Archive for August, 2017

Forgive Me Father For I Have Sinned

Monday, August 21st, 2017

For those unfamiliar with this Catholic meme, it is the opening sentence Catholics whisper to the priest to start confession.

My confession is that I find this particular point in our history fascinating.

We have a President who appears determined to self-destruct, a party that is uncertain they are willing to go down with him, and his supporters who have swallowed the kool-aide and have lost touch with reality.

So here’s a little bonus coverage courtesy of one of my favorite academics, Jonathan Haitt of Righteous Mind fame.  He has a great article in The Atlantic which explains the widespread negative reaction to Trump’s Charlottesville comments.

This IS NOT a political rant.

It is simply an explanation of a taboo that Trump broke.

All societies have taboos.  I won’t go through why, though Haitt does in his article.  Suffice it to say that we use a common set of deeply revered values, people, or places to hold all our citizens together in a shared bond.  That bond is our willingness to sacrifice our individual interests for the greater common good.

Charlottesville was a clash of sacred symbols.

The far right displayed their sacred symbols including swastikas, confederate flags, and guns – lots of guns.  They were marching to defend another symbol – the statue of Robert E. Lee.  The goal of the rally was to bind white people together with a shared hatred of Jews, African Americans, and other minorities using claimed white victim-hood and racial purity. (BTW racial purity is a myth.  Skin color is the result of a not well understood interaction between about 100 genes rather than the presence or absence of a particular set of genes.  Commonly available genetic ancestry tests are causing real problems for those advocating a “pure white” society.)

For UVA students, “the lawn” in the center of campus is also hallowed ground.  Students rushed out, unarmed, to defend the Jefferson statue from the approach of the torch-bearing armed white supremacists.  The marchers weren’t planning on vandalizing the statue, but from the student’s point of view these particular marchers would have “contaminated” the statue if allowed to approach unopposed.  That’s because for a Jeffersonian, neo-Nazi’s are taboo.

That’s what the country saw.  Unarmed students spontaneously opposing an organized group chanting the worst slurs against Jews and African Americans and making Nazi salutes.  It was a desecration of our most cherished American story based on the belief that “all men are created equal”.  We all know that this creed is aspirational, but we demand that all of our political leaders accept this premise as a requirement to hold office.  Denying this premise is blasphemy.  As a result white supremacists, the KKK, and neo-Nazis are widely regarded as blasphemous outsiders.

We treat our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution as sacred texts.  We erect monuments to our martyrs.  We punish or shame anyone who ignores our documents or dishonors our martyrs.  We expect our president to play the role of high priest and chief unifier in times when those texts and martyrs seem under attack.

In Trump’s press conference on Tuesday August 15th, Trump fumbled his opportunity to play the role of the high priest and chief unifier because he failed to condemn the blasphemers exclusively.  In response to the public outcry, the President read a staff-written speech to right that wrong.  If it had stopped there, perhaps he could have recovered.  Instead just 24 hours later, he committed the greatest sacrilege of his presidency by saying that there were “very fine people on both sides”.  That’s because our basic belief is that Nazi’s aren’t just bad – they are taboo.

Trump has become taboo by embracing those that we have decided are taboo.  The moral stain of the blasphemers has rubbed off on him.  That’s why you saw such a scramble by all those who understood what he had just done.  Those who fail to distance themselves from the taboo will also become taboo, just as Trump has done.  That’s also why most people in this country were willing to condemn those who just walked in the march.  They didn’t have to carry a flag, shout a slogan, or salute.  Just being there made them taboo too.  They got fired.  They were disowned by their families.  People won’t want to live next to them any more than they would a sex offender.

