Homeland Coup

In the United States we often comment unfavorably on the failures of democratic rule in other countries, the various insurrections and coups and corrupt elections, or the simple failures to transfer power from a losing administration to the winners of an election. We compare such breaks in the rule of law and citizen consent to the long-term continuity of most western European countries and, of course, to our own success with two centuries of peaceful electoral-driven rule. What we fail to recognize often enough is the inherent fragility of any democratic form of government, even in countries with a long history of successful rule.

That veneer of exceptionalism has been progressively stripped away in the past year as we learned more about the attempts that were made by the administration of President Donald Trump, and by his other minions, to hijack the 2020 presidential election and, after the fact, to reverse the inauguration of his successor. The tales of incompetence and subterfuge are multiplying, released from former Trump associates and journalists, provided in books and media comments by Stephanie Grisham, Michael Wolff, David Cay Johnson, and Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, among others. More will be released as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform expands its hearings on the January 6th capitol riots that attempted to halt the certification of the electoral college results.

The January 6th attempted insurrection was an extraordinary event, the first large-scale destructive attack on the home of our legislative bodies since the British Army burned it in 1814 and the only serious domestic attempt ever made to halt the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. But the riots weren’t the only efforts made to block that certification. In the resumed Congressional procedure following the riots, more than 128 Republican members voted to reject the Biden wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania. We have recently learned that the Trump staff had created a proposal in which Vice President Mike Pence would refuse to accept the electoral results from seven states using a bogus argument that the state electors had been challenged by alternate teams. This would either give Trump the win outright or throw the decision into the hands of the Republican-led House of Representatives. Fortunately, after Pence had consulted several knowledgeable experts (including former Vice President Spiro Agnew), he decided not to go ahead with the Trump plan.

There were also lawsuits intended to reject electoral results. In the months following the November election several pro-Trump legal teams filed challenges in at least nine states. As Biden himself noted on January 7th, “In more than 60 cases, in state after state after state, and then at the Supreme Court, judges, including people considered ‘his judges, Trump judges,’ to use his words, looked at the allegations that Trump was making and determined they were without any merit.” Biden’s summary was correct. There were 63 cases and only one win, a minor ruling that slightly reduced the amount of time that mail-in voters in Pennsylvania were allowed to correct their ballots. In that one win the number of votes affected was only a small fraction of the number Trump would have needed to change the overall state outcome.

There were also audits and recounts in many locations and none of those affected the results. It soon became glaringly obvious to all but the most partisan Trump supporters that the 2020 presidential election was one of the most secure and accurate in history. On December 1st, President Trump’s Attorney General, Bill Barr, noted that, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” In the book he published a few months later he said, more directly, that Trump’s continuing election story was “all bullshit.” As for the president-reject himself, he finally agreed that there would be an “orderly transition” to a Biden administration, adding a typical denial, “even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out.” That was as close as Trump ever got to a concession. In the meantime, Trump was calling the Secretary of State of the state of Georgia, the man in charge of elections, asking him to find, somehow, somewhere, the exact number of pro-Trump votes to bring Georgia into his win column. We are fortunate that that official, a man named Brad Raffensperger, chose to follow the laws of his state rather than the demands of a powerful man who is still influential with Georgia voters.

For state election officials it wasn’t just pressure from the then-president. Elements within Trump’s Department of Justice were pushing for a broad investigation of charges of election fraud, work that would have included effective harassment of election workers across the country. If they had succeeded we could have seen a series of additional audits similar to the one that was completed in late September, after months of work, in Arizona. We may still see similar “fraudits” in other states as a result of decisions by GOP legislators, even in states that have already run official audits, despite the fact that the Arizona recount managed only to reinforce Biden’s win.

But the continuing threat was more than all of the above. There were Trump associates who were suggesting that the then-president could declare martial law to stop the transfer of power, and those who supported, even incited, the January 6th rioters and “domestic terrorists” may have done so in order to justify the imposition of military rule. Trump loyalists like Anthony Tata and Kash Patel were moved into key positions in the defense department after many previous civilian leaders resigned without explanation. That and Trump’s expressed attitudes led General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to become concerned that the then-president was planning a coup to stop the inauguration of president Biden. He noted that he had to be “on guard” for that possibility, and told journalists Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker that “They may try, but they’re not going to succeed. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.” We may be fortunate that the military Chiefs of Staff and the leaders of those intelligence agencies refused to consider the wishes of their outgoing boss, the man who was still the Commander in Chief. The actions of military leadership often makes antidemocratic coups successful in other countries.

The threat is hardly over. Legislatures in Republican-led states are passing new election laws that have two dangerous provisions. Their first set of moves have created restrictions designed to make it more difficult for people who tend to vote for Democrats to register and vote. That is occurring in at least 19 states. Their second strategy in most of the same states is redistricting, or more accurately, gerrymandering. If minorities can get past the new obstacles they’ll find themselves in districts in which they are a political minority. And the third GOP plan is even more anti-democratic. In Arizona and Georgia the legislature has passed laws that would strip their Secretary of State and their county election officials of the ability to oversee procedures and results, allowing them to replace traditionally nonpartisan actors with Republican-directed authorities. Other GOP-led states could soon follow suit. In more than twenty states the legislatures have also introduced bills that would limit the ability of judges to rule on election disputes. The danger there is that the GOP could simply overrule the will of the voters, expanding their power in the 2022 midterm elections and making it possible for Donald Trump to win in 2024. At that point the person rejected by the voters in 2020 would be in a position to use his presidential powers and the support of his political party to achieve his dream of making his presidency permanent.

Coups of this sort have happened in other countries, as they did (with our assistance) in Bolivia and Chile and Haiti and Honduras and Iran, among others. It easily happen in the United States, too. Fortunately the military and FBI came down on the side of the law in support of President Biden (and Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan), so we have been fortunate in that. But we could fail to preserve our democracy if we don’t act now to protect nonpartisan control of elections and to expand voting rights and to reject the widespread lies about fraud.

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The Lost War

It is September of 2021 and the United States has completed a final withdrawal from Afghanistan after spending almost twenty years attempting to create a new Afghani national government. The conflict had cost the lives of more than 3,500 soldiers from 30 different coalition countries, more than 66,000 members of Afghan military and police units, and more than a hundred thousand Afghani civilians. All of this ended approximately as it had begun, with the Islamic movement called the Taliban firmly in control of the government and a variety of smaller, more radical Islamist groups, among them ISIS and Al-Queda, actively operating in the country. 

Those results are disappointing at the very least. Those who had favored the war have had difficulties identifying any positive developments that resulted from this lengthy tragedy and its two trillion dollar price tag. And there are still political and military leaders who refuse to accept the end, who argue that the United States should have continued its involvement, its military presence in Afghanistan, for an undetermined future period. Many have eagerly assigned blame to the leadership of President Biden, whose administration engineered the withdrawal, or to President Trump, whose representatives negotiated the end to the war. But the reality on the ground is that for the full two decades, from the beginning in 2002, the Taliban had gradually been rebuilding its domination over rural areas, increasing its membership and forming alliances with regional warlords, the traditional Afghani rural leaders. Even before the coalition military forces began to pull out and the Taliban began retaking regional capital cities it was obvious that the coalition-supported national government did not have effective control over most of the country. This end may have come faster than expected, but it was inevitable.

General Mark Milley, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that “In Afghanistan, our mission— our military mission— has come to an end… There are many tactical, operational, and strategic lessons to be learned.” There is one problem: The larger lessons are the same ones that we should have learned from our involvement in Vietnam, which should have been reinforced by our knowledge of Russia’s previous attempts to build their own version of an Afghani national government. We should have been especially familiar with Russia’s failure because we were in part responsible for it; we sent massive amounts of cash and weapons to various groups, the mujahideen and the warlords, those who were opposing the Russian presence and the Russian-supported Afghani government. 

There have been many efforts to compare our withdrawal from Afghanistan with the 1973 withdrawal from Vietnam. Both events were at times chaotic, although the latter was quite a bit more so than the former. Both situations were considered an embarrassment to the United States, which prefers to characterize itself as the most powerful military power in the world, a force that is virtually invincible. In both cases, we were wrong. Both conflicts were similar in many other ways. Vietnam and Afghanistan were non-war wars that bypassed the constitutional process in which Congress must officially declare war. Both were based on lies. Vietnam was authorized by congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, an act based on a largely fabricated story of North Vietnamese attacks on the U.S.S. Maddox, and was sustained by the mythological domino theory of Communist expansion. The Afghanistan war was inspired by the Al-Queda attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, but the arguments for U.S. invasion ignored the fact that the Taliban had officially condemned those attacks and had promised to turn over the Al-Queda leadership to a third-party authority for prosecution. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the expansion of military and political involvement was unnecessary, of questionable value in both moral and practical terms, and we will probably never know the true motives that led to the invasions and intensification.

