Squandering the Work of Generations

Many years ago, in my first posting in the State Department, I was a political officer in Mexico City while the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated.  One of the jobs I had was escorting various delegations of Congressmen and congressional staffers around to their meetings when they came on fact-finding missions.  Even though a Democratic president had just been elected and had announced his support for the deal, the most skeptical of these were always the Democrats.  Democrats, due largely to heavy union influence, have always been more skeptical of free trade, while Republicans, until very recently, were the strongest in support of free trade.

It was one of the few areas in which I always have tended to agree with Republicans.  They were right on this issue.  Back in the 90s when I talked with these visiting staffers or Congressmen and they asked my opinion, I gave it.  I told them that they were welcome to use the trade negotiations as leverage to obtain concessions in other areas, and they should push to have the highest possible labor and environmental standards placed in the agreement, but in the end they should vote for it.  Because it was good for America and good for the world.  And President Clinton as successful in convincing enough Democrats to vote for it to ensure passage, probably something that would have been impossible for a Republican president.

Virtually all experts in economics and international relations, both liberal and conservative, are in favor of free trade in general, and of most free trade agreements in particular.  None of these agreements are perfect.  In fact there are flaws in all of them.  In pretty much all cases we did not, as a nation, get everything we asked for in those negotiations.  That is the nature of negotiation – you have to make concessions on some issues in order to win concessions on others.  Nonetheless for all their flaws, the web of free trade agreements begun after WW II, have been very, very good for America and for the world.  They have generated tremendous amounts of wealth.

It has been well-documented that the wealth generated has not been distributed evenly in America, and some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of the globalized economy, but not the majority of the blame.  The majority of the blame must lie with the way we have structured our tax system to favor the wealthy, while simultaneously doing little to aid the poor and level the playing field.  Those policy choices have virtually nothing to do with free trade.  If it were truly all the fault of globalization, then we would see the same pattern in other nations, and it is not there.

The economic benefits of free trade have been significant.  Frankly, however, they are dwarfed by the geopolitical benefits to America and the world.  In tying the world more tightly together through trade, in strengthening military alliances with economic ones, we have pushed back the specter of war between major powers into something that is unlikely at best.  It has now been more than seventy years since two or more major powers went to all out war with each other.  The credit for that can be put squarely at the feet of the network of post-war political and economic institutions that have created a somewhat more just world, a world in which all nations have some say and feel some hope of advancing themselves.  It has also been very successful at restraining America’s enemies in the world. allowing time for communism to burn itself out and putting pressure and some measure of accountability on dictators everywhere.

This web of institutions include the UN, the WTO, NATO and yes, a wide variety of multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements.

Now, a man ignorant of our history and without any knowledge of economics or geopolitics threatens to undue the careful and vital work of generations worth of American policymakers, both Democrat and Republican.  In his ignorance and his desire to please the ignorant wing of his party that fueled his rise to power, he would burn it all down like a petulant and angry child unwisely given a book of matches and some lighter fluid.

Since his election, Donald J. Trump has reversed and undermined generations worth of careful diplomatic and policy work.  He has alienated our friends and aided our enemies.  He has threatened to withdraw from old and strong alliances.  He has ceded influence around the world to China and Russia while trading pointless insults with another petulant child in charge of a small country.

And now he threatens, in his utter ignorance, to launch a trade war that could impact not just the wealth of the entire world, but it’s very stability.  The only beneficiaries of such a trade war between the nations of the West would be China and Russia.

It is ironic that, while only a Democratic president could have a strong chance of expanding free trade, only a Republican is likely to be able to destroy it.

Is There a Limit to Tribalism?

Many people observe our current political situation, and our unique President who arose out of it, and wonder if there can possibly be any limit to the blind, passionate loyalty of the right wing to their favorites.  Those favorites are usually defined by Fox News, Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine, and accepted without question by the masses who rely on them and them alone for all their information.

President Trump has certainly changed the views of most political observers as to what the limits of tribal identity are in America.  Never before has such a polarizing figure, with such extreme views, been so popular in the U.S.  Never before has anyone been excused so many damning actions and comments that would have instantly destroyed the political careers of any other politician.  While he remains deeply and historically unpopular, his core supporters love him all the more for it, and many others, even though he embarrasses them and they may even despise him, still support and will vote for him because their tribal identity is so strong that supporting or voting for another party is literally unthinkable.

This is highly unusual in American political history, which has largely been dominated by left-center and right-center pragmatists, with occasional veers toward the left or right that were quickly corrected.  Experts continue to be astounded by the phenomenon, and political moderates of the left and right worry about what this change means for the future of our country.

