Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sunday Reading

My Semester with the Snowflakes — James Hatch, a 52-year-old veteran, goes to college and learns.

In May of 2019, I was accepted to the Eli Whitney student program at Yale University. At 52, I am the oldest freshman in the class of 2023. Before I was accepted, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen the infamous YouTube video of students screaming at a faculty member. I had seen the news stories regarding the admissions scandal and that Yale was included in that unfortunate business. I had also heard the students at Yale referred to as “snowflakes” in various social media dumpsters and occasionally I’d seen references to Ivy League students as snowflakes in a few news sources.

I should give a bit of background information. I was an unimpressive and difficult student in public schools. I joined the military at 17 and spent close to 26 years in the US Navy. I was assigned for 22 of those years to Naval Special Warfare Commands. I went through SEAL training twice, quit the first time and barely made it the second time. I did multiple deployments and was wounded in combat in 2009 on a mission to rescue an American hostage.

Every single day I went to work with much better humans than myself. I was brought to a higher level of existence because the standards were high and one needed to earn their slot, their membership in the unit. This wasn’t a one-time deal. Every time you showed up for work, you needed to prove your worth.

The vetting process is difficult and the percentage of those who try out for special operations units and make it through the screening is very low.

In an odd parallel, I feel, in spite of my short time here, the same about Yale.

After receiving my acceptance email and returning to consciousness, I decided to move to Connecticut and do my best in this new environment. Many people have asked me why I want to attend college at 52, and why at an Ivy League institution like Yale? I could have easily stayed in Virginia and attended a community college close to my home. Well, based on my upbringing in the military, I associated a difficult vetting process with quality and opportunity. I was correct in that guess. More importantly, I simply want to be a better human being. I feel like getting a world-class education at an amazing institution like Yale will help me reach that goal. Are there other places to get a great education? Of course, but I chose Yale.

My first class of the semester was absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if it was for the kids in my class, but it damn sure was for me. It was a literature seminar with the amazing Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor David Quint. He is an amazing human in that he has dedicated his life to literature, and he knows what he is talking about. The discussion was centered around the Iliad. I had read a bit of the Iliad in the middle part of my military career and decidedly didn’t get it. Listening to Professor Quint demonstrated exactly how much I didn’t “get it.” The other students looked like children to me. Hell, they are children, but when they speak, and some of them speak English as their second language, they sound like very well-spoken adults. My Navy issued graduate degree in cussing wasn’t going to help me out here. These young students had a good grasp of the literature and although they lacked much experience to bounce it off of, they were certainly “all in” on trying to figure out its underlying meaning.

At one point I said, “Hey, I’m just an old guy sitting here with a bunch of smart people, but I think….” And they all smiled, some of them nervously because I was essentially an alien. I was an old dude with tattoos all over his arms and a Dutch Shepherd service dog, brandishing a subdued American flag patch on her harness, sitting next to me. Professor Quint later approached me and said, “Hey, don’t downplay your intelligence. You are smart as well.”

I thought, I’ve got him fooled! Turns out I didn’t fool him at all when I turned in my first paper, but that is another story for another time.

After a few classes, I started to get to know some of my classmates. Each of them is a compelling human who, in spite of their youth, are quite serious about getting things done.

One young woman made a very big impact on me. She approached me after class one day and said, “I am really glad I can be here at Yale and be in class with you. My grandfather came to Yale and when WWII started, he left for the Navy and flew planes in the Pacific theater. After he came home, he came back to Yale, but he couldn’t finish. He locked himself in his room and drank and eventually had to leave, so I feel like I am helping him finish here at Yale and I’m doing it with a veteran, you.”

I was surprised and quite emotional. Exceptionally emotional. She went on: “I can send you a photo of him!” and I told her I would love one. That evening she sent me this photo of her grandfather.

I used to read stories about men like him and they are heroes to me. Clearly her grandfather is a hero to her as well, and she is going to make him quite proud. This connection with a WWII vet through his amazing granddaughter is a gift. One of many I receive on an almost daily basis in this amazing institution. I think it’s worth taking a moment here and acknowledging that this thing we now call “PTSD” has always been around. Some of us veterans escape it while others, like me and likely this gent in the airplane, felt the sting of it.

One day in another lit class, I brought up a book I’d read a long time ago called “Taxi Driver Wisdom” by Risa Mickenberg, Joanne Dugan and Brian Lee Hughes.

After that class a couple of the students approached me and explained that their dads were cabbies when they first came to the United States, and that their fathers had told them that the things they sometimes heard from people in their cabs were amazing.

Think about that for a second. These students are first generation Americans. Their fathers immigrated to this country and started out by being taxi drivers. Now, their children are attending Yale University. I’m a patriotic man and those are the stories that help me understand how, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of negativity surrounding it, the American Dream is still alive and kicking. It makes my heart sing every time I see those kids.

Let me address this “snowflake” thing. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “snowflake” is a “term for someone that thinks they are unique and special, but really are not. It gained popularity after the movie Fight Club from the quote ‘You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’ ”

I hear the term occasionally from buddies of mine who I love. They say things like, “How are things up there with the liberal snowflakes?”

Let me assure you, I have not met one kid who fits that description. None of the kids I’ve met seem to think that they are “special” any more than any other 18–22-year-old. These kids work their asses off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello. There is an exceptional young woman from Chicago who wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News expressing the importance of public demonstrations in light of a recent police shooting. She and I are polar opposites. I am the “patriarchy” at first glance, and she is a young black woman who is keen on public protests. Not the type of soul I generally find myself in conversation with. We come from different worlds and yet we both read classic works with open hearts and minds.

We recently met with a prominent writer from a think tank who is researching the state of the humanities in the university setting. There were four of us students: two young men, the young woman from Chicago, and me, the old guy. As the younger students started to express their thoughts, the young woman (truly a unicorn of a human) used the word “safe space” and it hit me forcefully. I come from a place where when I hear that term, I roll my eyes into the back of my vacant skull and laugh from the bottom of my potbelly. This time, I was literally in shock. It hit me that what I thought a “safe space” meant, was not accurate. This young woman, the one who used the phrase, isn’t scared of anything. She is a life-force of goodness and strength. She doesn’t need anyone to provide a comfortable environment for her. What she meant by “safe space” was that she was happy to be in an environment where difficult subjects can be discussed openly, without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment. This works both ways. What I mean is, this young woman was comfortable, in this university setting, wrestling with things like the Aristotelian idea of some humans being born as “natural slaves.” She was quite comfortable in that space. The question was, how comfortable was the 52-year-old white guy in that discussion? Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. I’m grateful for the discomfort. Thinking about things I don’t understand or have, for most of my life, written off, is a good thing.

Being uncomfortable is KEY in this world of ours. Not altogether different from the world of special operations, where the work needs to be done, regardless of weather or personal feelings. The climate in this educational institution is one where most students understand that there HAS to be a place where people can assault ideas openly and discuss them vigorously and respectfully in order to improve the state of humanity. I’ll call that a “safe space” and I’m glad those places exist.

