Racists and Self-Interest

August 14, 2018

I have no illusions that anything I can say would convince white nationalists to flip their political sides. Nevertheless, I think it is important to engage them.

There is of course a strong moral argument based on the Enlightenment, reflected in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are born equal. But let me see if I can engage anyone with arguments based on their own self-interest?

First, I don’t know how many of the white nationalists have had their DNA checked by 23 and Me or similar organizations. They might find that their own backgrounds are multicultural much like the rest of us. And I’m not sure how many of the white nationalists want to reject or deport their own grandparents or other ancestors.

Beyond that, racial, religious and ethnic nationalism is basically what is called, in language stemming from game theory, a zero-sum game. That is to say, we have a pie of specific size and fight about how to cut it up. But that’s a faulty premise. In fact, the larger the group that participates in the productive process, the more there is for everyone to do. The success of this country was based on our own common market among the states from the very beginning from the Canadian to the Florida border. That gave us a big advantage and propelled this country into the forefront economically within a few years. The European Union was developed and has been prosperous for much the same reason. And there is plenty of factual data that multi-cultural workforces lead to expanding their businesses much more than homogenous ones. It’s easy to look at a single job and notice who has it and who might have had it, but without looking at whether that job and many others would exist in a narrower market one does not have anything close to a full picture. So, I don’t think trade among multiple different cultures, or the development of complex multi-cultural economies are zero sum games. I do think they expand opportunities for us all. And the economic risk from trying to cut oneself off from that is stagnation and decline.

I have another concern about rejecting multi-culturalism: China, not to mention the rest of Asia. One of the things Obama realized, a realization no less true or false if one objects to the color of the man, was that the nations of Asia were focused on their economic advancement, were working hard to grow and were quite successful at it. That was behind his hope to “pivot to Asia.” But our own treatment of people from all the Asian countries, as visitors, residents and citizens, can strengthen or weaken our relations and our cooperation in foreign and economic policy. Perceived as racist, we can become the target of attack. Nations like China and India have the size and fire power to be problems. In briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s, both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration argued for an end to the separate but equal doctrine partly because it made international diplomacy difficult.

I don’t even want to talk about the possibility of internal war. Both for our country and for each of us, white nationalism is a dangerous mistake.

After writing this, we took our grandchildren to Tanglewood for a Young People’s Concert. At one point the BSO played Leonard Bernstein’s music for the rumble in West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan. The rumble pitted the white Jets gang against the Puerto Rican Sharks. It ends in universal disaster. In the suite that Bernstein created from the music, as Tony lies dying in Maria’s arms, the harsh, jagged music for the rumble dissolves into the lyrical, wistful music of Somewhere There is a Place for Us. Somewhere indeed. My granddaughter caught tears rolling down my face. Bernstein like Beethoven before him believed that music could somehow bring us together. I wish it were so.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 14, 2018.

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All Criticism of Trump Cannot be Fake News, and what his claim implies

August 10, 2018

I keep looking for things we can say to Trump’s supporters that just might wake them up. Here’s a very basic one.

President Trump has repeatedly told us that all criticism of him is fake news. That can’t be right. No one is infallible. No one. Because it can’t be right, his claim drives these conclusions:

First, we have to tell the difference between what the President says that is true and what the president says that is false. It cannot be either all true or all false.

Second, the claim is an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. If we can’t look or see criticism, then we lose the ability to tell truth from fiction.

Third, just take a cold hard look at this without fear or favor one way or the other – blocking our view of criticism is the first technique of dictators. It insulates them from resistance. One of the first things Trump did in office was to look into pulling the license of the main broadcast news stations. That would have powerfully insulated him from criticism and scared many critics into silence.

Once that happens the consequence for the rest of us can be catastrophic. Dictators, including Vladimir Putin, Trump’s mentor, don’t look out for our welfare once they no longer have to. Silencing or discrediting all criticism of them as fake gives them the ability to take aim at everything you care about, everything that stands in their way, and to claim whatever they want – personal wealth, and the power to reward all those who will bow to their will. That is the dictator’s game: command enough power to silence all dissent and force everyone to do their bidding.

