My Heart is Breaking

I’m from Pittsburgh, and those roots run deep.

Now it is my city that has been the site of the latest atrocity, the latest mass killing, and this one with the dark and nasty motivation of anti-Semitism, one of the world’s most enduring hates.

I can’t think of it without tears welling up in my eyes.

My country is in a dark, dark place.  I am by nature a very optimistic person, but now even I’m not sure we will ever emerge from the darkness.  The hate is overwhelming all that is best in us, and that hate is made even more dangerous by the ease with which any damaged or deranged individual brimming with that hate can acquire an arsenal of destruction.

And that hate is not an accidental byproduct of a dark time.  It has been deliberately cultivated for cynical political reasons, and it is still being nourished on a daily basis by countless voices identifying various groups, races, religions, etc, as “the enemy”.

As “the Other”.  Not like us.  Different in very important ways.  Suspect.  Dangerous.  Perhaps even evil.  Not because of anything they have specifically done, but because of who they are.  Their race.  Their religion.  Their gender identity.

Those encouraging the hate deny all responsibility, of course, and publicly deplore the violence themselves.  But they keep doing it.  And they know it can lead to violence.  They seek to stir up passions to encourage political loyalty.  Fear of “The Other” has always been a potent motivator throughout history, arousing xenophobic and nationalist passions that have driven wars and genocides over and over again.

Fear turns quickly to hate, and hate births violence and atrocity.  The chain connecting hateful and divisive rhetoric to death and persecution is very clear throughout all of history.

It is clear now in America.

Many questions remain.  What do we do about it?  How do we hold those who spread such fear and divisiveness to account?  How do we stop them and discredit them?  How do we discourage them from doing it in the future?  Ho do we prevent those who hate from arming themselves with potent instruments of destruction?  How do we help to heal all those who have been morally wounded by it over the last few years?  How do we restore our respect for each other?

It has to start with small steps, with people saying “NO MORE” as loudly as they can.  Every time someone in media or politics speaks words of intolerance and fear, hatred and division, it needs to be condemned immediately by all people of good faith, regardless of political affiliation.  Every time one of our relatives or friends or co-workers or church members or casual acquaintances voices hatred, intolerance and prejudice they need to know immediately that it is NOT ALRIGHT.  That we will not stand for it.

We can’t go on as we have been.  The cost is too high.

We must change.



Questions I’d Like to Ask My Conservative Friends

Yes, I still have conservative friends (and relatives).  Lots of them.  A fair number voted for Trump and some of them still support him.  They aren’t horrible people, but I do think they have made a horrible mistake.  I’m angry with them quite a bit these days, but I’ll probably get over it eventually.  Friends are a precious resource, and I don’t think I can afford to lose them permanently because they have been led astray by lies and propaganda.  I continue to cling to hope that they will eventually realize how much they have been mislead and come to their senses.

Like many of you, I have trouble talking about many things in the news, things that are important to me, with my conservative friends these days.  So we talk about family, or sports (so long as it’s not about players kneeling in the NFL), or funny things that happened at work, or our favorite books or TV shows.  Safe topics, carefully chosen to avoid driving the wedge that has insinuated itself between us any deeper.

That is frustrating, but not altogether a bad thing.  I’m an optimistic person by nature, and I do believe that eventually our country will emerge from this dark cloud we are all living under.  This national nightmare that is driving us apart.  When that happens, we will need to rediscover and re-emphasize all the things that bind us together as Americans.  We will need to heal.  And if that means we have to avoid discussing important issues of the day for a while with people we violently disagree with but still care for, in order to keep from opening gaping wounds even deeper, well I can suck it up and do that.

However, in preparation for better days to come, days when we can more openly discuss our disagreements, here are some questions I’d love my conservative friends to think about.  I’d ask them to consider them and answer them thoughtfully and as honestly as they can, then write those answers down and put them aside somewhere safe.  Let ten years pass, along with the passions and partisanship of this particular political moment, and then look at the questions again, and see if you would still answer them the same way, or if the passage of time, the cooling of partisanship and the judgment of history changed how you would answer them.

My suspicion is that may of my conservative friends would answer much differently in ten years, and might even be embarrassed by the answers they give now.  I’ll bet a nice dinner out with any of my conservative friends willing to take this challenge.