Here in the “Directed Studies” program, instead of “tuning in” to our favorite self-confirming “news” source, we are given a timeless text with heavy ideas and then we throw them out on the floor and discuss them with people who have, as I mentioned earlier, made these works and their meaning, their vocation.

In my opinion, the real snowflakes are the people who are afraid of that situation. The poor souls who never take the opportunity to discuss ideas in a group of people who will very likely respectfully disagree with them. I challenge any of you hyper-opinionated zealots out there to actually sit down with a group of people who disagree with you and be open to having your mind changed. I’m not talking about submitting your deeply held beliefs to your twitter/facebook/instagram feeds for agreement from those who “follow” you. That unreal “safe space” where the accountability for one’s words is essentially null. I have sure had my mind changed here at Yale. To me there is no dishonor in being wrong and learning. There is dishonor in willful ignorance and there is dishonor in disrespect.

On Veteran’s Day, there was a great scene on Cross Campus. A bunch of American flags had been placed there and I stopped on my morning walk to class and took photos of my dog in front of them and sent them to my friends. Later at some point during the day, a young student placed a glove with red paint on it on one of the flags as she wanted to demonstrate her displeasure with something…I’m not quite sure what.

That same afternoon, some of my fellow students from “Directed Studies,” after a lecture, gave me this:

It is a card thanking me for my service to our nation. I was humbled and amazed.

These hardworking kids are very kind and thoughtful. A far cry from the picture that is often painted of them.

One of my professors, a Professor of Philosophy, told me once “a good leader is a bridge builder.” Professor David Charles is a man who has been teaching bright young people, and some slow and old ones like me, the most difficult subject for me, at Oxford and now Yale. He’s been doing this for over 30 years. He is extremely humble and very kind, in addition to being brilliant. I’m motivated by his words and I want to build bridges and lead, in some small way, a new conversation where we stop pointing out the perceived differences in each other, or this group vs that group, and start pointing out similarities. We don’t need more condescending friction in humanity. We need less. One step in the direction of less societal friction is to seek commonalities. Another step, and one that is sorely needed, is respect.

Now before you think I’m preaching, please know that I come from a place where I was distinctly the opposite of this ideal. I looked for reasons to disregard the opinions of those I didn’t respect. I discounted the ideas of people I felt like hadn’t earned the right to share what was in their mind. Particularly when it came to national security issues, I felt that if you hadn’t taken a gun into combat, I didn’t give a damn what your opinion was.

I’d like to count this as my first brick in attempting to build a bridge between the people here at Yale and those like me before I arrived here. We need everyone who gives a damn about this American experiment to contribute and make it succeed. We humans have much more in common than we have different. Thanks Yale, for helping me to become an aspiring bridge-builder at the age of 52.

In our welcome speech at the beginning of this semester, with all of us Freshman sitting in Woolsey Hall, me sitting next to another veteran, one who’d served in the 82nd Airborne, President Salovey said:

“There is so much we do not know. Let us embrace, together, our humility — our willingness to admit what we have yet to discover. After all, if you knew all the answers, you would not need Yale. And if humanity knew all the answers, the world would not need Yale.”

Now back to that bridge. I need to figure out how to actually build one. Good thing I’ve found a place where I can get help. If this place is peopled by “snowflakes” I’m proudly one of them. I’m a snowflake with a purple heart.

Peace.

HT to CLW.

Doonesbury — More twit tweets.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day, the federal holiday mashed together to honor Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday which used to be holidays on their own. This one generically honors all presidents and remembering the times when we had one, and it’s a mid-winter break for schools and a day off for those of us who work in them.

Things will be a little quiet around here.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960’s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way. But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me. This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them. And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.

Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights. He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone. He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause. I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else. The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.

There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion? But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for? Last August marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. That marked a moment; a milestone.

Today is supposed to honor the man and what he stood for and tried to make us all become: full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; something that is with us all day, every day.

For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.

*

Today is also a school holiday, so blogging will be on a holiday schedule.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On This Date

December 17, 1903: Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, made the first powered heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

And their luggage ended up in Boise.

Seriously, folks, that was only 116 years ago, and within the lifetime of someone born at that time, like my maternal grandmother, we had landed people on the moon.  By that measure, we should be utilizing warp drive to Mars by now.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

Thank you, Fiona Hill — Rachel Sklar in the Washington Post:

I will say this for President Trump: He certainly makes you appreciate smart, accomplished women.

It is not because he appreciates them; we all know by now that the only thing about a woman he appreciates is whatever he can grab. But his bad behavior really does bring amazing women out into the spotlight from where they were formerly working competently but with little fanfare. Reluctantly, because they are far too busy to bother with vainglorious showboating, more and more of them have been compelled to step forward on behalf of a grateful nation to testify — with authority, expertise and conviction — about the corrupt and ill-advised actions of a self-dealing president.

The latest in a long line of amazing, impressive wholly stannable women to make us swoon with their briskly efficient competence is Fiona Hill, an expert in Vladimir Putin’s ways and former National Security Council official. Hill was the star witness in Thursday’s House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, not because of any glittery celebrity or grabby cable sound bites but because of the substance of her testimony. She did not have talking points; she just had her deep knowledge and years of experience (and, of course, the bare minimum common sense to know that, yes, two plus two equals four).

Hill had no time for Republican conspiracy-mongering about anyone other than Russia meddling in the 2016 election, and she scolded the GOP accordingly: “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” (Translation: Stop being useful idiots.) She also had no time for U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s ill-informed office politics, GOP histrionics or workplace sexism. (She did, however, have time for an I-told-you-so: “I said to him this is all going to blow up, and here we are.”)

It was a humdinger of a day — the word to describe its defining quality might be “pizazz” — and all because of yet another learned, righteous woman with an impressive command of those pesky things called “facts.” Which means Hill joined the ranks of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. attorney (and, briefly, acting attorney general) Sally Yates, and, yes, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who could fairly be called the OG of smart, accomplished women getting under Trump’s skin. There’s also Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Christine Blasey Ford (you know why), respected writer E. Jean Carroll (Trump knows why), Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), NBC’s Katy Tur and Mika Brzezinski, former Fox and NBC anchor Megyn Kelly, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederickson, “The Squad,” a.k.a. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, journalist April Ryan, and Taylor Swift. This is not an exhaustive list.

Comparing Trump to these women is like juxtaposing a dense, properly footnoted scholarly paper to his big-print Sharpie, and just to be clear, it is the Sharpie that is mentally exhausting. Yet it is instructive to realize these women are notable precisely for what he diminishes and dismisses: experience, hard work, credibility. Hill’s cool, crisp testimony was the opposite of Trump’s unhinged Twitter ranting; her calm authority gave us comfort that, yes, there are still people who actually know what they are doing in the executive branch (or at least, there were until she resigned). After an unsettling almost three years of knee-jerk, whiplash governance by a White House led by an impetuous, impulsive wannabe autocrat, it was almost … soothing. It was not just the cavalcade of people on Twitter declaring themselves fans (George Conway) and stans (or in progressive podcast host Zerlina Maxwell’s case: “stannnnnnnnnnnnnnn”), it was Hill’s book suddenly zooming into the Amazon top 100. That is a dense 520-page book on Putin, shipping weight 2 pounds, and yes, of course, I bought it. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Even more, the sense of relief and comfort was obvious everywhere. Listen to author Morra Aarons-Mele: “The grown-ups are back: smart and calm, informed and unbiased.” Or journalist Lizzie O’Leary: “Today’s episode of Impeachment really hitting the sweet spot of my personal Netflix algorithm: procedural drama and British female leads.” Or comedian Heather Gold: “Listening to Fiona Hill testify is the most relaxed I’ve felt since election night 2016.”