We’ve repeatedly kicked out politicians that disappointed us. The objective of all autocrats is to discredit democracy, a free press and honest elections, so there is little chance of their being kicked out. The men and women we’ve been calling the greatest generation gave their all to protect what America’s founders bequeathed us. Putin’s and Trump’s attacks on a free and critical press and their discounting any threat to honest elections undermine our commitment to democracy. The real answer to the flaws of democracy is the dedication of Americans, winners and losers, to democracy’s principles.

I’ve never met Trump and claim no way to know for sure what is in his heart. But as a lawyer, I know from professional experience, that the most convincing people you will ever meet are the con men. We can’t read their hearts. We have to gauge the risk from their actions and claims. Lambasting the press categorically, as if all the men and women, young and old, who are toiling to get the facts, can never get anything right, is a sure way to protect what should not be protected.

Let me end with a book pick. In The Plot to Destroy Democracy, Malcolm Nance looks at the facts with the cold, calculating eye of a man who has spent his life in American national intelligence. Based on Russian purposes, institutions and behavior, he concludes that the Russians are deliberately threatening our democratic system. Democracy threatens the impunity of autocratic rulers to kill, torture and steal from their own people in order to protect their own power and maximize their own wealth. Regardless of collusion, conspiracy or disloyalty, the combination of Russia’s and Trump’s attacks on the fundamentals of democracy clear the path for tragedy. And our crucial response will be what we do leading up to the elections and at the polls.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 7, 2018.

 

 


Immigration and Mob Psychology

July 31, 2018

I don’t like pack journalism. Seems too unoriginal, and mostly found in wrong-wing politics. They have a huge, repeating megaphone. Determine what point to make and all their commentators are on it. Sometimes their media bosses command it. Sometimes they just like to chime in. Plus it’s easier.

Turns out that’s an effective strategy. Tocqueville figured out nearly two centuries ago that American public opinion can function like mob psychology. Whatever seems like the majority or the trend must be right, so many follow. Plus what Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called the spiral of silence. We get cowed by the amplification of one point of view until the rest of us shut down. Then it really seems like there is only one right way. So repeating arguments like a pack of wolves is effective.

And it’s been very effective in hounding the immigrant community. The number of refugees who have entered the U.S. has declined sharply. But instead of relaxing about immigration, American attitudes about letting them in have continued to polarize. More Americans believe that we have a responsibility to welcome refugees than those who don’t but the number of nay-sayers has been increasing. As Republicans polarize, the numbers opposing immigration increases. It’s fundamental to their nativism, prejudice and white supremacy.

Now the Administration has nominated Ronald Mortensen to be Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration to widespread opposition. I’ve spoken frequently about the value of immigration for America, our leadership of the free world and our future economic and industrial strength. I think his is a horrible nomination. Like the appointment of Pruitt to destroy the Environmental Protection Administration and many other Trump appointees whose purpose is not to administer but to destroy their departments and make the underlying purpose of their agencies unenforceable, Mortensen’s opposition to all aspects of immigration will also make management of immigration impossible. In blog posts for the Center for Immigration Studies, “Mortensen linked illegal immigration to ID theft and higher crime rates; railed against Dreamers, who were brought to the country as children without documentation; and] criticized efforts at reforming the nation’s immigration system.” All that will be left is a stop sign. No immigration allowed. Go home. So I agree this is a terrible nomination.

But what will the effect of opposing him be? By keeping the issue in the public eye, will it strengthen Republican opposition to immigration and increase support of Mortensen for that very purpose? Trump himself is the main opposition to immigration. If this strengthens Trump among Republicans, will joining issue support Trump and his supporters in the 2018 and 2020 elections? Would silence about immigration help to defeat Trump and as a result do more for immigrants than fighting for immigrants?

Absolutely not. Democrats can’t tack toward the center and away from strong moral positions. The Administration’s treatment of immigrants is outrageous. They can’t bring themselves to welcome even those who know and love this country and no other, the dreamers who were brought here as children and want only to live the American dream in the only country they’ve known. The Administration has played politics with the parent-child bond, ripping children out of their parents arms, losing track of which children belonged to which parents, and announcing their couldn’t reunite many. Democrats cannot stand down on strong moral issues.

