A Note from 1968

In 1968, while the “bully Barrs,” teenaged William Barr, his older brother and his two younger brothers, were pugnacious young conservatives in liberal New York City, sneering at and tangling with anti-war protesters (while, of course, not themselves serving in the war they supported [1]), a landmark government study of systemic American racism came out. This is from a recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled What the Tumultuous Year 1968 Can Teach Us About Today:

In late February 1968, the REPORT OF THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMISSION ON CIVIL DISORDERS indicted structural racism as the underlying cause of the terrible riots that had stretched from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission, led by the Illinois governor Otto Kerner and the New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, said. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”

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“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.”

This 1968 conclusion seems pretty self-evident, still sickeningly true more than fifty years later, in spite of the relentless “culture war” being fought by reactionaries who insist history is not what it may appear to be, that America’s real problem is irrationally angry protesters who need to be controlled by a strong police anti-riot response.

This society, like others around the world, was at a turning point as in 1968. Several strategic assassinations did their part to silence powerful voices and hobble the movement for needed social change. Power yields nothing without a struggle, as Frederick Douglass observed during the fight to abolish slavery here. Martin Luther King, Jr. put forth the argument (fatal for him) that racism, poverty and militarism are inextricably intertwined, three faces of the same monster.

As the Barrs were confronting and menacing hippie-types, the Kerner Commission found basically the same institutional forces that King had described. The far-right push against integration and full rights of citizenship for every American was already well underway by 1968, and the forces that would become more and more dominant over the years of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, etc.– and have become ascendant in the Republican party of today — was a tireless multigenerational push. Barr among the determined underdogs pushing hard for his point of view, from his earliest years, apparently.

Donald Trump is a racist and he doesn’t care to hide it, even as he brags (in the manner of the best racists everywhere) that he’s the “least racist person” anybody’s ever met. I don’t know if William Pelham Barr is a racist. It doesn’t really matter. Barr insists there’s no institutional racism in the United States, that very few unarmed blacks are killed by police, that blacks should show respect for the police if they expect protection, that militant anti-fascists are the real threat in America, not the armed gangs of white supremacists the FBI confirms have killed numerous Americans, as well as plotting organized terroristic violence against elected officials.

For a quick peek at Barr’s continual role in the “Culture War”, here’s a snapshot of Barr at work, from 1992. During his first stint as Attorney General he authored a widely criticized report called:

The Case for More Incarceration

In 1992, Barr authored a report, The Case for More Incarceration,[42] which argued for an increase in the United States incarceration rate, the creation of a national program to construct more prisons, and the abolition of parole release.[4] Barr argued that incarceration reduced crime, pointing to crime and incarceration rates in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990.

A 1999 criminology study criticized Barr’s analysis, saying “so complex an issue as the relationship between crime and punishment cannot be addressed through so simplistic an analysis as a negative correlation between the two very aggregated time series of crime rates and incarceration rates.”[43] 

University of Minnesota criminologist Michael Tonry said the data in Barr’s report was deceptively presented; if Barr had chosen five-year intervals, then the data would not have supported Barr’s argument, and if Barr had chosen to look at violent crime specifically (as opposed to all crimes as a category), then the data would not have supported his argument.[44]

Barr said in the report, “The benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans”.[44] In the report, Barr approvingly quoted New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton, “I don’t know anyone [who] goes to prison on their first crime. By the time you go to prison, you are a pretty bad guy.”[45] Barr’s report influenced the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which aimed to increase the incarceration rate.[4]

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I can picture the smug satisfaction on his big, provocative, culture warrior face as he typed “the benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans.” Enjoyed, you understand, in the always fresh sense of extreme right-wing humor, illustrated by the Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Liberates”) sign over the gates of a death camp where slave laborers were worked to death by corporations who signed on for the great labor deal.

Here is a brief summary of some of Barr’s early work for Mr. Trump (from October 2019). It includes Barr’s official attempt to squash the “urgent and credible” whistleblower complaint that would eventually lead to his client’s impeachment.

Barr essentially dismissed the findings of the two-year-long Mueller investigation. Barr has supported measures that could lead to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. He has apparently approved administration officials’ refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas. And lately, according to the Washington Post, Barr has been meeting with espionage officials from foreign governments, “seeking their help in a Justice Department inquiry that President Trump hopes will discredit U.S. intelligence agencies’ examination” of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential contest—a sign that Trump and Barr may be using “executive branch powers to augment investigations aimed primarily at the president’s adversaries.”

Amid this convulsion, Barr made headlines in September when it turned out that his Justice Department had downgraded a whistle-blower’s report, initially keeping it out of the loop that would have allowed Congress to review it. The complaint accused the president of potentially impeachable offenses, including a possible threat to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless the country’s leader began an investigation that might dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponent, Joe Biden. The whistle-blower’s account, which was deemed “urgent” and “credible” by the intelligence community’s Trump-appointed inspector general, alleged that the president had urged his Ukrainian counterpart to coordinate an internal Biden probe with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr.

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The lines in New York City for early voting are hours long. Sekhnet got to her polling place almost two hours before the polls opened today, and waited twenty minutes to get in. The line was many blocks longer when she left the polling place the wait hours longer. Bring a book, some things to listen to, a folding chair, water. Waiting to vote is a one time inconvenience.