So here’s my list of questions:

  1. Does it bother you that Donald Trump lies so often?  If not, why?
  2. Does it bother you that the Republican Party has become largely a whites-only party?  If not, why?
  3. Do President Trump’s bullying and outrageous tweets bother you, and if so, why isn’t that enough to make you change your support of him?
  4. Do you truly believe that white conservative men suffer more prejudice in America than minorities and women?
  5. Do you believe that the environmental policies favored by the Trump Administration will leave the world a better place for your children and grandchildren?
  6. Does it bother you that Trump is more popular and has better relations with dictators around the world, rather than other democracies, our traditional allies?
  7. Does it bother you when he attacks the press, and anyone else who criticizes him, and threatens retaliation for that criticism?
  8. Do you think character matters in a President?  If so, how do you square that with support for Trump?  If not, did you also believe it did not matter when Bill Clinton was president?
  9. Who do you believe was treated more unfairly, Merrick Garland or Brett Kavanaugh?
  10. Do the optics of a man accused of sexual assault appointing another man accused of sexual assault to a lifelong position of considerable power bother you?
  11. Does it bother you that he has been accused of financial fraud many times and still refuses to release his tax returns?  If not, why?
  12. Do you believe racial discrimination remains a major problem in this country?  If so, do you think Trump has helped or made things worse?  If not, what is your basis for saying so?

And a few more for those conservatives who are Christian:

13.  Why do you believe abortion and homosexuality are central issues for Christianity, above all issues that Christ himself emphasized?

14.  Do you believe Trump’s conversion to Christianity was real?  If so, give examples in his behavior of how salvation has changed him.  If not, does this bother you?

15.  Does his unapologetic and constant un-Christian behavior bother you?  If so, how do you justify continued political support for him?


Uncomfortable Truths on the Kavanuagh Mess

Like much of America (or at least that part of America that cares at all about who runs their country and how), I’ve been thinking a lot about the unseemly and divisive nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.  These are some of the things I’ve concluded so far.

First, let’s start with some of the more legitimate complaints from Republicans.

  1. Let’s just concede that this is a political circus that Democrats are milking for as much political mileage as they can get.  Of  course it is.  They are politicians and that’s what they do.  Might as well criticize a fish for swimming.
  2. The timing of the release of the Ford allegation appears designed to give the maximum possibility of delaying a vote until after the mid-term elections.  Again, of course it was, and Democratic denials are not credible.  It’s smart politics.  Republicans may not like it, but they have zero moral high ground to stand on after Merrick Garland.  Their complaints are pure, unadulterated hypocrisy.
  3. When Senate Democrats first enacted the “nuclear option” to circumvent admittedly reprehensible Republican obstructionism on almost all of President Obama’s judicial choices, they set the stage for this travesty and ensured further politicization of the courts.

Republicans can legitimately (if hypocritically) complain about the politics of this.

In the end, none of that matters at all.  The job before the U.S. Senate is to decide if Brett Kavanaugh is fit to serve for the rest of his life on the U.S. Supreme Court.  There are serious allegations against him.  So here are some of my thoughts on that.

  1.  We will likely never “know” if he is guilty of what he is accused of or not.  A lot of time has passed.  Human memories (even when not effected by trauma and/or alcohol consumption) are tricky things.  In the end it will likely come down to who you believe, and people will have their own criteria for determining that, and among those criteria political beliefs will weigh heavily.
  2. The stakes are very, very high.  Kavanaugh, if confirmed, would tilt an already very conservative court even further to the right.  Combined with the absolutely inexcusable refusal of Senate Republicans to give Obama nominee Merrick Garland a vote before the end of his term, this is a power play by Republicans to guarantee a sympathetic court for years to come.  Roe v. Wade would be endangered, among other things.
  3. Given those high stakes, everyone involved has a strong potential motive to lie.  Everyone.  That is an uncomfortable truth that needs to be admitted.
  4. The primary accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has given no one any additional reasons to doubt her credibility.  Her testimony was succinct, direct, humble and convincing.  There is nothing in her background to suggest either extreme political motivations or dishonesty.
  5. Brett Kavanaugh, on the other hand, has been caught in multiple lies and distortions.  He almost certainly lied under oath about his involvement with and knowledge of stolen Democratic memos when he worked in the White House.  He has repeatedly tried to misrepresent and hide his heavy drinking and partying when he was in high school and college.  And he was consistently evasive, confrontational and defensive in his testimony Thursday.
  6. Brett Kavanaugh has also amply and publicly demonstrated what everyone always suspected, that he is hyper-partisan and completely incapable of rendering fair judgment in any case involving politics.  To be honest, most of the judges on the current Supreme Court also are (remember the 5-4 decision that gave George W. Bush the presidency).  What is unprecedented about Kavanaugh is that, in his angry performance on Thursday, he didn’t bother to even attempt civility and humility.  That may seem “honest” to some people (I suspect the same people who think Trump’s bluster, insults and lies are “honest”), but frankly, his performance was appalling to me, and demonstrates how far we have descended as a nation.
  7. Brett Kavanaugh, based on his own yearbook, previous comments and the testimony of peers, was at the very least a member of a heavy drinking and partying crowd of teenage boys/or young men who had a reprehensible and predatory attitude toward girls/young women at that time.  That, in and of itself, is not disqualifying – if he admitted it and apologized for it.  He has not.  Instead, he has lied about it and shown no remorse.
  8. Before the “nuclear option”, his nomination would have been withdrawn by this time, for it would have no hope of passing.  He could never get 60 votes to end discussion.  Now, however, he only needs 51, which means he can be confirmed just by Republicans.  That is bad for our country.
  9. It means we depend on at least two Republican senators to demonstrate a conscience and vote against him.  Such displays of conscience among Senate Republicans are few and far between, particularly when following their conscience means conflicts with their own political goals.