The primary error of Afghanistan, however, is not that it was based on false public information or on unacknowledged motives. It was that it ignored the clear lessons of Vietnam. Following last month’s Kabul withdrawal, a number of commentators have said, in essence, “at the beginning, nobody could have known that the invasion of Afghanistan would end like this.” That is a false and self-serving message. The fact is that in October of 2001, as soon as the Bush Administration began its verbal demonization of the Taliban and its targeted bombing of sites in Afghanistan, as soon as it suggested an invasion, it was warned against any such action by a variety of foreign affairs and retired military experts. There were also large anti-war protests throughout the world. Those of us in the anti-war movement knew that the war was a mistake, essentially another Vietnam, and immoral as well. The cautionary examples of the Vietnam war and Russia’s Afghanistan disaster, not to mention the British fiasco of 1842, were all mentioned. It’s clear that the administration of President George W. Bush was adequately warned. Those arguments were ignored.

A large part of the problem came from the continuing myth of U.S. military superiority. According to this construct, the failures of other countries were irrelevant. Also, in most conservative circles the example of Vietnam had long ago been dismissed using a creative revision of history that claimed that the loss in Vietnam occurred only because the politicians in Washington refused to allow the U.S. military to use its full powers, a variant of the MacArthur hypotheses regarding the (also undeclared) war in Korea.. In their alternative mythology, the war in Vietnam should have been won—again the supposed invincibility of the U.S. military—and therefore there was no reason why the United States couldn’t succeed where the Russians had failed. We can only hope that the end of the conflict in Afghanistan will provide a longer-lasting lesson of U.S. fallibility.

Perhaps we need to revisit the reality-based analyses that were frequently made after Vietnam and before Afghanistan. For one, it is a mistake to think that any country, however powerful, can long impose its will on another, especially on countries with large amounts of difficult landforms that limit traditional military efforts to capture and hold terrain. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan the U.S. forces found it necessary to repeatedly clear locations that they had previously successfully captured, displacing an enemy that melted into the surrounding terrain and returned after they left. Worse, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan the U.S. forces were supporting deeply unpopular and notoriously corrupt national governments, and they pursued counterproductive strategies intended to depopulate and destroy rural hamlets, but which had the effect of creating opposition. The Viet Cong and the Taliban were not widely accepted either, but they were viewed by most residents of those countries as local participants rather than as puppets of foreign interlopers. Indigenous guerrilla forces will always have a significant advantage over traditional military units, especially if the latter are largely foreign.

These factors made it impossible, in effect, for the U.S. to “win” in either conflict. To reinforce the lesson we could add yet another historical note that the British failure in Afghanistan in 1842 was not the first time that their vaunted colonial forces had lost while trying to overcome all of the above difficulties. Beginning in 1776 they had failed to support their own unpopular “foreign” colonial system against a popular enemy that was home-grown in north America and that repeatedly melted away into the surrounding population, only to return later. They lost that war, too, despite having a strong advantage in military power.

It is time to face the fact that the United States cannot continue to act as the world’s police force and that it can no longer act like a colonial power. We currently have more than 750 bases in 80 countries, with troops deployed in perhaps twice as many, and a military budget that is larger than that of the next ten countries combined. Perhaps it is time for the United States to finally listen to the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan, recognize what it cannot accomplish, and reduce its military presence around the world. And maybe, just maybe, we could use some of the money we save to help support the millions of refugees that were created by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

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Just Say No?

As I write this the United States is in what appears to be the beginning of the third major surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, or maybe the fourth or fifth depending on how you define such things, with the number of new infections having risen above 100,000 per day from July 30 on, up from a June 14 low of 8,069. There is as yet no evidence that new infections will start to decline in the near future, especially with the normal winter flu season yet to begin. It is not expected that the number of new daily cases will reach the peak above 200,000 that the U.S. reached in mid-January, but the current caseload has surprised health authorities who didn’t expect a new surge until October.

The question is why the pandemic has defied such expectations. It may be a characteristic of highly infectious diseases. Certainly the 1918 pandemic had three major surges, two of them “off-season” in a pattern similar to Covid-19. But we also cannot ignore the fact that this July’s sharp increase in new Covid infections follows closely on the widespread reduction in social controls that optimistically followed the low figures in June. In early July most states and municipalities eased or removed masking and distancing requirements, at a time when vaccinations were still below 50 percent overall and well below that in regions where the populace is resistant to vaccination. The real question is why we expected any other result? Why would we not expect a “pandemic among the unvaccinated”?

The immediate problem is, and has been, that far too many people refuse to take part in the reasonable actions that have been shown to control the spread of disease. Admittedly, outright shutdowns of concerts and bars and restaurants and other venues where people congregate in large groups were extreme solutions, difficult for the economy, but such shutdowns have worked, in the United States and in many other countries. Less drastic options such as social distancing and wearing masks are more reasonable, and they were shown to have helped not only with Covid-19 but with the 2020-21 flu season as well. From September 2020 to May 2021 only 1,675 cases of “normal” influenza, and no deaths, were documented, a vanishingly small fraction of the usual seasonal numbers, in which tens of millions contract the flu each year and more than 20,000 die. Even distancing and masking, however, were met with serious, and often violent, opposition. That happens to be another commonality between Covid-19 and the 1918 flu; the spread of the latter was also aided by anti-mask protesters and political leaders who refused to halt large public gatherings. Even the president in 1918, Woodrow Wilson, refused to get the federal government involved in fighting the disease.

I have discussed the issues surrounding Covid-19 on a variety of social media platforms, from individual messaging to a neighborhood forum to Facebook. I’ve probably heard most of the reasons that people use to avoid wearing masks and to refuse vaccination. I’ve been told that masks are useless because nobody wears them correctly or because the virus is smaller than the pores in the mask fabric, or worse, that they promote diseases or create oxygen deficiency or weaken the body’s immune response. Vaccines are apparently also horrible., and not just the anti-Covid type. They contain poisons or the remains of aborted fetuses, can cause infertility or cancer or autism or autoimmune disorders or Alzheimers. It is claimed that the Covid vaccines actually alter the body’s DNA or cause the virus to mutate rapidly to become more dangerous. They also contain miniaturized computer chips that allow Bill Gates, or the illuminati, or both, to track people across the globe. And government Covid mandates are infringements on the freedom of choice of the American people, unnecessary restrictions because the pandemic is really a hoax covering up for symptoms caused by 5G phone service or devised to scare people into acceding to the social control agenda of George Soros, or the illuminati, or both.

Obviously, all of the above assertions are untrue. Or maybe that isn’t quite so obvious, because a large number of people, perhaps more than a quarter of the people in the United States, believe enough of them to refuse to wear a mask or to get the vaccine. And some of them also protest. It’s not just our country—there are currently riots in France in which largely unmasked people are taking to the streets to oppose the use of a national vaccination pass, the “pass sanitaire,” as a requirement for travel or eating in restaurants or other participation in public events.

Discussions of these issues, no matter where they occur, tend to follow certain patterns. In online exchanges regarding masks or vaccines I’ve found a higher than usual incidence of people attempting to back up their statements with citations of web sites. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any equivalence between those in favor of mitigating actions and those who reject them. The differences appear in the types of evidence cited. In short, when those in favor of mask use or vaccines refer to evidence, the material is most often an article in a scientific journal or an unbiased news source that describes findings in a scientific journal. In contrast, when anti-mask or anti-vaccine advocates provide a citation, it is almost always a video presentation by talking heads, either a single anti-vaccine doctor like Geert Vanden Boscche or “plandemic” promoter Judy Mikovits, or a small deviant group like the “Bakersfield doctors” or the hydroxychloroquine promoters who are self-titled “America’s Frontline Doctors.” Videos of this type have gone viral in the past year. In the few cases when they don’t cite videos, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers supply links to articles in highly partisan sources, Fox News or OAN or others. On that side there is a vast echo chamber of web sites that often copy statements almost verbatim from one another, and their adherents ridicule any statements from mainstream media. On the other side, pro-mask and pro-vaccine advocates generally eschew videos in favor of written articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals or politically neutral sites that summarize the information from such journals.

