The Don in Giovanni

November 30, 2016

Hi folks,

I don’t usually tell stories, but sometimes an ancient story seems to have contemporary relevance.

We know the character I’m thinking about as DON Juan. In Italian it is DON Giovanni, the title character of a Mozart opera. Don is an honorific title. Like some people with whom we share this world, DON Giovanni is a braggart. Leporello, his servant sings “Mille et tres” – in English, “a thousand and three.” Leporello counts the women all over Europe that DON Giovanni has dishonored – six hundred and forty in Italy alone; two hundred thirty-one in Germany; a hundred in France; ninety-one more in Turkey. And in Spain, oh in Spain already one thousand and three. Leporello adds that these girls came from all ranks of society – girls from the city and the country, maidservants, and noble women, members of the aristocracy. DON Giovanni uses different lines for women of every hair color, shape and weight.

The first half of the opera is light-hearted. Peasants dance in preparation for the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto. But DON Giovanni sends Masetto off with a combination of claims that everything will be fine because he, the DON, is a nobleman, plus thinly veiled threats with his sword. Then the DON dangles enticements before Zerlina. Zerlina sings “I would, but I would not.” I remember seeing a young couple sing that duet on the lawn at Chautauqua – I can no longer remember their names but never forget how well that Zerlina sang, coquettish but embarrassed at her own desire, completely understanding Zerlina’s predicament. Zerlina knew that this nobleman might be insincere, merely to dishonor her, but finds herself unable to resist. That first Act ends with others, who know and resent the DON’s tricks, rescuing Zerlina. DON Giovanni comments that the Devil is playing with him.

The second half of the opera is quite different. DON Giovanni has escaped those angry with him and taken refuge in a graveyard near the statue of the character known in italian as il Commendatore, commemorating a man killed by DON Giovanni, and the father of one of the noblewomen who has rescued Zerlina. An inscription at the base of the statue demands vengeance. There in the graveyard, the statue speaks, warning DON Giovanni he is near the end. Cool and fearless, DON Giovanni invites him to dinner. Sure enough, il Commendatore appears at dinner as a white shrouded statue – we could call him a ghost – demanding repentence. DON Giovanni refuses to repent, claiming he fears nothing. They scream at each other, “Repent;” “Never;” “Repent;” “Never.” Like the Donald we have to live with, the DON that was Giovanni [quotes] “loved” women too much to regret dishonoring them.

Mozart, often thought of as writing music that ranges from merely pretty to soaringly beautiful, grabs musical lightning from the Lord and hurls it at DON Giovanni, pulling him down and taking him to Hell.

Mozart’s opera ends with the characters in chorus making clear that is exactly where the DON belongs.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 29, 2016.


Cultural Revolution and Human Understanding

November 1, 2016

I encountered two images last night worth talking about.

Our daughter called us after leaving a Hillary rally and she commented that Democratic rallies are love fests where everyone feels welcome. Yes, that’s a large part of my own positive reaction to Hillary. People reflect the candidates – warmth at Hillary rallies, anger at Trump’s.

And in an article on an on-line forum, Neil Siegel wrote “The consequentialist concern that traditionalists will be branded as bigots is sufficiently serious for Justice Alito that it counts as a reason for the Court to reject” constitutional claims.

I identify with our daughter’s reaction. But Siegel’s comment makes clear one of the reasons my former student, now vice president of a major news organization, wrote me that he understands the feelings of many good people who have been drawn to Trump’s banner. Part of that is the economic struggle of America’s working class, a subject I’ve repeatedly tried to address. But part is the culture war which I’d like to address today.

It’s often hard to win without gloating. And conservatives have been no better at it than liberals. But it’s important. That’s not to say the victories we liberals are fighting for are for sale. We want to welcome, protect, show warmth and respect toward all kinds of people who were once despised. We’ve shared many victories with our African-American friends without managing to get them the fair shake in this life that they deserve. But that circle of friendship needs to reach all those who are struggling in this challenging world.