I freely admit that I have always opposed the Kavanaugh nomination.  I always thought he was far too partisan, and I’m still angry about the Merrick Garland travesty of justice.  His confirmation would move the country further in the wrong direction on many issues I hold dear, and would have a heavy and negative impact on our country for years to come.

That said, through this process we have come to know Brett Kavanaugh and now I think all Americans of good conscience should also oppose his nomination.

Brett Kavanaugh is temperamentally unfit for office, just like the man who nominated him, demonstrating arrogance, anger and contempt for those who believe differently than he does.

Brett Kavanaugh is openly and extremely partisan and completely incapable of rendering an impartial judgment based on the law in any case that involves politics (and few cases reaching the Supreme Court do not).

Most important, Brett Kavanaugh has demonstrated himself to be dishonest, willing to do or say anything to get what he wants.  That is not the kind of person we need on the Supreme Court.

The bar needs to be higher.

The Sham That is the Supreme Court Confirmation Process

The U.S. Senate likes to call itself the “world’s greatest deliberative body”.  That self-proclaimed title has always been more hubris than truth, but the U.S. Senate has had its proud moments throughout history.  The framers of the Constitution generally wrought well when it created the Senate, whose six-year terms and larger constituencies have generally produced consistently more moderate and thoughtful representatives of the people than the House.

The long terms means they are not constantly running for election and can act more independently, less dependent on the quickly changing winds of political opinion.  The larger constituencies mean their constituents have a wider variety of interests and political opinions to be taken into account, which means most senators tend more toward moderation than extreme views.  The Senate has usually had a more collegial  and less adversarial atmosphere than the House of Representatives, and has produced more true bipartisan cooperation.

One of the Senate’s most solemn duties has always been the confirmation process, whereby most high-ranking officials nominated for the administration or the federal judiciary must be confirmed by a vote of the Senate.  This is a very important duty, but is particularly important for the judiciary, which carries a lifetime appointment.  Any mistake made in allowing an unqualified or unscrupulous person onto the bench can have consequences for many years.  In terms of the Supreme Court it can literally change our country.

There is a lot of noise and furor over most Supreme Court nominations, as both parties joust and posture for the best political effect.  Some other nominations draw similar attention, but only if someone on the relevant committees thinks there is political hay to be made.

Otherwise almost all nominations sail through with little attention and no objection.  Every year, many almost completely unqualified persons are nominated and confirmed to positions of significant responsibility without more than a cursory review.  Some of them have significant red flags in their backgrounds that are glossed over or ignored.

The whole process is a sham perpetrated by both parties because they have a shared interest in being able to deliver the spoils of victory to party loyalists, and being able to count on the political loyalty (as opposed to loyalty to country) of key officials when they are in power.  Political loyalty trumps competence every single time.

Even those nominations which draw attention and furious political debate are a sham, and that is particularly true of Supreme Court nominations.  It’s all a show for the public’s consumption, and decisions to vote or not for confirmation are almost always made for reasons of political convenience, rather than over real doubts about fitness for office or competence.

Over the years, nominees of both parties have basically been told to lie, dodge and avoid giving direct answers in both their official hearings and their private interviews.  I’ve done such coaching myself as I prepared ambassadorial and assistant secretary nominees for their hearings.  The purpose is to avoid taking definite positions on anything that might give someone an excuse to vote against them.  So they lie, and they dance, and they deflect.  All to seem unobjectionable, and give Senators a fig leaf to hide behind as they cast their votes.  Some senators, for political reasons, will loudly roar their displeasure at the deception and evasion as senators of the other party fight to defend those same nominees.  All of them know that if the roles were reversed and their own party was in power, they would be doing the opposite and voicing moral outrage or defending as fit the political needs of their party.  It’s all a show for our benefit.  To influence how we vote and who we support.

In the end, the President generally gets the vast majority of those he nominates, and the opposition usually gets to crow over a few scalps taken, when a nominee stumbles over some incident in their past.  On occasion, the process even works as intended, and a true bad apple is kept out of office.  In general, not, though, particularly for lower level appointees.

The process has steadily gotten more cynical and more politicized over the years, and both parties share the blame for that.  Both parties have taken to appointing more and more partisans and fewer moderates and technocrats to the bench and their administrations.  Both have valued political loyalty above all else.  More intense and intrusive “vetting” has reduced the chance of someone with an independent streak slipping through.