These motherfuckers have to go. It is long past time.

[1]

I don’t know for certain that no other bully Barr served in Vietnam, though I highly doubt any did. For his part, William Pelham Barr told senators, during his confirmation hearing to become Trump’s replacement Attorney General, that he hadn’t registered for the draft in 1968, the year he turned 18. He later wrote to the ranking members of the committee, to correct the record, explaining, with his trademark candor and reasonableness, that he “initially told lawmakers he had not registered because he is now too old for compulsory military service.” You know, and also, there hasn’t been a draft, or compulsory military service here in the USA, in many years.

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A little history for young people, and a bit of consolation in a worst case scenario (attempt to outright steal the election)

To anyone who came of political age during the last four years, kids in High School, young adults — it was not always like this in our country. There were once two political parties, flawed and unresponsive to the needs of millions of citizens, that were forced to work together and compromise to solve major problems. Today there is only sickening partisan warfare between the parties. This ugly situation has a long and winding history, it is not of Mr. Trump’s making, though he exploits it every day and is the present provocative face of it.

In a post-Trump America, there will be a lot of work to be done, and millions of us will have to be willing to do it, but the division in our nation was not this grim or menacing (not since the eve of the Civil War) and it will be better going forward. It has to. The pendulum of history swings, with agonizing slowness sometimes, but it does swing, based on what millions organize to no longer tolerate.

At the risk of sounding like the didactic old bastard I am, a few examples, a little perspective for those too young to remember anything other than what you see on your phone every day.

Then at least one concrete reason to be optimistic, even in a worst case scenario (for concerned citizens of all ages).

A little history:

In the past there would be no controversy, spread by the president himself, and amplified by loyal spokespeople, about proven safety precautions during a deadly pandemic or the need to marshal the federal government to provide guidance and protective equipment.

Only a party that had shut down the government three times in less than four years would refuse to pass a law to help millions of citizens from falling into poverty after jobs disappear, to prevent an epidemic of homelessness during a raging pandemic that has already killed almost a quarter of a million Americans. At one time a government shutdown was only employed by reckless political bomb-throwers. Now it is a regular annual tactic of the ruling minority-supported party, used to twist arms during budget talks by making the populace suffer.

In a more reasonable age there would be no controversy about the driving force behind the sharp annual increase in killer storms, the looming (and visible) climate catastrophe that only fanatics and fools can ignore. The president and his administration would not normally withdraw from a worldwide agreement to slow the warming of the earth while it denounced the other leaders and the world’s top climate scientists as bunch of job-killing, freedom-hating liberal stooges (and worse). No previous president would mock young climate activists as “terrorists” and crybabies.

Americans never woke up every day to see the headline “the president attacked (insert name here).” American presidents, even the most divisive ones, rarely attacked anyone. No American president would ever call the government infectious disease specialist who’d been heading his pandemic task force “a disaster” for not backing him in his absurd claims that nobody could have done a better job controlling the outbreak than the leader of the nation with the worst infection and death numbers in the world.

Few elected officials would fail to condemn racism or remain coy about an influential “theory” that holds that Democrats and Hollywood elites are satanist, child-raping, blood-drinking cannibals. “I know they feel very strongly against pedophilia,” is something no past president would ever have said by way of his complete response to a question about an insane and widespread conspiracy theory.

You would not see a case in the Supreme Court to abolish a health insurance program that protects tens of millions of Americans from death due to inability to pay for medical care, particularly not during a pandemic. A program the right continually tried to repeal (and missed by one Senate vote when John McCain gave the president a famous thumbs down) since it became law almost a decade ago. The president is currently in court trying to end his predecessor’s government supervised insurance expansion program that he and his party have no plan to replace. During a deadly pandemic. They simply, and sincerely, don’t give a rat’s ass about average Americans dying.

A Supreme Court nominee, being rushed through on a 51-49 party-line vote, literally the week before the election, would not refuse to answer a simple question of law like “is voter intimidation illegal?” She would not gracefully but forcefully demur on the question of whether she’d recuse herself from deciding a 2020 presidential election case, based on an outright hoax (massive voter fraud). The appearance of impropriety — the standard for recusal– is certainly strong, as she’d be a likely vote to in favor of the demagogue who is rushing through her confirmation so she can rule on that exact question and keep him in office, (regardless of the will of the electorate).

None of this shit is normal, boys and girls, though it is the NEW NORMAL, for the moment. Part of how we got here is that an extremely wealthy minority, employing some brilliant and unprincipled operatives, organized, and funded with a shit ton of money, a vast network of often secret influence machines, to achieve policy goals the majority of Americans oppose. The extreme right has fought a highly successful fight against what they see as Majoritarian Tyranny in which government itself is the enemy. Bill Moyers interviews investigative journalist Anne Nelson who lays a good deal of this operation out in discussing her book Shadow Network [1].

Here is a great discussion on the far right’s long, winning battle for control of the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court. Here’s a bit of the background about how ideologically committed Supreme Court nominees have learned to refuse to commit to any judicial, legal or philosophical position whatsoever.