Living as a minority of one in a distinct community reveals the warmth, welcome and dignity of sharing each other’s lives. Born in a predominantly Jewish part of Brooklyn, if I can be permitted to address it from my personal experience, I spent summers in Christian Chautauqua and felt the love and welcome. Born a few years before the best universities in the country decided to drop their quotas, I took my high school college advisor’s suggestion to apply to Princeton and was surprised when I went for an interview by their encouragement to come. By the time I applied to law school, the welcome this Brooklyn kid got was less surprising. When I left Yale, I enjoyed another welcome by the legal staff of the NAACP and then in the Peace Corps by the people I came to know in Iran. I discovered a long time ago that the fears of others’ reactions were my fears. I went south to meet my future wife’s Baptist family and got one of the most important welcomes of my life. I hope they felt the same from me.

So opening up to others now comes easily to me. But I too understand the depth of the cultural revolution. I hope we can extend that welcome so that everyone can enjoy the camaraderie and mutual respect that comes from really opening up. When Hillary says she wants to be the president for all the people, she strikes the right note. But I hope that the people who will vote against her will prove able to see her care and concern better than people were able to appreciate those qualities in Barack Obama.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 1, 2016.


A Scary Election

October 25, 2016

Over a century ago, populism was sweeping the country, with white and African-American workers standing together, until a scared Southern aristocracy started race-baiting. Whites took the bait, breaking the back of Southern populism. The rest of the country surged forward because their governments cared about the people, the regular people, not just the fancy financiers. But not in the South, which languished.

That race-baiting aristocracy also killed political competition, leading to the one-party South. No democracy, no concern for the people, no progress. Because race-baiting broke the back of Populism.

Trump uses rhetoric to divide the people hoping he and his cronies can conquer while the rest of us fight each other. Trump attacks everyone – immigrants, African-, Hispanic-, and Muslim-Americans, women, hard-working, warm-hearted, caring Americans of every background.

Democracy is in danger when people can’t accept the legitimacy of disagreement, drown out and threaten opponents, and don’t respect the right to vote of other people because of where they live or where their parents came from. Losing respect for others threatens democracy. Most of us believe that everyone has a right to their opinion. Democracy is in trouble when some try to shut down that right.

Democracy is threatened by campaign crowds yelling “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets.” Promising to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Hillary, Donald feeds their hostility to democracy. Like Italy’s Berlusconi, Donald tries to cover revelations about his behavior by throwing hate to angry crowds. Hillary responds “That happens in dictatorships, not democracies.” She’s nailed it; Trump does not want to lead a democratic country; he’s trying to sabotage it.

Trump’s racism and nativism has broken the back of the movement for economic justice. His invitation to settling the election by beating people up and using their Second Amendment rights encourages force, intimidation and even guns, to take Hillary out. Telling his supporters to prevent the polls being rigged codes Trump’s message to control the election by threats and intimidation.

Democracy is in serious trouble when police and military institutions take sides. Individuals in the uniformed services have every right to their political views. But we’ve had a tradition of keeping the military out of politics. We should be able to rely on them to protect every voter’s rights regardless of politics. The military and police need to be above politics or democracy is at risk.

Trump is trying to forge a coalition to muscle democracy out of the way.

If the self-proclaimed rich guy wins, he knows how to enrich himself and his cronies. But he pulls his supporters along with constantly repeated half-truths, lies and fabrications until they seem true because he says them so often – stringing them together like a rant overwhelming any attempt to answer because there’s too much to deal with.

Economic desperation leaves many open to his lies. But they cannot put a populist program together on the back of a divided America. They cannot get government to work on behalf of all the people, not just the super rich, by dividing over skin color, national origin and gender.

The Constitution, the Declaration, the Founders’ legacy, are in trouble when despondent and demoralized people lose faith in self-government. When democracy is in trouble, everyone is in trouble because dictators don’t take care of their people – they take care of themselves.

These same patterns have brought democracy down in many parts of the globe. But for Mr. Trump, we’re all losers and our democracy is a loser too. For Trump, only Trump counts.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 25, 2016.