I think that I have found a good analogy from the world of sports that seems to explain the phenomenon, though.  In team sports, particularly in the contact sports, many teams have one or more players who are known as agitators.  They play the game close to the edge of the envelope of the rules, and frequently cross over that edge.  They are the ones who run their mouth constantly at the other team.  The ones who always get in an extra shot or two at the bottom of the pile, or a slash or kick to the back of the legs when the referee isn’t looking.  The ones who are always trying to bait the opponents into retaliating.  The ones who frequently are involved in cheap shots or dirty hits that result in injuries.  They rack up a lot of penalties, fines and suspensions.  The players and fans of every other team in the league hate them with a passion.  Frankly, they are complete and total jerks and most people agree the game would be better off without them.

But usually their own teammates and fans LOVE them.  They are frequently among the most popular players on their teams.  The reason why is, of course, because our loyalty to our teams is not entirely rational.  It’s based on emotion and identity, rather than logic.  We don’t love our teams because they are really better or more deserving in any way than other teams.  We just love them because they are OUR teams, perhaps from our schools or from the towns we grew up in, or the towns we live in now.  And we hate many of the other teams almost as deeply, because they are, by definition, not OUR team.

Even the most despicable human beings are heroes to us if they play for OUR team.  Frankly, the more abuse and punishment they dish out to the other team, the more they infuriate and frustrate the opposition, the more we love them.  They may be jerks, but they are OUR jerks, and their abuse and insults are directed towards the other teams that we hate, so it’s all good.  Even the most analytical and honest fans, who may acknowledge what a horrible jerk their team’s agitator is, still don’t stop supporting their team because they employ the bad actor.  They rationalize that the other team is even worse, or whatever they need to do to justify their continued loyalty.

Trump as a politician is just like that bad actor on the field.  He’s a complete and total jerk (I think much stronger words actually describe him better, but I try to keep profanity in my posts to a minimum).  Everyone knows it.  But, for his supporters, he’s being a jerk primarily to the other team, or at least to people they don’t know or care much about, so it’s all good in their eyes.  The more he outrages the other team and its fans, the more many of them love him.  Others may be embarrassed by his actions, but they remain loyal to the team, because they believe the alternative is unthinkable.

Of course, the future of our country is not a game.  There is considerably more at stake.  We cannot allow tribal loyalty to divide us permanently.  At the moment, however, unless the absolute death grip that right-wing propaganda has on the beliefs and loyalty of a large portion of this country is somehow disrupted, unless facts and expert opinion regain their ability to sway people’s minds, I’m not sure how it can happen.

Until that happens, Trump the instigator will continue to appall the rest of the nation and the world.  Everyone not on his team, essentially.  It’s who he is and he won’t change.

The Goal Posts Have Moved

A lot has been written over the last couple of years about how our current President has broken many taboos and traditions, any one of which would have doomed other candidates in the past.  Insulting a handicapped reporter.  Refusing to release his tax information.  Attacking the free press.  Praising foreign dictators and enemies of the United States.  Bragging about committing sexual assault.  Cheating on his wife with a porn star.  Etc., etc., etc.

To the extent that anybody ever really had any doubt (or at least pretended they did) about what kind of man Donald J. Trump is, those doubts have long since been resolved.  Those who continue to make excuses for his behavior convince no one but themselves, and just demonstrate the depths of their own tribalism and lack of a moral compass.

These breaches of protocol, tradition and common decency have come so often that we have begun to grow numb to them.  It is difficult to maintain the same level of outrage when the appalling things he says and does happen so often.

In one area in particular, Trump’s outrages have been and continue to be dangers to our entire country.  That is in the area of race.  The numbness we have begun to feel, and the lack of energy to continue to be outraged under a relentless onslaught of racism from he and his administration is wounding us in a way which could take decades to recover from.

Racism is becoming normalized.

Trump’s very entry into the presidential race was based on a racist and white nationalist appeal, with an attack on Mexican immigrants.  And he expanded those attacks to include all Hispanics, blacks and Muslims.  Basically everyone except conservative white Americans was described as the enemy and demonized.  His rallies were full-throated hate fests.

He was embraced by racist groups, and was consistently slow to denounce them.  He repeatedly endorsed or published information and images from white supremacist groups.  He talked of ****hole (or ****house, like that difference matters) countries.  He said some of the Nazi racists protesting in Charlottesville were “very fine people”, and when called on it wavered and waffled in denouncing them.

Any one of these things would have doomed any previous politician.

But, instead, a strange thing happened.  Although his popularity suffered somewhat and some (but not all) of the leaders in his party were embarrassed and sought to distance themselves, his hard core of supporters dug in further and cheered louder.  For them, I am forced to admit, his racism seems to be a feature, not a liability.

They have finally been able to come out of the closet.  Open racism is acceptable in our country once again, and it has a champion in the White House.  For many years, those who were deeply racist were forced to hide their feelings for fear of public condemnation.  No longer.  Now they are being public about their beliefs in ways we would have found shocking years ago.

