Can we talk about guns?

You may have read this in the NY Times today:  I’m Republican. I Appreciate Assault Weapons. And I Support a Ban. If not, please do. I’m linking to it because I found it encouraging and because it raises the possibility of something that has become too rare: reasonable discourse on a politically hot topic. Those of us whose views are anywhere left of center are unlikely to agree with everything this Republican veteran and legislator writes. But, do not dismiss him. As long as our beliefs are lobbed like grenades from the trenches on one side toward the other, stalemate will be the precursor to our demise as a society.

We, and especially liberal leaders, must dismiss and devalue the toxic and destructive rhetoric of those like Wayne LaPierre by not responding in kind. Instead, we must find and engage with those holding opposing views but willing to talk and find common ground for progress. We must refuse to be distracted by the lunacies of the latest Trump tweets and focus on long-term goals relating to essential values.

We need honest disagreement among opposing parties who agree on the primary goal of stopping the bloodshed and who will cooperate to that end.

Students from Parkland are not asking for “thoughts and prayers”

“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”            -commonly attributed to Nelson Mandela

With students safely loaded on buses and ushered homeward in crosswalks by a flag-armed safety patrol, several staff members began to file into the library for yet another after-school meeting. As we pulled up child-sized chairs around the well-worn tables, this looked like any of hundreds of gatherings we had all attended. Like any of thousands around the country any day of any week. But this one was different. Since Columbine, a new responsibility had appeared on the job description of public schools and educators. To reading, writing, computing, critical thinking, sex ed, AIDS, bullying, and reporting suspected abuse, now added was how to keep our kids safe from an armed intruder. Unofficially, we also understood the implied duty to throw one’s body over students as a shield against an assault rifle. Our job today was to consider the more mundane parts of our safety plan.

“Not all of my windows have blinds to close during the lockdown. I’ll have to cut black tag board to fit over those.” “Sounds good…if you have time to tape them up when the time comes.”

“We’re supposed to keep our students under their desks or tables and away from the doors. But won’t they just be sitting ducks if he (no one ever said “she”) gets in somehow?” “Speaking of getting in, with the center room, we have 3 doorways into the classroom. They will all have to be checked and locked. Meanwhile I have 23 frightened first-graders to keep quiet and calm under their desks!”

“We need to talk about what to do if it happens during a recess and we have 200 children spread around outside.” “Yes, we’ve identified gathering points in three neighborhoods adjacent to our grounds. Playground supervisors and available teachers need to lead students directly away from the school and to those spots.” It was quiet for a full minute as everyone stared vacantly, imagining the scene of adults bellowing into bullhorns as others tried tried to herd happy playful children away from danger. Tears welled in the eyes of a second grade teacher.

And so it went. Every solid idea added to the plan was accompanied by two or three new questions to resolve.

In the years right after Columbine, meetings like this seemed mostly an obligation to plan for an event that could never occur in our school. An exercise in empathy for colleagues in a far away city. Gradually, as violence is visited on schools again and again, the unimaginable has become expected, reinforced by similar horrors in nearly every other type of public venue. Yet, a school shooting remains unique in the visceral response it produces. Or should produce.

Parkland has caused me to return to the blog today after more than a month of bewildered silence. I started writing publicly about this time last year largely because I could not stay silent in the face of what so many of us perceived as threats to our democratic ideals and civic decency. Twelve months later, the threats, far from receding, have metastasized and accelerated. Reality and rhetoric are blurred in tempests of tweets and by a tumultuous administration. Hundreds of dedicated, skilled journalists have tried to document events and reveal what is behind them, the fourth estate striving to do its vital job while Congress refuses to do theirs. Passionate columnists, both left and right of center, have struggled to put the unprecedented into current and historical context. Nearly every day brings a new or recurring theme that prompts me to sit at the keyboard, only to be overwhelmed with the thought that my past year’s writing has been merely spitting into a hurricane.

But not today.

Who are we– as a nation, as a society– if we continue to allow our children to be murdered, knowing it is going to happen, with no unified effort to keep it from happening?

Who are we if we compel our students and their teachers and other school staff to go to their schools afraid that what they saw on last night’s news could happen to them, with no hope of anything changing?

Who are we if we keep electing representatives who put their own interests over the lives of our murdered children and the rest of the more than 13,000 annual gun victims?

Who are we if we shake our heads at the cynical and single-minded pronouncements of the NRA, but accept that their stranglehold on Congress and state legislatures is unassailable?

How many smug, “it’s a mental health issue”, Representatives would continue to accept the NRA’s version of the Second Amendment if the most recent slaughter had occurred in a school in their own district? Why don’t they and their voters get it that Newtown is Every Town?

It took a little under 3000 deaths on 9/11 for the U.S. to set parts of the Constitution aside, suspend some civil liberties, and engage in two wars that have cost trillions of dollars and over 8,000 American lives and those of countless Afghans and Iraqis. How many gun deaths will it take before we are willing to make stopping this American carnage one of our highest priorities?

17 students and teachers were murdered in Parkland. Coincidentally, that is the same number shot to death almost 22 years ago at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. The citizens of Dunblane started the Snowdrop Campaign, named for the springtime flower blooming at the time of the shooting, and gathered over 750,000 signatures on a petition to change the country’s gun laws. In less than a year, the UK Parliament banned private ownership of handguns. In the intervening 20+ years, there have been no school shootings in the UK and only one mass shooting, taking 12 lives, in 2010. (Licensed ownership of sporting rifles and shotguns is allowed, but no semi-automatic assault-style weapons.)

Well, that’s one way to go. To date, the U.S. has chosen a somewhat less restrictive path. Judging from our pattern of the past two decades the favored responses of those in power are:  1) Thoughts and Prayers, and 2) Addressing mental health issues as the root cause. As to #1, I would love to know what those thoughts are, as well as the specific prayers, and statistics on their efficacy. And #2, well, the seriousness of that approach can best be evaluated in light of the 2019 Trump budget that calls for drastic cuts in the federal funds for mental health services.