The point is, it is not just that Hill is impressive. (And don’t call her overprepared!) She is, but it is also the realization of how rare it is to see a person — let alone a woman — like her in this bumbling, ruinous, norm-shattering administration. Trump is all grifty bravado; he plays the strongman even as he withholds his tax returns, pays $2 million in settlement for shorting a charity, callously separates young children from their families, and oh yeah, uses the power and privilege of the Oval Office to push his reelection advantage (a.k.a. for a “domestic political errand,” as Hill put it, much to the chagrin of Stephen R. Castor, the Republican lawyer who unwittingly led her right into that line). Hill is due process and righteous anger, brains and brilliance and fire and loyalty ready to be deployed for her country, now and forever.

It is not just that we are hungry for norms and qualifications. We are desperate for someone competent and principled to be in charge. We want someone smart to tell us it will be okay and that they care.

It was nice, however briefly, to find her.

Don’t Let It Be Forgot — Charles P. Pierce

It was a cold and rainy afternoon, so I ducked into the great old Coolidge Corner Cinema, one of the last moviehouses left with an actual personality, and I watched The Report, Scott Z. Burns’s exceptional film about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s attempt to put together a report about how the CIA tortured people in the years after the 9/11 attacks. As a political thriller, it’s not Z, but, then again, almost nothing is. But considering it’s a thriller about people gathering data, it’s a remarkable achievement.

The thriller aspect, of course, comes in the fight that Senate investigator Daniel Jones—played by Adam Driver, who, I believe, is in 297 movies this fall—has not merely with the spooks at Langley, but also against government inertia and, sadly, against an Obama administration frozen in its own post-partisan timidity. The depictions of what happened in our name in the black sites overseas are stark and brutal, but not so much that they overwhelm the action back in Washington, where CIA operatives do a black-bag job on Jones’s team, and where Senator Dianne Feinstein, played by Annette Bening, afflicted by ambivalence but not overcome by it, finally decides to release a 500-page summary of the 7,000-page report.

It is a victory for the rule of law but not an unalloyed one, in that none of the criminals who tortured in our name ever will see the inside of a jail cell. For example, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two quack psychologists who sold the Bush Administration on “enhanced interrogation” techniques that did not work, are last seen flying off in the private jet they bought with some of the $80 million they scarfed from the U.S. Treasury. John Yoo gets a cameo in which he explains his now infamous constitutional theory of crushing a child’s testicles. Yoo is now in a comfy billet teaching law at the University of California. In one scene, Driver is in a bar watching television and Marc Thiessen, then a White House aide, comes on and starts spouting all sorts of nonsense about the mass attacks that were thwarted because we tortured Abu Zubaydah into insanity. Thiessen now gets paid some nice bank writing columns in the Washington Post.

And that, perhaps, is the cautionary tale for our times in this film. We cannot let the crimes of this Republican president* go down the memory hole the way we allowed the crimes of the last Republican president to do so. This is not merely a caution against entirely rehabilitating George W. Bush. (In fact, this film is vague about Bush’s actual involvement in the torture program.) It also is a caution against looking forward, and not back. And, to be honest, there’s a bit of a warning in it to be wary of the support you might be getting from people against whom you previously campaigned.

I have been a bit of a wet blanket on the subject of Never Trumpers. Any voice against this administration* is welcome, but, as The Report reminds us, an awful lot of our newfound allies were involved in the administration that made us a nation that tortures. When you see David Frum, or Nicolle Wallace, pronouncing themselves amazed that the Republicans are going along with the obvious grift from this White House, do not fully credit their surprise. If the House Republicans are complicit in this administration*’s crimes because they’ve done nothing to stop them, then former Bush aides are complicit in torture because they didn’t do anything to stop that. When you see John Brennan expressing his concern about the damage this president* is doing to the rule of law, ask yourself why Brennan wasn’t so tender about the rule of law when he was trying to bury the torture report as director of the CIA.

All through the film, I found echoing in my head the quote from Milan Kundera that David Remnick used as an epigram in Lenin’s Tomb, his stellar account of the days when the Soviet Union was coming apart.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Whenever this nightmare is over, we should try to win that struggle this time around.

Doonesbury — The further tweeting meanderings…

Friday, November 22, 2019

November 22, 1963

JFK 11-22-06Friday, November 22, 1963. I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip Phys Ed because I was just getting over bronchitis, so I was in a study hall when a classmate came up from the locker room in the school basement to say, “Kennedy’s dead.” We had a boy in our class named Matt Kennedy, and I wondered what had happened: an errant fatal blow with a dodgeball? A few minutes later, though, it was made clear to us at a hastily-summoned assembly, and we were soon put on the buses and sent home. Girls were crying.

There was a newspaper strike at The Blade, so the only papers we could get were either from Detroit or Cleveland. (The union at The Blade, realizing they were missing the story of the century, agreed to immediately resume publication and settle their differences in other ways.) Television, though, was the medium of choice, and I remember the black-and-white images of the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, the casket being lowered, President Johnson speaking on the tarmac, and the events of the weekend – Oswald, Ruby, the long slow funeral parade, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – merging into one long black-and-white flicker, finally closing on Monday night with the eternal flame guttering in the cold breeze.

I suspect that John F. Kennedy would be bitterly disappointed that the only thing remembered about his life was how he left it and how it colored everything he did leading up to it. The Bay of Pigs, the steel crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Test Ban Treaty, even the space program are dramatized by his death. They became the stuff of legend, not governing, and history should not be preserved as fable.

At the age of eleven, I never thought about being old enough to look back fifty-six years to that time. According to NPR, more than sixty percent of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day. Today the question is not do you remember JFK, but what did his brief time leave behind. Speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. Had JFK never been assassinated, chances are he would have been re-elected in 1964, crushing Barry Goldwater, but leading an administration that was more style than substance, battling with his own party as much as with the Republicans, much like Clinton did in the 1990’s. According to medical records, he would have been lucky to live into his sixties, dying from natural causes in the 1980’s, and he would have been remembered fondly for his charm and wit – and his beautiful wife – more than what he accomplished in eight years of an average presidency.

But it was those six seconds in Dealy Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is Challenger in 1986, and of course September 11, 2001. And in all cases, it is what the moment means to us. It is the play, not the players. We see things as they were, contrast to how they are, and measure the differences, and by that, we measure ourselves.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

He’ll Get His

I watched some of Corey Lewandowski’s sideshow yesterday on Capitol Hill.  My first thought was that he’s mastered the art of being a smug douche and was performing for an audience of one.  That point was proved by glowing praise tweets from Trump.  He’s got a great career coming as a pundit on some cable show running on Sinclair channels after he gets his ass handed to him in his run for the Senate.

