Threats to Democracy – The Shadow Knows How to Divide and Conquer

January 16, 2018

Right after Trump won, a cousin offered to send me some anti-Hillary literature that she thought I’d find convincing. I responded that if Hillary had won, she and I would be safe. But Trump’s victory emboldened those who would be perfectly happy exercising what Trump euphemistically called their Second Amendment rights, getting rid of people who don’t fit their racial and religious criteria. They were already on the streets. That left neither of us safe.

Nor is the problem just what some of his supporters believe and do. His campaign and rhetoric were about who should not be here. He continually appeals to his most extreme supporters, people who barely conceal their admiration for Hitler.

Many of us have been talking about how polarized our politics have become. Polarized politics is dangerous because it is a predicate for autocracy. If people become convinced that they can’t live with the other side’s victory, that life is too dangerous, democracy becomes unsustainable. When a live and let live attitude is gone, democracy can’t be trusted.

Trump can’t be trusted. Trump stands for exactly the kind of politics that makes democracy feel more dangerous than valuable. During the campaign, he told his supporters to express their “second Amendment rights” at the polls, sending chills down the spines of loyal Americans. When neo-Fascists showed up to demonstrate in Charlottesville fully armed to sow fear and intimidation, and one of their sympathizers murdered a peaceful and unarmed woman in the crowd, Trump blamed their opponents for the carnage. To Trump and his white supremacist supporters, evil is racial – Hispanic, immigrant, Puerto Rican, or Muslim, Blacks, Jews, minorities and women. When he tried to export his racist friends to the Brits, they told him to stay out of Britain. Bless the Brits. They get what this country used to stand for – we are [quote] “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and democracy are “indivisible”; they are and must be for ALL.

A descent into racism, Nazi or otherwise, would not make America great again. It would destroy our country. One of the things I found fascinating in the papers of the UN Commission on Human Rights which produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was that human rights was not an American idea foisted on the world. Hatred of the Nazis came from across the globe, all continents, all its peoples. What they saw, regardless of economic or political system or religious or ethnic heritage was that the Nazis were a threat to everyone. All countries worked with the single-minded goal that there should be no more Hitlers, no more Nazi control of any country. The world had defeated the Nazis and they weren’t about to have to do it again.

Trump doesn’t get or care that democracy depends on our agreement that all Americans are legitimate Americans, all Americans need to be respected and cared about, and all Americans need to feel safe here, or he is wielding the demonization of some of us precisely to end self-government.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program that some of you will remember. It’s tag line, voiced by actor Frank Readick Jr., was “what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow knows.” I make no claim to knowing what evil does or doesn’t lurk in the heart of Trump. But threatening America from the inside, he is the biggest threat to the survival of America since our Civil War.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 16, 2018.

 

 

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The Innocence Project

December 26, 2017

I want to talk about people we are less used to talking about around Christmas.

Several times a year I am guaranteed to have a good cry – whenever I get the latest bulletin from the Innocence Project. Without fail they describe at length someone who spent decades in prison, sometimes on death row, for crimes they did not commit. As a human being I am always heartbroken. As an American who believes that we all have a right to liberty, I am both sick and outraged.

And once freed, what education, training or experience do they have? Did they have a chance to start a family and are any left to warm their hearts? The dislocation of freedom is immense. I’ve met men in prison afraid to come out. Those lost decades freeze the soul as they scar past, present and future. Freedom is precious. It also unravels.

I am outraged because there are too many in this country, too many with the power, to keep people in prison, even execute them, even after it has become clear that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Justice O’Connor, bless her heart, saw that as unacceptable, although we didn’t always agree on the facts. But the Supreme Court has not yet found the character or the will to conclude that it is unconstitutional to hold an innocent person once that becomes clear, or to sit tight and deny a hearing once evidence has been found that makes it improbable that the prisoner was guilty. The Court has refused to find a right to DNA evidence when that could prove innocence. And prosecutors repeatedly do everything they can to withhold evidence that could result in justice instead of in conviction. The Supreme Court has even said that there are no penalties for withholding evidence even when it is in clear violation of constitutional obligations.

As an American, it is an understatement to say that is no source of pride. As an attorney and a human being, it is a source of disgust – and fear. A legal process that ignores justice is a threat to us all. The purpose of the Bill of Rights and of the Fourteenth Amendment is to protect us all from the abuse of law to polish the prosecutor’s reputation or prejudices instead of serving the cause of justice. Unfortunately attorneys know that the criminal process is more like a canning factory than an effort to separate the innocent from the guilty, truth from lies, and fairness from abuse.

The ACLU and the CATO Institute, otherwise often on opposite sides, come together in support of truth and accurate decision-making. But when the issue is the rights of people accused of crime or the rights of people who have been imprisoned, too many eyes glaze over, not from tears but indifference. Yet those rights, if and when they are honored, are what differentiate us from a police state where people can be imprisoned because of their politics, their parentage or their refusal to kowtow to the unreasonable demands of authorities. These are part of the central meaning of being an American.