As of the past twenty-four hours, Trump has been promoting his solution of arming existing school staff. His descriptions tend to “evolve” from hour to hour, but I think a fair representation of his proposal is that: about 20% (I also saw 10%-40%) of a school’s staff would be armed; they would be “certain highly adept people, people who understand weaponry, guns”; they would receive a “little bit of a bonus”; and that schools should not engage in active shooter drills because they (the drills) are “crazy” and “very hard on children.”

Hmm. I think there may be some built-in competition for craziness here. I’ve spent most of my life in public schools and it would take another 1000 words, just off the top of my head, to say just how crazy this is.

No, the high school students in Parkland have it right. Things must change. This isn’t complicated. As a recent Washington Post editorial put it, “The Second Amendment is being turned into a suicide pact.” But for our children and our grandchildren, it is not suicide. They are being murdered and, if we do not try to put a stop to it with drastic electoral, legal, and cultural changes, we will be guilty of being accessories.

State of the Union, MLK Version

It has been a year, close enough, since the billionaire populist gave his rousing  Inaugural “American Carnage” speech to the mostly invisible millions on the Capitol Mall. Anticipating his first State of the Union address in just two weeks, I thought Martin Luther King Day seemed a fitting occasion to squeeze in what is sure to be a dissenting perspective.

In that year we have had constant tweets, pronouncements, and actions from the White House, any of which taken individually would have constituted a show-stopping crisis or scandal for any previous administration. Yet, while the majority of Americans have responded or watched in horror, fully one-third of the electorate has been unwavering in its support of the president, even as he has repeatedly betrayed his economic promises to his white working class base. Why? That may be the most frequently repeated question of 2017.

The first explanation that has made solid sense to me was in a recent column by Charles Blow in the NY Times.

Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.

It is the belief that even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified woman and a belief that the most vile, anti-intellectual, scandal-plagued simpleton of a white man is sufficient to follow in the presidential footsteps of the best educated, most eloquent, most affable black man.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in the 1960s to a young Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Trump’s supporters are saying to us, screaming to us, that although he may be the “lowest white man,” he is still better than Barack Obama, the “best colored man.”

In a way, Donald Trump represents white people’s right to be wrong and still be right. He is the embodiment of the unassailability of white power and white privilege.

I don’t know about you, but this was a hard assessment for me to read. In 2008, didn’t most of us believe the U.S. had turned the corner on race with the election of Barack Obama? And yet, Blow’s argument rings true. It explains the obsession by Trump and many on the right to obliterate any trace of the Obama legacy. It explains how Trump and the GOP Congress could so brazenly enact massive tax cuts for big corporations and the uber wealthy, confident in their ability to sell it to their base as a boon to the middle class.

And now, like an exclamation point on the year that started with the Muslim travel ban, Trump has grown comfortable enough in the Oval to make clear his world view: America First should be open to countries like Norway, i.e. white, and not to shithole countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and those in Africa, i.e. black and brown.

Naturally, this opinion has caused a negative sensation throughout the country and the rest of the world. That was to be expected. But, don’t be fooled. Pay attention to the sizable fraction of the country that was not repulsed and offended. Those who say that Trump is merely using colorful language to express what is obvious. Those who excuse his racism as telling it like it is. Those who are silent in the face of hate and ignorance emanating from the White House.

Consider the possibility that a large portion of American adults– one-fourth? one-third?– share Donald Trump’s racism. He did not create it in them, but he has exposed, exploited, and liberated it. He will, possibly, hold office for 3 more years. (I’m ignoring the spectrum of alternate possibilities from early impeachment/resignation to, godhelpus, a second term.) Then, he will be gone. But racial divisions and resentments will remain, even more intractable than political ones I expect.

Here’s the thing. In the spirit of Dr. King, this is a challenge we can begin to address now. Instead of railing at every outrageous utterance from Trump’s mouth or Twitter finger, our energies should be going into finding ways to counter the damage being done and the conditions that made Trump possible in the first place.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.    -MLK, “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963

How the Grinch Stole the Alabama Afterglow

Barely had we time for celebrating before the Grinch ruined the mood. Like a digital village green full of Whos in Whoville, we gathered around our televisions, computers, and phones to gaze in grateful wonder when the good (and mostly black and/or female) citizens of Alabama made a much-needed stand and said, “#MeToo and #NotThisTime” to Roy Moore.

We should have realized there would be no happy Seuss ending to this week, however. Instead, the GOP (Grinch’s Own Party) snuck down our chimneys and left all but the very richest Whos a nice little pile of coal. And you wondered why Trump promised to keep the mines going.

The GOP tax bill is a breathtakingly brazen Christmas gift– oh, let’s face it, it is a once in a generation giveaway– to those who have been investing their wealth to shift our country from a republic to an oligarchy. The shameless process and reckless speed with which these legislators have betrayed everyone else appears to have been successful. Yet, they are simultaneously affixing their names to an act that will be condemned for decades.

I confess that approaching this week’s blog has been a disheartening prospect. The hope produced by Tuesday’s Alabama results made the swiftness of the capitulation by the “moderate” or “principled” GOP Senators all the more stunning. Susan Collins, John McCain, Bob Corker, Lisa Murkowski, Jeff Flake, James Lankford, Jerry Moran: What tangled rationales does it take? How will you answer for your votes to the voters of your states in the coming years? More immediately, how do you sleep?

I haven’t the expertise to address the myriad of dire consequences being forecast by the overwhelming majority of those who do. Besides, I expect you are reading them, too. But, I do recommend an excellent summary in the NY Times, The Winners and Losers in the Tax Bill. Also, in this era of demeaning and denigrating the media, it might help you remember a happier time when most journalists enjoyed well-earned respect if you would take a minute to read the brief CVs of the two authors of the article, Alan Rappaport and Jesse Drucker. Click on each name at the top of the article, then be sure to click on More after the first couple sentences for the entire bio.