But my second thought was that I’ve seen his kind of snotty behavior and disrespect for what he perceives as enemy interrogation before; specifically when John Ehrlichman testified before the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973 and his combative, sneering attitude.  Watching him joust with Senate Majority Counsel Sam Dash made my blood boil back then, and I remember thinking that somehow, some way, the universe and karma will get their due.

They did.  Ehrlichman was convicted of conspiracy and other Watergate related crimes, went to jail, and spent his post-jail time and the rest of his life trying to make a buck off his experience and parlay his bitterness about not being pardoned by Reagan into a living until he died in 1999.  He wrote a lot of books and sold a made-for-TV movie.  That seems to be the way this sort of career ends up.

As for Mr. Lewandowski, he will exploit his Trumpian period by punditry and grifting, making appearances at the alt-right versions of Comic Con, signing books and autographing old MAGA hats, later to be sold on E-bay for $5.99.  Maybe, like Ehrlichman, he’ll grow a beard, become contemplative in his old age, and live in a hogan outside of Santa Fe.  Whatever.  He’ll get his.  Karma always delivers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

September 11, 2001

Today marks eighteen years since the attacks in New York, Washington, and the foiled one that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Since then, what have we become?

I remember driving home from school that afternoon, listening to NPR as they covered the aftermath live, and the days afterward; going out before dawn to walk Sam and not hearing the usual air traffic overhead, thinking of the yet-unimaginable responses this country would have to such a brutal attack. I don’t think I had the foresight to wonder how it would change our national psyche, but I remember thinking that whatever happened, I hoped it would be for the better.

It has not. In the years since, we have become more narrow-minded, paranoid, defensive, and easily frightened, even when we have tried to respond to our better angels. Seven years after the attack we elected our first African-American president, many of us with the hope that this was a sign of healing and growth, only to have it turned immediately to hatred, recrimination, and xenophobia against our own. The fear of the Other, be they from different countries, of different ethnicities, or even of a non-conformist sexual orientation, became fodder for political ambition and divisiveness. Instead of coming together, we pushed away. As so many have noted, the goal of terrorism is to kill not one person but kill as many as possible not to achieve a body count but to weaken the body as a whole. In that regard, the attacks that Tuesday morning were a success.

Look at what we have become. We flinch; let one deranged individual try to bring down an airplane with a sneaker and we spend ten years shuffling barefoot through the airport. We kneejerk; when African Americans rightly point out that America is still dealing with its original sin — slavery and Jim Crow and the social structure it created — and football games become a clash of symbolism over an icon. When black men are killed by police and people object, it is no longer a cause for examination of a culture but a rallying cry for racists. And when we elect a president who embodies the worst aspects of authoritarianism, narcissism, and cannot think beyond the end of the last election cycle, we have allowed ourselves to become the pawns of those who would like to bring us down, not just to their level but to where we can be conquered; not by an army but by our own lizard-brain reflexes.

We’ve been here before and we’ve recovered from worse. There have been countless good deeds of healing and growth since that day, even though it takes reminding. We have seen over and over we can do better, even if the bellicose and the tweeters drown them out. The number of us who want to work together is greater than those that wish to keep us apart; we just have to be that much more assertive. As I’ve said so many times, hope is our greatest weakness, but it is also like gravity: invisible, immeasurable, but constant and unconquerable. Channeled with action and reinforced with a belief in ourselves and what we can do together, hope can win.

New Yorker 9-11 cover 09-08-06

9/11/01 by Art Spiegelman for The New Yorker.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Friday, August 9, 2019

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sunday Reading

Between the Moon and Woodstock — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on two events in the summer of 1969 that both defined the era.

Anyone old enough to remember the moon landing, fifty years ago today, is also old enough to remember what was said about the moon landing while it was happening. At the time—the very height of the Vietnam War, when the establishment that had sent up the rocket faced a kind of daily full-court-press rebellion, from what had only just been dubbed the “counterculture”—the act of sending three very white guys to the moon seemed, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, like the final, futile triumph of Wasp culture. It was still called that then, to distinguish it from the culture of Italian and Jews and the other “ethnic” whites, who were seen, in Michael Novak’s famous phrase, as “unmeltable ethnics,” not at all as part of the élite caste of white people. (O tempora! O mores!)

Mailer’s book on the topic, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” which was serialized in Life magazine, another long-gone instrument of that culture, was the usual mid-period Mailer mix of eight parts bullshit to two parts very shrewd observation—in some of his earlier books, the shrewd stuff was all the way up to three parts—but its interpretation of the meaning of the moon landing is still potent. The Apollo 11 mission was, he insisted, chilling in its self-evident futility, its enormous orchestrated energy, and its ultimate pointlessness. We went there because we could go there, with the strong implication that this was also, to borrow the title of another Mailer book, why we were in Vietnam; the Wasp establishment had been restless since it got off the Mayflower, and was always seeking new worlds to conquer for no reason.

What is easy to forget now is that it was a summer balanced between two equally potent national events: the Wasp triumph of the moon landing, answered, almost exactly a month later, by the counterculture triumph of Woodstock. (This reporter recalls standing on a street corner that summer, in Philadelphia, selling copies of an underground weekly, Distant Drummer, with the headline “Woodstock Ushers in Aquarian Age” and nary a word about the moon.) Of the two events, there was no question which seemed more central to anyone under thirty.

Nowadays, of course, if Woodstock were to happen as it happened then—the mud, the squalor, the late shows, the bad acoustics—everyone would complain, and the organizers would all be brought up, so to speak, on Fyre Festival charges. And if we could send a man to the moon again—well, it wouldn’t likely be a man, and almost certainly not one called Buzz, and we wouldn’t talk about a small step for a man or a giant leap for all mankind.

The moon landing is, if anything, more urgently felt as cultural material now. Some of that is due to helpfully revisionist history, which makes the event seem slightly less Waspy, slightly more Woodstockian. The moon mission has yet to be queered, as they say in academia, but it has been re-gendered. The role of women in making the moon landing happen, which back then was presented solely in the images of the tasteful, cautious astronaut wives, has been greatly deepened. (Though one of the virtues of Ron Howard’s fine film “Apollo 13” was to allow, in the character of Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, nicely played by Kathleen Quinlan, the grit in those dutiful space wives to shine through.)

There was, of course, the movie “Hidden Figures,” from 2016, which documented the shamefully under-sung role of three African-American women at NASA in making the Mercury program possible. Another, more eccentric retelling, Nicholas de Monchaux’s terrific book “Spacesuit,” from 2011, describes how Italian-American seamstresses, accustomed to making women’s underthings, made the astronauts’ overthings. It was “a story of the triumph over the military-industrial complex by the International Latex Corporation, best known by its consumer brand of ‘Playtex’—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness.” Most recently, we have been re-instructed in the crucial role of the computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led a team at M.I.T. that wrote the software—though it was not yet often referred to as such—that made the flight possible.