You can’t apologize for breaking a taboo, particularly one as deep as the Nazi or KKK.  You can’t even use the excuse of ignorance because that would suggest ignorance of our basic values.  In Trump’s case, it doesn’t matter, because he is not going to admit that he did anything wrong.

the stain, the moral pollution, the taint, will linger on him and his administration for the rest of his term. Business leaders have quit his panels and projects; artists who were due to receive honors from the president have changed their plans. Pollution travels most rapidly by physical touch, so be on the lookout for numerous awkward moments in the coming months when people refuse to shake the president’s hand or stand next to him. It is unclear how far the contagion will spread, but it will surely make it more difficult to attract talented people into government service for as long as Trump is the president.

Further this is going to do generational damage to the Republican Party.

people’s political orientations are shaped for life by events that happen when they are young, particularly between the ages of 14 and 24. The young generation—iGen, as Jean Twenge calls them—is extraordinarily progressive and passionate about matters of race and prejudice. If Republicans stand by their tainted president rather than renouncing him, an entire generation of voters may come to see the GOP as eternally untouchable.

It’s hard to say what will come next, but right now the country is unbalanced.

Extraordinary sacrilege has occurred, but divine retribution has not yet come down from the heavens.  We have no priest and no scripture to guide us.  The country may suffer for failing to remove this apostate.

What I can see in the not too distant future, however, is an emotional pivot toward impeachment as a cathartic recovery of purpose and balance.  Trump will be blamed.  Some in his administration will go to jail.  All will be disgraced.  The country will heal.  I saw this happen with Nixon.  It could very well happen with Trump too.  All that is missing is the smoking gun of corruption or scandal and the game will be over.

 

 

Lincoln Wept

Monday, August 21st, 2017

Let’s take a step back and just review briefly the various defenses of neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists, and good old fashioned racists that we’ve heard so far.

Racism as free speech
It’s true.  Our constitution does protect racism as free speech.  Free speech, however, does not guarantee that you are free from other forms of punishment as a result of your speech.  Many employers have codes of behavior that allow employers to dismiss their employees for hate speech.  This is constitutional because the Supreme Court has been giving companies a lot of power lately.  Companies can’t fire people based on race, gender, or creed.  They can based on just about any other criteria that they choose to come up with.

Violence as free speech
This is not true.  There are limits to the expression of free speech.  Yelling fire in a crowded theater is the classic example.  Inciting or participating in violent acts is illegal and is not protected by the constitution.

Both sides engaged in violence in Charlottesville
It is true that there were violent clashes between both sides.  It is also true that there are extremists on the left and on the right.  There are also important differences.  The biggest difference is that the extremists on the right view violence as a tactic.  They have publically stated that their intent is to incite violence.  They feel that violence will force white people to choose sides.  They WANT a race war and ultimately they want to overthrow the government and dismantle democracy.  Those opposed, are not interested in dismantling the government.  They support democracy.  They oppose racism, white supremacy, and fascism.  They are NOT organizing demonstrations around the country in an effort to create confrontations with violent fringe right groups.  They are RESPONDING to the incitement of the right with the same level of aggression.  The response is NOT the same as the act that initiated the response.

Historical monuments
The civil war monuments erected across the south serve two purposes.  One is historic the other is sociological.  The historical purpose is to celebrate a particular point in history where the person may have done something heroic in battle.  The sociological purpose is to remind black people that white people are still in charge and to suggest to white people that cause of the south in the civil war was just.

On that last point, those who attempt to rewrite history suggest that the civil war was fought over state’s rights, or economic issues, or even cultural issues.  The issue was slavery.  The economy of the south was based on slavery.  The culture of the south was based on slavery.  Slave states succeeded from the union when an abolitionist President (Lincoln) was elected.  Many of the declarations of succession from Confederate states said exactly that.  Lincoln went to war to defend the union, not specifically to end slavery.  Lincoln ultimately put down a well-organized rebellion.  But clearly ending the practice of slavery was going to be the outcome of the war.

Only local communities can determine if the historic value of those statues are greater than the obvious sociological message.  This doesn’t mean that those statues have to be destroyed.  What it does mean is that they should be moved to some location where the signage can inform and educate those who are viewing the statue.  Typically those are museums rather than open public locations.