The people whose title is Justice of the United States Supreme Court who vote most consistently to protect the right to life of fetuses are the least likely to protect life in any other context. That is hypocrisy under black robes. The behavior of callous prosecutors and unqualified Supreme Court justices is an American disgrace.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 26, 2017.


The Middle Class and the Poor

December 19, 2017

This is a season in which many of us make donations to help those with less than we do. But in the larger context, we need a better understanding of the poor.

For years now, politicians have been talking about the middle class. Being in the middle class doesn’t mean that one has it made. There are unfulfilled hopes and potential financial shocks that could knock almost any of us down and out. We know that and many of us are rightly concerned about it. The market has no feelings. It dispenses with people like so much trash. That should leave all of us concerned.

But when politicians talk about the middle class, I hear something else. I hear them telling us that no one else counts, especially not the poor. Many people treat the poor like trash. We even have names for it. A lawyer working for me once described his own family as poor white trash. He was nothing of the sort of course and his family couldn’t have been either – they brought up a very decent young man.

Tom Paxton wrote a song in which he says “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” I had the pleasure of telling him after one of his concerts that song was very meaningful to me. I spent about ten years as a poverty lawyer in various positions in three different states. My clients weren’t trash and they did matter. They were decent, hardworking people who had suffered some reversal. Often, just as hard as the loss of income was the blow to their pride when they were out of work. The poor don’t have a financial cushion when things go bad. They can’t retire and rely on the pensions they don’t have. I remember working to get one of my clients who did have a right to a pension – it was thirty dollars a month.

With no money coming in, they spend most of their time trying to find things cheap enough to squeeze into their meager budgets. When people are poor, they are also very vulnerable not only to emergencies but also to fraud – they have little time or capacity to compare or investigate. Everything looks like an opportunity, even though too many offers are a mirage, squeezing out what little people have left.

We in the middle class are also linked to the poor because the worse they are treated, the worse we can be treated. That’s hardly a new observation. Free laborers in the pre-Civil War north objected to the way slavery lowered what they were paid for their labor. We are all affected by everyone’s wages. When the minimum wage goes up, so do lots of other peoples’ wages as well. When wages are set or negotiated it is always done with an eye to what other people are being paid.

The poor matter in another way. It’s very damaging to all of us to treat people like trash. Treat people like trash and train them to behave like it, and train ourselves to misbehave. George Mason spoke from experience when he told the Constitutional Convention that slavery made tyrants of the slaveholders. Civilization and civility require civilized behavior from all of us.

It’s also political. For all our fussing about corruption, Commonwealth United, respect for people of all backgrounds, and other issues of concern to those of us who feel like we are in more comfortable circumstances than the poor, who are our allies? And if we want allies, are we theirs?

Tom Paxton was right, if the poor don’t matter then neither do I.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 19, 2017.


From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.


Sloppy Thinking About Gun Control

November 14, 2017

After the car ran down people in lower Manhattan, I read an article about making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the author’s suggestions but I want to make a point about arguments for and against. One could say that people with bad intentions will just find other ways to kill lots of people. True or false? Actually it’s completely misleading. How many people with bad intentions will find other ways and how many won’t? How many people will do as much damage to as many people and how many won’t? The statement that some will doesn’t tell you. And the claim that all will is pure nonsense.

In the early 70s, I was a manager of the New York City legal services program, then known as Community Action for Legal Services or CALS. We had twenty-two offices around the city. All of them were in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. And in those pre-computer days, many of them had IBM Selectric typewriters which made our staff much more efficient but were expensive. Some thieves craved them. In our East New York office there had been a series of burglaries. After each we hardened the office against further break-ins. But those thieves were determined. Unable to get through the doors, they blew a hole through the wall and took the typewriters.

Obviously some thieves will use explosives. Should we have concluded that we might as well remove the locks on the doors of our twenty-one other offices? Plainly no. Nor would I recommend that you remove the locks from the doors of your homes. Nor would I recommend that you take all the shades and drapes down became peeping toms will find a way around them. Thinking about problems without examining how many, and what proportion of people will do how much damage is just sloppy thinking.

The NRA tells us that bad people will get guns. That statement is neither right nor wrong. If they mean some bad people will get guns no matter what we do, that is clearly true. But if they mean that whatever measures we take will not reduce the number of bad people who can get powerful weapons, that is clearly false. And they can’t tell us anything realistic about the proportions because they convinced Congress to block research into the effect of possible regulation of weapons. So they make sloppy statements hoping you’ll be taken in.

The Founders of our country were not so sloppy and they did lots to regulate guns – the most significant of which was to prohibit people from keeping ammunition in their homes. Ammunition exploded and caused fires so it had to be kept in public armories. Regulation mattered and they knew it.