I see the evidence everywhere that the darkest and most evil side of America, our historical and cultural racism, is again, after years of decline, on the rise.  Our entire history is full of racism, from the very beginning of our country.  Slavery and the near annihilation of Native American peoples are the two greatest stains on our proud national history, and we have never fully owned up to or dealt with them.

Now, this old evil has regained strength and is coming back to divide us and threaten us once again.  Racist hate groups have had a boom in recruiting over the last year, and are becoming increasingly bold.  Racist and anti-Semitic incidents have increased significantly.

On a more personal level, I see it in people I have known for a long time.  They feel emboldened, on social media and elsewhere, to say more horrible things than I have seen in the past.  To let their racism show more openly.  To try to redefine what racism even is.

The incredible arrogance and sheer nastiness of white people claiming they know more or have suffered more from racism (or the ridiculous theory of “reverse racism”) than people of color astounds me.  In their mind the real racists are people who want to talk about racism or combat it.  They are “playing the race card” or “trying to make everything about race” in the minds of these people, pretty much all of whom are white.  They see themselves as the true victims of racial strife in this country, because for many years they were forced by societal condemnation to hide their racism and feel ashamed of their racist beliefs.

Now our societal consensus against racism has been weakened.  Our President openly embraces it and has dragged one of our political parties deep into the slime with him (not that they didn’t help him do so).

An entire propaganda machine led by the most popular (with white people) news channel in America excuses racism at every turn, and demonizes people of color, giving comfort and encouragement to those who before might have questioned their own beliefs and values on issues of race.  I cannot help but wonder what the fate of the Civil Rights Movement would have been if Fox News had been around in those days.

We cannot allow this to happen to us as a people.  We need to recover our ability to feel outrage.  We need to, once again, make racism socially unacceptable.  I don’t know if there is a way to permanently stamp out racism, as it is so deeply embedded in our culture, but we can damn well make certain racists know that most of society rejects them.

The responsibility to do this lies with white people like me.  People who look like us are the problem.  We need to address it.  We need to call people on their casual racism, and hold them to account.  We can’t just not discuss it for fear of uncomfortable conversations.  We can’t allow people to deflect and try to change the topic when discussing racism.  We can’t allow racism to be redefined by white conservatives to encompass nothing more than guys in pointy white hats burning crosses (and only lightly condemn those people).  We need to make clear why we consider what President Trump has said and done on many occasions is deeply racist, and not allow them to make excuses or deflect.  And we need to make clear that supporting racists for public office is the same as endorsing racism.

No excuses.  No moving the goal posts.  Racism endangers us as a nation.  And it must be confronted.

 

Why Impeachment is not the Answer

There is a lot of talk about 2018 possibly being an electoral wave, which might sweep the Republicans out of office in one or both houses of Congress.  If that happens, impeachment actually might be a possibility, and it would certainly be tempting and perhaps justifiable to pursue it, given the nearly daily outrages of the Trump Administration.  But, as things stand right now, it would be the wrong thing to do.

Those who have read any of my work know that I am about as far from a Trump fan as it is possible to be.  I oppose him and pretty much everything he stands for with every fiber of my being.  But, I do not currently support a move to impeach him.

You may have noted the gigantic looming caveat that comes with that word “currently”.  My opinion could be changed, based on further developments, and particularly what Special Prosecutor Mueller eventually reports from his investigation.

I have a many reasons why I oppose impeachment at the moment.

First, I do not believe that the admittedly undefined standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” has been clearly reached.  In the 1990s we were treated to the horrifying spectacle of a Republican Congress seeking to impeach President Clinton because he lied about having a tawdry affair with a much younger woman.  Clinton’s actions were dishonorable, immoral and downright sleazy, but they weren’t “high crimes and misdemeanors”, in my opinion.  Similarly, to this point Trump’s actions can be categorized as racist, authoritarian, divisive, hateful and any number of other horrific things, but nothing criminal has yet been proven.  That may change, but for now that is where things stand.  Proceeding with impeachment proceedings based on what we know now would reinforce the terrible precedent for politicization of the impeachment process set by the Republicans in the 90s.  I want the party I support to behave better than its opponent, or what is the point?  To me, this holds true even if he lies to the FBI about underlying facts that are not in and of themselves criminal.  It does not hold if he seeks to dismiss the special prosecutor, which would be clear and indisputable obstruction of justice.

Second, at this point very, very few Republicans would support impeachment, which means it will be viewed as politically motivated, no matter what the underlying facts.  To proceed with impeachment without significant Republican support would be folly, in my opinion.  It would just serve to further divide this country and inflame the already ridiculously inflated sense of persecution felt by his core supporters.  It would turn him into a political martyr for those people and magnify his ability to do harm to us as a nation, even if he were out of office.  And, without significant Republican support, it likely would not succeed, meaning he would still be in office, and strengthened by surviving the attempt.