I would say the Republicans have been worse in recent years, but it is only a mater of degree.  Their logjamming of virtually all Obama appointments led directly to the use of the “nuclear option” which removed the extremely valuable 60 vote rule which generally ensured that lower level judges and administration figures could not be appointed with purely partisan support.  Republicans also made the ethically unconscionable, cynically political decision to deny President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, the eminently qualified and politically moderate Merrick Garland, a hearing and a vote.  Which allowed President Trump to nominate and confirm the much more partisan Neil Gorsuch to the same position after the expansion of the exception to the 60 vote rule to include Supreme Court justices.

Which brings us to Brett Kavanaugh, another deeply partisan pick on the verge of being confirmed to fill the seat of the more moderate Anthony Kennedy.  Serious questions have been raised about the honesty and integrity of Mr. Kavanaugh.  More recently, an allegation of sexual misconduct has arisen as well.  The first, in my opinion, should disqualify him for office.  The second, if even proven likely, should as well.

Nonetheless, the sham process goes on, with most senators playing their predetermined political roles and posturing for their respective constituencies.

Kavanaugh’s nomination may indeed go down to defeat, if just a couple of Republican senators defect.  This may indeed happen, since a couple are retiring and no longer have to participate in the sham.  Some who aren’t retiring may even vote their conscience.  Stranger things have happened.

But the whole process stinks and is in bad need of reform.  The Senate needs to do its job on all nominees, not just those they can score political points on.  Administrations need to appoint more people based on the strength of their qualifications rather than the strength of their political loyalty.  And the American people need to hold them both to account if they don’t.

We deserve better than this sham of a process.

The Ludicrous Idea of a “Deep State”

There are many people in America who believe in various conspiracies.  Area 51.  The Kennedy assassination.  The moon landing.  That 9/11 was carried out by the CIA.  That the Holocaust never happened.  That vaccines cause autism.  Etc, etc., etc.

Conspiracy theories are believed by many gullible people, but even by some very smart and educated people who you would think would know better.  And, on very rare occasions, things come out that show not every conspiracy theory was completely nuts.  The CIA did help overthrow governments in Guatemala, Iran and Chile.  The government did try to poison alcohol during the Prohibition.  Both the Vietnam War and the second Gulf War were started based on government misinformation.

But these are the exceptions to a rule that still stands pretty firm.  Most conspiracy theories are ludicrously untrue.  Some of them are relatively harmless.  But many of them are very damaging to society.  They erode confidence in the institutions that protect us and govern us and generate unwarranted cynicism (coming from someone who is almost a professional cynic).

The idea of a “Deep State”, a secret shadow government of career bureaucrats who have their own agenda and are a shadowy power behind the throne working to thwart the will of the people (or at least their elected leaders) is one such dangerous and ludicrous conspiracy theory.

It’s dangerous because it causes people to hate, fear and mistrust the millions of dedicated career public servants who work extremely hard, but nonetheless endure tremendous abuse and contempt from the very people they serve.  It’s dangerous because it emboldens politicians to take moves to cut back the protections career bureaucrats have from political retaliation, opening the civil service to greater political manipulation and intimidation.

It’s ludicrous because nothing could be further from the truth.

I feel I am well placed to make that statement authoritatively, having served in government for nearly three decades, in positions of increasing responsibility.  I know the government pretty well.

I can say authoritatively that the people who serve in government are pretty much like any other Americans.  Perhaps a bit more patriotic, having chosen a career of public service (they didn’t do it for the money, although the benefits aren’t bad).  Certainly a good bit more educated, on average, and definitely more knowledgeable in their specific areas of policy responsibility.  They do tend to be a bit more liberal than the average American, but that’s hardly surprising, given how much conservatives attack them – it’s hard to embrace a political philosophy that thinks everything you do is useless.  And many parts of the government, particularly the military and law enforcement, are considerably more conservative than most Americans.

But, in general, government workers are just like every other American.  No better.  No worse.  The idea that such people were capable of coordinating a conspiracy like the “Deep State” is ludicrous on its face.  Those spreading this conspiracy are the ones with an agenda.  That agenda includes a politically controlled or intimidated bureaucracy that will carry our even unconstitutional and unlawful orders without question.  Believe me when I tell you that is not what would be best for America.

That is not to say that the career bureaucracy is without power and influence.  It has a lot of both.  It, in a sense, is the grease that keeps the machinery of America moving.  It has the power to advise and to recommend, frequently even to set the agenda by framing the questions that elected officials and those they appoint will consider.  This is nothing to be feared, however, unless you believe these people, who unlike most of the rest of America have actually sworn oaths to defend the Constitution and the people of America, are acting against the interests of America.  To the contrary, this is exactly what you want career bureaucrats to do.  Because they are insulated to a large degree from politics, it is their duty and responsibility to speak truth to power – to tell their political masters when they are about to make a mistake and what the consequences of ill-considered actions will be.  Trust me that government will not better represent the people if public servants are unable to carry out this duty because they are chosen for political loyalty or intimidated into silence.