Democratic Decay

October 10, 2016

I wish it weren’t so, but the anti-democratic elements in this US election, and the Trump campaign, are making the dangers identified in my book seem like a near-term prediction – the well-justified revolt of the economically forgotten leading them to trust a bankrupt businessman and TV star who recycles empty promises, stereotypes and prejudices to gain their votes, the courting of the gun-toters coupled with thinly veiled threats and violence, the racist and male-chauvinist language, religious bigotry and xenophobia proposals, a candidate clearly out of control by the party he nominally represents, a demagogue repeating empty slogans until they start to seem believable, are all dangerous. Worse it seems to be a world-wide trend, Tom Gerald Daly, Time to View Democratic Decay as a Unified Research Field?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 30, 2016, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2016/09/time-to-view-democratic-decay-as-a-unified-research-field. This clearly needs to stop.


Hilary

September 27, 2016

I’ve been traveling and so I’m playing catch up. But I was shocked at the reactions I heard to Hilary’s illness. I expected people to do what we do when most people get sick – wish her well and hope she can get over it quickly. What I heard was just grousing that she said she was fine.

What do you and I do when people ask how we are? “Fine how about you?” “Good, I’m fine too.” Got a cold? “Nah, I’m fine. How about you?” In America we’re taught to be tough and not complain. In fact, if I ask my students how they are, their most common answer is “Can’t complain.” I often joke back, asking what they’re doing in law school if they can’t complain. I once passed one of my best college profs and with the usual pleasantries, I asked him how he was. Prof. Babbitt leaned in toward me, with a smile on his face, and burst out “Terrible!” Then he straightened up laughing and walked on, leaving this college kid totally nonplussed. But I got the message. We’re taught to be strong; that’s the way Americans handle illness. And we admire that in others.

But people didn’t give Hilary the benefit of adhering to our standards of behavior. The woman tried to tough it out like we’re all taught to do but the press crucified her for it. Thank heavens I’m not running for president; I don’t need that nonsense. You’d of thought people would have the grace to wish her well instead of crucifying her for trying to put a strong face on an illness.

I hate to tell you folks but anyone can get sick, including presidents and candidates, whether they try to tough it out or play bluster about their health. We can argue ‘til kingdom come about what Hilary should have done. But what she did do was to behave the way we are all taught to do. How bad is that? As for me, I wish her well.

I also wish that people would give her the credit she deserves. She’s pretty obviously a very intelligent person, and had the benefit of a terrific education. She could have earned a mint as a lawyer. But she left her practice and devoted herself to public service. I respect her for that.

She was our senator here in New York and what I kept hearing was that she won a great deal of respect all over the state and in Congress because people quickly saw that she worked hard at the job, worked on the needs of the whole state, studied the problems, and worked with everyone she could to solve problems. She was our senator and she took that seriously. I respect her for that.

She’s also been criticized for the way she handled some of her husband’s mistakes. But we are all taught to forgive. Hilary did, and she was crucified for it. We used to be taught that marriage is permanent, for all time. Hilary stuck by her husband and got crucified for it.

It seems that there is no code of behavior that is good enough for Hilary. But I respect her as a person who is doing her best to work for me and for you. She ought to get a lot of credit for that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Sept. 27, 2016.


Democracy and Compromise

September 13, 2016

Since Obama’s election, congressional Republicans and their Tea Party challengers made Obama’s defeat their overriding goal, and when they couldn’t do that, they did everything they could to make him seem like a total failure, an example of politics gone completely awry. To accomplish those goals, they refused to give him any victories – not on infrastructure, not on economic stimulus, not on judicial nominations and they tried to retract his success with the Affordable Care Act under a Democratic Congress.

The Republican decision that nothing could go forward without support of a majority of the Republicans in each house of Congress gave power to a majority of their caucus but a minority of Americans. Had dissenting Republicans been able to vote their conscience, some real negotiation would have been possible. The harsh stance driven by the Tea Party was a form of power play by a determined minority that got its hands on a way to block the congressional majority from even bringing bills to the floor.  It was not a prelude to negotiation and it was not an example of democracy at work.

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Sanders supporters argued that they could take nothing less than Sanders or a third party – even if it made a Trump victory more likely.

In this era of my-way-or-the-highway politics, it needs to be explained why democracy is and should be about compromise.