Third,  focusing so much on Trump strikes me as focusing on the symptoms rather than the disease.  Curing those symptoms might allow the underlying disease to flourish.  the election of Trump revealed ugly truths about America, and even more about the Republican Party.  Those truths will not disappear with the removal of Trump.  The truth that racism and sexism are still deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society.  The truth that a large portion of our country hates its government with a fervor.  The truth that they also hate scientists and experts of all stripes.  The truth that political tribalism has overruled common sense.  The truth that a long-running right-wing propaganda campaign has systematically eaten away at the very concept of truth.  We need to acknowledge and confront these ugly truths, and impeaching Trump would make it too easy to sweep them under the rug again.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to avoid the temptation to impeach Trump because we need to remove him from office the right way, through an election that he loses convincingly, and that also reveals rejection of those who enabled and supported him for cynical reasons of their own.  On November 8, 2016, America lost a part of its soul when we elected Donald Trump as president.  The only way we can get that part of our soul back is to atone for our sin by tossing him out of office in the same way we brought him in.  By demonstrating that we are better than our worst moment.  That we can confront and conquer the fear and hatred.  That we can again be the beacon of hope for the world that we have always claimed to be.

So let’s not impeach Trump in a way doomed to be viewed by many as partisan or unjustified.  Let’s defeat him and every hateful thing he stands for the right way, at the polls.

Let’s get our national soul back.

Much Ado About Absolutely Nothing

Like many people interested in politics and policy, I made it a point to read the long-hyped Nunes memo on alleged political bias at the FBI.  I read it first before I read any of the analyses and political spin that are out there.  I read it as someone with nearly three decades of experience in both the policy and intelligence worlds.

My first reaction was: THAT’S IT?  All the hype from Republicans.  All the dread from Democrats.  All the indignation from the FBI.  FOR THIS?

The memo is breathtaking only in its lack of anything important.  It weaves together a lot of wild assumptions, some blatant distortions, a few bald-faced lies, and a very few facts into a mess that combines being both too nitty-gritty for most laymen to understand and too ridiculously ludicrous to be taken seriously by anyone who does know anything about the subject.

Basically, what it says is that the FBI used a document tied to Democratic opposition research as the basis for a warrant to tap the phones of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign policy adviser, without informing the court where it came from.  It then implies that this, along with evidence some members of the investigation, since dismissed, didn’t like Trump, as evidence the whole FBI is politically biased and that the investigation into Russian meddling into our investigation and possible Trump campaign collusion with that meddling is just a partisan witch hunt.

It’s underlying premise and most of what it contains are complete and utter hogwash.  Mr. Page was suspected of unsavory involvement with the Russians since at least 2013, before Trump had even declared he was running for President.  The Steele dossier, which was indeed paid for by first Republican and then Democratic opponents of Trump, formed only a small part of the justification for the surveillance, which has been approved three more times by the court since then, after the Steele dossier and its source became public knowledge.

In applying for the warrant, the FBI did indeed tell the court it came from a political source, and the court approved it anyway, presumably because the other evidence presented was convincing.  At the time of the application for the warrant and its approval, Carter Page no longer had any association with the Trump campaign, according to both Page and Trump, so there was absolutely no spying on the Trump campaign.

Furthermore, Russian meddling in our election is a proven fact, according to every agency in our intelligence community.  On top of that, openly available information already proves that members of the Trump campaign, including his son, at the very least attempted to collude with the Russians to influence our election.

It’s a complete and embarrassing flop, as evidenced by the multitude of Republican backing away from it over the weekend.  Of course that didn’t stop the Blowhard in Chief from tweeting triumphantly about it.  And it won’t stop right-wing propaganda from continuing to try to sell the story that the Republican leaders of the Russia investigation and a notoriously conservative agency are somehow biased against the Republican president.  And it won’t stop those that are completely in the thrall of that propaganda from believing that it does indeed prove that ridiculous lie to be true.

My second thought, was, why did the Democrats and FBI protest so much about its release, given that it is such a dud?

To that end I can only speculate and offer possibilities.

As for the Democrats, well, it is pretty much reflexive to oppose anything the Republicans say and do, for some pretty good reasons.  In addition, it is probably smart politics to ally yourself with the hard-bitten professional cops in the FBI.  More importantly, though, they probably understand the Republicans’ game.

The purpose of the Nunes memo was never to influence rational and independent thinkers, or to make convincing, logical arguments that might sway the minds of Trump’s opponents.  Rather, it, like much of Republican political rhetoric these days, is only intended to appeal to core supporters.  It’s intent is to reinforce the massive (and absolutely ludicrous) sense of persecution and anger among that base.  To further convince them that liberals and the government (along with blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, intellectuals, scientists, universities, etc., etc.) are out to get them.  That therefore, they cannot trust anything the FBI says, just as they cannot trust anything scientists say, or the legitimate media says, or even that traditional conservative Republicans say.  They cannot trust anybody except Trump-loving Republican politicians and the right-wing propaganda machine, which are the only sources who have the interests of true (white) Americans like them at heart.