Frankly, that is what drew me to government, and what kept me there for so long, serving proudly under both Democratic and Republican administrations.  It’s a rush for a policy geek like me to be able to influence decisions, even to influence history.  It was a thrill every time I heard the Secretary of State or the President mouth a phrase I had drafted.  It was deeply satisfying to participate in events that helped shape America and the world, even when I knew my small role would never be noted in any history book.  I knew I’d been there and that my efforts had made a difference, small as it may be.

This isn’t a “Deep State”.  It’s not a conspiracy to thwart the will of elected officials, and thus the people who elected them.   It’s career civil servants doing their jobs.  More than that, it is those people doing their duty to America, and thank God they are.

I left government a year or so ago because I felt that I could no longer honorably serve in what I believe is a thoroughly dishonorable administration.  My heart broke at having to stop serving the country I love, but I personally could not bear to be associated with the dangerous train wreck that is the Trump Administration.  Many others I know made the same decision and have resigned rather than carry out policies they know to be wrong, dangerous and against America’s interests.

But many more whom I also know and respect stayed behind, doing their jobs as they always have.  Providing advice and recommendations based on their considerable expertise, in the hopes of convincing or at least influencing their political masters.  Hoping to ride out the storm and that better days for America will come.  Thank God they did.  America owes them more than the contempt in which many of its citizens hold them.

There is no “Deep State”.  But there is a strong core of dedicated public servants who will keep doing their duty even if they are misunderstood and hated by many of the very people they serve.  God bless them.

Responding to Evil


It’s a strong word, and one many people flinch from using, particularly when applied to other human beings.  We tend to prefer terms like “misguided” or “mentally ill” or “brainwashed”.  We hesitate to label someone or some group of people as just plain evil.

We hesitate for good reason.  Extreme labels such as that have consequences.  If someone or something is evil, then it must be opposed by all women and men of good conscience.  It cannot be ignored or allowed to fester.  It must be actively opposed, by strong measures.  It must be destroyed, if we are capable of doing so.  So we should be careful in applying such a label.

Nonetheless, I can think of no word that is more fitting for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and unabashed open racists, a couple dozen of whom participated in a pathetic “Unite the Right” rally in Washington yesterday, commemorating the one year anniversary of the larger and more violent rally by the same name in Charlottesville.

So now that I have labeled it, I have to do something about it if I am to continue to consider myself a man of good conscience.  I have marched in racial justice rallies before, and have spoken out strongly in this space and others about racial justice, but I confess that I did not join the thousands of counter-demonstrators who flocked to the Mall yesterday.  It’s a weak excuse, but frankly the inconvenience of going downtown kept me away, so I stayed home and watched golf on TV, while we kept an eye out for any developing news.

I somewhat regret not going, even though it turns out my voice was not needed.  Counter demonstrators outnumbered the racists by more than a hundred to one and the “Unite the Right” rally was a complete and utter failure, with the lone speaker being unable to make himself heard and the handful of pathetic losers who attended needing police protection for their own safety before hustling out of town with their tails between their legs.

Part of me says that’s good.  Racists should not feel safe or accepted in America.  Evil should not feel safe and accepted.

I understand the feelings of people who wonder why the police have not tried so hard to protect liberal protesters or protesters of color over the years, and in fact have been downright hostile to them on many occasions.

I understand it, but I don’t agree.  I am thankful that the DC police and other law enforcement agencies did a thorough and professional job of keeping the peace and preventing violence yesterday.  They are to be commended for their efforts.

I also understand the passions that move some to want to confront this evil physically.  To attack and destroy it with violence.  I have felt such temptations myself and have  fantasized frequently about driving my fists into the faces of sneering racists in an orgy of righteous anger.

But in the end, I realize that is largely a testosterone fueled male fantasy and not the appropriate response to evil in this case.   It is also likely to be counterproductive.

That is not because I am non-violent or even non-confrontational by nature.  I believe that violence, particularly in self-defense or in the defense of others, is justified and sometimes is even the only viable option.

This isn’t one of those cases.

Evil and repugnant as these poor excuses for human beings are, brawling with them in the streets is not the correct response to their malignancy.

Absolutely they must be countered and the thousands of counter protesters who showed up in Washington to make this point yesterday have my admiration.  Racism, our original sin in America, and the one we seem to have the hardest time shaking, must be opposed each and every time it rears its ugly head.

But not with street brawls.

As cathartic as it would be to just smash on them until they collapse or flee, it is counterproductive.  It’s what they want.  They want to be able to portray those who oppose them as just as violent as they are.  They want to be able to say they were victims.  They want to be able to whine about suppression of their rights.