But, I want to devote the rest of the post to a guest columnist, Fareed Zakaria. It is brief enough to keep the total length in line with past posts. And, it focuses on a set of consequences to the new tax law that I have not seen addressed elsewhere: The Republican obsession with cutting taxes and starving government will not only result in harmful cuts affecting vast numbers of individuals, it will sentence us to the continued decline and deterioration of our infrastructure and public investment in research, development, and education. While most individuals have some capacity and opportunity to ameliorate their circumstances, our national prosperity and health depends upon shared investment for the common good.

The GOP tax bill may be the worst piece of legislation in modern history
by Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post, Dec 14, 2017

If the Republican tax plan passes Congress, it will mark a watershed for the United States. The medium- and long-term effects of the plan will be a massive drop in public investment, which will come on the heels of decades of declining spending (as a percentage of gross domestic product) on infrastructure, scientific research, skills training and core government agencies. The United States can’t coast on past investments forever, and with this legislation, we are ushering in a bleak future.

The tax bill is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, and some experts think the real loss to federal revenue will be much higher. If Congress doesn’t slash spending, automatic cuts will kick in unless Democrats and Republicans can agree to waive them. Either way, the prospects for discretionary spending look dire, with potential cuts to spending on roads and airports, training and apprenticeship programs, health-care research and public-health initiatives, among hundreds of other programs. And these cuts would happen on top of an already difficult situation. As Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution points out, combined public investment by federal, state and local governments is at its lowest point in six decades, relative to GDP.

The United States is at a breaking point. In August, the World Bank looked at 50 countries and found that the United States will have the largest unmet infrastructure needs over the next two decades. Look in any direction. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the United States has almost 56,000 bridges with structural problems (about 1,900 of which are on interstate highways), and these are crossed 185 million times a day.

Another industry report says that in 1977 the federal government provided 63 percent of the country’s total investment in water infrastructure, but only 9 percent by 2014. There’s so much congestion in America’s largest rail hub, Chicago, that it takes longer for a freight train to pass through the city than it takes to get from there to Los Angeles, according to Building America’s Future, a public interest group.

There is no better indication of the U.S. government’s myopia than the decline in funding for research. A recent report in Science notes that for the first time since World War II, private funding for basic research now exceeds federal funding. Research and development topped 10 percent of the national budget in the mid-1960s; it is now less than 4 percent. And the Senate’s version of the tax bill removed a crucial tax credit that has encouraged corporate spending on research, though the House-Senate compromise version will probably keep it. All this is happening in an environment in which other countries, from South Korea to Germany to China, are ramping up their investments in these areas. A recent study found that China is on track to surpass the United States as the world leader in biomedical research spending.

When I came to America in the 1980s, I was struck by how well the government functioned. When I would hear complaints about the IRS or the Federal Aviation Administration, I would often reply, “Have you ever seen how badly these bureaucracies work in other countries?” Certainly compared with India, where I grew up, but even compared with countries such as France and Italy, many of the federal government’s key offices were professional and competent. But decades of criticism, congressional micromanagement and underfunding have taken their toll. Agencies such as the IRS are now threadbare. The Census Bureau is preparing to go digital and undertake a new national tally, but it is hamstrung by an insufficient budget and has had to cancel several much-needed tests. The FAA lags behind equivalent agencies in countries such as Canada and has been delayed in upgrading its technology because of funding lapses and uncertainties. The list goes on and on.

There are genuine problems beyond underfunding. The costs of building American infrastructure are astronomical. But during the Depression, World War II and much of the Cold War, a sense of crisis and competition focused America’s attention and created a bipartisan urgency to get things done. Ironically, at a time when competition is far more fierce, when other countries have surpassed the United States in many of these areas, America has fallen into extreme partisanship and embraced a know-nothing libertarianism that is starving the country of the essential investments it needs for growth. Those who vote for this tax bill — possibly the worst piece of major legislation in a generation — will live in infamy, as the country slowly breaks down.

Al Franken– and another inconvenient truth

I admit it. It was difficult to watch the demise of Al Franken’s career as Senator. I like him and think he has been good for progressive politics. His resignation speech pointed out the irony that he was being forced out, while the White House sheltered an admitted sexual predator and endorsed a (very) credibly accused child molester to become a Senator. Doesn’t seem fair. Doesn’t seem proportional. Doesn’t matter.

The eight women’s accusations against Franken are badly timed for him. And inconvenient for Democrats. The #MeToo wave has caught up a remarkable number of high profile men and very publicly beached them. It is true that the nature of Franken’s misbehavior pales next to those in the Weinstein league and many others. But, I would not want to tell any of the eight women that their experiences were not bad enough to matter. They do matter now and they must continue to matter going forward, even if we learn how to deal with the entire range of unacceptable behavior toward women in a proportional way. For now, though, we simply need to accept that when a dam breaks, everything in the water’s path may be swept away.

Well, maybe not everything. That’s the inconvenient part. Our current U.S. Senate has twenty-one women. Only 21%, but that is more than ever before. Sixteen are Democrats and just five are Republicans. Demonstrating the point that having enough women in positions of authority in a workplace is vital to dealing with sexual harassment, all sixteen women Senators were instrumental in pressuring Franken to step down. Similarly, Rep John Conyers (D-MI) was compelled to retire when House colleagues, including Nancy Pelosi, urged him to.

In contrast, two Republican House members were also in the news this week on related allegations. (Note: Of 239 Republicans, 22 or 9% are women. Of 193 Democrats, 62 or 32% are women.) Rep Blake Farenthold (R-UT) was discovered to have used $84,000 of taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim. Two (that’s 2) female Republican Representatives have called for Farenthold to step down, which he has given no indication of doing as yet. The other is Trent Franks (R-AZ), who has admitted offering $5 million to two of his aides to be a surrogate mother. He announced he will resign rather than face an ethics committee hearing, reportedly on the encouragement of Paul Ryan.