In a larger sense, though, the two landmark events might best be seen as one, since both the moon landing and Woodstock were, above all, tech fests. Though the rhetoric of Woodstock was swooningly pastoral—“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” the great Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t there, sang—the truth is that it was the new Marshall stack of amplifiers that made hearing the music possible. When Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner”—shocking one half of America and delighting the other by turning the anthem into a delirious machine-gun, air-raid-siren shriek—it was on a Marshall 1959 system, with two four-by-twelve-foot cabinets (his “couple of great refrigerators”). That was, in its way, as much a triumph of Anglo-American artisanal tech—Jim Marshall was English, but the Fenders, who made Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitar, were Californian—as the onboard computers. Indeed, the two events were more alike than they seemed then, since both took place in remote, inaccessible settings and became public, above all, through long-distance broadcasts: everyone saw Woodstock in the movies and heard it on records, as they saw the moon landing on television. What no one could have foreseen then was that the two veins would meet in the efflorescence of post-Woodstock high-tech culture—the pop culture of the Steve Jobs generation—that has become the central American preoccupation of the period that came next, our own. Pop culture dependent on new tech and new tech pressed to the uses of pop culture—that’s our anthem, our music.

The curious thing is that, in the midst of our own overkill tech culture, the moon shots suddenly look attractively modest, like a decent, craftsmanlike approach to a problem presented. The most moving cultural representations of NASA and the Apollo missions lie in dramatizations not of the tech triumphs themselves but in the human struggles that made them happen—in, for instance, Ed Harris’s wonderful performance in “Apollo 13,” as the flight director Gene Kranz, who was also the flight director of Apollo 11. When everything goes sideways, and panic is imminent, and all seems lost, Kranz says, simply, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

Those words—like the more famous statement attributed to Kranz, “Failure is not an option”—may be apocryphal. But his official, recorded words seem even more apropos. After the catastrophe of Apollo 1, when three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died in a prelaunch rehearsal, Kranz gave a speech to his NASA team. “From this day forward,” he said, “Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough’ and ‘competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do, or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities.” He continued, “Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. . . . Each day, when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

“Tough” and “competent” were, well, echt Wasp words, as Mailer would doubtless have pointed out. (Woodstock words were more often magical-minded: “wild” for charismatic leadership, and “weird,” meaning expert.) But it is worth being reminded of the genuine values those words once held: “tough” for Kranz meant the opposite of showy braggadocio; it meant being accountable and taking responsibility for what we do. “Competent,” in that dialect, meant actually being good at something difficult, and valuing expertise and education above all else. These words could still be the price of admission to a position of leadership, in a broadened and diverse America, as much as they were to the narrowly defined team back then. They might still get us out of the mud, and onto the moon.

John Nichols in The Nation on the 95 who voted for impeachment last week.

”My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” declared Congresswoman Barbara Jordan as she embarked on the work of impeaching a president in 1974.

The Texas Democrat’s use of the word “spectator” was deliberate and vital. Members of the US House of Representatives were afforded the impeachment power not as an option but as a duty. It is an essential instrument of the Constitution, and it should be employed not when it is convenient but when it is necessary.

Ninety-five members of the House decided this week that it was necessary. They voted to consider a resolution from another Texas Democrat, Congressman Al Green, to impeach Donald Trump for using racist language to attack four Democratic congresswomen of color. Many of Green’s fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued for a slower process that would allow congressional inquiries to consider additional evidence of presidential wrongdoing—a process that next week will feature testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller. The opponents of Green’s proposal prevailed.

But the Texan told them they were on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the moment we are now in. Green argued that the issues and the moment were too urgent for any more delays. “The Mueller testimony has nothing to do with his bigotry. Nothing. Zero. Nada,” declared the congressman. “We cannot wait. As we wait, we risk having the blood of somebody on our hands—and it could be a member of Congress.”

Not long after the congressman uttered those words, the president was doubling down on his attacks—naming the names of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Trump announced, “They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.” At the mention of the name of Omar, who came to this country as a refugee from Somalia, wild chants of “send her back” erupted, as a gleeful Trump egged on the crowd.

Trump dismissed Green’s proposal to impeach him as “ridiculous.” In fact, it was a modern variation on a historic article of impeachment against one of the most vile presidents in American history: Andrew Johnson. Faced with objections to his undermining of the post–Civil War work of Reconstruction, his veto of civil rights legislation, and a litany of other concerns regarding his vile statements and obnoxious behavior, Johnson appeared at rallies across the country to rile up his supporters. His language was incendiary. As the University of Virginia’s Miller Center recalls, “Johnson [denounced] the so-called ‘Radical Republicans,’ specifically Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Senator Charles Sumner, and reformer Wendell Phillips, as traitors.”

Johnson accused his congressional rivals of “trying to break up the government.” He appealed to soldiers to “stand by me” in his confrontation with his critics, so that, “God being willing, I will kick them out. I will kick them out just as fast as I can.”

On February 24, 1868, the House voted 126-47 for 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson—including Article 10, which charged him with attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” Johnson would, by a single vote, escape removal from office by the Senate. But the House had done its job. And history reflects far more charitably on the chamber that checked and balanced Johnson, as opposed to the one that allowed the foul pretender to remain in office.

Trump uses different language than Andrew Johnson, But his demonization of his critics, particularly women of color, is straight out of his predecessor’s playbook. And so it was appropriate that Al Green’s response was straight out of the playbook of the Radical Republicans who challenged Johnson on behalf of racial justice and the republic.

The articles of impeachment against the 17th president of the United States took him to task for “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against members of Congress. He deserved to be impeached for that. And he was.

Trump’s go-back-where-you-came-from racism merits an equal response. The full House refused to provide it. But 95 members of Congress, all of them Democrats, answered the call of constitutional responsibility with their votes on July 17, 2019. It is important to record their choice to take up the issue of impeachment, and to do so for this reason. We know that they acted for different reasons: some were ready to impeach immediately, some wanted to have the debate, some wanted to assure that Green’s proposal received proper consideration from the proper committee. What matters is that 95 members refused to go along with the tabling of Green’s resolution.

House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler was one of them, as was Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee chair Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) joined them in voting to explore the prospect of impeaching the president for on the grounds that he has “brought the high office of the President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace, and disrepute, has sown seeds of discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.”

So did Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass (D-CA). Tlaib, a stalwart champion of impeachment, was joined by Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar in voting to have the impeachment debate. They were joined some of the savviest members of the chamber, including Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, the constitutional scholar who has done so much to put the struggle to impeach Johnson in context.

Remember these votes to have the debate on Al Green’s impeachment resolution—these votes to take Donald Trump’s racism as seriously as a previous Congress did Andrew Johnson’s racism.

History will eventually look as favorably on the courageous 95 who moved to hold Trump to account as it does on those who moved against Johnson 151 years ago. As for those who voted to table Al Green’s resolution? Many of them may yet come to embrace their constitutional duty. For now, however, they have chosen not to place a whole faith in the Constitution and, instead, to serve as spectators.

