Monday, June 18, 2018

The Fear And America's Default Setting

I have a dose of the The Fear tonight like none I've ever had since perhaps the day after the 2016 election. I cannot get the knowledge that children are being ripped from their families and jailed for the crime of seeking asylum out of my head. Every single waking breathing moment I have is totally suffused with it.

It was bad enough earlier today, but then I decided to listen to that ProPublica audio and I completely lost it. My two daughters are almost six years old, and the six year old Salvadoran girl who kept repeating her aunt's phone number has a voice very much like one of my daughters. I could imagine her in that moment, confident that she could get out if she could just get the big people to understand her.

As others have pointed out, this kind of thing is not new in American life. Today's carnival of lies by DHS Secretary Nielsen reminded me of a propaganda film the government put out in 1943 to tell everyone that Japanese internment was necessary to protect the nation from saboteurs in their ranks. It also said not to worry, the internees were being treated well, as their smiling faces were supposed to attest.


Nielsen proclaimed that the kids were being treated kindly, and that this whole thing was necessary to uphold the law and to stop MS-13 and terrorists, instead of "saboteurs."

I am also reminded of many narratives by former slaves who discussed the practice of children being sold away from their mothers. Solomon Northrup's description of a boy being taken from his mother at the slave market in New Orleans brings tears to my eyes:
"The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work - such snivelling; and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick - if he didn’t, might he be d—d. Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises - how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her - all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.
Freeman damned her, calling her a blubbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place, and behave herself; and be somebody. He swore he wouldn’t stand such stuff but a little longer. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon.
The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchases, was ready to depart.
“Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,” said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.
What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene indeed. I would have cried myself if I had dared."
 This scene, of a mother crying as her child is taken away from her, is being replayed many times a day on the border as we live and breathe.

In many respects, we are seeing America return to its default setting. This nation has its origins in settler colonialism, which gave birth to a form of Herrenvolk nationalism. Until 1965, citizenship in this country was still by law dependent on race. The Voting Rights Act and Immigration Act helped change that, but that was not so long ago. Deep down, most white people (including white liberals) do not care enough about the fate of brown-skinned immigrant children to do something on their behalf. I have pledged to fight, but I am not confident that there will be victory.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Shameful Father's Day

An appropriately dark song for this Father's Day

Tomorrow is Father's Day, which is falling at an eerily appropriate moment. The nation is abuzz with the news that thousands of children have been taken from their parents at the border. On this father's day there are thousands of fathers who are living a parent's worst nightmare: to have their children stolen from them.

As a father, I can't even bear to think about this happening to me. Knowing that in my country, that this is currently being done to thousands of other fathers, is a thought that weighs on me every moment of every day. On top of that there are fathers who have been in the country for years being ripped from their families and deported.

And what exactly is happening in response? I am trying to do my part, but I am losing heart. I went to a protest last weekend, I have been calling elected officials. That's clearly not enough, but what else is to be done by someone like me?

Those of us who care are trying to fight, but the whole reason we are in this mess is that not enough people actually care. Just look at our pathetic excuse of a news media. In one of his ridiculous lies, Trump has tried to blame all this on Democrats. And the stenographers with Ivy League journalism degrees give themselves lobotomies and dutifully tell us "Trump says this, but this is what others say" as if they can't actually see the reality smacking them in the face. That kind of bothsidesism reduces the kidnapping of children to just another policy decision. I remember the run-up to the Iraq War, so this game is quite familiar to me. I am just shocked that it is still being played.

What about others? So few people have responded to the current crisis by changing their counterproductive ways. There are still the leftists sniping from the sidelines, saying "stupid liberals!" when said liberals use naive the rhetoric of "this isn't who we are" but don't bother to actually go out and do something productive. There are the nice liberals, their brains damaged by The West Wing and thinking that the system actually works and that Mueller will come on his white steed and save the day. Of course, there are the full-fledged Trump supporters who actually cheer this because they are just flat out bigoted. A less talked about group, however, are the Republicans and right-leaning independents who did not necessarily love Trump but voted for him, and who have refused to change their allegiance even after thousands of children have been kidnapped by our government. Politics has become like sports, and most people will never be able to root for the other team, even when their own is engaged in atrocities.