Am I implying there is a qualitative difference in how the two parties will respond, are responding, to the #MeToo movement? Uh-huh. That is exactly why for Democrats it is inconvenient to acknowledge the truth of what women have to say about sexism, harassment, misogyny, and rape. Acknowledgement requires response. This week’s response has resulted in the loss of two seats, one a respected Senator that had been thought of as a possible presidential candidate someday; the other a Civil Rights legend. The message is that this moment, the opportunity to start righting a whole category of wrongs, is more important than party.

Whereas, the Republican response is, well, something else. In addition to the above examples, Trump has been unequivocal in his endorsement of Roy Moore, the Alabama disgraced judge and alleged pedophile, tweeting that maintaining the Senate seat is paramount. The RNC has reversed its earlier decision to withhold funding from Moore and, on the same rationale, has thrown him its support in the final weeks before the vote. It appears that party trumps women.

Speaking of whom, it is fascinating to consider what would come from republishing and reexamining the stories of the 19 (nineteen!) women claiming to have been assaulted by the man the entire country heard admitting to how cool it is to get away with assaulting women. Hey, now this is a convenient truth: The Atlantic just did! Check it out.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of this administration has been its imperviousness to pesky things like facts, norms, ethics. Can that shield stand up to a cultural groundswell like we are seeing now? Maybe.

One of the defining characteristics of our current political climate is how we are being pushed relentlessly right or left, like the Red Sea parting, ever more distinctly into separate camps. Partisan. Tribal. I think an even more helpful analogy is we become like hyper-loyal alumni and fans of a powerful college football team. Nothing, nada, no thing is more important than winning. Pay your coach three times as much as the University President? Natch. Recruiting violations? Just part of the game. Everyone does it. Star quarterback accused of raping a coed? He said, she said. She’s just looking for attention. What she gets is a couple of death threats. Hey, we need him to play in the championship.

The point is, when you are a rabid fan, a partisan, a member of a tribe, everything becomes Us vs. Them. You tend to accept whatever goes along with your side winning. It has been tempting this week to make excuses for Al Franken. This wasn’t nearly so bad as Roy Moore. He was just playing around. We need that Senate seat! Heck, he’s on OUR side. Lean to the Left! Stomp on the Right! Stand up! Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!

If we accept that everything is about this kind of winning and losing we will all lose. We should instead seize this extraordinary moment of awareness that fully one half of our population has been subject to mistreatment at the hands of the other half. We should engage in political contests and interactions over how to improve the lives of all citizens, not over who will be winners and who will be losers.

The next 30 days will be pretty big in Alabama. The University of Alabama, the legendary Crimson Tide, plays Clemson on January 1 in the College Football Playoffs, with the winner playing for the National Championship on January 8. Oh, and on December 12, there’s a special election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Trump’s favorite Cabinet member. Doug Jones, the pro-choice Democrat who successfully prosecuted Klan members, faces Roy Moore, the twice-fired state judge, former mall creeper, and lover of young girls. The entire nation will be holding its breath for an indication of whether a deep Red state might be willing to listen to the women.

Roll Tide!

Note: As I was doing a final read-through of this post, I noticed that two GOP Senators made appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows just now. Richard Shelby, the other Alabama Senator, and Susan Collins of Maine both declared their opposition to the election of Roy Moore. While not endorsing the Democrat Jones, Shelby said he had written in the name of a qualified Republican on his absentee ballot. We do find ourselves at an interesting intersection. Truly.

On the road, on taxes, on times that need a-changin

Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

-American Tune, by Paul Simon  1973

Those words were written and poignantly sung during a time when you could say our national innocence was being lost. In the previous ten years, we witnessed the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. We were staggering to the end of our disastrous war in Vietnam.  We had learned that our government could not be trusted to tell us the truth or to do the right thing. Watergate was revealing that the president was, in fact, a crook.

Yet, Congress rallied and reassured us that the Constitution and the rule of law still prevailed. There were lines that could not be crossed, depths to which we would not fall.

Until recently, I have believed bulwarks still stood that would protect the country from self-destruction. The most recent proof of this was surviving the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The U.S. and possibly the world economies were pulled back from the brink of meltdown by the courageous actions of administration and federal officials from both Bush and Obama presidencies. Subsequent bipartisan (Dodd-Frank) legislation sought to prevent future such calamities.

Since then, however, the political currents have been increasingly contaminated with twin pollutants– money and lies– which is enfeebling our democracy and emboldening the ever-growing hegemony of corporations and the ultra-rich. Citizens United gave the green light (and abolished speed limits) to a buying spree of political influence and elections. Meanwhile, politicians, in service to their corporate and rich donors, have been practicing and perfecting a deceitful sleight of hand. Show your base what they want to see, tell them what they want to hear, all the while scheming to enrich the wealthy at the expense of, well, everyone else.

About a month ago, we learned about the Paradise Papers, a trove of over 11 million financial documents, leaked from an anonymous source to a German newspaper and then given to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Together with the Panama Papers, released a couple of years earlier, they contain details of some of the estimated $20-30 trillion that is kept in tax-free havens around the world by companies and wealthy individuals, large numbers of whom are American.

I mention this only as a backdrop for this week’s craven display in the Senate with the GOP tax bill. No hearings. No meaningful debate. No opportunity for Senators to read the over 500 page bill, let alone to have public reaction. Get it done as quickly as possible to avoid scrutiny and evaluation. In spite of the mantra of talking points– tax cuts for the middle class, grow the economy– this legislation is blatantly skewed to favor the very same bunch who are already avoiding taxation on much of their trillions.