You may have heard of a federal judge named Robert Bork, a haughtily opinionated, very conservative man, nominated by Ronald Reagan, who got “borked” and was not confirmed for a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. “Borking” is making a potential lifetime appointee to the unappealable Supreme Court unequivocably answer specific questions about his or her judicial record and political philosophy. After hearing those answers from a contentious nominee (think of Antonin Scalia, but openly ill-tempered and without the wit or personality of the original “Originalist”), most Democrats and six Republicans voted against his confirmation. The rejection of Bork, his “borking”, was bipartisan. Reagan’s next nominee, a much less objectionable candidate named Anthony Kennedy, was confirmed unanimously. Those plain facts were not allowed to stand in the way of the handy radical right-wing foundational grievance myth that Bork was unfairly “borked” by Democratic partisans who viciously challenged him left and right.

Here’s a snapshot of our nation today in two titles from the Op Ed section.

Here are three winning “Democratic” ideas (I can’t read David Brooks, so I picked just three obvious ones).

In democracy, every eligible voter must be allowed to vote. The candidate who gets more votes wins.

The federal government must protect all citizens in case of disaster.

When there is demonstrated foreign interference in an American election, electoral vulnerabilities must be quickly and aggressively fixed.

In democracy, rule by the People, the will of the citizens is expressed by voting for representatives who act on our behalf. An open debate on policy ideas followed by widespread voting are hallmarks of a healthy democracy. Democrats support this idea, the president’s party rejects it, sponsoring laws that make voting more difficult in every state they control, bringing court cases to restrict voting in “swing states” they do not outright control, challenging every rule that allows freer access to voting. The conservative Supreme Court, 5-4, recently cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act– and most Red states immediately enacted legislation to make it harder for certain classes of citizens to vote.

The federal government represents all of the people of the nation, it goes without saying. The federal government is the guarantor of all of the rights of citizenship enumerated in the Constitution. When a natural disaster strikes, the federal government moves in quickly to help. It does not dispense aid according to which party the majority of an area voted for. It doesn’t force zero-sum competition between the states for urgently needed supplies. It doesn’t punish jurisdictions run by one party or the other. It doesn’t have an idiot spokesman, like the manifestly unqualified Jared Kushner, nonsensically piping up that the federal stockpiles of supplies needed to halt the spread of a pandemic are “ours” and not for the states.

One last big Democratic idea, then a word about Ayn Rand.

The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released a five volume report that confirmed what Robert Mueller’s investigation, and a House investigation, found, and what every intelligence agency concluded — Russia sweepingly and systematically interfered in the 2016 election to get Donald Trump elected.

Idea: pass legislation and implement policies to prevent a repeat in 2020. Biden missed a great opportunity at the last debate to mention that Mitch McConnell has blocked even debate on all such measures. McConnell did this as nonchalantly as he vowed to work with Trump’s defense team during the impeachment, to allow neither a witness nor evidence to be presented at the “trial”.

From McConnell’s power-first point of view, why should he? Russia interfered to help his candidate, his party. He’s got a 51-49 majority, why would he do anything to interfere with what promises to be much more sophisticated Russian interference on behalf of his president’s reelection? That would just be stupid.

Ayn Rand was a politically radical novelist, an emigre from the Soviet Union. Her novels were written in service to her feverishly anti-Communist worldview. The individual, she believed, was far more important than any notion of the collective — and the protagonists of her massive novels were living examples (so to speak) of this essential concept. Socialism, she preached in her passionate, metaphorical works of fiction, was the enemy of personal greatness. She fled from a totalitarian state, so her point of view is understandable. But not as a coherent political philosophy.

In the real world Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is Social Darwinism, the perverse notion that it is the absolute natural right of someone with the might to take from the weak whatever they want. Reading Ayn Rand’s gigantic books qualified former Republican House leader Paul Ryan as a Republican intellectual. Her novels were treated by the right as expressions of inviolable universal truth, in the same way religious people venerate their holy books. Put into practice, you get a very ugly society where the weak can go fuck off and die.

A reason for hope, in one of the worst case scenarios for a contested election:

Even if Trump loses the election by a wide margin, and manages to get his many legal challenges, based on widespread election fraud he cannot prove (since evidence of such fraud has never been produced) up to the Supreme Court, and the 6-3 ruling ties up the Electoral College vote and throws the matter into the House of Representatives to decide on a one vote per state basis (a scenario he brought up the other day) — check this out.

Trump correctly stated that, under the current composition of the majority Democratic House of Representative, rendered one vote per state (as the twelfth amendment of the Constitution requires for resolving unresolved presidential elections) Republicans have a 26- 22 majority and so he’d still be president. Robert Reich points out in a neat little video that the House that would vote on this issue would not be the current House but the one in session after the 2020 election. Members of the new Congress would be sworn in on January 3, 2021 and would vote to decide the presidential election on January 6.

There was a big Democratic swing in 2018 when that party recaptured the House and that was before Mr. Trump’s botched pandemic response and an erratic campaign that will not win him many undecided voters. His attempt to stay in power after he loses the popular vote, and ties up the Electoral College with a 6-3 Supreme Court decision, with a favorable narrow House majority will hinge on Alaska and Montana (one representative, one vote each) remaining in his column, along with currently tied Pennsylvania (no vote) and virtually tied Florida (where three Republicans are retiring), and Michigan (Republican by one seat). If those states change column, majority rule in the USA will live to fight another day.

And fight we must, boys and girls.