And the dirty little secret beneath all of this, of course, is that the vast majority of white people in this country simply do not care what happens to brown children, especially immigrant children. This goes for liberals and conservatives. Most white liberals do not approve of this policy, but neither are they willing to stick their neck out on it. Truth be told, it just doesn't matter that much to them.

As I have said many, many, times before, America is in its Brezhnev Years. Just as the Soviet Union limped on once belief in Marxism and Soviet ideology had faded before it collapsed, the United States still maintains the facade of democracy, even though a sizable number of Americans (perhaps a majority) do not really believe in it beyond lip-service. Our president certainly does not believe in it. He adores despots and attacks democratic rulers who dare to criticize him.

The only way forward that we have is to achieve what Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address: a new birth of freedom. For this nation to survive as a democracy we need to make it truly democratic, and not simply aim to restore the status quo ante, since that's what got us here in the first place. The only way that is going to happen is that those of us who want it put our shoulders to the wheel.

If you are upset by the current situation but are not doing anything about it, I urge you, being the agnostic preacher that I am, to mend your ways and repent. On this Father's Day think of the families being ripped apart. Think of the children being jailed away from their parents. Think of the parents living with the anguish that they may never see their children ever again. Don't just tweet about it. Go out there and do something. Future generations will be judging you.

Monday, June 11, 2018

What I Saw At the "Free Pablo" Protest


You may have heard now of Pablo Villavicencio, an undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant from Long Island working in New York City for a pizzeria. While making a delivery to a military base in Brooklyn, which he had done several times, he had his papers checked and was reported to ICE and detained, then told he was to be deported. He was married with two children, all American citizens, and he himself had been applying for citizenship. Like the vast majority of people in his situation, he was working and raising a family without causing any trouble.

There have been protests in the area around this. I went to one on Saturday here in New Jersey at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, where he was being held. I got the tip from a friend of mine who is a member of the local chapter of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and decided to go.

Just going to the location was an eye-opening experience. It is located in one of those famously ugly stretches of swamp, warehouses, and factories amid a tangle of highways one finds in the parts of New Jersey right across from New York City. Getting there meant having to avoid accidentally taking the New Jersey Turnpike or going through the Holland Tunnel. It was located off of old Highway 1, jammed between industrial parks and truck stops, a place that no one would take a second look at.

In fact, I arrived late to the protest because I had taken a wrong turn in the confusing highway maze and had to drive to other side of Highway 1 to find parking in a lot of a run-down truck stop diner that also advertised packaged liquor. At the protest itself there were maybe thirty people, a great many of them wearing DSA gear. Although they were not the only organization involved, almost everyone there seemed to be DSA.

A middle aged woman in a "I am an immigrant" t-shirt asked if I was a part of that group, and I said no, I was there merely to protest Pablo's detention. She seemed a little put off by the speeches I missed, which I can guess were full of the fire and brimstone of the old Marxist religion. I mostly talked to her and another woman there who was not part of the organization. While standing in the blazing early summer sun in a sea of asphalt, we were joined by a woman there with her mother and two children. She was trying to gain entrance to the facility to see her husband, who was detained there. She wasn't sure if she was going to be able too. One of her children was a two year old, the other a baby. One of the protestors held the baby so that the mother could talk about her situation to a couple of reporters on the scene.

I had made a sign on thick posterboard for the occasion, and I used it to shade the woman and baby from the sun, which in the late afternoon was beating into us. I stood there for several minutes looking at the little sleeping baby, remembering when my daughters were that small. It was almost too much to take, this tiny person having its father ripped away so soon after coming into the world. Having my children taken away from me is my absolute worst nightmare, nothing really compares to it. I kept thinking about that as the baby's mother talked to the reporters, I hope they did something with her story and that it gets heard.