Naturally, there must be some on the right in Congress whose motivation is not primarily to further plump up donor fat cats. It is clear that some are also guided by a belief that government must be starved and shrunk. They may see enduring a mad president as a worthwhile tradeoff for the decimation of departments such as the EPA and State. Just as our stalwart senators have held their noses with one hand while grasping their long-sought tax “reform” with the other.

So, now we find ourselves in another “age’s most uncertain hour” and we wonder if Lady Liberty will stick with us again, long enough for us to muster new defenders. And, if so, who will they be?

Last evening, as the tax bill loomed closer to passage, Steve Schmidt, Republican consultant and former McCain campaign (2008) manager, tweeted this:

Indeed. Though there are plenty of Boomer sexagenarians and quinquagenarians (honest, I looked it up!) on the Senate floor as well.

I’m wondering if there has not been some hubris in my stating, more than once, that the purpose of this blog is to help leave things in better shape for our younger generations. After all, Boomers and older who are in power, whether corporate or political, are far more likely to be endemic to the problem than key to the solution. As for the rest of us, well, we have had our chance … and Trump is in the White House. When he spoke of “American carnage” at his inauguration, it turns out to have been in the future tense. And here we are.

If I am despairing of our politicians, it looks like I am turning to our songwriter-poets. Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
Cause the times they are a-changing
Maybe a little premature, but I think this is where we are heading. A friend, a reader of this blog, sent me a link to a post from yesterday’s The Atlantic It starts with, “The baby boom is being evicted from the penthouse of American politics. And on the way out, it has decided to trash the place. That’s probably the best way to understand the generational implications of the tax legislation Republicans are driving through Congress.”
It echoes Steve Schmidt’s tweet in saying that younger generations are destined to be the biggest losers in this bill. “What’s very clear through all of this is that the group that most pays are the younger people,” according to Eugene Steuerle, the co-founder of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. Yet, by 2018, more Millennials than Boomers will be eligible to vote. By around 2024, more Millennials will be turning out to vote than Boomers. Post-Millennials, those born after 2000, will start voting in the same time frame, widening the generational advantage. Incidentally, “While about 80 percent of the baby boom is white, over two-fifths of Millennials and nearly half of the post-Millennials are not.”
That looks to me like times will be a-changin. The energy and vision will come from those younger than we are. Our role will be diminished, but need not disappear. Our old road is rapidly aging. Once sturdy bulwarks are in disrepair. When younger generations are building new ones, will we get out of the way or lend a hand? In a couple years, when Paul Ryan or whoever announces the “Entitlements Reform Act”, will we stay in our aging road and fight for ourselves? Or, will we accept some personal losses and fight to save Social Security and Medicare for future generations? Will we embrace changing times? Will we work to restore an America of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Believe it or not, some things are universal

A couple of articles caught my eye today. Like most of us (i.e. Boomers), I have more than a passing interest in issues related to health and longevity. Naturally, then, when I considered where to start reading this morning– Jeff Sessions confronting accusations of lying to the Senate, another accusation of sexual assault against Roy Moore, presidential pressure for judicial retribution against a former rival (yes, in the U.S.), or research showing yet more reasons that coffee is good for us– you can guess where I clicked first. Latte in hand, I began to read.

Time Magazine ( reported on a presentation by the University of Colorado medical school on their innovative analysis of the data in the landmark Framingham Heart Study. The strongest correlation they discovered was the link between drinking coffee (up to at least six cups per day) and reduced risk for heart failure, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Well, that called for another espresso!

Even sweeter for yours truly was the next article, about Harvard researchers proclaiming that “eating too quickly may be bad for your health.” Slow and steady eaters are less likely to become obese or to develop metabolic syndrome, with its associated stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. This was welcome information because my own research had only confirmed that slow eating can really irritate those waiting for you to finish. Bonus benefits seem to be that slow eaters may burn more calories and that, by chewing and swallowing more slowly, they recognize that they are filling up and consequently eat less. I am less convinced about this last finding, having learned through determined training that it is possible to eat slowly and still eat a lot. Save when one’s plate is prematurely whisked away.

As much as I enjoyed reading articles that supported the wisdom of two of my habits (and don’t we all?) it also reminded me that for every research finding there is usually another bit that more or less contradicts it, sooner or later. My favorite commentary on this observation comes from the 1973 movie, Sleeper, after the protagonist awakes from a 200 year cryogenic slumber:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.

In spite of this, most of us do our best. Many or most of our generation are determined not to go gently into that good night. Eyes and ears always open for any new idea, book, or product to bolster our anti-aging arsenal.  But what efforts are going to be effective?

I spent some time with a friend last week who for the first time in his life has recently faced a couple of negative test results. This led him to take one of those interactive surveys that give you feedback on your health habits, your projected life-expectancy, what you can do to increase it, and by how much. I’ve done the same and his observation of the results was the same as mine: unless you are a smoker, are morbidly obese, or refuse to wear seatbelts, your increased life-expectancy if you make ALL the suggested changes amount to no more than a year or two.

Actually, there is one factor that the health questionnaires don’t address that would skew the results. The ones I’ve seen don’t ask the question, “Do you have good health insurance?” Their results are geared for those who do. Ah, you see where I am going with this, don’t you?

We want to believe that if we do all the right things, we will be rewarded with a long and healthy life. Research usually asserts that our individual choices do in fact affect our chances. A 5% lower risk of this or an 8% greater chance of that. Similarly, drivers who do all the right things and make good choices have better safety statistics and smaller risk of accidents. But, they still need insurance. Are mandated to have insurance.

When Massachusetts passed RomneyCare, or whatever they call it now, Harvard researchers found a 3% drop in the state’s mortality rate in the first four years of universal coverage. This in a state that already had a higher percentage insured than most others. The same source had this:

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine estimated that the death rate of the uninsured is 25 percent higher than for otherwise similar people who have health insurance. According to the study, 18,000 excess deaths occurred each year because 40 million Americans lacked insurance.