[1] from the intro to the Moyers podcast:

What is the shadow network behind the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court? Who selected and groomed her for this moment? Who’s financing the campaign to get her confirmed? Who’s counting on her to side with President Trump if he’s losing the election and wants the Supreme Court to declare him the winner? For the answers, Bill Moyers talks to journalist and investigator Anne Nelson about her book: SHADOW NETWORK: MEDIA, MONEY, AND THE SECRET HUB OF THE RADICAL RIGHT.

Moyers

The Challenge of Staying Human

Listening to a recent episode of the excellent Behind The Bastards podcast by Robert Evans, How Nice, Normal People Made the Holocaust Possible, I was struck again by how many regular, decent people merely go along to get along, try to keep their heads down, not make waves, get what they can from an unfair world. Yes, we reason, it’s bad to (insert the worst thing you can think of here) and we don’t support that, of course, but on the other hand (insert other hand here). Take rapper and actor “Fitty Cent”, he doesn’t condone the overt racism and divisiveness of President Trump, but he got a very generous tax break from the man, got to keep a bundle of his own money, so how can he say the man is all bad?

Nobody likes to admit that the party they support, the community they feel part of, does terrible things. We all consider ourselves good people who want the best for ourselves and our loved ones, the best for everyone. We are masters at justifying our actions, even hard to defend things we may do are done for the greater good. Robert Evans, a man fascinated by the lives of powerful bastards, gleefully mocks their justifications for being a piece of shit in every episode. The one I heard the other day focuses on the “little Nazis” who made Hiterlism possible, the millions of small, humble citizens, with no particular strong beliefs or philosophy, who supported the Nazi movement because, even if Mr. H’s rhetoric about the need to cleanse the world of Jews, Communists, Roma, etc. was a bit over the top, he was undeniably making Germany great again.

I woke up full of regret today, with the news of extremist Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination being voted out of committee in preparation for putting her in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recently vacated seat in time to rule on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, that I didn’t dedicate my life to investigative journalism, human rights advocacy, environmental activism, that I didn’t find a meaningful way to join with others of like mind, to step meaningfully into the fight against the destructive forces I hate. Fighting bullies in my own life, and working to become less angry and violent, were small, all-consuming battles that distracted me from the larger war going around all around me. I won’t dwell on any of that now, just put this out there today.

I heard someone recently cite the murder conviction and sentence of Lieutenant William Calley, for the killing of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians (among hundreds he and his men murdered that day), as an instance of American justice. For his war crime, the slaughter of an entire village of unarmed men, women and children, the American justice system sentenced him to life in prison [1]. With Nixon’s help, Calley was free after three years of house arrest.

When I was teaching elementary school a lifetime ago, I heard an inspirational educator tell this story at a teachers’ conference:

A young boy is walking down the beach at low tide. There are thousands of starfish washed up on the beach, slowly drying out, as far as the eye can see. The boy is picking up starfish and flinging them back into the ocean. A man shakes his head and says “you think you can save all these starfish? What difference does it make if you throw a few back?” The boy picks up another starfish, says “it makes a big difference to this guy” and tosses it back into the ocean.

This was a moral lesson to teachers, depressed about the impossibility of helping most of the students in their overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, reminding us that our efforts were not wasted. The Talmud states that saving one life is like saving the entire world, we can only do what we can do, our responsibility is to do the best we can for those we encounter. Our duty is to fight for good no matter how terrible the odds for success may be.

The Lieutenant Calley morality tale is kind of the starfish story in reverse. The rare case of temporary justice for a mass killer in uniform who orders his men to kill women and children and being put away for life — followed by the typical injustice of a politician freeing him to score political points with that good, decent Silent Majority who don’t think the murder of some anonymous gooks in some far off godforsaken hellhole means that a decent American boy’s life has to be destroyed [2].

We see, daily, that the president we have now is prepared to do far more dastardly things than even Mr. Nixon, to stay in power. To pluck one example by a starfish leg, he pardoned a Navy officer whose men turned him in for, among other things, torturing and killing a captive Iraqi teenager then posing for a photo with the corpse.

The massacre at My Lai, a war crime by any definition of the term, was at first covered up by the military. It only came to light because a helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson and his crew, gunner Lawrence Colburn, and crew chief Glenn Andreotta, (who landed to stop the killings, risking their own lives) and a few dogged soldiers who could not unsee the horror they’d witnessed that day, including Army photographer Ronald Haeberle pushed ahead. Their cause was assisted by journalists, including Seymour Hirsch, who pressed to make the story public The scope and brutality of the atrocity was undeniable, it had been documented in real time in the photographs of GI war photographer Ronald Haeberle.

Vietnam veterans report that the massacre was one of many, perhaps hundreds, that took place during that misguided, un-winnable, depraved war. The slaughter at My Lai would have to stand in for all of them. In the fog of war, all kinds of nightmares play out all the time, that’s why they say “war is hell”. In more recent times, we’ve had a military whistle-blower tried as a spy and sentenced to a long prison term for disobeying orders to keep secret video of an American helicopter crew receiving permission to massacre civilians in Iraq. NOTHING TO SEE HERE.

Just two Ronald Haeberle photos [4], then, and another weak-ass reminder to get out to vote.

As my father, overwhelmed by his young son being so upset to learn about the murder of his own family back in Eastern Europe not many years earlier (in a manner quite similar to the slaughter in My Lai, actually), angrily said: THOSE PEOPLE WERE ABSTRACTIONS, NOBODY KNEW THEM, WE DON’T EVEN KNOW ANY OF THEIR NAMES!

