in this post is that, in spite of the fact that we live in the wealthiest country in history, suicide is so common. While we have access to more “stuff” than ever before it seems we as a society are less happy than if we were in the past. When Cathy and I were in Africa one of the things that struck me is how happy people seemed to be, despite living in what by our standards is abject poverty. Huts with dirt floors, frequently no running water and virtually none of the comforts I take for granted. Maybe being constantly bombarded with advertisements to get us to acquire more stuff is contributing to a societal malaise; it’s entirely possible that part of the reason for the prevalence of suicide in America is actually a result of our societal wealth. At the very least it’s pretty clear that more stuff doesn’t make us happier or lead to a better life.

Circling around to my previous postings about “The Good Life” makes me see more clearly that being happy has nothing to do with what you have. Whether it’s Madison Avenue that causes this or the advertising industry is just feeding off people’s acquisitiveness is anybody’s guess. People smarter than me will have to sort it out.

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It’s been a while…

It’s been a long time since I posted anything, but I’m feeling like I should get back into blogging. I think part of the reason I took a hiatus is because my posts were too often political, railing against the most recent travesty in Trumps administration and I was finding my anger at the current administration was affecting my mood in general. I was hopeful that the Orange Buffoon would, I don’t know, become less of a buffoon maybe. Realize that the Presidency was greater than he was and he needed to rise above his instincts and stop being such a moron.

Sadly, that hasn’t happened; in fact it’s gotten worse.

What continues to mystify me is not so much how low he and his toadies can sink, but how people I know to be good, honest and decent people continue to support him. I’m still trying to find that person with whom I can have an honest discussion about what exactly they see that makes him worthy of their support, but mostly I get “Well, at least he’s not Hillary” or some such non-answer. I’ll keep trying.

In the meantime, I’m going to do my best to reduce the number of posts about Washington’s mess and find more positive topics. Or maybe, rather than talk about how awful Trump is all the time, try to bring up productive action items. Like pushing for redistricting laws or encouraging activism. In that regard, I really like Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton (he also served in various capacities during the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) and now Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley. While he is certainly not shy about writing (and speaking) very eloquently about the corruption of the current administration, he also brings up things that can (and should) be done to hopefully work back toward a healthy and truly representative legislature.

That’s my plan anyhow; we’ll see how it pans out.

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Morality (yet again!)

I’ve taken a position in previous posts about how I think “morality” should not be used as the basis for laws, and after thinking about this a bit more I think some clarifying might be in order.

First, it might be useful to explore the concept of “morality.” Google’s dictionary defines morality as

“Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior; a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.”

I don’t want to give impression that laws should be divorced from morality. I think it’s a given that we all have a sense of right and wrong. Even little babies develop a sense of fairness very early on, and fairness is a corollary to right and wrong. So of course development of laws must be firmly grounded in “right and wrong,” but when I think of “morality,” it’s more than just an innate sense of what’s right or wrong. In the Google definition above, the last part of that definition is pertinent; note that it says “especially one held by a specified person or society.” That means that it’s contextual; morality is defined (at least in part) by that person or society. If it’s contextual, then in a different context, a different “system of values and principles of conduct” would be in place. So it’s conceivable that two different people, groups or societies could hold the exact opposite views (or actions) to be moral. To say it differently the same action could be moral (or even “required”) for one person or group, and would be immoral (and even “prohibited”) for another.

And indeed that’s exactly what we see. For some people giving money to someone who has done nothing to earn it is considered immoral, while for others it’s immoral not to do so, if the recipient is in need. Of course it’s not the giving of money that is moral or immoral, it’s the reason behind it (and we’re back to context). The author, philosopher and cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written several books that have helped me form my thinking around this; most notable “Moral Politics” where he argues that the metaphors we use to help understand society (and our place in it) impact our sense of morality. I’ve written about him and his views of how our particular morality shapes our politics, so I won’t go into that again here.

So it’s this second sense of morality, that it’s context-driven, that makes me nervous when it comes to the creation of law. Laws, by their very definition have to apply to everyone within the region encompassed by that governing body. But if each person has their own individual morality, and those morals are the foundation of laws, then how do you create a set of laws that apply to everyone? It can’t be as simple as majority rule; as I’ve argued before, the Bill of Rights expressly protects an individual’s rights against the majority (as represented by Government). I’ve also pointed out that a sheep and two wolves deciding on what’s for dinner may be democratic, but it’s not a good way to run a society. Alternately, allowing whoever’s in power to decide isn’t much better; in the South, Jim Crow laws were used for generations by the local politicians as a way to control the African American segment of their populace; in retrospect we wonder how that ever was allowed to happen.

Of course there’s another question about whether there is such a thing as Morality (with a capital “M”) that would apply to everyone, and that’s a corollary to the question of whether there’s objective Truth. Although that’s for another post (and in fact I have written about it earlier), I do believe there is such a thing as a Universal Morality; a behavioral code that applies (or at least OUGHT to apply) to everyone, but it’s a slippery thing to define.

What most people mean when they talk about morality being the base for our laws is closer to Judge Roy Moore’s view of the world. And that scares me.

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