These sourcing tendencies are not limited to the pandemic controversy. It has often been noted that in order to deny the reality of climate change, or to deny that it is a human-created (and human-solvable) problem, you must reject the arguments from some 97 percent of the knowledgeable atmospheric scientists and their peer-reviewed documents in favor of a small coterie of mavericks. The same is true of those who deny evolution by rejecting almost all of the relevant scientific data.

The problem is that there is at best a broad ignorance of science, at worst a strong opposition to scientific expert pronouncements. Those who depend on video arguments demonstrate a failure to understand the importance of peer-reviewed messaging and the vital scientific concept of reproducible results. Science is not just what results from speculative logic or Socratic monolog. It is, in practice and fact, the result of observation and data collection efforts that can be repeated.

There is also another disturbing element to discussions of the pandemic and climate change. That is the degree to which it mirrors the modern societal divide between conservatives and liberals. On one side are groups that believe in the primacy of the individual and individual rights, those who, for example, refuse to wear masks because it is a personal imposition that they don’t feel they need. On the other side are groups that stress the individual’s dependence on, and responsibility to, society and to the social fabric that supports our lives, those who argue that masks are less important in protecting the individual wearer and more important as a block to avoid spreading infections to everyone else around them, just as vaccines also serve both purposes.

It is even more extensive and troublesome than that. Individual “free choice” is being praised, in opposition to government health “mandates.” Unsubstantiated personal opinions are favored over the large-group expert-reviewed studies employed by science. Personal lifestyle preferences and corporate profit-based decisions are touted in resistance to the societal changes needed for environmental remediation and improvements. The demand by individuals to retain their own tax money argues against the need to raise money for government infrastructure, regulation, and social supports. The demands of individual investors to receive larger dividends trump a company’s social obligations to its customers and employees and their local communities.

In short, a wide range of individual and short-term preferences are being allowed to undermine the broad range of longer-term strategies needed to maintain society. Unfortunately, our experiences in the past half-century, highlighted by the current pandemic, demonstrates that the modern conservative devotion to the individualistic Thatcherite doctrine, that “there is no such thing as society,” and that “we must look to ourselves first,” can be destructive to the very concept of modern civilization.

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Good Guy Gun

Jack Bolle looked down at the dealer’s display case. There, under tha glass on a small white pedestal in the middle of the neatly spaced rows of other, lesser pistols, was the one he wanted. He had been to several local dealers to look at it, to ask to handle it, to cradle it in the palm of his hand, feel its heft, to hold it up in front of him, in the two-armed pose favored by law enforcement, and aim it at the wall, at the paper calendar and the posters, out through the window. It was a Glock, the 19 Gen 5, matte black with the latest high traction surface texture, unmatched, they said, in hardness and resistance to damage and rust. An unmatched reputation. It was cool, figuratively and literally, a solid room temperature object, but it warmed to his touch as he wrapped his palm around the grip, as his index finger caressed the trigger guard. He had read all about it on web sites and talked to the salesmen and listened to everything they could tell him. It had been recommended by carry1open.com and many other sites. But none of the photos and written descriptions could compare with direct physical contact. It was beautiful, a miracle of engineering and manufacturing. He knew he wanted it; he needed it.

It would be expensive, yes, as much as eight hundred including the gun and the polymer thumb-release holster he wanted, and the ammo, and the tax, always the taxes. Government overreach. At least there was nothing they could do to stop him from buying it. And then he would have it. It would be his. He knew exactly where he would keep it, too. When he wasn’t wearing it, it would be kept on the shelf in the hidden cabinet he had built in the closet under the stairs, along with the other guns, the two he had inherited from his father and the others he had gradually added to his collection. But mostly the Glock is the one he would be wearing, whenever and wherever he went out. It would be his everyday defense weapon. He’d finally received his open carry permit; that had cost a bunch, too, what with the required training and all that, but it, too, was all worth it. His wife didn’t seem like she thought so, but by now she had stopped saying anything about it, so it was all good. They had enough income, and he had provided most of it. And, anyway, she spent a lot more money on shoes and clothes than he did, and there was that new vacuum cleaner she had wanted. That wasn’t cheap, either. Now, it was time for him again, it was time to buy the Glock. He filled out the application forms and handed them to the guy behind the counter, officially beginning the waiting period and the required background check. He would wait there at the display case a little while longer, until he could see that the Glock, his Glock now, had been moved from the display case into the room in the back where they kept the weapons that had been reserved for purchasers.

As Jack waited for the salesman to review his application form his eyes briefly scanned the sporting rifles hanging on the wall behind the counter, especially the Wyndam CDI. That was also tempting; a semiauto, 5.56-millimeter Bushmaster-style long gun, sleek black, rapid firing, a 30-round magazine. It would be fun at the range. But it wasn’t something he could carry every day. That would be impractical. And it was more expensive, too; he didn’t think he could get his wife to go for that, not quite yet. If he bought that it would have to join his other so-called assault rifles, the old generic Diamondback DB-15 and the Smith and Wesson M&P15 Sport, all of them standing vertically on the rack in the closet. He had planned ahead so there were three empty slots in there, room for future additions. The Wyndam would also take the place of the older rifles at the range on the weekends that he went there, once a month, at least for the first few months until the novelty wore off and people there got used to seeing it. He could imagine it pressed firmly against his shoulder, the momentary bumps and the sharp pops of each burst as he repeatedly squeezed the trigger.

It was only a week later that he finally brought the Glock home, and the day after that it was neewly cleaned and readied and in the new holster and hanging from his belt as he stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom. He adjusted the belt to fit a bit lower on his hips and shifted it slightly further backward, then forward again. It looked great. It was just as cool as he had imagined. He practiced a release and draw movement, a bit awkwardly at first, then again and again, watching the mirror until the muscle memory took over and he had smoothed out the action. He smiled.

Two days after that, on a Saturday, he made a trip to the hardware store, the Glock holstered on his hip. As he had driven to the store and walked from his car to the door he sensed a new awareness, a heightened vigilance to everything around him, a readiness for rapid armed response to anything that might happen. On TV he had continued to hear, repeatedly, endlessly, about all of the crimes perpetrated by the bad guys in their city, the robberies and carjackings and assaults and revenge killings. The news was full of it. The police always arrived after the fact, too late. Now, at least, he would be prepared. He would be the good guy with a gun, prepared and observant and armed, ready to respond to any possible threat or assault with deadly force. He could avoid being a victim. He could defend others. That recognition reinforced his heightened sense of awareness, accompanied by a sort of adrenaline boost. He felt more alive, more energized, than ever. His eyes scanned the streets and parking lot around him, newly alert for any behavior that might be suspicious, anything out of the ordinary. His right hand slid down to rest on the reassuringly solid handle of the Glock on his hip. Yes, he was ready.

Inside the store, Jack noted the actions of others around him. For the most part, they would first look in his direction, then their eyes would drop to his waist, then they would look another direction, then simply turn and walk away, veering off into a side aisle or leaving the aisle that he had entered. For that reason he usually had a full aisle to himself. Out of the corner of his eye as he looked at the products on the shelves he spotted people who would stop at the end of the aisle, look in his direction, then move on. Nobody said anything, but it did seem that people were avoiding him. That was okay, he decided. They would soon realize that he was there to protect them, to keep them safer. They would learn to appreciate men like him. He soon found the paint and brush that he needed to put a new coat on his storage shed, paid for it, and went home.

As the month went on his experiences in other public places were similar, that is, in those locations that he could enter with his weapon, the locations that didn’t have “no gun” signs at the front door. There weren’t many of those in his small town. One, of course, was the church they attended, but he always went there with his wife and she made it clear that she wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving the house with him wearing the gun. In other places, when he was alone, he thought about ignoring the signs, but decided, at least for now, not to confront anyone. He could leave the holster and its contents in his car, it wasn’t a problem, even as he recognized that that would leave him unprotected and a bit nervous. Before he started open carry he had been concerned that maybe some lib or other anti-gun nut might raise a stink seeing him in public—he knew that some web sites had posted complaints about that—but he found that nobody he saw did, at least overtly. It was mostly just avoidance, that and some momentary surprised expressions and pauses as people looked in his direction. No, nobody said anything. Gradually he even began to realize that his previous heightened awareness of others had diminished. In fact, the overall intensity of his interactions with the world seemed to have decreased and he was less and less conscious of the holster itself, noticing it only occasionally, as when his right hand brushed up against it or when it bumped against the central console as he slid into his car seat. It was, he thought, moving from being a life enhancer to being a minor inconvenience.