Of course, from listening to friends and reading the opinions of others, it seems safe to say that the quality of our lives matters at least as much as their duration. We would like a long life, but we would really like it to be as healthy as possible. So, whose quality of life do you predict will be better? Whose would you choose? Someone who has chronically deferred medical care due to lack of access or fear of financial ruin? Or someone whose annual physicals, lab tests, preventive and proactive care, and necessary surgeries have been a matter of routine?

For an individual to make smart, research-based choices for a healthy life is a baffling endeavor, a maze with conflicting signposts, detours, and dead ends. And, if we do well navigating that maze, perhaps we will live a little longer and hopefully more than a little healthier. Worth the effort and something we all can do.

But, we have no control over our DNA and limited control over the unforeseen accidents and other events that can derail the healthiest among us. And, by this point in our lives, most of us understand that everyone is derailed at some point, to some degree. If you have been there already, you know that you have never felt more vulnerable, never more dependent on others, never more naked. Everything else, except for the support of loved ones, is immaterial whether you are rich or poor.

While we live in a time that has reached a nearly-miraculous state of medical understanding and technology, we live in a country that somehow still struggles with the basic question of whether everyone deserves to benefit from it. It is clearly not a matter of whether it is affordable. It is a matter of values and priorities.

In its 2016 report, Universal Health Coverage and Health Outcomes, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked its 35 member nations for population coverage for core health services. 24 of these countries have achieved completely universal coverage, 22 of them totally with public funds. The United States had the smallest percentage coverage, except for Greece, falling short of economic powerhouses Poland, Mexico, Hungary, and 30 others. While we attained runner-up to the bottom with 88% coverage, 54% of our population have primarily private insurance and only 34% public. The nation closest to that mix was Chile, with 93% coverage, 19% private and 74% public.

Each of these countries has recognized that the health of its state can be no greater than the state of their people’s health.

Is it any wonder that politics of divisiveness and partisanship are rampant when we have failed to agree on this most basic of social compacts? Indeed, it has become a perverse ideological litmus test to destroy what progress has been made.

A demonstration of this is taking place right now. The Republican effort to salvage the legislative year depends upon passage of a tax bill that will embody their priorities. The most recent strategy for preserving the greatest possible reduction of corporate taxes and individual taxes for the wealthy, without obviously doing so at the expense of the middle class, is to include the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate. This would save several hundred billion dollars and result in 13 million Americans losing their insurance. If it passes, it is more than possible that deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security are next, as deficits resulting from the tax cuts need to be offset.

So, there it is. It is a big deal. Affecting us, affecting our families. Affecting what kind of country we are choosing to be. What to do? Order that book on the new cleansing diet? Or demand that our representatives represent our priorities and work for the longterm health of us all?



Tips for combatting TFS (Trump Fatigue Syndrome)

Trump Fatigue Syndrome. Yes, it is a thing. I checked on Google. To be honest, it hasn’t made it to Wikipedia yet. But, even if this is the first time you have heard the term, you get the reference, don’t you? The condition is characterized by: weariness from the sheer volume (i.e. quantity) of Trump in the daily news; repulsion at the sheer volume (i.e. decibels) of Trump tweets full of all caps; depression from the constant reminders that this is only month 7, 8, or 9 of a 48-month term; impulses growing in strength and frequency to avoid print, tv, and radio news … sigh. There’s more, but just writing this paragraph is sapping the energy needed to finish this piece.

It is understandable that so much of the country might be affected by TFS. In fact, without using that term, I have written about it in this column a couple of times previously and a commenter gave a good description of its effect on her. One of the very first opinion pieces I read after the 2016 election was by Garrison Keillor. In the disoriented dawn hours following election night, Keillor gave his prescription for TFS long before the malady appeared:

We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.
– Garrison Keillor, Washington Post, Nov 9, 2016

Hmm … Yes …  Well … Oh, sorry! I was drifting there for a moment. Tomatoes, beers, travel, and roses sound pretty good.

Of course, I am fairly certain Keillor was being sardonic with “we liberal elitists.” Those who oppose Trump cannot be summed up in a three word phrase any more than his supporters can. Yet, the man occasionally occupying the White House is doing his best to encourage such simplistic tribalism. It is what he does. It is who he is. It is US vs. THEM. If you are critical of him, he will demonize you, come after you.

That is another thing that contributes to Trump Fatigue Syndrome. It is thoroughly disheartening to witness the dishonesty and dumbing down of our discourse. And on important topics, too. How can we hope for intelligent conversation and the airing of rational disagreements when the public forum has been subverted and supplanted by Twitter? By a president whose “legitimacy” depends upon 30-40 million followers who hear from their chosen leader directly? By news media condemned as fake forced to treat the tweets as real?

So, TFS has an impact. We withdraw. We convince ourselves that there is not much we can do. That Trump and his supporters deserve each other. That we do not want to be drawn into the US vs. THEM paradigm.

Ah, let’s camp on that last one for a moment.

We were having dinner with a few long-time friends a week or two ago. Touching briefly and half-heartedly on some Trump topic or other, we were living evidence of the impact of Trump Fatigue Syndrome. Someone brought it up without naming it. Someone else observed that it seems that the “echo chamber” nature of today’s bifurcated media consumption results in everyone preaching to their own choir. So what, to put it bluntly, is the point of preaching at all?

This is where we come to the tips part of the column.

Unless you followed Keillor’s suggestions– you’ve spent all your time gardening, reading British romances, or traveling abroad for the past year– you are keenly aware that our party politics have begun to resemble WWI trench warfare. Furthermore, our stalemate began well before November, 2016. Trump was just the apotheosis who has proven masterful at amplifying divisions and disgruntlement.

I have come to believe that this instinctive genius is the plutonium that powers the president’s ship. Lacking the intellectual discipline that could harness that power, Trump is ill-suited to become a successful tyrant as he careens from crisis to crisis. But he could do a lot of damage before he self-destructs. (Incidentally, IMHO, this is what made Trump so attractive a candidate for Steve Bannon, whose ambition was and is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”)

The inclination for “liberal elitists”, or anyone else horrified at the dismantling of democratic institutions and suffering from TFS, is either to withdraw as described above or to find a way into the Resistance. To be part of THEM against Trump’s US.