With regard to the FBI,  they have a lot of legitimate concerns.  While at first glance, nothing in the memo represents a clear and present danger to sources and methods, the intel community pretty much reflexively opposes releasing any classified information.  It is indeed possible that small details in the memo, when viewed by Russian intel pros, could endanger some of those sources and methods.

It also sets a horrible precedent of releasing classified information for political gain, something the FBI would like to discourage.  I can say for a fact that intel agencies are always reluctant to give classified information to Congress, for just this reason.  They know it is very likely to be released, or leak, as soon as someone sees a political advantage in doing so.  Releasing this memo over the objections of the FBI further erodes an already frayed trust.  That trust is absolutely vital to maintaining proper oversight over our intel agencies.

Most important, though, the FBI opposed it because it is a bald-faced and brazen attack on their professionalism and credibility.  It has already caused an entire segment of our population to lose trust in the FBI.  Trust that is necessary for them to function effectively as a law enforcement agency.  It’s ironic that it is conservatives who are losing that trust now, despite the fact the FBI is a decidedly conservative organization.

In fact, the FBI, in its early years and during J. Edgar Hoover’s long and malign reign, did have a bad reputation for both illegality and political bias, but it certainly wasn’t bias against conservatives.  Since the resignation of Hoover, however, and with the support of both Republican and Democratic administrations, the FBI has worked hard to reform and professionalize itself, and it is now one of the most respected and professional law enforcement and intelligence organizations in the world.  But it’s still a very conservative organization at heart.

In the end, however, people will choose what they wish to believe, as always.

They can choose to believe Donald J. Trump, Devin Nunes and the other right-wing politicians trying desperately to protect their flawed master.

Or they can choose to believe the professional, non-partisan investigators led by conservative Republicans and drawn from one of the world’s premiere law enforcement agencies.

That should be a pretty obvious choice, shouldn’t it?

Our State of Disunion

Every year, the President of the United States takes advantage of the bully pulpit to brag a bit about his accomplishments, promote his political plans for the future and bask in the spotlight of an occasion in which much of the world is watching, and decorum (usually) requires even political enemies to listen politely, or at least silently, before dutifully responding to rebut pretty much everything said, but to a smaller audience.  This year was no different.

In fact, this year’s speech was remarkable mostly by how unremarkable it was.  It was a pretty standard political speech, and someone who has not lived through the last year and just listened to that speech might be forgiven for thinking that this presidency and this president were pretty standard as well.

As he has two or three other times during his first year in office, President Trump managed to sound almost presidential.  He didn’t tell more than a few outright lies, although he stretched the truth and exaggerated many more times and claimed undue credit for lots of things.  However, in contrast to his record throughout the rest of the year, he was no more dishonest than most other politicians.

Yes, there was a bit of a racist tinge to some of his comments on immigration, and his use of the victims of crime by immigrants was a bit of despicable hate-mongering political theater.  But this miserly portion of red meat thrown to the unruly mob of his hard-core supporters pales in comparison to the banquet feast of racism and othering that he usually lays out for them.

The policies he laid out were very conservative, but (with a few exceptions) not really outside the realm of rational policy discussion.  Lip service was paid to seeking consensus, to bipartisanship, to seeking to unite the country.

That, more than anything, reveals the fact that the speech, at its core, was deeply disingenuous.  If the last year has taught us anything, it is that Donald J.Trump has no intention of seeking consensus, of working across party lines, or of trying to unite the country.  Unless you consider forcibly shutting down all dissent to be uniting the country.

No, above all else, Donald Trump is a divider, not a unifier.  He has made no secret of his disdain for compromise and for those who disagree with him.  Trump’s words and actions, throughout this year, have driven us further apart as Americans than at any other point in my lifetime.  Perhaps more so than at any point since the Civil War.  Certainly more than at any point since the tumultuous 1960s.  He, frankly, is utterly incapable of uniting our country, even if he were interested in doing so.

To be truthful, I’m not sure anybody is.  We are not united.  And perhaps we do not even want to be united.  We cannot even agree about basic facts.  We cannot agree about what our values are as a nation, much less how to apply those values.  A large percentage of us refuses to acknowledge the validity of scientific fact or the value of expert opinions.  Many of us refuse to even consider well-thought out and eloquently expressed opinions of those who believe differently than we do.  Rather we prefer deceptive but pithy memes and insults for each other that serve to injure and drive us further apart without adding anything to the overall public discourse.  Many people apparently find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between legitimate sources of information and rank propaganda, and frequently favor the latter when it reinforces their own opinions.

No, at this point we do not really have a union to speak of.  We only have disunion.  Yes, President Trump is a huge part of that, but he exploited it more than he created it.  The problem runs much deeper, and it will destroy us if we cannot honestly address it.  It is, perhaps, the only real threat to our country as a whole.  None of our external foes are anywhere near strong enough to destroy us, but we are quite capable of ripping ourselves apart, and we are currently busy doing so.