Standing there in a space very much not intended for people to stand in, all I kept thinking was that there were many other places like this in America. At that moment and every other there are nondescript buildings in quiet industrial parks in this country where families are being ripped apart and American dreams are being shredded. These places may be in your town or close by, and their machinery operates right under your nose, every single day in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Ever since the day of the protest that thought has not left my mind. I woke up this morning with horrible vertigo and nausea, and ended up violently puking and having to take a sick day. I'm beginning to wonder if it wasn't psychosomatic.

Friday, June 8, 2018

King Trump's Pardon Power

The "deeply stupid" Edward VIII might be the model for America's newest monarch

The outrages and violations seem to come too fast for us to keep up with them. Our wannabe despot president gives us a new scandal each and every day, too much for us to resist. Some of them get lost in the shuffle, and one that has been too overlooked is Trump's use of the pardon power.

Yes, there was hue and cry after he pardoned conservative bottom-feeder Dinesh D'Souza, but that was one episode in a larger story that ought to be concerning for us. There was also Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby before him, establishing a pattern whereby conservative political figures who commit crimes get clemency. It should greatly concern us that the president would so brazenly use his powers to allow criminals to get away with it.

Even when he uses his pardon power for good, he uses it not as a carefully considered instrument of justice, but as a PERSONAL power. For instance, Kim Kardashian came to him to beg clemency for an inmate, and he granted it. Now he is asking protesting NFL players to give him names of people who ought to be pardoned. This is of course completely tone-deaf to what those players are saying, but he obviously sees his pardon power as a "deal making" opportunity. In his typically crass fashion, Trump is offering a quid pro quo.

Our institutions are not meant to be wielded in this fashion. I've said it before and smarter people than me have said time and again, Donald Trump does not know or care about the Constitution or democratic governance. He cares about nothing or no one but himself, with the possible exception of Ivanka, who he sees as an extension of himself. This is why he appears to get along better with despots like Putin and Duterte than with democratic leaders. He is one of them. He would have gone farther by now if not for institutional controls, but those are being worn down.

He has now discovered one area where he as president has a tremendous amount of latitude: the pardon. This power is so broad and expansive that many at the time of the Constitution's writing took issue with it. Trump has been wielding that power less like a president, and more like a king. He seeks to rule personally, as Trump, not impersonally, as president.

There is, of course, a remedy within the Constitution for this: impeachment. The men who wrote the Constitution fought a revolution against the abusive power of the English crown and were well aware that such abuses of power could happen in America. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 69 (nice):

"The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware."

Basically, removing a criminal president should be just as easy (or easier!) than removing a criminal governor.

If you read the Declaration of Independence, you'll notice that after the famous preamble, it is a long litany of accusations of abuse of power by the English crown. As flawed and messed up as the American Revolution was, we can still draw strength from its assertion that America is not to be ruled arbitrarily by kings.

Donald Trump is probably the closest thing to a wannabe king we have had in this country's history. He reminds me of so many addled monarchs in history. I think of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, who when told there were not apricot dumplings at dinner because dumplings were out of season screamed "I am emperor and I demand dumplings!"He reminds me as well of George IV, the English king who was famous for his extravagant spending and womanizing. Like Trump, he did not take power until later life, after years of wastrel behavior. Or perhaps Trump is most like Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. This ill-fated king was famously forced to abdicate the throne, partially because he was a Nazi sympathizer. Gore Vidal once described him as "deeply stupid."