I have begun to wonder if these responses simply play into the hands of Trump, Bannon, and anyone who has practiced the politics of division and hate since the election of our first African American president. Either withdraw or get into your side’s trench. Go dig in your garden or dig in and start fighting. They relish making their enemies relinquish the field, but they need THEM, an enemy they and their side can target and fight and hate.

Most of those 30-40 million Trump Twitter followers have stuck with him in spite of the increasingly obvious fact that he and the Republicans and his hand-picked deconstructors in the Federal agencies are actively engaged in legislation and deregulation that will directly harm them. Aside from his blatant lies about that work is his (so far) continuing success in pitting US vs THEM with himself as their champion.

What if we started to find ways to leave the trenches, the pitched battles? Not to cede the field, but to outflank the other side? After all, we should be clear. As frustrating as it is for millions of our fellow citizens to be dug in against us, they are not our enemies. They want mostly the same things for their families and their lives as we do. And Democrats have for at least three decades done a poor job of listening to them, advocating for them, seeing them.

Our battle is against those, whoever and wherever they are, who use deception and division in order to keep wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. They do so with little or no regard to everyone else, particularly the voiceless and disadvantaged. Saying they are all on the Right ignores many conservatives of integrity and compassion. It strengthens those who seek division. And it blinds us to the fact that there are plenty on the Left who do the same.

Let Trump tweet and rant, lie and misdirect. Let us focus on what he and his minions actually do. Or try to do. I will try not to react to his provocations, but I will react when he and his party present a tax package designed to further enrich the rich and burden our children with greater debt. I will try to set aside the sorrow and embarrassment I feel watching him debase and discredit our highest office, but I will speak against the epic assault against science and regulatory protections.

I believe I was wrong when I told my daughter last winter that supporting Bernie Sanders was too idealistic. The current trench warfare in Washington is not winnable and only benefits the status quo. I am ready to give up on conventional party politics, but not ready to give up.

I don’t have much more than that right now. I suspect there’s wisdom in the conventional: Think globally (or nationally), act locally. But mainly, act. I’m starting by writing. Perhaps there will be something more. But I plan not to be sidelined by Trump Fatigue Syndrome. I’m retired, not dead. The goal of this blog remains. Looking around, I can’t help thinking: we do not seem to be leaving this earth or our country in great condition for our children. What can we do about that?

Boys will be boys: a male perspective after the month of Weinstein

I suppose we could take some consolation in the October media storm over revelations of sexual predation by men in powerful positions and the cascade of women’s voices in response. I mean, at least it gave us some relief from everything always being about Trump … oh. Well. Never mind.

Actually, consolation might come in the form of fewer women being assaulted or harassed. That seems possible, perhaps even likely, given the strength and numbers of those voices. Ground is surely being gained. But the path is uphill and it gets steeper the closer you get to the top.

Why have women been fighting this uphill battle for so long and still we have countless, nameless Harvey Weinsteins and Bill O’Reillys in workplaces everywhere?

Why are women still fighting for autonomy over, and the safety of, their own bodies?

Why were the Suffrage Movement and the Feminist Movement not enough to have brought us further than we are? For essentially the same reason, I think, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement did not get us beyond the plaintiff cry that Black Lives Matter.

Martin may have been able to see the mountaintop, but his assassination illustrated the salient lesson. Those who already reside at the top will do everything in their power to prevent losing their place. Or even sharing it.

Though some deny it exists, “white privilege” explains a certain mountaintop status in racial terms. It exists in extreme form as white supremacism or the underestimated anger seething in many who helped elect Donald Trump. For most of us with proper skin tones, though, we tend to favor social and political progress so long as we sense no threat to our own personal place on the summit.

Then there is male privilege. When exercised to the extreme, women are raped and physically abused, harassed and demeaned. And subjected to ridicule and shame when they testify during a Supreme Court nomination. But, the “milder” form is even more pervasive and the foundation, the underpinning for sustaining our status as the ruler of the workplace, the lord of the castle.

The danger I see after this “month of Weinstein” is that winning battles against sexual predators, as vital as that is and as despicable as they are, might substitute for the progress needed on the far broader front. Here is what I mean.

I, like other men of my generation, grew up and came of age during the 50s and 60s, a time when Rosie had left riveting and returned to the kitchen and the nursery. Rosie and her husband modeled for their children the roles and relationships that they would internalize for later use. Of course, they also had TV and other media to reinforce their gender education.

Consequently, when I launched blithely into marriage, fatherhood, and work, I knew what to expect, what the rules and roles would be. It wasn’t exactly the world according to Mad Men, but it was a world where I never questioned my right to reside on the mountaintop. It was some years before I began to consider that the women around me may have grown up in the same world, but their rulebook and assigned roles were far different. The short version of the rest of the story is that, like Fagin in Oliver!, I have been “reviewing the situation” time and again ever since.

Those on top think they occupy the prime real estate, but they are deluding themselves. They may reside above others, but they have been focused so long on their status and on not being knocked off or crowded out, they have not realized that the mountaintop was not the actual destination.

In his last great speech, Dr. King said, “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

He was alluding to Moses leading his people to the Promised Land and that damned mountain was just something in the way! They had to go over it to get to their destination, where there was plenty of room for all.

The wonderful woman who has been my wife for twenty-five years has helped teach me what a wide-open space there is for sharing our lives. We each have qualities that help compensate for what the other may lack. I am better with her than I am on my own. And I know we are not unique in finding the value of true partnership.

And why shouldn’t this principle apply elsewhere?