And make no bones about it.  There is a much wider audience of people predisposed to agree with them, or at least to find some merit in their argument.  The well of racial insecurity and fear in America is deep and just waiting for propagandists to tap into it, as they have repeatedly over the years when they hyped relentlessly every little example of hatred and violence coming from the left.  Using it to fan the flames of unjustified and ridiculous resentment that Donald Trump rode into office.

So I urge the passionate young people who call themselves the “antifa” to channel and harness their anger.  To grow up a little and put aside what makes them feel good in favor of what actually accomplishes good.

Absolutely evil needs to be opposed, and opposed vigorously.  Shouted down and countered.  Mocked and shamed.  Driven from the ranks of decent society and back out of the light and into the corrupt and twisted shadows they emerged from, with the rest of the cockroaches and rats.

But not with brawling in the streets.  That has been tried before, perhaps most notably by communists in 1920s and 30s Germany when the Nazis were emerging from their own twisted shadows.  The result was an increase in political support for the Nazis among “normal” German people, who were scared by the violence and wanted order restored.

Antifa supporters like to say that pro-democracy liberals and moderates in pre-war Germany didn’t stop the Nazis with their peaceful protests and words.  That’s undeniably true.  But neither did the communist gangs that brawled with them in the streets.  Instead they helped evil take hold in the hearts of an entire nation.

It’s Hard to Admit When You’ve Been Conned

Years ago, I did a stint where I worked on the Nigeria desk at the State Department.  One of the stranger duties I had during that time was occasionally fielding calls from American citizens who had been ensnared in what became known as “Nigerian fraud” schemes, due to the fact that many of them originated in Nigeria.  I encountered more of these schemes when I served at an embassy in Africa myself.

You know the ones I’m talking about.  The ones where an African prince needs help getting his money out of the country and all he needs is your bank account information to complete the scheme, promising you a percentage of easy money.  Or the beautiful young woman (or handsome young man) who falls for you online and desperately wants to meet you but just needs money for airline tickets or visas or to pay off debts/fines or whatever before she/he will be in your arms.  Or the can’t miss business scheme with an inside track to guaranteed millions that just needs a little seed money.

Most of us laugh these schemes off as obviously fraudulent and don’t think much further about them.  But many people do indeed fall for them.  They are cleverly designed to play on human weaknesses like greed or loneliness, and many people, even among those you think should know better, fall for them every year.  Executing these schemes became an industry all its own.  I recall seeing some of its practitioners in Internet cafes in Africa, working several potential victims at the same time on a collection of monitors.

When I first started fielding calls from those who had been ensnared, I thought that some self-protective instinct had been triggered and they had become suspicious and were calling the State Department to report the schemes in anger or to confirm their suspicions.  There were a few calls like that, indeed.

But that wasn’t most of them.  Most of the people were calling to confirm the best way to send the money, or to appeal for USG help for their poor, imperiled sweetheart with a visa or legal difficulties.  And usually they could not be made to see the truth.  To see that they had been conned.  The more you told them they had been conned, the more they dug in and insisted they hadn’t.

They dug in when I told them it was a likely scam.  Even deeper when I described to them, virtually word for word, the well-worn communication scripts used to ensnare them.  When told how common it was and how many people had been ensnared in similar schemes, they insisted they were different.  That they were far too smart and savvy to be snared.

In one particularly sad case, the man not only refused to listen to us when we talked to him by phone, but insisted on coming to Africa to meet the person who had offered him a spectacular business opportunity, which he was utterly confident was legitimate and his big break in life.  He didn’t lose faith when he was met at the airport and robbed.  He didn’t lose faith when he couldn’t find the person who had corresponded with him and none of the company names that had been discussed were known to the embassy.  He didn’t lose faith when he emptied his bank account and drained his entire savings in pursuit of his dreams of wealth.   He didn’t even lose faith when his wife left him and filed for divorce, taking his kids.

The last time we had contact with him, he still adamantly maintained that we were all wrong and that as soon as he could establish contact with his “business partners” he was going to be rich.  But in the meantime, he needed a loan to pay his hotel bills.  He was most distressed to learn all we would pay for was a ticket back to the U.S., which he would have to pay the USG back for.

He couldn’t admit that he had been conned, no matter how much evidence was laid in front of him.  Admitting that he had been conned would have forced him to change his core image of himself.  To admit that he wasn’t as smart and savvy as he thought he was.  Basically, to admit that he had been a fool.

None of us want to admit that.

I think of that time often these days as I watch various people I know who voted for Trump squirm uncomfortably at each new revelation or outrage, but then double down on their support.  If doing so forces them to ignore facts or our history, they do.  If it forces them to change their political views, they do.  If it forces them to be hypocritical or to abandon their moral positions, they do.