The solution, he decided, was to renew his awareness of the threat. Jack increased the time he spent on open carry websites, searching out stories of individuals who had successfully defended themselves or others using the weapons they had available. He could imagine himself in those situations, backing down a perp, maybe even firing a well-placed shot. At first he thought there were a large number of such incidents, but soon realized that there was a lot of duplication and that many different web sites copied the same information. Still, that did provide him a new rededication for a few months. He again felt like a potential hero, a supporter of law and order. But then nothing happened. He never had any reason to pull the Glock out. The stories about gun owners foiling criminals were still out there, and new ones were added on occasion. Stories on the TV news about robberies and road rage and mass shootings were still there, but they always involved people and locations he didn’t know. Nothing seemed to happen around him.

It was not just that his life was boring; in fact, it was mostly like life before he started open carry, but it now was in contrast with that brief period of heightened awareness. In addition, there was the continuing inconvenience of that weight on his hip that got in his way when he wanted something out of his pocket or when he slid into his car seat. And then there was the tendency, still noticeable, of people avoiding him in stores. More and more when he went out he didn’t bother to get the Glock out of the closet. More and more, it seemed that it just wasn’t worth it.

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Diversity War

Recent Facebook meme: “America – My Ancestors Didn’t Travel 4,000 Miles for the Place to Be Overrun by Immigrants”

It is a continual and stupefying realization to me that a large percentage of self-professed “patriots” in the United States oppose such concepts as diversity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism. Their ideas are often expressed in opposition to immigration–or as President Trump often noted, immigration from “the wrong countries”–but also in statements decrying the loss or dilution of “American culture” or in demands that everyone speak English. Discussions and polls have shown that nobody is sure what, exactly, a definition of the common culture in the United States would include, but significant and vocal percentages of U.S. citizens believe that it would include belief in a Christian God, vague notions of “shared” northern European ideals, the ability to speak English, multi-generational family residence in the country, and support for the U.S. Constitution, flag, and/or the national anthem. Accordingly, people who are not Christian, or those who speak English poorly or not al all, or who are, or appear to be, of non-European ancestry are regarded as suspect or illegitimate. Often such people are deemed not worthy of citizenship, of remaining in the country.

In the past few years this bigotry seems to have gotten worse. We’ve seen increasing numbers of physical or verbal attacks on Asian Americans, Middle-Eastern Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and others. Public demonstrations by White supremacy groups and Christian Nationalists have become more common and blatant, joining and amplifying pundit messages expressing fears about the potential loss of “American culture.” In perhaps the most egregious example of the ignorance of such activities, a Navajo state legislator in Phoenix was accosted by a group demanding that he should leave the U.S. and return to his own country. A Navajo!

There are many things that could be said about such astonishing intolerance, but the most important base fact to begin with is that the United States has always been a multicultural and multilingual country. That is true despite our efforts to keep Africans enslaved, to chase Natives and Hispanics out of the lands we stole from them, to reject Catholic immigrants, and to send the Chinese and Irish and Mexicans and Italians back after they had completed the necessary and often backbreaking tasks we needed them to accomplish. Our country has had an unending history of accepting immigrants from virtually anywhere when we needed massive numbers of workers to build our economy, only to follow with backlash actions that attempted to “cleanse” our society of the “un-American” individuals and influences we had previously recruited.

What we so often fail to do is to recognize that those diverse peoples and influences have always been a significant net benefit to out country. To provide just one time-limited but very significant example of that benefit, as we lead up to the 80th anniversary of our official entry into World War II, I would like to list a few of the many ways that those “un-American” citizens, the ones we have so often unfairly tried to reject, helped us to succeed against that war’s threat to our country and to democratic government, often risking their lives to do so.

Start with a group that suffered from a dual deficit. During the war years hatred against Germans and Italians grew. Many were subjected to group internment under the revised Alien Enemies Act and Presidential Proclamation 2526, much like the Japanese-Americans. A number were also victims of an older, more persistent prejudice; they were German Jews. One example was The Ritchie Boys, a group of recent European immigrants that was especially effective. These were individuals, including Jews, who had escaped the advance of Axis armies across Europe and who joined the U.S. war effort. They were trained to apply their knowledge of Europe and of German language and culture in efforts to collect useful intelligence from prisoners of war. As much as 60 percent of the actionable information about the enemy may have come from the efforts of this group. Prominent members included J.D. Salinger and David Rockefeller.

While we were recruiting refugee Europeans into the war effort there was one marginalized group at home that initially was ignored because they were considered unacceptable for combat: African Americans. The military had a pervasive policy of racial segregation. Despite that, more than one million African-Americans served in the war. Among these was the 761st Tank Battalion. The first Black tank battalion to see World War II action, the 761st played a significant role in holding back German forces in the Battle of the Bulge, spending 183 consecutive days in action. Other all-Black units also had prominent roles. One, the 969th Battalion, was later recommended for the Distinguished Unit Citation for its actions around Bastogne.

While Black infantry and artillery units were distinguishing themselves on the ground an experiment by the Army Air Corps was proving to be remarkably successful. This was the creation of a group of pilots, trained at Tuskegee University and at a variety of Army bases The formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron was supported by first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1943 they received a Distinguished Unit Citation for their first combat action, the bombing of an Axis garrison on the island of Pantelleria, leading to its surrender in advance of the allied invasion of Sicily. The 99th was later re-designated the 99th Fighter Squadron and along with another Tuskegee unit, the 332nd Fighter Squadron, achieved an extraordinary combat record as escorts for bombing raids over Italy and Germany. Members of the 332nd earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses. On March 29th, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bush and the U.S. Congress.

In the Pacific theater, the Marine Corps generally resisted using African-American units in combat; instead they were assigned supportive tasks in Ammunition and Depot companies. Working on small islands occupied by a stubborn and often hidden enemy, they inevitably ended up in active fighting. After learning of their courage and spirit, Lieutenant General Alexander Vandegrift, the commandant of the Marine Corps, noted, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines—period.”

Japanese Americans were yet another group that was, like Germans and Italians, initially subjected to internment at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. Soon, however, the Army decided that they were yet another resource that could not be ignored. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, formed almost entirely of second-generation (Nisei) volunteers, fought in Italy and France. It became the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history, earning more than 18,000 awards in less than two years. Twenty-nine of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Many Japanese Americans also volunteered for the U.S. forces as field translators in the Pacific theater and used their language skills to gather intelligence from prisoners of war and from messages they decoded. The Allied war effort against Japan was aided significantly by the useful information provided by these men. It’s undeniable that German- and Japanese-speaking citizens and immigrants were of immeasurable benefit in anticipating and countering the movements of Axis forces.

Finally, there is one other minority group whose efforts should be recognized. Members of Native American tribes used their distinctive languages to create unbreakable codes to transmit plans and intelligence on radio communications that could otherwise have been intercepted by the enemy. Code talking had been pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw speakers during World War I. During the Second World War there were members of the Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Comanche, Tlingit, Hopi, Cree, Crow, and Navajo serving on all of the war fronts. These men were most often assigned to front-line combat units and paired with radio operators, one of the most dangerous infantry assignments in the war because they were specifically targeted by enemy snipers. Code talkers made it possible to rapidly transmit useful information from the front with virtually no likelihood that the enemy could decode it. The relatively large number of Native languages and limited knowledge of them outside the United States made it all possible.

This focus on World War II is not intended to marginalize the many other contributions that these or other minority groups have made to the United States in its relatively short history. We tend to focus on the English colonists, but our country began as an amalgamation of indigenous peoples and immigrants from many countries, and that vaunted national culture that conservatives want to preserve is an indivisible, unique mixture of their traditions and contributions along with those of northern Europe. For the continued success of our government and economy we are indebted to all of the many and varied residents, recognized and unrecognized, documented and undocumented, whether they speak English or not, whether they look like northern Europeans or not, whether they arrived 20,000 years ago or in 1650 or just last week. They all deserve to be here and to be recognized as full citizens and colleagues.

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Freedom Two

Discussions about freedom in the 21st century tends to be about individual liberty, the type of freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. People have the right to speak freely, to protest, to openly practice their religion, to own guns, to avoid restrictions imposed by the actions of other people or by government agencies, or at least to enjoy due process protections before government impositions are applied. There are many disagreements about how these freedoms should be defined and how they should be guaranteed, but even in disagreements freedom is most often expressed as a series of personal rights. We believe that we are, or should be, “free” to live the lives we want.