There is still some small space left to find common ground, but it is rapidly shrinking.  To do so, we need to stop demonizing political enemies.  We need to firmly reject racism and the scapegoating of groups that look, believe and think differently than we do.  We need to restore some level of civility in our public discourse.  We need to be honest about the faults of those leaders we do support and worry more about our own sins than we do about those of others.  We need more rational discourse and less vicious attacks.  We need to respect hard-won expertise and scientific consensus, even when it does not support our preferred political views, and find ways to respond with equal levels of wisdom and learning.  We need to understand the biases and record for factual accuracy of the sources we use for news and information and correct for those biases and give more credence to those with good records for accuracy.

None of this may be possible with Donald Trump as president.  But we must look to the day when he is no longer president, and we will need to pick up the pieces and learn to live with each other again.

Until then we will not have a State of the Union.  Only a dismal reminder of our disunion.

A Hard Look in the Mirror

Every year since 1977, the State Department has written a report on human rights in every country in the world.  It is a meticulously researched, written and edited document, and is highly praised by human rights activists and scholars throughout the world who use it for reference.  I’ve participated in producing many of these reports, writing some and editing more.  I’ve also enjoyed the privilege of defending its findings to angry governments all over the world, who are understandably upset that their misdeeds are being called out in such a frank and no-nonsense manner.  Personally, I consider it a point of pride and a privilege to have been allowed to speak truth to power in such a way, to give a voice to the countless victims in these countries.

In these reports, the State Department, among other things, reports on the justice system in each country, on whether the web of laws, courts and law enforcement bodies in each country generally protects or abuses the rights of its citizens, and in what ways.  The language of the report is generally dry and factual, short on hyperbole and emotion.

One thing the State Department does not do is report on human rights in the United States.  In fact such reporting by State is forbidden by law, forbidden by Congressmen who either feared it would become politicized or who did not think such introspection would be helpful.  Various human rights organizations do write reports on the United States, and their reports are interesting reading, but none of them have either the rigorous standards or the inherent credibility of the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  China also writes a report, largely to strike back at us for writing so critically about them, but it is hardly a model of credibility.

So, I’d like to briefly summarize, in the type of language the State Department would use, what might be written about our own justice system.  We Americans are, with considerable justification, proud of our system of justice.  It does indeed, have many things going for it, and overall it compares well to most other countries.  There are a few areas, however, of which we should not be so proud, that frankly compare more to practices and results in authoritarian dictatorships rather than liberal democracies.

I think it is about time we looked hard in the mirror at our own justice system and began the process of badly needed reform.

Here is how I believe the State Department might describe certain areas of our justice system.

Police Killings

In 2017 there were nearly a thousand people killed  by law enforcement officers in the United States.  About ten percent of those killed were unarmed at the time.  17% were fleeing when they were killed.  Nearly a quarter of those slain were mentally ill.  For comparison’s sake,  more people are killed by police in the United States each year than in every other advanced democracy in the world combined, by several orders of magnitude.  The only countries with comparable rates of police killings are in the developing world, such as Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador.  There are credible allegations that some of the killings in the United States are connected to racial bias, and racial minorities are disproportionately killed by police officers, according to statistics compiled by journalists.

Rarely does a police killing result in any charges, and it is even more rare for such charges to result in conviction, but there have been a few cases in the last year.  These convictions almost always came only  when video footage of the killing became public showing evidence of police misconduct. 

Critics have pointed out significant potential problems in police recruitment, training, tactics and equipment that might lead to unnecessary deaths.  These critics allege that police officers currently are trained and equipped to respond as warriors, rather than the traditional role of peace officers. 

Others have pointed out that the high level of gun ownership in the general population undoubtedly contributes to the number of killings, as it makes violent confrontations more likely.  Indeed, more than half of those killed by police had a gun in their possession, although not all of them had drawn it and many legally possessed those weapons.

In addition, despite the lack of statistical evidence for it, many right-wing political groups have been pushing the idea of a “War on Cops”, sensationalizing the relatively rare killings of police officers by criminals (51 in 2017, a little higher than 2016, but still relatively low by U.S. historical standards).  This publicity campaign is thought by some critics to have created a dangerous siege mentality among law enforcement officers, a perception that they are under more danger than they actually are, which could lead to confrontations becoming violent more easily.     

Despite heavy press attention to the issue, and significant public protests about racial bias, the figures on such killings are virtually unchanged from other recent years.  No real reform effort to address the issue has taken hold at the national level, although some state and local governments have taken promising steps.  The current administration denies reform is needed and instead pushing a strong “law and order” agenda designed to appeal to working and middle class non-minority voters.