A group of abstractions in My Lai, March 16, 1968, waiting to be killed:

A few moments later:

[1]

William Laws Calley Jr. is an American war criminal and a former United States Army officer convicted by court-martial for the premeditated killings of 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the Mỹ Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. Wikipedia

[2] the reporter who got to know Calley during the trial writes:

There was nothing about Rusty Calley, as he was called, that would make you say that he was an explosion waiting to happen. He didn’t have killer instincts. He didn’t love guns. None of that was the case. He was a young guy from South Florida who loved being around people and going to parties. He was fun to be around. He was not the kind of guy who should be commanding other men in warfare, in my view. But he was probably not the only one out there like that, either.

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[3] These photos, by soldier/war photographer Ron Haeberle, and the following, are from an article published in Time Magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of this notorious American war crime:

It was 50 years ago — on March 16, 1968 — that a group of American troops killed hundreds of civilians at the hamlet of My Lai, in what would become one of the most infamous atrocities of the Vietnam War. Months passed before the news of that event began to spread, and it would be years before anyone involved would face possible punishment. Though several of the men involved faced courts-martial, only one—1st Lieut. William Laws Calley Jr.—was ever convicted. He was found guilty in 1971 of murder and sentenced to life. (President Nixon changed Calley’s sentence to house arrest, and he served about three years. He apologized in 2009.)

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Only 41 years between the mass murder and the apology, but he DID apologize! Here’s the motherfucker’s actual apology:

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

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Note the killer’s repeated use of the passive voice to distance himself from his own deliberate, atrocious actions “what happened that day in My Lai” and “Vietnamese who were killed” and “the American soldiers involved”. He did the best he could to express how sorry he was, as shown by his voice starting to break, but, seriously– fuck him.

Then have done to him what happened that day in My Lai, have him tortured him a bit, scalped, shot, once or twice in each hand and foot, a couple of times in each leg, and left in a ditch, with a sobbing infant clinging to him as he bleeds out.

This should go viral

pass it on, fits on a phone screen

from Democracy Now! (democracynow.org) which comes with this notice:

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

and another good one:

Little Rehearsals for Our Own Deaths

At a time when so many are dying around the world, and around our nation, from the pandemic, from hunger, by suicide, thoughts of death are closer than usual.

Death may be the beginning of the dead person’s embrace of eternity, I suppose, but it’s a high price to pay for that union. What’s left behind is the painful absence, forever, of that loved one. In a way, our mourning for those we love and lose contains an element of rehearsal for our own death. This secret, internal rehearsal is very hard for us to do, in a society dedicated, to an impressive extent, to the eternal denial of aging, death and dying.

I thought about these little rehearsals for our own deaths recently when I reluctantly took my leave of a friend I’d known since Junior High School. Losing this old friend felt like a kind of death, partly my own. A lifetime of shared experiences, personal references, little inside jokes, good will, great favors done for each other, erased as by death. Erased, rather, by an unwillingness, or inability, to do what needed to be done to continue a mutually beneficial friendship.

I’ll take my share of blame for the final death, and though my friend angrily concluded I’d been the unreasonable, cold-hearted aggressor, I did my best to avoid the silence that eventually had to come in the absence of empathy and understanding. I spent months taking him up on his offer to grapple with how to fix what had gone wrong in our friendship. When I laid out my side for him as clearly as I could, with as much patience and lack of blame as I could muster, he was hurt and angry about it. Your choice at that point becomes stark: eternal grievance and unresolvable fight or quiet. There’s enough angry noise in this mad world without it hissing from an always virtuous person who insists he can’t be hurtful because he’s your true friend — my former good friend surely agrees with that.

When someone we love dies, the pain we feel is universal. It’s hard to imagine a person who does not share this terrible clutching in the chest, or wherever one feels it, when someone he was close to is no more. Hard to picture a human being unmoved by a selected death, unless we dehumanize them, that is. Once the despised party is no longer seen as fully human, it’s much easier to imagine the worst. That’s what rabid partisanship is all about. If you’re the malicious type, the death of someone you despise can leave you feeling “good for them… only tragedy is that it didn’t happen sooner

I am about as far to the left on the political spectrum as I can imagine anyone being. It feels to me like the pull of liberalism, progressivism, socialism, whatever you want to call it, is toward mercy and inclusion. It aims to foster recognition of our common humanity, our unalienable equality and value as humans, the right of poor people to live with dignity. The magnetic pull of conservatism, autocracy, militarism is toward exclusion, protecting the privileges of the few, employing a punitive order that enforces divisions according to class, race, religion, nationality or, usually, a combination of those things. The right sees these divisions among people as natural and inevitable and the friction they cause as something best controlled by a well-armed police force and prison system.

Of course, someone on the political right will characterize the philosophical difference in reverse. Conservatives want to preserve freedom, decency, the value of hard work, free competition, justice, moral righteousness and so on. Liberals want to impose a kind of politically correct tyranny, giving away hard-earned money to reward lazy, corrupt people who refuse to compete on a level playing field. Liberals also don’t want to punish criminals, they want to “understand” them. And so on.