In 2020 and 2021, the years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of individual rights has been expanded in response to a variety of restrictions imposed by public health orders. Many people have declared their right to refuse to wear a mask and the right to congregate in large groups in bars, in sporting events, and in churches. These are not framed as isolated concepts; they are tied to several elements in the Bill of Rights under freedom of movement, of speech, of religion. Individuals are claiming the right to oppose reasonable government efforts to control the spread of the virus, as if the rights enumerated in the Constitution were absolute and inviolable. And in almost all cases the opposition is expressed as a defense of freedom against the tyranny of an activist government.

But this individualistic interpretation of freedom is a relatively new development in the continuing evolution of human relationships with the powers that control their lives. The movements that fought government power in the eighteenth century, the ones that broadly promoted freedom and the rights of humans, were primarily focused on the liberty of the masses. They were objecting to traditional forms of hereditary rule. The goal was to create a government that was responsive to the governed. Freedom was visualized as freedom from arbitrary and autocratic rule; the ability of the populace to control the activities of the entities that affected their lives.

The French national motto is instructive. It calls for “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” The emphasis is not merely on freedom (liberté), but on equality and brotherhood. The goal of the French revolution was to create a government that treated citizens not merely as a loose collection of “free” individuals but as a community, a mutually responsible collective. Admittedly, that revolutionary movement degenerated into the tyranny of the Jacobins, a self-appointed violent leadership, and eventually into the Napoleonic empire, but the unrealized intent was to replace an autocracy led by a hereditary monarchy with a fully democratic and socially responsive government. In their view such a government was seen as an essential device in the goal of emancipating the citizenry. It took the French another 80 years, through yet another monarchy and another empire, but they succeeded.

Meanwhile, across the pond there was a nascent example of the kind of government the French theorists wanted. In fact, the 1776 American revolution against the English monarchy served as inspiration for the 1789 French revolt, among others. And after the English colonists chased the representatives of the King out of the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast, the leaders who formed the Continental Congress busied themselves with creating a new government based on the same theories that were popular with the French, and although their own motto was simply “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) their primary intent was also to create a democratic government responsive to the citizenry. For many of those leaders, one example was the Iroquois Confederacy, a stable social organization governed largely through consensus. The United States of America may have begun with a failed construct in the Articles of Confederation, but they replaced that in 1789 with a governing Constitution that defined a democratic federation. Their desire was to create a lasting government that would be controlled by the people, or at least by those white men who owned property. Individual citizens were to be represented and protected, but individual rights were not a priority. In fact, to the writers of the U.S. Constitution the Bill of Rights was an afterthought. That list of individual rights that we so often use today to define “freedom”? That was something they threw in at the last minute after they had created what they wanted, a government constituted of, and responsive to, a free people. Yes, there were still strict limits on who “the people” were, but we’ve been working on that since then.

The larger world has also been working on expanding the collective concept of democracy as freedom. That concept helped inform the collapse of the Ottoman empire and varied European colonial empires, assisted by the chaos of two world wars and by yet another theoretical framework animated by yet another significant revolution, this one in Russia around 1917. Again, not all of the anti-colonial movements have succeeded in building functional democracies, but most European and Asian countries have, and the continents of Africa and South America would have contained more successful examples but for the repetitive interference by the powers of the first and second world.

The growth of democratic collectivism generated a backlash. It was begun by conservative theorists in Europe as a reaction to the ideals and upheavals of the late eighteenth century and, immediately after World War II, to the memory of the populist upheavals that led to fascist states in Germany and Italy. But it has gained much of its modern popularity from opposition to the growth of the welfare state. In the United States a well-funded anti-tax, anti-regulation campaign and the election of Ronald Reagan helped promote the idea that government is the problem, not the solution, and that individuals are responsible for their own fate. To diminish the role of the state they emphasized self-support, self-defense, and the identification of freedom with individual rights rather than popular enfranchisement.

It’s not just political life. Our economic system has also become consumed with individualism. Corporations increasingly regard their employees as isolated individuals. Salaries are offered and negotiated with minimal reference to those of any other employees, and unless employees are represented by a union, which is now rare and something corporations spend millions to avoid, workers receive few if any benefits. The most extreme form of this trend is the arrangement in which employees are hired as independent contractors, removing any legal obligation the corporation may have beyond paying a salary or, at worst, a stipend based on output. Corporations have increasingly rejected any form of loyalty or other obligation to the people on whom they depend. They regard individuals as replaceable, disposable. Even workers recognized as employees are not guaranteed any minimum number of hours or a reliable work schedule. Business representatives continually argue for, and lobby elected representatives to achieve, minimum wage levels that are as low as possible and the removal of regulations that protect employee rights and safety. They recognize the fact that government can be a positive force in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Somehow, our current combination of political and economic individualism doesn’t sound much like freedom. The United States has certainly made progress in the two centuries of its existence, gradually moving closer to the ideals phrased in our founding documents. Slavery is no longer legal, every citizen has the legal right to vote, and citizenship applies to everyone born in the country. Admittedly we haven’t progressed enough. Just how free is someone who has to work two jobs to barely survive, who cannot seek medical attention for fear of bankruptcy, or who lives with constant fear of violence from the police or other representatives of the government? How much political freedom does someone have if their elected representatives consistently vote for the policies preferred by powerful economic interests rather than those preferred by their constituents? It may be difficult for someone facing those problems to think that government may be the solution to their problems, but it is even more difficult to think of any other entity that could create progress. Certainly not the economic system, much less any vague principles based on individual rights without any effective entity to protect them. We need not only to recognize, once again, that government can be the guarantor and embodiment of freedom, but to work to make sure that that promise will be fulfilled.

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What infrastructure?

Infrastructure works to normalize behavior, to the point that certain things become relatively invisible and unnoticed.

– Christy Pottroff, assistant professor at Boston College. Dollars & Sense, March/April 2021

The American Society of Civic Engineers repeatedly awards our overall national infrastructure a grade in the range of D or D+. This low grade reflects some embarrassing realities, facts that should be troubling to us, and would be if we bothered to think about them. Roads are plagued with potholes, drainage problems, and other serious rough spots; almost 60,000 bridges are rated as structurally deficient; the air traffic control system and many airports are overburdened and desperately need updates; trains and subway systems rumble through 100-year-old tunnels on poorly maintained rails; underground water and sewage pipes are ancient and deteriorating, and Flint, Michigan is far from being the only municipal water distribution system that still depends on lead pipes. If you bother to pay attention to the history of the many landmarks you drive past, especially out here in the great American west, you will realize that most of the last great infrastructure programs we had building dams and bridges and government buildings and the supporting walls of park trails were the federal job-creation efforts of the tri-part acronyms of the 1930s, the WPA and CCC and CWA and PWA.

Three decades ago a diverse group of organizations, leaders of businesses and unions, and elected representatives came together under the name United for Infrastructure to designate the second week of May as Infrastructure Week. The designation was largely ignored until 2017, when President Trump used the title as part of announcing his own infrastructure initiative, a public-private partnership that would, he claimed, provide one trillion dollars worth of new projects and jobs. Unfortunately, under his proposal only one-fifth of that trillion would come from the government. Fortunately, the Trump proposal was unsupported and underdeveloped, a public relations stunt severely deficient in details, and as a result went nowhere in congress. Unfortunately, the vague presidential hype followed by failure to provide any plans or any legislative action, in three consecutive years, twisted the previously unknown phrase “infrastructure week” and turned it into a well-known media punch line, a metaphor for any substantial promise that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing.

Why was it fortunate for our country that the Trump program went nowhere? There were two serious deficiencies in that proposal. First, it depended very heavily (80 percent) on private investment. When private companies “invest” in public infrastructure they tend to demand a return on their investment, which is one reason why we end up with toll roads and toll bridges. A large part of the reason the Trump “public/private partnership” went nowhere is that there were so few public facilities that congress wanted to convert into profit centers for private corporations. In addition, the president planned to reduce costs and attract private money, as he himself explained, by slashing the “dense thicket of rules, regulation, and red tape” that had caused “terrible delays” in infrastructure projects. That meant bypassing such items as environmental impact reviews, regulations controlling the quality and safety of construction materials, and labor restrictions; those in the Davis-Bacon Act that require paying workers the prevailing (union) wage rates and others that require a safe workplace. So by avoiding the Trump plan we missed out on labor backsliding, potential environmental and safety hazards, and a collection of new permanent tolls and fees. We dodged a bullet.