Prison System    

The United States has more of its citizens in jail than any other country in the world, more than 2 million, close to one percent of the total population, including about 70,000 minors.  In terms of percentage of population incarcerated, only Russia even comes close.  In comparison with other developed countries, the United States has more than four times as many people incarcerated as any other, as a percentage of population.

The high rate of incarceration seems to be linked to controversial mandatory sentencing laws, particularly as they relate to relatively minor and non-violent drug offenses.  About 20% of those incarcerated are due to drug offenses.  Only about a third of those incarcerated in the United States are convicted or accused of violent offenses.

Minorities, particularly African-Americans, are heavily overrepresented in the prison population, and whites are heavily underrepresented.

One disturbing trend is the move toward privatization of the prison system.  In 2017, 7% of all state prisoners and 18% of all federal prisoners are held in privately owned, for-profit prisons.  Despite credible studies linking such prisons to violations of basic human rights including abuse, some jurisdictions continue to explore moving to this option.  Critics point out that introducing a profit motive into incarceration creates a strong potential for corruption and abuse of human rights. 

Despite these disturbing numbers and credible research indicating incarceration may not be an effective deterrent to crime, there is no current initiative at the federal level to reform prisons and reduce the prison population.  To the contrary, reforms undertaken by the previous administration that were highly praised by human rights advocates have been reversed by the current administration.  This issue has also been politicized to some extent, with emotional appeals designed to appeal to the public’s desire for vengeance against criminals.  These appeals have been credibly alleged to have a racial component as well.

Racial Bias in the Justice System

Credible reports of pervasive bias in the justice system at all levels were again the norm in 2017.  Academics continued to publish studies pointing out this bias.  Some of the perceived bias may be laid at the feet of an inherent bias in the U.S.’s adversarial system against poorer defendants, who cannot typically afford high quality legal representation, and in favor of wealthy defendants, who can and do.  However, these studies clearly show that, even correcting for wealth, minority defendants are disproportionately arrested, convicted at trial, and are given longer sentences than whites accused of the exact same crimes.  Wealth, or the lack thereof, just exacerbates an already existing problem.

Again, steps taken by the previous administration to address this issue have been reversed by the current administration, which has also sharply cut back the federal government’s traditional role in enforcing civil rights legislation designed to bring about racial justice.

Government Surveillance   

Despite heavy negative publicity in recent years after the existence of federal intelligence and counter-terrorism programs that made it possible for intelligence and law enforcement officials to sweep up vast amounts of communication by citizens accused of no crimes without a warrant, such programs largely continued unabated.  Critics pointed out the potential for this information to be misused is enormous.  Public opinion does not support these programs in general, but neither political party has moved effectively to curtail them.

Asset Forfeiture     

Law enforcement officials at all levels continued to abuse asset forfeiture legislation established to combat terrorism and organized crime.  Since 2008, law enforcement bodies have seized more than $3 billion in assets, much of it done without a valid warrant or criminal charges against the person from whom the cash is seized.  In many cases, charges are never filed.  Procedures to appeal the seizure are complicated and require expensive legal representation, and few are successful in recovering their property, even if they are never charged with a crime.  The program allows state and local law enforcement agencies to retain most of the funds seized for their own purposes, while passing a portion of the proceeds to federal law enforcement agencies.

Critics of the program point out that, in establishing a profit motive for police to make more and more seizures, there is an inherent potential for abuse and corruption.  the existence of such abuse and corruption seems to be born out by the statistics, which show that very few of those from whom assets are seized actually have any links to organized crime or terrorism, the purported main reason the law exists.  In fact, journalists have documented that many of those whose property was seized were originally pulled over for minor traffic infractions and subjected to constitutionally questionable searches that resulted in confiscation of large amounts of cash even with no other evidence of a crime. 

Again, efforts to reform this program in the late stages of the previous administration were reversed by the current administration.  Under political pressure from personal liberties advocates in both parties, the Attorney General did establish a watchdog body for the program in late 2017.

We have a right to be proud of much about our justice system, but there are some areas in which it does not stand up to scrutiny.  Areas in which the United States seems to be guilty of significant human rights abuses.  Areas that aren’t pretty to look at, that don’t make us feel good about ourselves.

However, if we want to continue to be known as “Land of the Free”, we need to do so.  Serious reform is needed.

 

This Guy I Know

I’d like to tell you about this guy I know.  I think his experience and his example are very relevant to what is happening in America right now.

This guy is spectacularly talented, a great communicator and clearly very intelligent.  He could make a mint if he worked in media or the advertising industry, I bet, or as a motivational speaker.  That doesn’t seem to interest him, however.  Frankly, he is unemployed, and doesn’t seem to be looking for a job.  He and a group of his friends live mostly off of the charity of others, although they are always eager to share what little they have with pretty much anybody they meet.  Sort of a commune kind of thing, frankly, like people used to do in the 60s.  The other people who hang around with him are pretty cool, too, but this guy is definitely the leader, who sets the tone.