An animating belief of humanism is that our shared humanity can rise above any artificial divisions, given empathetic understanding. A very liberal writer, Jeanne Safer, gave a beautiful illustration of this in a book about seeing beyond partisan animus [1]. Her very religious, right-wing neighbor, a person with whom she shared almost no beliefs and few opinions, took her to chemotherapy every time she went, sat with her, brought her home, made sure she was comfortable, did her shopping. Her gratitude for this woman’s selfless kindness in her time of need made her appreciate the deep humanity of this undoubtedly good woman. She may vote for Trump, march in Right to Life rallies, believe homosexuals will burn in hell, but she has an undeniably generous heart on a personal level. Safer learned to cherish this wonderful heart, even as she disagreed with virtually everything else this neighbor was passionate about.

This, my friends, is a subtle fucking point well worth pondering in our troubled times.

It is a very difficult point to get a hold of during this nakedly partisan cold civil war we’re all living through. The stress acting on us daily is almost disablingly heavy, but the point is worth considering. People on the other side of every great question, people we write off as mindless partisan fucks, love their kids, take care of aged parents, would jump in front of a moving car to save a stranger’s toddler, watch videos of animals doing adorable things, to take their minds off the horrors we are all swimming in daily.

Part of the intent of keeping us all constantly at war with each other is to destroy this larger truth of our innate human connection to every other human. How many humans can kill a baby? Not many, I’d wager. Tribalism is one thing, and often a destructive one, but our common humanity, in the end, is the only thing that can save us and the planet we live on. Not easy, of course, not often seen, but urgently needed, going forward.

Looking at any history book it’s not hard to see the interests of the wealthiest (and generally most conservative) behind every war fought between average people. Poor people, young ones, from each combatant nation are indoctrinated against an enemy and sent to kill each other with the ultimate aim of making an elite group of rich, older ones, richer and more secure in their wealth. To understand war, follow the money, as they say.

And the horrible reality is that when the war sweeps through, there is no survival for the meek, no possible appeal to our higher nature. All bets are off when they come for you with machetes, guns, planes, flame throwers, mobile killing units. This is the nightmare scenario our species has lived, and perpetrated, over and over since before there was a system for recording these slaughters. In the world right now there are tens of millions displaced, people who ran from a meat-grinder that hacked up the unluckier, meeker members of their families, their community. Those who hid, cowered (not unreasonably!) and were caught are not shown mercy, not by bombs, not by men crazed with the wild adrenaline of life and death battle. They shoot first, at people who may well want to kill them, ask themselves questions later.

Extreme partisans are ready to die for their beliefs, to kill for them. This willingness to die is sometimes seen as the ultimate expression of having the “courage of your convictions” though it is just as often the “enduring brutality of your mistake”. In this country, according to the FBI, violent, deadly partisans are mostly on the far right. Far right groups have killed many Americans in the last twenty years, as part of their general operations, far left groups have killed few, if any, over that same span.

A willingness to use violence is the hallmark of terrorism — in fact, the use of violence to achieve an aim IS terrorism. We terrify you into doing what we say, because we’ve killed some innocent people, as you’ve seen, and we’ll fucking kill you. too. The threat of violent death is our calling card. Our side will beat down your side and stick those protest signs up your asses!

You wonder what has to happen to a human heart to conclude, during difficult times, that it is better to take up arms and take as many of the bastards with you as you can before they kill you than to look for a way out of war. Something the equivalent of Nazis coming to your area, rounding up local leaders and publicly executing them. If you have the ability, that moment is definitely your last chance to organize and take up weapons for self-defense against a deadly enemy.

The specter of a nation finally struggling to come to terms with a long history of racism, de jure and de facto, seems to present this endgame scenario to those ready to believe that equality among people inevitably leads to tyranny. Got to arm and kill as many of those fucks as possible before they can force us to live as slaves in a world like that! We never did anything to them, why are they coming to persecute us?! They are the violent tyrants, not us!

As I think about these little rehearsals for our own deaths, I wonder how ready I’d be, if forced into that terrible position, to die for my beliefs. Even to be beaten up, or even menaced, by armed thugs outside my polling place. Fanatics are famous for their willingness to go down in a hail of bullets, guitarists and calligraphers, not so much.

When things are put into black and white, life and death frames — if socialists are elected to Congress it will be the violent end of freedom as we know it — evil, righteous men with the money to influence mass events will eventually put death squads into motion. You can take that to the bank, the smart money will bet on it. As we all do our little, trembling, mostly unconscious, rehearsals for our own unthinkable deaths.

[1]

I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World, 2019, All Points Books ISBN 9781250200396

Bravo, Fortunate Son

Bravo, again, John Fogerty. Amy Goodman reports, after a taste of the Creedence 1969 anti-war rocker:

AMY GOODMAN: “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The song was written by member John Fogerty, who just issued an official cease-and-desist order Friday to President Trump for using it as part of his campaign’s soundtrack. The song came out in 1969 during the Vietnam War.