The Peace Corps Community for Refugees is urging former volunteers to write their Senators in support of a no vote on the nomination of Ronald Mortensen as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Join us?
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 31, 2018.


Trump’s Disloyalty

July 30, 2018

I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to the studio to record but the surgeon said “Sit down, sit down, sit down, you’re splitting my stitches.” Well, I’m here at last.

Trump and a number of Washington Republicans think the FBI investigation of the connection between Russia and the Trump Administration was biased against Trump because FBI agent Peter Strzok believed that the American people should have rejected Donald Trump for president. Since a large share of FBI agents are Republican, one could have credited Strzok as keeping them honest with regard to Trump. But the problem with the Trumpians’ automatic conclusion of bias goes much deeper.

As Rehnquist and Scalia have written, it is almost impossible for otherwise qualified and intelligent people not to have opinions about important public matters. Certainly, if agents are automatically disqualied from investigations of those they oppose politically, there’d be few other than Trump supporters qualified to investigate. But the same logic would make them biased in his favor. Hence no one could be fair to Trump and America.

Trump carries that a step further by suggesting that Russian President Putin, the principal suspect for interfering with the American presidential election, should have a look at the details of the investigation and have his investigators help out. Wow. By Trumpian logic the objects of investigations should control what people discover about their behavior. It’s fine for Russians to control the FBI’s investigation of Russian activities in the U.S. but long time FBI agents should not have anything to do with the investigation if they have ever expressed an opinion.

This Trumpian view of human nature casts light on their own motives. People imagine motives in others that are familiar to them. Trump has turned his presidency into a series of infomercials for his properties. Many members of his family and Administration have similarly been using their offices for personal gain. Most recently, Scott Pruitt was forced out of office because he couldn’t take his hands off opportunities to use his position for personal gain. So I can understand why they’d see everything through the lens of self-interest and conclude that everyone is biased – to which we must add, including themselves.

The Founders understood that the devil lurks in the hearts of human beings without respect to wealth, class, heritage or learning. People, they understood, are subject to temptation. They anticipated that the highest offices of the land could, from time to time, be occupied by the most despicable people. Understanding that, they inserted the emoluments clauses in the Constitution to try to block foreign powers from offering rewards for selling out our country. And they inserted the impeachment clauses to provide a way to depose traitors and crooks from office.

We now have a person in the White House with private assets that reflect the patronage of foreign governments. He conducts foreign policy as a set of infomercials, making sure to play at his various resorts for all to see. His political fortunes may hinge on a single foreign power which used cyber warfare in an effort to install him in the White House. And he’s loyal to foreign powers.

The Republican Party is often called the G.O.P. The G.O.P. stood for the Grand Old Party that won the Civil War under Lincoln’s leadership. They fought for the Union and for principle. Too many current Republicans are loyal to Trump, but not to America. They have neither patriotism nor spine. They prefer to sell their souls rather than protect their country. There is nothing grand or even old about this party.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 24, 2018.

 


The Sacredness, and the Uniqueness, of Brotherly Love

July 17, 2018

The ethnic slaughter in so many parts of the world – Kenya, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, the “troubles” in Ireland, Ukraine, the blood shed at the separation of Pakistan and India – make the uniqueness of American anti-discrimination rules stand out both for their moral high ground and for their protection of human life.

They provided a way to live together in peace, even if getting there has been difficult. They provided a beacon, a light to the world, on living together. Conceived in part as a city on a hill; America was to light the world with our example. Indeed it has. That strong belief in the equality of mankind and the welcome to people from all across the globe has always been attractive.

The Enlightenment in Europe was largely about the idea of equality and learning to live with people despite differences in religion and diverse origins. America was founded on that Enlightenment ideal and, while never quite satisfying its own ideals, to an appreciable extent lived it. In the colonies, after the Revolution and until modern times, the U.S. has welcomed immigrants. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and other faiths were here from the Founding and helped build this country. It is an experiment both in peacefulness and in the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It has been a religious enterprise, a nation building enterprise, and an enterprise in foreign affairs for which this nation has been justly celebrated.

Until now.

Would Ireland, India and so many other places have escaped their rivers of blood had their colonial rulers sought to bring people together in fairness, and ruled from the moral high ground, rather than striving to divide that they might conquer? To imagine is to wish for them the brilliance of the American solution.