Doonesbury — Place your bets.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

To The Moon

Fifty years later, this is a live stream of the voyage of Apollo 11. Tune in around 2:30 p.m. EDT to hear the descent and landing. The actual first steps happen around 10:00 p.m.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Party Of George Wallace

Over to you, Mr. Pierce:

“…the Federal Government has adopted so-called “Civil Rights Acts,” particularly the one adopted in 1964, which have set race against race and class against class, all of which we condemn.”

The Platform of the American Independent Party, 1968.

Congratulations, George Corley Wallace, you old snub-nosed revolver of an evil-adjacent man. It took a little over 50 years, but you finally did it. You got one of our two major political parties to remake itself in your image. Your deep drilling into the foul national Id has finally come home a gusher. All the demons you unleashed from history are now on the main stage and dancing in perfect rhythm and singing in perfect harmony. It took a little over 50 years, and the effort of a lot of people inside the Republican Party establishment and outside in the conservative movement, but you won, you old bastard. You truly did. Born as the Party of Lincoln, the Republican Party is now yours. It is the party of racist bastards, up and down the scale.

As I said, it took a lot of work from a lot of people. The conversion of the Dixiecrats into Republicans over a relatively banal civil-rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention. “Massive resistance” in the South. Two dead at Ole Miss. Three dead in an earthen dam. The slow simmering backlash underneath the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, which you felt deep in your bones, but for which many people did not yet have a vocabulary. Harry Dent, whispering the Southern Strategy into Richard Nixon’s shell-pink ear. The gradual development of the code, the evolution of which was described in detail by the late Lee Atwater, its master modern cryptologist.

Forced Busing. Government Intrusion. Intrusive Courts. Soft On Crime. The Silent Majority. Government is the problem. The gradual inflation of the blame to encompass all of the Others in America—not just black people, but also what you called “pointy-headed” bureaucrats and intellectuals. Not only did they want to run the lives of Ordinary Americans, but they also wanted black people to live in their neighborhoods, go to their schools, and be Ordinary Americans, too. And, finally, the Republicans realized what you had surmised all those years ago—that, in many ways and in many places, the whole country was Southern.

In 1976, at the height of the crisis over busing, South Boston greeted you like a hero not three miles from where Crispus Attucks fell in 1770. You’d arrived then, you old bag of sins.

And they bought it. Oh, lordy, did they ever buy it. Not openly, of course. The GOP became masters of the coded word, of the slanderous cipher. And, as more and more groups began agitating for their rights—women, LGBTQ people—a whole roster of new Others became available with which to scare not only your base audience, which became whiter and older, but which still turned out like gangbusters at election time, energized in their attacks on these new Others by two generations of reactionary preachers and conmen, whom the Republicans eagerly welcomed into the tent, and also energized in their attacks on these new Others by a lushly financed conservative media operation that encouraged them in their hate and distrust over the publicly owned airwaves 24 hours a day. Oh, George Corley. Damn, Bubba. You were born too soon.

And, finally, with the GOP having imbibed your political homebrew for nigh on 50 years, along comes El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago. Every conman loves to find a drunk with money, and the president* found his in the Republican Party. (“Ain’t like playing winos in the street,” Harry Gondorff cautions Johnny Hooker in The Sting.) He gave the party everything it had been asking for since 1968, when it adopted your ideas without adopting you. He gave it Others, trucks and trains full of them, and, going even further, he put them in camps. He wrecked government, ignored the laws, spat on Congress, and, finally, gave voice to the muffled chorus behind everything that the Republican Party has become. And practically every Republican of true influence in the government of the country sang, “Amen,” to it. And we are living your final triumph now, George Corley. The party of racist bastards is here.

There’s no longer any place to hide. Functional racism and enabled racism have merged in this moment, with this president*. His world is your world. His words are your words. No place to run, no place to hide. The President* of the United States proved himself to be a racist bastard. If you support this president*, you become indistinguishable from a racist bastard yourself. And, for the most part, the Republican Party couldn’t find a way to condemn him as the racist bastard we all know he is. Worse, many Republicans tried to turn the arguments of the racist bastard against his primary targets—four elected members of Congress, all women of color, whose only real crime was to identify the racist bastard as a racist bastard. And, on Tuesday, when a measure to censure the racist bastard for his weekend apartheid cosplay came to the House floor, the Republican Party fought it so hard and so long that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri eventually abandoned the chair.

[…]

I’m not sure where this ends up. But I am sure that the Republican Party, at its highest levels, has decided to ride with being the racist-bastard party through at least one more election cycle. It is doing so consciously, and with its eyes wide open. It is doing it with the party’s whole heart, and with what little is left of its soul. And anyone who denies that now is simply trying to wipe the gun clean.

 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

We Have Liftoff

Fifty years ago this morning — Thursday, July 16, 1969 at 9:32 a.m. EDT — Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Canaveral for the moon.  I remember the moment vividly.  I watched it from a little TV in our kitchen as I got ready to go out to my math class at summer school.  I may have been a little late to the 10:00 a.m. class, but I wasn’t going to miss it.

The next day I went up to my grandmother’s place in Michigan where we watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon Sunday night.

What’s amazing is we did it at a time when computing was in its infancy — your average iPhone has more computing power than the Apollo 11 capsule and LEM put together.  And we did it in eight years; from the first suborbital flight of Alan Shepard to Tranquility Base despite setbacks and tragedy.  Yes, there was the pressure to beat the Russians, but it was also the drive to fulfill a goal that seemed so far out of reach that the only thing to do was to do it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Blast From The Past

You’re on a road trip.  You stop for gas and pick up a burrito out of the counter-top warming oven.  Three hours later you come down with a volcanic case of the trots.  What do you do?  Do you turn around and go back to that gas station and rant against the kid who sold you the burrito, or do you pull into CVS, get a bottle of Kaopectate, and drive on?

That, however earthy, is a metaphor for the current debate in the Democratic primary.

I get it that a lot of elections are about the past and rarely about the future for the simple reason it’s a lot easier to re-litigate and obsess over history than speculate about the future.  At least with history you are on somewhat safe ground with what passes for facts and truth, whereas with the future, it’s all up for grabs.

But here we are talking about busing to achieve racial integration, something I remember that was in the news when I was in high school in 1970.  Is this really how we’re going to decide the presidential election when most of the people casting votes weren’t alive when this topic was on the front page for the first time?

And this isn’t the only election where the past comes back to haunt us.  In 2004 we had to go back to Vietnam and the Mekong Delta with John Kerry; again fighting a war that was lost fifty years before.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of our history and where it has led us and what we can learn from it, nor should we not hold those who were in office all those years ago accountable for what they did then and how they see themselves now and their place in our future.

Paradoxically, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of busing; racial integration is still a concern in the public schools.  But it’s more important to consider and plan for what we must do now.  Any campaign for public office, be it city council or president of the United States, has to be about where we’re going and what we’ve learned, not what we should do about something that happened in 1970.

In other words, now you know to plan ahead, pack a lunch, and don’t buy a burrito at a gas station.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

D-Day

Today marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy by the Allies during World War II.

It has been immortalized in American history through film (The Longest Day, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan). As Bryan noted on the 70th anniversary, so many things could have gone wrong that it’s amazing that it was a success.