When men jealously guard their status and position in the workplace, they act to their own detriment. By creating an environment hostile to half the staff, they diminish themselves. By withholding opportunity and undervaluing contributions, they sabotage the potential that would benefit them all.

What if the ugliness of the Weinstein et al. disclosures could be turned to a milestone? It will require more than a few high profile stars speaking for all women. It will even require more than a movement. We have had those. It will require greater numbers of men who finally abandon the already crumbling ramparts of their supposed primacy. Not in surrender, but in recognition that we will do better as allies and partners. In our relationships and in our jobs.

And wouldn’t it be sweet to see little pockets of change taking place against the backdrop of Trumpian misogyny, where it is accepted and excused and even promoted that boys will be boys. It is about time for adult boys to become men.

Letting Trump be Trump

This is not what I expected or wanted to write when I returned to the blog. As the desire to get back to it has built the past few weeks, numerous delightfully non-political topics have paraded across my thoughts. All the while, efforts to ignore the orange-tinged elephant in the room (in my mind) have been futile. He looms there, demanding attention, just as he does in the consciousness of the nation. So be it. This is where I pick up.

Ann and I were in Chicago a few years ago, necks craning to admire the buildings being pointed out during the wonderful river cruise conducted by the city’s Architecture Foundation. Sliding past the Tribune Tower, with its splendidly Gothic Revival style, and the brilliant white terra cotta of the iconic Wrigley Building, we were confronted with the glass-encased Trump International Hotel and Tower. Inarguably grand, a significant architectural achievement, the second tallest building in Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Big Shoulders”, it was nonetheless diminished by the gaudy ostentation of the giant letters spelling T R U M P on a brightly lit background across the entire lower facade. Actually the letters spelled T R U M, as the P was inexplicably, but presumably temporarily, missing.

We chuckled and shook our heads. This seemed consistent with our perception of Trump at that time: wealth, ego, real estate success, but something decidedly off.

We took a different kind of notice of him when he co-opted the campaign to reveal Obama as a Kenyan pretender to the presidency. Now he was demonstrating the Art of the Lie to amplify the noxious racist undertones that had characterized some of the resistance to and rejection of the President. Now he was messing with our democracy.

When this national exposure led to his candidacy, the spotlight he so craved illuminated a man that most in the country recognized to be narcissistic, dishonest, uninformed, unfit. It was inconceivable that such a man could win the Republican nomination.

When he did, it was even more inconceivable he could be elected. Katy Tur’s book, Unbelievable, describes Election Day hour by hour and how virtually no one, including most in the Trump campaign itself, was prepared for his victory.

(Here, I imagine Fezzini fromThe Princess Bride, with his oft-repeated response to reports of being chased: “Inconceivable!” To which Inigo Montoya finally observes, “I do not think that means what you think that means.”)

Conceivable or no, Trump was inaugurated in January and the people who did not vote for him (a majority it turns out) held their collective breath. It was going to be bad, but the pundits floated various hopeful scenarios that might mitigate the danger. The day to day running of the government would continue to be in the hands of career professionals. Surely there would be some responsible members of the administration who would balance the imbalanced. The other branches of government would serve as a check on the executive. Simply occupying the Oval Office and confronting the awesome attending responsibilities would serve to restrain and perhaps even reform some of The Donald’s baser instincts.

Even such dire hopes have since dwindled and now might be described as Pollyanna-ish.

When I took a break for selling, buying, and moving residences, some four months ago, I was writing an opinion that I soon noticed cropping up and being developed in more worthy publications. Too much energy and time was being expended on daily reactions to daily provocations by Trump. It was exhausting and largely unproductive. Better to focus on issues and places where we can affect change or maintain social progress. He is petty and mean, incompetent and arbitrary. He will eventually self-destruct. Furthermore, the institutions of our democracy have withstood assaults before. Surely, he will not be able to continue on this course. Nor will he will have any lasting effect. Inconceivable.

Well, it IS conceivable, of course. But not because Donald Trump is a 21st century Machiavelli. He is merely what he has always seemed. No more, no less. J.K. Rowling aptly and famously proclaimed him a “little, little, little man.” But, he is not harmless. Driven by an impatient compulsion for the spotlight and the applause of his chosen audience, he is a master at pushing buttons to get his desired and immediate response. Thus his need for the ongoing “campaign” rallies. Thus his obsessive tweets. He has not changed. But, he has been given access, God help us, to a terrifying array of buttons to press.

What now? Our head of state is a con man, a bully, a narcissist, and a provocateur who has no skill or patience for governing. He is the Wizard of Oz, all show and flim-flam. Behind the curtain, like in the story, is a traveling salesman who landed in the capital city through a fluke. What is keeping him from being exposed and sent back to Kansas, um, New York?

It’s excruciatingly simple. His base, who are reshaping what the Republican Party will be, are still mainly behind him. (Understanding the confounding reasons for this is NOT simple and may hold the key to determining what kind of nation we become.) The Never Trump Republicans in Congress fear this base and are convinced their only chance of passing Tax Relief for the Rich and staying in office is to swallow their contempt for the president and let Trump be Trump.

Then this past week began with two former presidents giving unprecedented high profile speeches with detailed criticisms and warnings about the current administration. This was immediately followed by scathing denunciations by three sitting, albeit retiring, Republican senators. “Finally,” we sigh. “Maybe now courage will supplant cravenness in Washington.” Hmmm. Right.

Still, the dam doesn’t necessarily break all at once. Retiring or not, speaking out was not nothing. Republican voice has been given to protest and resistance from within Congress. Staying silent for lawmakers has lost the cover of conformity.

Senator Jeff Flake was especially eloquent in laying out what is at stake and charging all stakeholders, voters and elected officials alike, with complicity if they do not stand against this assault on decency, democratic values, and the common good. I encourage you to read his address and/or the fine summary and commentary by Amber Phillips in the Post.

The health of our democracy is at stake. It is time for all of us to find our own voices in our own ways and to demand the same from our leaders and representatives.