Fogerty said, quote:

“I wrote this song because, as a veteran, I was disgusted that some people were allowed to be excluded from serving our country because they had access to political and financial privilege. I also wrote about wealthy people not paying their fair share of taxes. Mr. Trump is a prime example of both of these issues. The fact that Mr. Trump also fans the flames of hatred, racism, and fear while rewriting recent history is even more reason to be troubled by his use of my song,”

said John Fogerty.

original post:

AMY GOODMAN: “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The song was written by member John Fogerty, who just issued an official cease-and-desist order Friday to President Trump for using it as part of his campaign’s soundtrack. The song came out in 1969 during the Vietnam War. Fogerty said, quote, “I wrote this song because, as a veteran, I was disgusted that some people were allowed to be excluded from serving our country because they had access to political and financial privilege. I also wrote about wealthy people not paying their fair share of taxes. Mr. Trump is a prime example of both of these issues. The fact that Mr. Trump also fans the flames of hatred, racism, and fear while rewriting recent history is even more reason to be troubled by his use of my song,” said John Fogerty.

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In Defense of the Electoral College

I began watching a very well-made documentary called Safeguard, advertised as a non-partisan look at the Electoral College. The film makes a unified case for the genius of the Electoral College as a safeguard of democracy in our republic. All the experts cited seem to agree that without this visionary safeguard, which ensures a presidential candidate has achieved broad national consensus, state by state — beyond just the number of popular votes he or she gets — say a vast popular majority in only our largest cities — you could have the masses voting in unprincipled, non-consensus minded populist demagogue presidents who could do great damage to democracy.

The summary description of the documentary touts a nonpartisan view of why the Electoral College remains a brilliant and indispensable device for moving our experiment in democracy forward. As you hear a very reasonable-sounding historical discussion, you begin to notice something about the speakers’ credentials, they are always from schools and other institutions you’ve never heard of. I guess that could be a kind of tip off that they’ve gone a bit off the mainstream grid for experts on democracy.

Then, you see this guy, misleadingly identified as a nonpartisan former high government official:

Hans von Spakovsky. Defender of democracy and enemy of divisive partisan demagogues everywhere. Architect of the one ballot drop box per county voter suppression scheme for the 2020 election. The filmmakers identify him as the former Commissioner of the Federal Election Committee (years before Trump left the FEC without a quorum to do investigations), although he is currently a Charles Koch/Heritage Foundation employee and secret national Republican strategist for the re-election of the unpopular unifier Donald J. Trump.

Trump, we recall, won the presidency in the Electoral College by 78,000 surgically placed votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania [1]. He won these states Electoral College electors, legally and indisputably making him president, by less than one percent in each state, a total margin of 1.6% of the vote in those three states, combined.

Mr. Trump is, of course, the very man the Framers envisioned when they imagined future presidents of the United States of America. Who but von Spakovsky better to speak about the genius of the safeguard of democracy that is our Electoral College?

As the filmmakers tease in their trailer, without the Electoral College there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation — Lincoln became president because of the Electoral College! (Did he really? [2])

[1]

According to the final tallies, Trump won Pennsylvania by 0.7 percentage points (44,292 votes), Wisconsin by 0.7 points (22,748 votes), Michigan by 0.2 points (10,704 votes). If Clinton had won all three states, she would have won the Electoral College 278 to 260.     source

[2] the fruits of forty seconds of dogged research:

Despite minimal support in the South (Lincoln’s name was not on the ballot in 10 Southern states), he won a plurality of the popular vote (40%) and a majority of the electoral vote.
1860 United States presidential election – Wikipedia

Four candidates vied for the office of president of the United States during the 1860 election. When the voting concluded on November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln had received more popular votes in the United States than any of the other candidates and had won a majority of the electoral votes.
1860 Presidential Election – Education from LVA

Check out the AD!

Ladies and gentlemen, your monetized internet at work!

The all-powerful algorithms, delivering a Trump-themed ad, from one of the very outfits Sheldon Whitehouse is describing in his presentation. Want to know why this ad? Click the link, I didn’t, but you can when it plays.

The main thing is: Sign the petition! Pay no attention to this partisan hater ranting against fake “bad guys,” supposedly obsessed with power, not letting the good, Christian judge get a word in edgewise. The problem is not an ideologically committed, dark money-funded, politically biased 6-3 Supreme Court, or the brazen effort to cram another unappealable lifetime justice down the throat of American democracy in the days before a presidential election (something never in our history done after July) it is that caravan of rapists coming from South of the Border! The highly successful wall ain’t stoppin’ ’em, they’re coming to rape us all!!! Keep your eye on the ball!!

Whitehouse’s presentation is worth taking in. Won’t change any votes, or help stop what McConnell and his 51-49 Senate majority is going to do, but important information well presented and very much worth knowing.

Court-packing

Brett “Boof” Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump’s previous extremist pick, to fill the Supreme Court seat Anthony Kennedy gave up after negotiating the terms of his retirement with Trump’s lawyers, snorted indignantly and literally cried to the Senate Judiciary Committee about “millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups” [1] deployed by rabid partisans to unfairly sink his nomination and viciously destroy his life.

In fact, millions of dollars have been spent by outside right-wing groups to make sure committed Federalist Society ideologues like Mr. Kavanaugh, like today’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett, get confirmed for lifetime judicial positions. That these lifetime judicial nominees may sometimes be deemed too inexperienced, or outright unqualified, or show themselves to lack judicial temperament (see Kavanaugh’s snorting “rebuttal” to charges that while drunk in high school he did things to a younger girl against her will) — no matter, the American Bar Association is a well-known Communist front group and liberals blindly hate good, honest, God-fearing conservatives. And besides, 51-49 wins every time.