My great-uncle Cary Dunn served in the Army in the war and came ashore on that day. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed or injured during the invasion, but it was the beginning of the push to end the war in Europe. Paris would be liberated in August 1944 and the war in Europe would end eleven months later with the surrender of Germany.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

That Morning

On June 5, 1968, I woke up early in my dorm room in Auchincloss Hall at St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island. It was the last week of my freshman — and only — year at the school, and we were in the middle of final exams. I had gone to sleep the night before, after cramming for my Old Testament exam, listening to WBZ Radio out of Boston which had been reporting the early results of that day’s primary election in California. Bobby Kennedy was favored to win, but the final results hadn’t come in by the time I had to obey the prefect’s order for Lights Out and turn off the radio.

I was only fifteen but I was already getting interested in politics, especially since President Johnson had announced in March that he would not seek and would not accept the nomination of his party for another term as president. Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam War candidate, had showed surprising strength in the New Hampshire primary, and with the entrance of Bobby Kennedy into the race in March, it looked like the Democrats were poised to take the party in a whole new direction and put forward a charismatic and dynamic candidate who could beat the Republicans, even if they nominated that old war horse, Richard Nixon. Bobby Kennedy was drawing huge crowds everywhere he went; crowds of all ages, including high school and college kids who were still too young to vote (the voting age wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1971). And I was caught up in it; I read everything I could about him, including the cover story entitled “The Politics of Restoration” in the May 24, 1968 edition of Time, and I put the cover of that issue on my wall like it was a rock concert poster. I saw in Bobby the continuation of the hope and optimism that I remembered from his older brother Jack, the first president I remembered not as some vague and distant old man, but as a person and someone I cared about. I looked forward to Bobby Kennedy sweeping into Chicago in August and capturing the nomination, picking up the torch, and sprinting to victory in November against the dour and scary Republicans. Camelot was going to make a comeback, and the White House would be crawling with Kennedy children once again.

And then I turned on the radio.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. Instead of the normal news, weather and sports from Boston, I tuned in to hear the morning news announcer stumbling through a wire service report that “the doctors would be holding a press conference on Senator Kennedy’s condition in a few moments,” and then he said, “To recap, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot last night in Los Angeles after winning the California primary against Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. He’s in critical condition at Good Samaritan Hospital….” I listened for a few more minutes, then knocked on the door of the kid next door, a guy named Jeff. He was still asleep — it was a little before seven and we didn’t have to be to our final until 8:30 — but soon the entire floor was buzzing with the news. When we gathered in the cavernous second-floor study hall to sit for our exam, the chaplain led us in prayer for Bobby, and then we methodically took the exam. Afterwards, we waited for any news, but we all had the sick feeling that we knew what was coming. We had heard it before with John F. Kennedy less than four years before and with Martin Luther King in April.

Three days later, June 8, 1968, was graduation day — they call it Prize Day at St. George’s. That was also the day of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but I missed it on TV since I was sitting in the stuffy gym watching the senior class pick up their diplomas. After lunch I got on a charter bus to Boston to catch a plane back to Toledo, knowing I would not be returning to St. George’s in the fall, and arriving at home in the dusk of a June night in time to see once again the grainy black-and-white images of yet another Kennedy funeral procession up the hill of Arlington National Cemetery. Night had fallen — the funeral train trip from New York had taken longer than expected — and the procession, including the teenage sons of Bobby and Ethel bearing their father’s coffin, made its way to the grave site under the glare of floodlights. He was buried under a simple white cross near the eternal flame of his brother.

That was the summer that cities burned, the police rioted at the convention in Chicago, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie began their campaign to keep the White House in the hands of the Democrats while trying desperately to distance themselves from the Johnson administration; not an easy task since Humphrey was LBJ’s vice president. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in Miami, and George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who stood in school house door and swore to uphold segregation now and forever, launched a third-party run to draw off disaffected conservative blue-collar Democrats, a lesson not lost on Richard Nixon and the GOP when Wallace carried five southern states with ten million votes. I volunteered for the local Democratic campaign office and spent many weekends after I got my driver’s license in September handing out literature to inner city neighborhoods in Toledo. Vote Humphrey-Muskie said the little red, white, and blue stickers, and I tried hard to be as enthusiastic as possible, but I sorely wished they said Vote Kennedy.

We watched the election returns in November, the race too close to call until the next morning. My history teacher wheeled in the big TV on the VTR cart and we watched Walter Cronkite pronounce Richard Nixon as the next President of the United States. Vice President Humphrey conceded gracefully, and I spent the evening scraping the last of the Humphrey-Muskie stickers off the bumper of my mom’s 1967 Ford Country Squire.

*

It’s been fifty years since I felt the same way about a presidential candidate as I did about Bobby Kennedy. Perhaps, like your first love, you can never recapture the intensity, the newness, the thrill of hearing someone express the feelings you feel and you experience a passion that goes beyond yourself; you start to see the world in the third person, and you take it so personally that it becomes a part of you. And when the shock of the loss hits you, it numbs you. The grieving process is excruciating, and you feel as if nothing could ever be the same again. And the next time you know that no matter what the next person says, be they a candidate for president or a lover, you will never forget the first one and you will subconsciously compare them, and the new one will be found lacking. It’s not their fault that I can’t fall for them the same way I fell for the first one. In a way, I wish I could. I admire the passion of the people I see taking up the cause of their candidate, no matter their party, and I am envious of their devotion to the cause. I hope they never lose it, but I also hope they realize that sometimes it can be taken away with a terrible force and brutal reality that leaves a scar that is never truly healed.

In one small way, the spirit and youthful passion of my admiration and support of Bobby Kennedy has never left me. When I first envisioned the character of Bobby Cramer in 1994, I knew where his name came from; he was born in 1961 and his mother adored Bobby Kennedy. I think the same sense of hope that I saw in Bobby Kennedy comes through in the boy in the novel and the play, even if he does believe that hope is his greatest weakness. But I wish that I — and the country — can find that hope again; that we all find that same sense of wonder and purpose to do what we can to make this country and world a better place that I had on that June morning in 1968, the moment before I turned on the radio.


Bobby Kennedy

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday Reading

Charles P. Pierce — It Didn’t Start With Trump.

Joe Biden kicked up a fuss the other day by saying something…un-smart. (Ex-tree! Ex-tree! Read allaboutit!) He suggested that the current president* is a historical one-off and that, once we are rid of him and have fumigated the White House thoroughly, the normal routine of governing the country will resume and everybody can have drinks with each other at the end of the day. If there is one issue that desperately needs litigating in the Democratic Party’s primary process it is this:

Resolved: this presidency* is the logical outcome of 40 years of modern conservatism and its effect on the Republican Party. If it wasn’t this guy, it would’ve been somebody else.

It is pointless for any Democratic candidate to run for any office without acknowledging this fact. We’ve been banging this tin drum around the shebeen here since it opened, but not enough people have embraced the truth of it. (An aside: I really like some of my Never Trump brethren, but they should go back to their own party and clean out the stables. During an election year, and especially during the Democratic primaries, as far as I’m concerned, they all can take a seat.) The problem is the party, and what it’s become.