In fact, they will do anything other than admit the truth.

The truth that they were fooled by the biggest and most successful confidence man in American history.

And I don’t believe they will ever admit it.

No one likes to admit they’ve been a fool.

The GOP is dead

I think it is time to write the obituary of the Republican Party.  I submit this for consideration.

The Republican Party has finally passed away, and true conservatives everywhere have entered a period of mourning.  The attending physicians said that the immediate cause of death was choking on its own bile.  Concern remains that the base illness that endangered its health in the first place, bigotry and ignorance, still represents a grave danger to the public at large, and the CDC warns that everyone may want to take steps to isolate themselves from contact with those who show symptoms of this same illness, or at least inoculate themselves well with education and tolerance.

The party has been ill for a very long time, of course, but it is only in the last few years that it was suspected that the illness was fatal.  Hope remained until November 9, 2016 that the party might find a way to rally and heal itself.  Even after that point, when the fatal truth was apparent to most, many of those who held it dear and recognized the great contributions it has made to the country in the past clung to hope that it could be revived, that the illness would pass in time.

Now, however, it is time to put aside all pretense and admit the truth.  The GOP is dead, and that obscene thing which still bears its name does not bear its soul.

There was a time when the GOP stood for something in America, when it was much admired by many and it was respected even by its political foes.  It stood for such things as prudent spending and balanced budgets.  It stood for a strong common defense and American leadership in the world.  It stood for free trade and limited governmental interference in the economy.  It stood for law and order, and sometimes even for justice.  It stood for a cautious approach to social and political changes, but not against change itself.  It stood for an America in which people of all races and beliefs could co-exist.  It stood for the idea that American democracy was special and worth preserving and promoting in the world, and protecting at home.

Now it has repudiated all those ideals and stands for nothing.  Nothing at all beyond the pursuit of power in order to impose the beliefs and opinions of a vocal and angry minority on everyone else.  Or perhaps it stands for the idea that America is and always should be a white male dominated place.  Whatever.  It doesn’t stand for anything worth standing for anymore.

That thing that calls itself the Republican Party now is no longer a political party at all.  Rather it is a cult of personality formed around a cartoon figure of malignant and ridiculous make.  An amalgam of everything that is wrong with America in one bloated, aging body.  It is enslaved by a vast network of lies and propaganda that have completely perverted everything the party once stood for.  It even stands with the enemies of America against our allies and against America’s own interests.

Some day, perhaps, the corpse can be revived and the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower will be resurrected as something that Americans of good conscience can admire again.  Or perhaps some new party will eventually emerge from its ashes to provide a responsible option for conservative Americans, free of bigotry and white nationalism.  Free of authoritarianism and hatred.  I truly hope so.

Until that time, however, we must do the only thing we can do.  Bury the corpse to prevent its corruption from endangering the rest of us.  The first shovelfuls of dirt can be thrown into the grave on Tuesday, November 6.


To Russia with Love

For Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump is the gift that just keeps on giving.

I suppose it is possible that some theoretical American president could do more to advance the interests of Russia in the world than Trump, but it is pretty hard to imagine.

Let’s go over an imaginary Russian check list of proposed gifts from a new American President they might have written up before the election:

  1.  Legitimate Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea? Check.

2.  Fail to hold Russia accountable for continued military action against the Ukraine?              Check.

3.  Fail to press hard on Russian interference in U.S. elections?  Check

4.  Acquiesce to violations of human rights in Syria by Russia and its puppet, Assad?               Check.

5.  Leave Assad in unchallenged power in Syria?  Check.

6.  Undermine NATO unity?  Check.

7.  Alienate key American allies in Far East and Europe?  Check.

8.  Undermine global trading regime responsible for much of the West’s power?                       Check.

9.  Reduce American prestige and influence worldwide?  Check.

10.  Weaken America’s diplomatic and intelligence services?  Check.

11.  Turn Americans against each other?  Check

12.  Weaken democratic institutions?  Check

13.  Weaken free press?  Check

14.  Destroy traditional conservatism and the Republican Party?  Check.

15.  Abdicate the role of leadership in the free world?  Check.

16.  Set up future economic turmoil and instability through expanding deficits and                   economic policies designed to increase income inequality?  Check.

17.  Foster dangerous nationalist movements in America and other countries?  Check.

18.  Encourage and befriend human rights violators?  Check.

19.  Expose U.S. to ridicule from other advanced nations?  Check.

20.  Radicalize major portion of American population?  Check.

I’m sure there are other examples that I didn’t think of right now.  I also deliberately did not put anything about the damage being done to our health system, our education system, our environment and so forth, as those tend to be longer term and difficult to quantify.  Although I think that they will all damage American power and prestige eventually (perhaps more than some of the things I did list), they are more difficult to predict when and how exactly.