So when people try to tell you what regulation will or won’t do, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes with sloppy nonsense. Some regulations work better than others. That’s a valuable subject of research and study, not an occasion for sloppy all-or-nothing claims.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 14, 2017.

 

 


Against a New Constitutional Convention for New York State

October 31, 2017

In a week, we will be voting to decide whether to call a constitutional convention for the State of New York. The powers of the Convention would be wide open. Before going further, it is important to look at the provisions for calling the Convention:

in case a majority of the electors voting thereon shall decide in favor of a convention … the electors of every senate district of the state … shall elect three delegates at the next … general election, and the electors of the state voting at the same election shall elect fifteen delegates-at-large.

Let me repeat one crucial phrase, “the electors of every senate district of the state.” The New York Senate as we all know has been gerrymandered for many years to maximize Republican control of the Senate. Although the increasingly blue hue of our state politics has forced them into coalition with the so-called Independent Democrats, the NY Senate remains much more conservative than the Assembly, and not fairly representative of the people of the State. Everyone should be represented. Everyone’s ideas count. But everyone should be represented fairly and their ideas should be considered by a body that represents us fairly. Since the Convention would be shaped only by senatorial districts plus a few delegates chosen at large, I would not be willing to trust our future as a state to such a body.

You may have repeatedly heard me talk about gerrymandering. Many of us who have been fighting gerrymandering for years have continued to fight it regardless of who is the temporary beneficiary. Republicans should not have to accept a convention gerrymandered toward Democrats any more than Democrats should have to accept a convention gerrymandered toward Republicans, as it is now. Frankly, that alone determines my vote. End gerrymandering first and than we can talk about constitutional change.

The current New York State Constitution was adopted in 1938. In other words it was adoped near the end of the Great Depression. As such it had important provisions with the great mass of us in mind, not just the one-tenth of one percent who often think everything should favor them. That too makes it important to protect this Constitution. Of course it is not perfect. And when we get rid of gerrymandering, we may be able to fix it. But now losing this Constitution would be too dangerous.

Moreover, much that is wrong with this Constitution has nothing to do with its language and everything to do with the interpretation of the Courts. Just as I would not jettison the U.S. Constitution because of Scalia’s misreadings, so I would not jettison the 1938 New York Constitution because the courts screwed it up.

To the extent that some people believe some provisions could be improved, it would be sufficient to propose those specific improvements to the people of this state without using them as a Trojan Horse to threaten the entire document.

If any more reasons are needed, there is no reason to believe the delegates will be a step up from the legislature which already has the power to propose amendments. And I would be much more comfortable if the powers of any convention elected to revise the Constitution were limited to matters carefully defined in advance so that we could know how large a threat they pose.

I believe the people of this state would be wiser, safer and better off voting no.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 31, 2017.


Dealing with Hate

October 24, 2017

Dealing with Hate

Steve Gottlieb

 

Group epithets darken our world. It is particularly dangerous because the president encourages it. Trying to revive the language and practice of hate is shameful regardless of whom it comes from. How can we deal with it?

 

Somehow I grew up curious and sought out people who seemed different. I deliberately left New York City for college and law school to mix with people from other places. Students here come from distant parts of the country for the same reason. We discover our new companions have no horns and deal decently with us, although there are always exceptions.

 

I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for it but brotherhood makes sense. And it’s a survival strategy. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His words urge us to stick together as a survival tactic – we can be selfish and altruistic at the same time and should be because brotherhood is valuable to us all.

Most of us learned not to generalize – branding people en masse makes little sense and lots of damage. Our language is full of ethnic slurs like welching on deals, Indian-givers, patty-wagons, not to mention all the ethnic slurs which most of us now regard as unmentionable but to which all our ancestors were subject. In other words, it’s too easy to break down into mutual distrust.

I’ve broken bread, worked and played with people around this country and across the globe, as an attorney, a Peace Corps Volunteer, tourist and student. It’s an education. Decent, caring people come in all colors, speak all languages, and worship in all kinds of places. That was as true in Iran as it was at college – I was a religious minority in both places but gained by both experiences as I learned to understand the needs, fears, desires and beliefs of others.

Unfortunately it’s too easy to fear what one hasn’t explored. We usually notice what goes wrong first, while what goes right seems too ordinary to notice. But that leaves lots of dangerous misimpressions. I grew up in an era when violence spewed out of white ghettos, from gangs in Black jackets but white skin. Should I fear every white American or every cleric because some went wrong? I’ve known a large number of wonderful African-Americans as well as people of other faiths and nationalities – some as clients, friends, colleagues and I’ve worked for several. The goodness of different peoples obviously doesn’t prove that none ever make mistakes but equally the mistakes of some don’t imply the absence of other wonderful people.

More significant than arguments, we need to condemn, resist and speak out. Hatred reveals the hater’s weakness. Our joint condemnations reveal how hatred destroys those who do the hating, costs them respect and other social and economic rewards. We must stand together.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 24, 2017.


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