The reason why many communities are taking down statues is not because they object to the history or the art value.  It’s because they no longer support the sociological message.  Instead they want to project an inclusive message that is good for the community and good for business.  You simply can’t do that with a memorial to a confederate general sitting in your town square.

Pluralism, nationalism, and democracy
Our democracy is based on a simple notion.  Everyone is welcome regardless of race, color, or creed.  That’s the simple definition of pluralism.  Nationalism is the notion that your nation is better than other nations.  That concept is out of synch with the concept of a global economy.  If you want to be able to sell goods into my market, you have to provide me an opportunity to sell goods into your country.  But nationalism in and of itself is not a threat to democracy.  Racial nationalism, though, can’t co-exist within a pluralist democracy.  Large groups of disenfranchised people ultimately undermine any democracy.  Yet that’s what racists in this country are advocating.  That’s why there is no place in our country for those who refuse to accept the basic principles on which is was established.

It also should not be surprising to anyone that those who are the object of this racial bigotry, vigorously oppose those who advocate it.

The law does include a right of self-defense.  This right has recently been expanded on a state by state basis with the “stand your ground” laws.  Depending on the circumstance, you can respond with violence including a weapon, if you feel that you are in imminent danger as a result of something that someone else said or some threatening action that someone else has taken.  That’s why generally the person or group that is inciting violence has a weaker defense when claiming that they have been assaulted.

Summary
Several interesting things are happening.  Boston demonstrated that the number of neo-Nazi’s and White Supremacists WILLING to demonstrate when there is the possibility that they would be massively outnumbered is small.  We have also learned that there are personal consequences to outing yourself as a racist.  As those personal costs become better known, it appears that the number of people willing to pay that price is small.  There are also organizational costs to those who attempt to spread hate speech through the internet.  No legit social media, hosting, or domain organization is willing to help them.  Communities and institutions of higher learning are making sure that they have the appropriate use provisions in place to reject requests for these organizations to gather.  Finally, we are finding that when it becomes personal, very few socially maladjusted young men are willing to back up their offensive internet personas with an in-person appearance.  So for now, society has responded with the appropriate revulsion to these fringe groups.

The true test will be what happens in the 2018 election.  Will voters hold Trump and Republicans accountable for the rise in neo-Nazi, fascist, and white supremacist activity?  Will the threat of disenfranchisement drive more minority voters to the polls in an off year?  The wonder of democracy is that our speculation will come to an end in November, 2018.

What’s Next?

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

via GIPHY

After the violent clashes in Virginia, America looked to the President for healing.  Instead Trump could only think about his own obsession of winning an argument with the media.

As a result, we have a President who insists those who support Nazi’s and white supremacists deserve the same respect and consideration as those who oppose those views.

It is true that the First Amendment protects even hateful speech.

It is not true that we have to provide a place in our society for racists and hate mongers.

It is true that the constitution does not protect those who choose violence as a means of protest.

It is also true that there were groups from both sides who came prepared to fight.

But the gathering in Virginia was organized by hate groups for the sole purpose of inciting a response from those who oppose those views.  There was only one person murdered.  A Nazi sympathizer used his car to kill a peaceful protestor.

In this country, the President and Vice President are the only two offices elected by all the people.  As a result, the President has a responsibility to be a moral leader for the country as well as a political one.

What happens when our President abdicates his moral responsibility to condemn those organizations that want to dismantle our democracy?

President Trump hasn’t done anything illegal.

Instead he fanned the flames of racial tension in this country which is exactly what these hate groups want.  His failure to condemn their views and hold them accountable for the violence that they incite will only embolden them.  This is not new news.  Hate groups have been fomenting race war for 150 years.

As Mitch McConnell said, “there are no good neo-Nazi’s”.  

There is no moral equivalency between Nazi’s or white supremacists and any other group in this country.

As long the person in oval office suggests that there is, these hate groups will escalate their plans to incite the widespread racial violence they feel is necessary to bring down our democracy.