In short, I really have no idea why Trump does what he does, nor do I know if it incompetence, ignorance or narcissism that is the defining characteristic of his presidency and his foreign policy.  Likely a noxious mix of all three.

It is also hard to not speculate, given all the things he has done that benefit Russia, that Putin has something on him.  Or perhaps Trump just really wants to shift the alignment of the United States from leader of the free world to lap dog of a dictator.  I have no knowledge or insight to offer on this that hasn’t been offered by others.  To me it is simply mind-boggling that intelligent people on both the left and the right are even considering the possibility that the President of the United States has been compromised by an enemy power.  That used to be the province of the more fevered imaginations of Hollywood script writers, not serious political observers.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much why he is doing it.  What is clear is that he is giving aid and comfort to our enemies, whatever his reasons.

It needs to stop.  His independence first needs to be curtailed by losing his congressional majority of spineless tribal ass kissers this November, and then his job in 2020.

Hopefully, there will still be some shreds of our international power and prestige left by then.





In the World but Not Of It

Those of us who grew up in mainstream Christian churches probably remember this guidance being given to us many times.  It is a paraphrase of a challenging section of Scripture, 1 John 2:14-17, which is itself based on Christ’s message in John 17  1 John 2:14-17: 14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 1Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. 

The part about “in the world” was meant to instruct us that we are not just idle passengers in life.  Not just passive observers.  Rather that we have a responsibility in the world, and not just to avoid temptation and sin, but to actively seek to do good.

The latter part, “not of it”, meant that we were held to a higher set of standards than those set by society.  It meant that just because society said something was OK, that didn’t mean that it was OK for Christians.  Of course that didn’t and still doesn’t mean that Christians behave in their everyday lives any better than anyone else.  It just means they are supposed to.  And possibly that they will be held accountable if they do not.

For Christian leaders for many years it also held another meaning.  It meant that Christian leaders should be wary of meddling in partisan politics.  Partisan politics is about as worldly a thing as I can think of, and John’s admonishment to us needs to be taken seriously.  This message has always resonated with me, despite the fact that I am a very political person.  I think serious consideration needs to be given to what John’s teaching and the old guidance to be in the world but not of it means in today’s society.

I do not believe that it means that we should not be advocates for good in the world, that we should not passionately push for those issues that our beliefs and the Spirit move us on.  However, I do believe that it means we need to be cautious about letting this entangle us with partisan politics.  I think we need to constantly be thinking about whether our religious beliefs are determining our political allegiances or our political allegiances are determining our religious beliefs.

For instance, I believe it is always wrong for any pastor or religious figure to try to tell his flock how they should vote, or to endorse individual candidates or parties.  I think it is wrong for church leaders to pass out “voting guides” to their congregations.  I think it is wrong to tell people they must believe a certain way on certain social/political issues to be a “good Christian”.  I think many other things that I have seen or heard about in churches in recent years are also wrong or are gray areas at the very least.

My reasoning is founded not just on my understanding of John’s instructions or on other scriptural guidance, but also on my practical desire to see the church thrive.  I would not want political conservatives or political liberals to feel unwelcome in the Body of Christ because of their political views.  I would not want anyone to turn away from the doors of the church either in anger or in fear because they felt their political beliefs were trampled on or unwelcome.   I fear that this happens frequently in many Christian churches.

That does not mean that preachers need to censor themselves unduly and not allow the Spirit to move them.  It doesn’t mean that pastors shouldn’t challenge their congregations to think about issues of the day.  To the contrary, I would love to have more of that.  But that’s what it should be – present them with the scriptures and guide them in how to understand them, but don’t pound them over the head with it and dictate to them how they must believe and how they should behave.  Open the way for them.  Don’t seize them by the scruff of the neck and try to drag them along.

What it means is that church leaders need to be more careful in what they say, and examine their own motives more closely before speaking.  That they need to pray more for guidance.  That they need to be absolutely sure that they have clear Biblical guidance drawn not just from individual passages taken out of context, but also in accordance with the major themes of the Bible, the greatest of those being to love one another.  Most of all make sure that they are not being influenced unduly by politics.

I think one of the reasons Christianity in America is in crisis now, with declining participation and increasing numbers of people, especially the young, declaring that they do not believe, is because many church leaders are failing in this regard.  They have become worldly.  Politics has corrupted them.  Some started with good motives, but somewhere along the way lost perspective and allowed their passion for individual issues to blind them to all else.  Others I suspect have always been more political than religious and lust for worldly power and influence for its own sake.

In any event, it needs to stop.  The Body of Christ needs to be open and welcoming to all.  Conservative and liberal.  Gay and straight.  Black and white.  Native born and immigrant.  We are all God’s children, and we are all sinners saved only by grace.  We will not always agree on all things, but no one should be either driven out or made to feel unwelcome because of who they are or what they believe.  All are welcome to share in His love.