Of course, the political pressure for improvements did not abate. The problem was hardly a new one and the growing needs were recognized long before the first infrastructure week. Virtually nothing had been done by the federal government since the 2009 stimulus package following the great recession, and that effort had been recognized at the time as inadequate, the proverbial bandaid on an ulcerating cancer, funding a relatively small set of ameliorations. All across the country there were still ancient and deteriorating roads and bridges and airports and rails and waterways that were noticeably verging on disaster. Evidence of many of those potential failures were noted on occasion by members of the public and reported on, although rarely and briefly, by local media. Any significant outcry about infrastructure only surfaced on those occasions when there was a significant failure—the 2007 collapse of a heavily-used bridge on I-35 in Minneapolis, a 2017 passenger train derailment onto I-5 in Washington State, the 1978 collapse of the roof of the Hartford Civic Center, the 2008 toxic flood from the breach of a dike surrounding the Kingston ash ponds in Tennessee, and the ongoing Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis that began in 2014. Even these notable failures only received widespread media coverage for a short period, after which the lobbying efforts in favor of infrastructure spending returned to groups like United for Infrastructure and other varied trade unions and industry representatives.

As I write this the administration of President Joseph Biden is negotiating with congress about a major infrastructure proposal containing funding in the neighborhood of 2 trillion dollars. The package was prompted both by the need for infrastructure and by the desire to stimulate the economy after the Covid pandemic recession. Opponents have raised three primary objections. One is concern about the federal budget deficit and a second opposes the corporate tax increases that are included in the package to offset the impact on the deficit. I could write an entire blog entry about each of these two issues alone, but I won’t expand on them here. The most relevant question in terms of this blog entry is the third objection, which relates to the definition of infrastructure itself. Many of those opposed to the Biden legislation have characterized it as containing minimal real infrastructure spending, from as little as 6 percent to as much as 30 percent. Such complaints are political theater. It is true that only 6.2 percent of the proposal is specifically devoted to updating bridges and highways, but overall 24.8 percent is directed toward transportation improvements and another 34.5 percent to upgrading public buildings and water and wastewater and electric distribution systems. It is difficult to see how such efforts wouldn’t be considered within the definition of infrastructure. Another 22.2 percent of the funding is assigned to research and development related to infrastructure improvements, a less direct connection but still relevant and important. Perhaps the only questionable category of spending is the final 18.5 percent, which is slated to support caregivers for the elderly and disabled. This has been characterized as contributions to our “human infrastructure,” which is perhaps a stretch of logic, but not an entirely unreasonable one. If “human capital” is the result of education and job training, then surely it can also be an element within our national infrastructure.

I tend to prefer the expanded definition of infrastructure included in the Biden legislation. It recognizes our national needs and the broad variety of physical structures and services that our country, and our economic prosperity, depends on. That definition may go even beyond the categories mentioned in the proposed 2021 bill. Infrastructure properly includes the necessary building blocks and human activities that help us all work and lead more productive lives, that in many cases make our normal lives possible. We need only compare the relative convenience of our lives with those in less developed countries to realize how important it is that we have such a varied and comprehensive infrastructure, and how important it is for us to maintain funding for it.

The quote with which I began this post recognizes the value of “normalizing behavior” and of “invisible and unnoticed” services that we so often take for granted. That quote in fact comes from an article supporting the United States Postal Service, another vital infrastructure system that fits this description. The writer of the quote continues with comments related to the USPS, but which can be extended to many other forms of the broad categories of infrastructure:

Infrastructure works to normalize behavior, to the point that certain things become relatively invisible and unnoticed—like the fact that a representative of the U.S. government stops by our homes nearly every single day of the year.  When infrastructure breaks, however, people take notice. The disruption of normal life-—lags, delays, and mis-deliveries—-reminds us of how infrastructures like the postal system depend on government support and funding, human ingenuity, and public participation to work.

The Covid pandemic of 2020 has in fact disrupted our lives. The effort to restore normalcy, and perhaps to improve it in many ways, requires that we reverse the long-term reductions of public infrastructure funding that have been common in the past four decades. We should support restoration and improvement of all the structures and services included in as broad a definition of infrastructure as possible.

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Speak to Me?

My cable TV provider keeps showing short messages telling me to talk to their system. If I change the channel, it gives me a message saying, “Next time tell your voice remote ‘CBS’.” I’m not sure why that would be easier than pushing three or four buttons to select the channel number, especially since the voice process—holding the microphone button down long enough for the TV to let me know that it’s ready and to listen to my request—seems to be a lengthier and more clumsy action. So for months I haven’t bothered to do what they tell me; they seem to be slow learners, though, they persist with the message. If I pause the video stream and the screen saver comes on, there’s often a message on it that tells me about a new programming offering and tells me something like, “To find out more about Peacock, say ‘Peacock’ into your voice remote.” Well, yes, out of curiosity I tried that once and it worked, but I would have preferred to simply find whatever programming Peacock offered by navigating the regular channel listing or the premium services screen, the way we do with Netflix.

I also own a car that would, if I were willing to activate it, allow me to use my voice to tell it to perform different tasks such as, for example, turning on the radio and tuning it to the station I wanted. I would tell you what else the car would let me do using voice commands, but I haven’t bothered to look up that information, much less try it out. Part of that, I suppose, comes from the concern that when I’m talking to someone while driving we’ll all have to avoid saying certain words that would cause the car to do something stupid, like dial my wife’s telephone or shut itself down just when the light turns green. Yes, I’m quite sure that it would never suddenly lurch across the median into oncoming traffic, although recent stories about self-driving cars with “minds” of their own should make us all wonder about such misdirections. In reality, though, I’m just not interested. I did do a brief scan of the owner’s manual—yes, this particular new car surprised me with a thick printed manual, which at one time was a common item—and this cursory examination revealed that there are many electronic features of this car that I will never use. In that sense it is somewhat like my smartphone, only with somewhat fewer unnecessary functions and a much smaller list of apps that I can add on later. I assume that it won’t be long before our cars will come with lists of as many apps as our phones come with now, and one of the first actions I will have to do after buying a new car will be to spend two hours uninstalling or hiding the pre-installed apps that I know I will never use.

Now that you have read the above two paragraphs I expect that you wouldn’t be surprised if I tell you that I have a general rule against talking to inanimate objects. Well, I do. And no, it’s not part of a recognized or systemic philosophy; for example, I am not a resistentialist, much less a Luddite. I don’t subscribe to the well-known hypothesis of the innate perversity of inanimate objects. I don’t have a generalized prejudice against modern inventions or more specifically, against devices that pretend to be able to respond intelligently when spoken to. I just don’t like to talk to objects. Okay, on occasion I have made an exception of talking to large bulky pieces of furniture, but only when I’m forced to try to move them. As my friends can tell you, I’m also not fond of talking to people through an intermediary object, that is, using a telephone.

Some of my current reluctance to talk to devices that are termed interactive or responsive may come from years of experience. I’ve tried speech recognition and speech-to-text software, several times. About ten years ago a neighbor of ours received a popular speech transcription package from his daughter as part of a proposal that he could dictate his memoirs to his computer and perhaps eventually publish the story of what had been, in fact, a very long and eventful life. This neighbor asked me to help him learn how to use the software. I had made other such attempts in previous decades out of curiosity, to check out the hype about flawless hands-free writing, and knew that the quality had always been limited, but improving. I was still hesitant, but still curious, and I agreed to try. We installed the software and went through the training process, with my neighbor speaking the phrases requested by the computer and letting it become accustomed to his phrasing and accent, which fortunately was a fairly standard California white dialect. Then we tried it out. The result was, to use a familiar comparison, somewhat like someone who’s a bad speller relying on autotext. The mis-transcription of place names like Sacramento or Stockton was to be expected, I suppose, but ordinary English words were also often twisted, creating sentences that did not make sense and documents that required extensive editing before they could be saved or transmitted to anyone. True, it didn’t help that the prospective memoirist would laps into irrelevant dialog and forget to turn off the mike, adding lines of irrelevant content. But throughout this process I gained a renewed respect for the complexity of the old retro business tradition of dictation and shorthand, not to mention the current retro system of court reporter stenography, and for the people (mostly women) responsible for completing those tasks.