It might be tempting to laugh at this, but our current mad king is possessed of much greater powers and authority than those old monarchs. He also has implements of nuclear destruction at his disposal. Yet again, things are going to get worse before they get better.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Old Dad's Records 26 (Magic)


My podcast isn't dead!  After months of neglect brought on by extreme stress, I've brought it back. The theme is the onset of summer. While I usually get miserable during the dog days of July and August, the early summer of June is one of my favorite times of the year. In this episode I talk about "Magic" by The Cars, a summer song of my youth. From there I go to one of my favorite summer back porch albums, Traffic's The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. I finish up by talking about Janelle Monae's most recent, which is my summer album for this summer.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Fight Dirty Or Don't Fight At All


My recent reading has been an education in the political tactics needed to win. I am almost done with Robert Caro's books on LBJ, a man who won by pushing, needling, and taking every advantage he could. I am currently reading Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968 about the media campaign behind Richard Nixon's election victory, as well as Marjorie Spruill's Divided We Stand, about the unsuccessful campaign to pass the ERA.

One theme has emerged from all of this reading: to win at politics you must devoted to winning above all. This is a lesson liberals, who have turned their brains into mush by watching The West Wing, seem to have a hard time understanding. Johnson knew this, and so did Nixon. Nixon's ads in 1968, midwifed by the infamous Roger Ailes, appealed viscerally to fear and hate. They were unlike anything before in their vitriol, and the other side's answers were weak.

In regards to the ERA, the pro side was divided into factions, while the the anti side was united behind Phyllis Schlafly. Her movement incorporated grassroots supporters but was directed from the top, much like the later (and related) Tea Party movement. When there were conventions in the states to elect delegates to the National Women's Conference sponsored by the government, Schlafly and her allies packed them with Bible thumpers from local churches. In many places Birchers got elected into an institution intended to advance the cause of women's rights. (In Mississippi, the Klan did so.)

Today's liberals, so wedded to notions of comity and fair play, are ignoring the fact that they are up against an enemy that is absolutely ruthless in its methods. McConnell scuttled a statement about Russian interference in the election and prevented Obama from nominating a successor to Scalia. His punishment? Getting to be the master of the Senate. Republican Senators used the "blue slip" to stop Obama's nomination, and have now refused to respect the rule when it comes to Trump's nominees.

They think they are playing a game against people who have accepted the same rules, when the only rule Republicans have is to do whatever it takes. I do not like fighting dirty, but when the person fighting you fights dirty, it's time to get down into the mud. If you can't do that it's time to get out of the damn way.

The film clip I attached above is from The Life and Times Of Colonel Blimp, an amazing British film made in 1943, during the heat of World War II. Clive Candy is a devoted British officer, but is friends with Theo, a German officer he dueled before World War I. Theo fled to Britain, disgusted by the Nazis. Candy thinks World War II can still be fought with gentlemanly notions of "fair play." Theo, having lived in Nazi Germany and seen what it was capable of, tells Candy that he must be willing to fight a nastier war if he wants to win. "The enemy is different, you must be different too" Theo counsels. A lot of liberal Candys need to hear this message from us Theos.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Thoughts

Will the sacrifice of the 54th Massachusetts have been in vain?

No one I know who has seen combat has much good to say about war. A Desert Storm vet friend said on Facebook today that he hopes war ends so that we won't need any more days of remembrance. My World War II vet grandfather told my cousin to not sign up for the military because they would throw his life away without a second thought.

Sometimes wars are regrettably necessary. Sometimes they are the most disgusting thing perpetuated by humanity. When I went to the Vietnam Memorial in DC I felt nothing but pure rage. None of the people named on that wall needed to die in that stupid conflict.

Even when wars are necessary, the sacrifice involved should give us pause. Today I am feeling especially sad. I am thinking of the African American soldiers who saved the Union in the Civil War and died for a country that still refuses to treat their descendants as equals. I am thinking of the thousands of immigrants who died for a country that now treats immigrants with contempt. I am thinking of the soldiers of all backgrounds who died to defeat Nazism in World War II. The country they died for now has a leader who is beloved by Nazis, and who has called them "very fine people."

Those dead should not have died in vain. To quote Lincoln at Gettysburg, our nation needs a new birth of freedom. I am beginning to think that the stakes are almost as high now as in 1863.