America has brought peoples together for centuries. Public schools were conceived to bring together rich and poor, and they were soon called to bring together boys and girls. The military and large businesses made it their mission to bring people together across ethnic, religious and language boundaries that they might have unified armies and a unified workforce. Businesses created Americanization programs from which immigrants emerged proud Americans. Teddy Roosevelt told America that nothing brings men together like the military tent. Even racial prejudices have been receding in the face of integration – this nation has been celebrating African-Americans in music and the arts from the beginning of the twentieth century if not before, in sports especially since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodger lineup in 1947, and in many other areas since as having colleagues, bosses, employees, neighbors, friends and even spouses from different communities of race, religion and ethnic identity has become much more common. This march toward realizing the promise of equality has been going on for two hundred fifty years. Much of America has been shaped by that march, by its progress, by its moral growth.

Nothing has been more American than reaching out – in private groups and NGOs that have provided services abroad, and in government groups like the Peace Corps, US AID, Volunteers in Service to America, programs to acculturate immigrants here, provide the tools to leave poverty behind, and bring people from all cultures together in our schools and businesses.

Nothing has been so attractive to the world, as the fact that people everywhere could see themselves in us. It is a great heritage, a bulwark against all the beasts of the world; we must not forsake it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 17, 2018.

 


Impunity of the men on top?

July 12, 2018

The news has just announced that Alain Kaloyeros has been convicted on all counts. What he was convicted of doing was steering contracts to friends/supporters of Andrew Cuomo. That’s infuriating. Did Cuomo favor projects that went to his friends? That would have put everyone in a position where they had to break the law to be treated decently by the governor. And of course someone else gets the rap. I’m disgusted.

By the way, did the same thing happen when Trump removed Preet Bharara as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York? Since shortly after he was dismissed, we have heard nothing more about Bharara’s investigation of Fox. Coincidence? A subsequent US Attorney understanding who butters his bread? Or was he appointed because he and Trump had an understanding?


So-called “illegal aliens” and the Golden Door

July 10, 2018

We hear a lot of talk about legality and illegality, about illegal aliens as a wrong inflicted on the U.S. I think we need to address the significance of legality and illegality head on.

Law and morality are not the same. Slavery and the Holocaust were consistent with the written law. Assisting fugitive slaves was legally punishable in this country but those involved in the underground railroad are honored now and were often protected by people in free states while slave catchers sometimes faced riots and retribution.

This separation of law and morality is common to all parts of the political spectrum. There are arguments why laws should be obeyed but they are all contingent on how bad the violation of morality is.

The term “illegal aliens” is inappropriate for immigrants until their cases are decided. They have a right to apply regardless of how they got here. But I don’t want to get hung up on legality. My question is morality. Are immigrants morally wrong to come here at great risk to themselves and their families?

The Charter for the Nuremberg Trials took aim at crimes against humanity which included “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.” Is it then immoral to flee from likely murder, extermination, enslavement or other inhumane acts? It makes no moral sense to allege that parents were immoral because they broke American law, even if that were true, to avoid such fates, to save their children’s lives or their own.

But these arguments about immigrants miss what really matters to most of us – our willingness to share. The first time I visited the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem about the statue was on a brass plaque over the entrance. The next time it had been moved to the museum underneath. It’s the poem that ends “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Mama passed through that door as a girl of eight. She was brought here by her older brother Sam. He was 12, and they were brought up by sisters who were already here. My parents described the racism and religious prejudice that threatened many immigrant families. But it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the pogroms that mama and my dad’s parents escaped. And no one knew yet how much more dangerous that part of the world was going to be for Jewish families.

Shortly before my graduation from college I got a phone call to rush to the hospital where mama was being treated for cancer. One of the last things she said to me was “It’s a good life; I don’t want to leave it.” This country was good to my parents and they loved it. They learned English, got an education and decent jobs, raised a son, and in the summers we traveled all over this state.

My reaction to those blessings is to see the blessings immigrants brought with them, to want to share, and to treat immigrants in humane ways that once made this country a beacon to the world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 10, 2018

 

 


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