Computer-mediated transcription has improved somewhat more in the past decade, but even simplified and brief interactions remain suspect. Alexa and Siri have provided relatively accurate responses to people but also fuel for viral comic videos. I have friends who use Siri regularly to ask for information, and it usually works. But experience has shown that these interactive squawk boxes do best when listening to a standard adult midwestern white dialect; individuals who have a nonstandard accent, including Black, Asian, East Indian, or southern, have reported errors as often as 50 percent of the time. Such minority-related errors shouldn’t be surprising, given that facial recognition software is also similarly and notoriously error-prone when dealing with images of minority individuals. The problem is that both human speech and human physical features are incredibly varied and complex, and computers are not yet up to the tasks they are being asked to perform, especially when programmed by their almost entirely white standard-dialect-speaking designers. I am tempted to remark that computers are not up to the kinds of actions that ordinary people achieve every day, but then I remember the common phrase “all Black people look alike” and the George Bernard Shaw quote that “the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” It seems that we humans are asking our technology to do things that we ourselves are frequently not able to accomplish.

Would we do that? Oh, yes, we would, and I would, too. Only I personally won’t be doing it using my voice. I didn’t spend a year in typing class in high school to throw it all away now. Wait, was that just another misleading excuse? Am I simply, throughout all of the above, trying to find justification for a prejudice I have always had against using verbal expression to communicate with anything other than a responsive human being? Very likely. I admit that I don’t think much of talking to animals, either. That I may justify by noting that whenever most people converse with dogs they use a form of happy talk that they otherwise only use with babies, so they don’t really talk to dogs either, and hardly anyone talks to cats. Clearly, I’m not a fan of statements such as, “Who’s a good boy, who? You are!” performed with exaggerated emphasis in an abnormally raised tone. This form of address seems to be a recognition that the dog, or a baby, is really only capable of understanding the tone of a statement, not the content. And that recognition is the truth, and that too may be a large part of the reason I don’t like to talk to animals or babies or objects.

Am I rationalizing again? Probably. The truth is that I really don’t know why I don’t like to talk to objects. What I do know is that I prefer to talk to responsive persons whom I can see, ones who can display facial expressions and other forms of body language that indicate a reaction to what I am saying and that provide me with clues as to whether I am providing some useful or comprehensible information and whether or not the recipient is accepting or rejecting the message. I believe that I want something immediately meaningful in return to my comments, and that is true whether or not the person in question actually responds verbally. I believe that such responsiveness is what I really need from a conversation, and that may be, truly, the heart of the matter.

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Insurrelection Solved

In my previous month’s offering I stated that the United States, in the 2020 presidential election, dodged a bullet. That is to say, somewhat less briefly, that we avoided an attempted insurrection, one that was based on little more than imaginative fabrications and rumors and partisan spin. All of that was promoted by media, both social and traditional, that reflected and repeated it, over and over, until millions of citizens had been convinced that the vote count was fraudulent and that the losing candidate actually won (but, oddly enough, only at the presidential level). The ultimate expression of this was the January 6th attack on the Capitol Building, a violent riot that had our highest legislative representatives huddled in safe rooms while the capitol police and their eventual reinforcements from the D.C. police battled the mob and worked to force them out of the building. That event, fortunately, has been followed by a nationwide FBI enforcement and apprehension operation and a massive security presence in Washington and in most of our 50 state capitals. These enforcement and control efforts together managed to make it possible for the remaining election events—the installation of new members of congress and the presidential inauguration ceremony—to proceed almost as if this were a normal peaceful transfer of power.

However, this election cycle was anything but normal, and the aberrancy began well before the voting. It began, months before the election, with President Trump insisting that the only way he could lose was if the election was rigged. That in itself was not surprising, because after he won the electoral college vote in 2016 he never gave up the obvious lie that he lost the popular vote only because of millions of illegal ballots. That provided us with ample notice that he would refuse to accept a loss and that he would do everything he could to label the 2020 election as fraudulent, too. He initiated a variety of attempts to reverse President Biden’s win, and in this effort he had an army of co-conspirators. There were, of course, many self-styled “whistleblower eyewitnesses” who claimed that they had seen fake ballots brought in, or legitimate ballots trashed or shredded or burned. Some of these stories even included videos that they said showed the alleged infractions. Other partisan observers complained that they had not been allowed in to observe and challenge decisions that were being made as ballots were being received, verified, and counted, and still others claimed that there were more votes cast in certain cities than there were registered voters. Finally, there were political operatives and media observers who accepted and repeated such statements uncritically. That included the several legal teams that filed more than 60 Trump-inspired lawsuits challenging the accuracy of the vote count in six states in which challenger Biden won. All but one of those suits were rejected for lack of evidence.

So at the point I write this, three weeks after the inauguration and at a time when most of the Biden cabinet has been approved by the Senate and begun work, there are still congressional representatives and millions of people, almost all Republicans, who refuse to say that the election was legitimate, that Trump’s stories were lies, and that Biden won. Most Republican senators have even concluded, in their impeachment votes at least, that Trump’s endless lies and hyperbolic attacks did not inspire the insurrection of January 6th. We must now recognize that the United States is very fortunate that we survived the 2020 election and that our government is now capable of moving on in a fashion that can be referred to almost as “normalcy.” My desire here is to give recognition and express thanks to the many citizens who made this favorable result possible.

I’ll begin with the millions of election workers who processed a record number of votes this year, including a massive increase in the number of mailed-in ballots, all while we were threatened by the rapidly-spreading Covid-19 virus. It was a major undertaking. It involved, as it always does, the creation and printing of the millions of versions of ballots required by candidacies for local elected positions and a plethora of city, county, and state bond issues and constitutional amendments and other local measures. Those ballots had to be distributed to each individual voter according to their registered residence in specific electoral districts, boundaries defined by their city council or water board or state legislature representatives. Distribution of ballots could be either in person or through the mail. In-person voting required a vast army of workers to set up equipment and verify voters and securely handle ballots at millions of voting centers, both for early voting and for election-day voting. All of that, again, occurred in the face of a virulent pandemic.

Then these same workers tabulated the ballots. This required them to work long hours, often for several days in a row. In every case in these election centers there were representatives from each party present to make certain that the procedures were unbiased and the tally was accurate. They are the honorable partisans who believe in the system and who make it work. In too many cases this time, however, there were noisy partisan crowds surrounding the election offices demanding access to challenge every step from validation of the signatures on ballot envelopes to counting the votes, in effect demanding insertion of highly biased motivation into a process designed to be non-partisan. Many of the election workers had to be escorted to and from their buildings, through the angry mobs, at the beginning and end of their shifts.

In charge of these essential workers were local government officials such as county clerks, and they, too, were often subjected to pro-Trump pressures, in some cases including death threats. Infamously, the Secretary of State for Georgia received phone calls from Senator Lindsey Graham and President Trump, both of whom encouraged him to find ways to either disqualify Biden ballots or to “find” more votes for Trump. The Trump call was recorded. In it, the president began with attempting to cajole the Secretary of State to find just enough votes to reverse the Biden win. When those repeated appeals were rebuffed, Trump moved on to threats. This despite the fact that the vote count in Georgia had already survived an audit and two hand recounts. Similar tactics were used by Trump and his supporters on election officials in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona. In all cases the state officials resisted the improper “lobbying” (i.e., bullying) and insisted that their election results were, in fact, correct and that there was no fraud and no improper counts, and nothing they would or could change. This was true whether the election officials were Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. We should recognize and praise the honesty and devotion to fairness, the insistence on upholding reality, that was demonstrated by all these public servants despite unprecedented political pressure and negative scrutiny.

The same is true of all of the legislators who voted to certify the results in their states and to approve the teams of electoral college representatives chosen by their voters, even when the results favored the other party, and despite being lobbied by the president and his legal team inveigling them to choose pro-Trump electors. Remember that many Republican legislators have been, and are being, threatened with being “primaried” (opposed by well-funded GOP adversaries in the 2022 primary elections) because they were considered to be insufficiently loyal to Trump.

We must also express gratitude for all the judges, in many states across the country, who presided over the more than 60 pro-Trump lawsuits and who rejected all but one for lack of evidence. Some of these judges had been appointed by President Trump, yet they asked for real evidence, not innuendo, relating to the contested elections. In response to Trump legal offerings they used phrases such as “did not prove” and “record does not support” and “lack of evidence.” Even our highest judges, those on the Supreme Court of the United States, proved that their loyalty was, as it should be, to the Constitution and not to the President or to the party that gave two-thirds of them their jobs.

The military leadership and soldiers of the United States also deserve praise. In other countries we have seen the military use their overwhelming force to help reverse elections and take over the government; in the past 50 years, military coups have removed duly elected governments in Chili, Haiti, Honduras, Mali, and the Republic of the Congo, and only two weeks ago there was a military coup in Myanmar. In his efforts to illegally retain his position President Trump repeatedly hinted that he expected to have the support of “his” military, but to their credit, “our” military leaders refused to get involved, except to the degree that they helped avoid another capitol hill riot. As part of this, we must recognize the sacrifices made by tens of thousands of National Guard troops and police officers who have been protecting public buildings and employees during the past month and who made this year’s peaceful inauguration ceremony possible.