The party is the problem, because of what it’s become—a vehicle for bigotry, religious fanaticism, rigged elections, retrograde social policies, renegade plutocracy, staggering wealth inequality, scientific ignorance, reflexive stupidity, violent populism, white supremacy, and a view of the American electorate that is all switch and no bait. (Did I miss anything?) Three times since 1981, the Republicans have produced a president who basically embodied all of these things, just to varying degrees. Ronald Reagan played fast and loose with the truth; is that business about trees causing air pollution really any nuttier than whatever it was that El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago tweeted at 5 a.m. this morning? George W. Bush launched a war on false pretenses and made this a nation that tortures people and is proud of it. Is that any better than what’s going on at the border now? The question isn’t how the Republicans produced this particular disaster of a president*. The question is what took them so long.

And it is a root and branch thing, too. The federal judiciary is salted thick now with judges who will reinforce in the law all that is destructive in conservative politics. That Alabama state legislature that passed that horrific assault on women’s rights? You watch. At least two of those cats will be in Congress within the next decade. These people and these policies have something close to an unbreakable lock on the United States Senate. And there is no sign within the Republican power elite that anyone is willing or able to control what the party has become. There’s no Frankenstein, hauling his ass over the polar ice to chase down the monster that has escaped the lab.

The only possible way to change the Republican Party is to force it to answer for itself, over and over again. One of the biggest mistakes ever made in American politics, as the redoubtable Driftglass reminds us almost daily, was the Democratic Party’s blunder in letting the Republican Party off the hook for the various catastrophes wrought by the administration of C-Plus Augustus. Iraq, Katrina, and the Economic Collapse should have been hung around Republican necks in the same way, and for the same reasons, that Democratic politicians had to talk for 20 years about the mannequin the Republicans made out of George McGovern, whom Bobby Kennedy once called the most decent man in the Senate.

This cannot be allowed to happen again. If a Democrat is elected in 2020, that person should use all the powers of the office to demonstrate once and for all that the prion disease afflicting the Republicans now has reached terminal stage and that the GOP is a mad dog, snapping at phantoms in midair, and endangering the public health and welfare. Mitch McConnell should be made an object of anger and ridicule, and that work should come from the top. The mad dog is at the door.

Can A Fetus Get A Passport? — Carliss Chatman in the Washington Post speculates on the legal ramifications of granting a fetus full personhood.

Alabama has joined the growing number of states determined to overturn Roe v. Wade by banning abortion from conception forward. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act, as the new statute is called, subjects a doctor who performs an abortion to as many as 99 years in prison. The law, enacted Wednesday, has no exceptions for rape or incest. It redefines an “unborn child, child or person” as “a human being, specifically including an unborn child in utero at any stage of development, regardless of viability.”

We ought to take our laws seriously. Under the laws, people have all sorts of rights and protections. When a state grants full personhood to a fetus, should they not apply equally?

For example, should child support start at conception? Every state permits the custodial parent — who has primary physical custody of the child and is primarily responsible for his or her day-to-day care — to receive child support from the noncustodial parent. Since a fetus resides in its mother, and receives all nutrition and care from its mother’s body, the mother should be eligible for child support as soon as the fetus is declared a person — at conception in Alabama, at six weeks in states that declare personhood at a fetal heartbeat, at eight weeks in Missouri, which was on the way to passing its law on Friday, but at birth in states that have not banned abortion.

And what about deportation? Can a pregnant immigrant who conceived her child in the United States be expelled? Because doing so would require deporting a U.S. citizen. To determine the citizenship of a fetal person requires examination of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which declares, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The word “born” was not defined by the drafters. Presumably, they intended the standard dictionary definition: brought forth by birth. Our dates of birth are traditionally when our lives begin; we do not celebrate our dates of conception or the date of our sixth week in utero. But in states with abortion bans, “born” takes on new meaning. Now legislatures assign an arbitrary time during gestation to indicate when life, personhood and, presumably, the rights that accompany these statuses take hold. This grant of natural personhood at a point before birth brings application of the 14th Amendment into question and may thus give a fetus citizenship rights — but only in those states. There are no laws that allow the United States to deny citizenship rights to a natural-born citizen merely because they reside with, or in, a noncitizen.

Detaining any person without arraignment or trial violates the Constitution and international human rights laws. A fetus has not committed a crime, not been arraigned or charged, not weathered a trial by a jury of its peers, not had the opportunity to confront its accuser. These laws redefining personhood surely mean that a pregnant woman cannot be incarcerated, as doing so requires confining a second person without due process.

The Alabama state Senate passed the country’s most restrictive abortion legislation May 14 that could set a precedent for other legislative bodies.

If personhood begins in utero, a fetus will need a name and a Social Security number to begin exercising private rights and using public resources. A Social Security number is necessary to claim a child on taxes. It is also a requirement to act on behalf of a child privately, like opening a bank account, buying savings bonds or obtaining insurance coverage. Typically, parents apply for a Social Security number when they obtain a birth certificate, but if states declare that personhood begins at some earlier arbitrary point in time, they will need to provide evidence, perhaps through a life certificate, that this new person exists and resides in their state. Once the life is established, can a mother insure a six-week fetus and collect if she miscarries? Will the tax code be adjusted in these states to allow parents to claim their unborn children as dependents at conception? If so, can a woman who suffers more than one miscarriage in a fiscal year claim all of her children?

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires a census every 10 years to count all persons residing within the United States. If a fetus is granted personhood, it should be included in the count. The census currently asks about the age and date of birth of each household resident. Will it now include the date of conception in select states so that fetuses may be counted? There is the potential to unfairly skew census data and disproportionately apportion representatives and resources to those states.

These questions highlight the unintended and potentially absurd consequences of sweeping abortion bans. At the heart of the issue is how the 14th Amendment’s definitions of personhood and citizenship should be applied. States have been allowed to define the personhood of unnatural creatures — such as corporations — since very early in our nation’s history. In exchange for this freedom, states are not permitted to go back on their deal. In other words, once personhood rights are granted, a state may not deny life, liberty or property without due process, nor may a state deny equal protection under the law. States have never had the right to define the personhood of people. This was a subject — influenced either by place of birth or by complying with immigration and naturalization requirements — for the Constitution and federal law. State grants of natural personhood challenge this norm.

When states define natural personhood with the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, they are inadvertently creating a system with two-tiered fetal citizenship. This is because Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey create a federal floor for access to the right to choose — a rule that some ability to abort a fetus exists in the United States. If these cases are overturned, that eliminates only the federal right to abortion access. Overturning Roe would not prohibit a state from continuing to allow access. In a post-Roe world, in states like New York that ensure the right to choose through their constitutions and statutes, citizenship will begin at birth. In states that move the line to define life as beginning as early as conception, personhood and citizenship will begin as soon as a woman knows she is pregnant.

Trying to define citizenship and personhood based on the laws of each state creates some far-fetched and even ridiculous scenarios. If we follow that logic, we’ll tie our Constitution into a knot no court can untangle.

Doonesbury — House Rules.