If a majority can do anything, or a majority of representatives, can do whatever they wish, then one portion of the population can be left with virtually nothing. That may be majority rule. But it has nothing to do with fairness or equality. Democracy gets its moral authority from taking everyone’s interests and needs into account. We routinely talk about the combination of majority rule and minority rights. Merely giving the majority the power to exercise power over everyone else is a definition of tyranny, not democracy. Where bargaining is possible, even small or unpopular groups can get some recognition of their needs. Where bargaining is possible, even permanent minorities can get some modicum of decent treatment. Without bargaining, permanent minorities can be stripped of virtually everything. Bargaining gives some meaning to the ideal of equality. The willingness to work things out has always been one of the things that had made America a leader of the free world.

The Founders of this country tried to force some degree of compromise by the different ways they constructed the Senate and the House of Representatives. Before the Civil War the struggle to reach compromises was all about slavery and freedom, the rare area where compromise ultimately became as impossible as it was immoral. After the war, a spirit of compromise reemerged so that America could deal with conflicts between rural and urban areas and other issues.

Sometimes compromise works better than others. Some of us remember within our own lifetimes when absolutely nothing could be done if it included any benefits for African-Americans, and the use of the filibuster to prevent any breach in the wall of segregation.

Many astute observers of democratic government point out that the system works best and most fairly when the needs of different groups of people overlap – disagreeing on some, agreeing on others. That gives groups an incentive to bargain so that everybody gets a fair shake. Even so-called nonnegotiable demands can sometimes be balanced against other similarly important demands of other groups.

Civil war becomes more likely when democracy becomes a contest over nonnegotiable demands that are beyond any form of bargaining. Democracy does not have to be a zero-sum game, where some win the brass ring and the rest merely polish the brass.

Americans need to relearn the art of compromise. Our democracy and our country will be better for it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 13, 2016.

 


Trump’s Audience

August 23, 2016

Behind Trump’s remarks and his imperviousness to criticism is the audience he’s after.

Trump charges that this election is rigged because his audience doesn’t like who can vote. One can respond that elections have been rigged by the Court since it stopped the count in Florida to make Bush president, but that misses Trump’s and his audience’s objection. The Court has unleashed the full contents of corporate treasuries, tightened the screws on union finances, encouraged states to exclude African-Americans from the voting booths and supported gerrymandering so that Republican controlled legislatures could rig elections against Democrats. Those decisions rigged the election in Trump’s favor. But for his audience, rigging the election means including what some still call Fourteenth Amendment citizens. They object that the first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment makes everyone born here citizens, especially Blacks and browns.

Trump’s inconsistency on foreign policy is also because of the audience he wants. While claiming Democrats are weak on foreign threats, Trump also wants to withdraw from NATO which has held the Russians at bay for over half a century. And he has told us that he would consider not coming to the aid of an attacked NATO member. Never mind speculating whether he’s a wimp, a loudmouth, or a Russian agent. The important question is who’s his audience and why? Actually extremists have imagined international conspiracies that only they can believe in. Trump clearly wants their support. That leaves the rest of us wondering whether they would be center stage if he won. Making international conspiracies the number one villain helps explain Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and his invitation to Russia to hack into the computers used by a Secretary of State. One points out in vain that’s an invitation to foreign espionage. Trump got his message across; he’s with the fringe, the conspiracy theorists, and the people with lots of hate.

Then there’s Trump’s comment that Second Amendment people might have a way of dealing with Hilary and her judicial nominees if she is elected. When questioned about those remarks Trump responded that he was just kidding. Besides, he said maybe. No advocacy there. He wasn’t trying to get anyone killed. But why did he do that?

Politicians have reasons for what they say. He was seeking support from precisely those people who could imagine using guns that way. Surely some would just like to have violent dreams. But some are more likely to act on dreams like that when encouraged by people like Trump, and will understand his words as a call to violent action, action that undermines democratic self government.

Beyond whether Trump should be expected to talk like a responsible adult, is the question whether we have the responsibility, whatever our politics, not to enjoy such language, responsibility not to reward it, but to stand tall for the real America, the America that claims to believe in law and order and in self government that celebrates our ability to disagree without threats, assaults and murder.

Trump makes statements like that because he has an audience for it. If most of that audience has the maturity and the loyalty it claims, it must be prepared to turn against candidates who misuse it. Supporters of gun rights must believe that gun owners have an obligation to act and speak responsibly and to keep political and racial hatreds away from trigger fingers.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 21, 2016.

 


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