Extreme right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, never shy about spending to promote his belief in libertarianism — a dream world where government leaves the rich and their property alone and harshly polices everyone else — is on the verge of victory with a long dreamed of 6-3 ideologically pure corporatist majority on the Supreme Court. He and his Kochtopus network of wealthy right-wing fellow travelers have spent untold, untraceable millions on this project in the last four or five decades. Nice op ed in the NY Times today on the subject. Here’s a taste:

Judge Barrett’s nomination is the latest battleground in his decades-long war to reshape American society in a way that ensures that corporations can operate with untrammeled freedom. It may be a pivotal one.

Since the early 1970s, Mr. Koch has sought to dismantle most federal regulatory institutions, and the federal courts have been central to that battle. In 1974, Mr. Koch gave a blistering speech to a libertarian think tank, called the Institute for Humane Studies, in which he outlined his vision of the American regulatory state, and the strategy he would employ over the ensuing decades to realize that vision. On the list of government interventions he condemned were “confiscatory taxation, wage and price controls, commodity allocations programs, trade barriers, restrictions on foreign investments, so-called equal opportunity requirements, safety and health regulations, land use controls, licensing laws, outright government ownership of businesses and industries.” As if that list were not exhaustive enough, he added, “… and many more interventions.” In short, Charles Koch believes that an unregulated free market is the only sustainable structure for human society.

By the way, speaking of “humane studies,” every time I listen to a podcast on my phone app, I have to first close an ad from Charles Koch’s favorite “think tank”, the mischievously named Institute for Humane Studies. I see their ad for paid graduate school fellowships, featuring two young black scholars, a male and a female, not 90% of the time, mind you, it is there every single time I open the app to listen to Democracy Now! Somewhere indomitable octogenarian Charles Koch is cackling.

Keep in mind, Koch has an army of paid activists, marshaled by Americans for Prosperity and like groups, tirelessly promoting libertarian dogma among the American citizenry. They were active in the sustained effort to get Kavanaugh confirmed, an effort that cost “seven figures”. They are very active in this final Trump appointment in progress. It is do or die– they have only weeks to do what generally takes months to accomplish. Of course, in the end, it’s 51-49 suck it.

Today, historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote a thorough short history of the largely successful conservative project to create a permanent one-party conservative government, through court packing with ideological true believers they have been grooming in law schools since 1982. As she points out, they’ve bizarrely managed to put Biden on the media spot about his charged “court packing” when the side Mr. Trump currently leads has appointed 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court judges, McConnell has packed the federal bench with young true believers and is making history by forcing through a nomination days before an election. Plus, of course, adding justices to the court is legal and may be proper at this point,the Constitution is silent on the number of judges who shall sit on the court anyway.

This is from her important piece, which I highly recommend you read in its entirety (it’s not very long):

… And yet, today the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, told Margaret Brennan on CBS’s “Face The Nation” that she would not talk about Trump’s financial scandals because “You have a Democrat running on the biggest power grab – the absolute biggest power grab in the history of our country and reshaping the United States of America and not answering the question. That’s all we should be talking about.” The media seems to be taking this distracting bait.

What makes this so especially bizarre is that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who have made the courts the centerpiece of their agenda and have packed them with judges who adhere to an extremist ideology. Since the Nixon administration began in 1969, Democrats have appointed just 4 Supreme Court justices, while Republicans have appointed 15.

The drive to push the court to the right has led Republicans under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take the unprecedented step of refusing to hold a hearing for Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the moderate Merrick Garland, on the grounds that it was wrong to appoint a Supreme Court justice during an election year. There have been 14 justices confirmed during election years in the past, but none has ever been confirmed after July before an election.

Obama nominated Garland in March 2016, but now, in October, McConnell is ramming through Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

Americans are worried that the increasingly conservative cast to the court does not represent the country. Four, and now possibly five, of the current justices were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote, and have been confirmed by senators who represent a minority of the American people: Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate support represented just 44% of the country.

So there is talk of increasing the size of the Supreme Court. This is legal. The Constitution does not specify the size of the court, and it has changed throughout our history. But the current number of justices—9— has been around for a long time. It was established in 1869. Nonetheless, in 2016, when it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency, Republicans announced that they would not fill any Supreme Court seats during her term, and if that meant they had to reduce the size of the Supreme Court, they were willing.

Instead, with Trump in the White House, the Republican Senate has pushed through judges at all levels as quickly as it possibly can.

This is no accident. Since Nixon, Republicans have made control of the nation’s courts central to their agenda. But while most voters tend to get distracted by the hot-button issues of abortion or gay rights, what Republican Supreme Courts have done is to consolidate the power of corporations.

And here is the single best question to ask this impartial jurist who seeks to cement the permanent right-wing majority on the Court for many of our lifetimes. Posed by a comedian, it is a seriously perfect question to put to the highly moralistic Trump-appointed federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett:

Looky here (you learn something every day):

Comedian (and lawyer) J-L Cauvin asks the question Senate Democrats must ask of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett

[1]

the heart of Kavanuagh’s tearfully delivered demonstration that he lacks the judicial character and nonpartisan fairness to be on the Supreme Court. He dismissed the un-investigated accusations of a woman who credibly testified (in the face of death threats) that Kavanaugh traumatized her decades earlier as part of:

the typo is mine: it should read “pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election”