So, yes, the United States, after 231 years of constitutional governance, dodged a bullet fired by a would-be autocratic dictator who tried to subvert the will of the voters solely to keep himself in office. We have a lot of people to thank for that. In fact, no democratic government can continue long without the cooperation of the many people, the large and small cogs in the system, who do their jobs without preference for their own personal political beliefs or party affiliations. Let us give thanks and praise to all those who, by insisting on the usual nonpartisan procedures and the rule of law, helped to preserve our constitutional system and allowed the legitimate expression of the voice of the people, the vote, to be heard, recorded, and implemented.

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Insurrelection

After two months of uncertainty the 2020 election cycle has finally been completed. As usual, it has provided us with significant information about our electorate and the issues that motivate them. And as usual, the analyses provided by our political leaders and pundits are a mixture ranging from learned wisdom to wishful thinking. But there was much about this election that was not usual. The fact that it occurred during a world-wide pandemic, a disease that struck the United States especially hard, inspired worries that voter turnout would be significantly reduced. That did not happen, in large part because of the other extraordinary election irregularity; the personal characteristics of one candidate, the incumbent president.

Voter involvement in the 2020 election was historic. This was true both in the presidential election in November and in the runoff election in Georgia in January. Records were set in the number of votes received by the winning and losing candidates for president and in the number of votes tallied in the runoff. The punditocracy was correct in attributing this high voter activity to one factor; the high positive and negative voter reactions to the tenure of President Trump. A similar, mostly negative factor was also significant in the 2018 mid-terms.

Where the expert opinions went wrong was in interpreting the mixed results coming from the various levels of the election. Joe Biden won by a large margin, but Republicans prevailed in more of the down-ballot races. They did not regain majority control of the House of Representatives, but reduced the margin. In the Senate the GOP lost control, but not by as much as had been expected. In response, many analysts resurrected the old chestnut that “Americans like divided government”. Well, no. A more applicable generalization would be that all politics is local. The reality, in my own humble opinion, is that the Democrats were a bit too successful in their record turnout in 2018, and 2020 was in large part a balancing event. To illustrate this, I will refer to my own state of New Mexico, which trends blue. The state has three representatives in the House. Two of those, and the two senators, have trended Democrat in the past decade. But in the 38 years beginning in 1981 the second congressional district had been GOP country for all but two years. Then in 2018 a record turnout of Democratic voters pushed Xochitl Torres-Small into a close victory over GOP Trump supporter Yvette Harrell. That was a fluke. In 2020 Harrell ran again and gained an easy win because of the resurgence of support for the president. As I write this, half of the ten seats lost by the Democrat House in the 2020 election were representatives who had won close races in 2018 in districts that Trump won in 2016. Up to 30 House Democrats were fighting for re-election on GOP turf, in districts Trump had won in 2016, and many of them were targeted by a record expenditure of Republican money. That’s why the GOP did well down-ballot.

Remember also that Trump lost the 2020 race despite attracting a record number of votes, and only failed because the Biden campaign attained an even larger record count. The Republican electorate obviously was more motivated in 2020 than in 2018 and their participation both surprised the pollsters in many states and increased the chances for GOP down-ballot candidacies. Whatever the result was, it wasn’t because our citizens prefer division in our federal government.

Another hypothesis, forwarded mostly by centrist Democrats, was that their party lost seats because some members had forwarded such progressive ideas as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and Defunding the Police. Admittedly, many centrist candidates were attacked by election ads that claimed that they were in the pocket of “socialists” such as Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That couldn’t have been a comfortable experience. However, the effects of such ads are probably being exaggerated. Progressive policies are regularly approved in polls by large majorities, and Ocasio-Cortez has noted that “every single swing-seat House Democrat who endorsed Medicare for All won re-election.” The centrist complaint also ignores that fact that if Democrats themselves had not brought up any progressive ideas, Republicans would have happily invented other labels and memes that they could use in their election spin. The many bogus charges attributed to Hillary Clinton in 2016 are ample proof of that.

The November 3rd general election was act one of the election cycle. There were delays in vote counting, largely due to the need to process the massive increase in absentee and mail-in ballots caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, the presidential race was completed, and Joe Biden declared the winner, by November 7th. Attention then shifted to act two, the double runoff for both of the senate seats from Georgia (one a regular six-year position, the other a special election to finish out the last two years of a term ended by resignation). The GOP ad strategy in both races was similar to those in other states, with the primary difference being some race-baiting efforts against the black Democrat. Despite that, and with some help from bumbling off-target statements from Trump, the Democrats won. Again, all politics are local. As in other states, the Georgia results pitted urban counties, which ran 70 to 80 percent for Democrats, against rural counties that voted for Republicans by similar percentages. If there are any generalizations to be gained from that, it could have something to do with the dominance of conservative talk radio in rural areas and the concentration of minorities in cities. In any case, act two completed the electorate’s rejection of Trump governance.

The third act of the election is in progress as I write these words. It involves the refusal of the incumbent president to concede his loss and his continuing delusions, over the course of several months, that the Biden win was the result of widespread fraud—bogus ballots, voting by dead people and non-citizens, manipulation of machine tabulation, lies by election officials. Those fraud allegations have been incorporated into more than sixty lawsuits filed in federal and state courts across the nation. All but one of these cases have failed in court for lack of evidence, and two more general attempts were rejected out of hand by the Supreme Court for the same reasons. Those same allegations, however, have had significant impacts in the public sphere. Months of repetition in right-wing broadcast and social-media outlets has convinced millions that the presidential election was, in fact, stolen and that President Trump should have won. Indeed, as Trump himself tells it, he did win by a landslide.

At this point Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States on January 20th, but he inherits a nation that is divided by widely divergent interpretations of reality. The majority, certainly, accept his election and are ready to move on. A different significant percentage, however, including most Republicans, has become devoted to conspiracy theories telling them that the Republican Party is defending their values, but that the presidential election was stolen and that their votes were negated, adding strength to the following disruptive beliefs: (1) Future participation in elections is useless; (2) The agenda of the Democratic Party is aimed at imposing immorality and “socialist policies” through illegal efforts, efforts that will, in effect, destroy the United States; (3) Only militant action can be effective in restoring Republican rule and saving the country from collapse.

The potential danger of these beliefs was displayed clearly on January 6th when a mob of thousands, most wearing Trump’s MAGA hats and carrying extreme right-wing flags—pro-Trump, Gadsden, Qanon, Confederate—and shouting pro-Trump chants, marched from a provocative and incendiary White House rally directly to the national Capitol Building. There they broke in and trashed many congressional offices. They would have physically attacked congressional leaders if they had been able to find them. Their attack halted the ceremonial joint meeting that was being held by Congress to certify the results of the 2020 election; one of their goals was, in fact, to stop that certification. This was an attempted insurrection by people who had come to believe that violent insurrection was their only viable option; with no trace of irony, they called it the “Save America Rally.”

A timely article in the December 28, 2020 issue of The Nation provides a look at the dangers we are facing. It is a review, by philosophy professor Peter E. Gordon, of the life and ideas of Theodor Adorno, a historian who studied the rule of the Nazis in Germany and other authoritarian regimes. As Gordon writes:

“any attempt to explain mass politics purely in institutional terms or as an expression of rational self-interest will miss the underlying factors that make authoritarianism an enduring temptation… Every society, [Adorno] admitted, has its residue of ‘incorrigibles.’ But a mass movement is not made of them alone. It consists of ordinary men and women who are no more irrational than the world they inhabit. If their politics are irrational, this is only because they make explicit the systemic irrationality of the social whole… For Adorno, democracy is not a full-fledged reality that fascism has damaged; it is an ideal that has yet to be realized and that, as long as it betrays its promise, will continue to spawn movements of resentment and paranoid rebellion.”

The election of President Trump in 2016 was an expression of widespread malaise and discontent with government policies that had created decades of economic stagnation among ordinary workers. This formed an irrational system that was seen as broadly unfair. Trump’s election messages and right-wing media capitalized on the anger of ordinary voters. In rejecting President Trump in the 2020 election cycle, the United States dodged a bullet. However, that bullet was created and eventually fired by the effects of decades of growing inequality and irrationality in the social structures of the country. It will return if we don’t manage to make our political and economic policies more reasonable.

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