This guy wasn’t born rich or privileged.  His stepfather worked with his hands and made a decent living, but this guy didn’t go into the family business.  Instead he travels around a lot with his friends.  He gives motivational speeches sometimes, but he doesn’t charge for them.

In fact, a lot of the people he talks to are poor or disadvantaged.  He seems to really know how to reach them, and he is always willing to give them a hand in material ways as well.  He works with the sick a lot, too, and has been credited with doing a lot of good for them.  He is quite talented at this work, and could probably charge a lot for his services, but instead he donates his time and energy.  Definitely not a business genius.

He actually makes it a point to hang around with people who many of us would shy away from.  Sick people.  Poor people.  Foreigners.  Even criminals and those accused of doing bad things.  This guy actually seems to prefer hanging around with them rather than with the wealthy and privileged.  He may want people to change what they do sometimes, but he never turns them away and he never yells at them.  In fact, sometimes he protects them when others are being unfair to them.  Even more than that, he frequently says that the poor and disadvantaged people he hangs out with are actually living their lives better than others.

One of his main points is that we should take responsibility for our own issues, rather than seeking to blame others for theirs.  That’s a pretty cool way of looking at things.

I have to say he doesn’t seem to think much of rich people, or of really religious people (you know the kind, the ones who really want everyone else to know how religious they are).  That makes me uncomfortable with him sometimes, because well, I’m kind of rich and pretty religious.  In the end, though, I think it’s good that he makes me uncomfortable sometimes

I worry about this guy, though.  Sometimes he just doesn’t know when to shut up.  He’s angered some pretty powerful people, who don’t seem to like his popularity and definitely don’t like that he criticizes those in positions of wealth and power.  I fear that something bad could happen to him if he keeps it up.

I guess you could say he is kind of a radical, politically, with the example he sets and the opinions he shares.  Opinions that always side with the weak and oppressed rather than the wealthy and powerful.  In my opinion, he’s not really political, though.  I don’t think he would ever run for office, for example, and he has resisted attempts by others to use him for political purposes.

No, his goals, as far as I can tell, seem to be more about people and their own personal situation rather than about politics.  I know that the more I spend time listening to him and reading what he has to say (he has a few guys in his group that try to write it all down and publish it), and the more time I spend trying to be like him and act as he would want me to, the better I feel about myself and others around me.  Frankly, it makes me happy and calms me down just to think about him.

This guy has that effect on people.  He seems to know how to say just the right thing to let you know that you’re not alone, that he cares about you and is always on your side.

There are a lot of folks who say they know this guy, but the way they show it frequently puzzles me.  They seem to have gotten a lot of things reversed.  They hang out with and admire the rich and powerful, and have harsh criticism for the sick, the poor, the disadvantaged, the foreigner and the accused.  They seem to blame those people for the situation they find themselves in.  In fact, they seem to spend an awful lot of time worried about the bad things other people have done or will be doing, and very little looking in the mirror to improve themselves, as this guy I know is always talking about.

I wish everybody could know this guy.  He’s pretty cool.

I also wish everyone who says they know him would actually listen to what he says and take his advice.  That would be really cool.

It’s Time

I spent the evening of Martin Luther King Day watching the movie Selma on television.  The story, though already familiar to me, was still moving, particularly as I reflected on where we stand now as a nation, on who our President is now, on the way the issue of racism is still with us and still divides us.  MLK had a dream, and while we can certainly say we have made some progress toward achieving it, we aren’t anywhere near there and we seem to be losing ground now.

Slavery is said to be America’s original sin, and we have never managed to disentangle ourselves from it.  It tainted our national soul then, and the widespread racism that followed after it still taints our soul today.  As a Christian, I believe both that we are all sinners and that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven.  However, for a sin to be forgiven it must be confessed and forgiveness needs to be asked for.

I have been saying loudly and clearly since the day he announced his candidacy that Donald J. Trump is a racist.  In fact, racism and the appeal to it was perhaps the most defining characteristic of his campaign, launched with a blatantly racist attack on Mexican immigrants.  During the campaign he re-tweeted white supremacist messages and images many times, and made many offensive racially charged remarks to the almost all-white crowds drawn to him.  In the end, he was elected almost entirely with the support of white people, and white people only.

Trump’s history as a private citizen also made his racism absolutely clear to anyone not blinded by tribalism and/or bigotry of their own.  His bloodthirsty advocacy against the wrongly accused Central Park Five was blatantly and obviously racist.  His rise to political prominence on the back of the blatantly and obviously racist “birther” campaign is another prime example.  These are backed by numerous accounts of racist comments and actions by him over many years, by numerous well-placed sources.

Trump’s record since taking office has been equally clear.  He appointed an apologist for white supremacists to be his senior political adviser.  He appointed a man considered too racist by both Democrats and Republicans to be appointed as a federal judge thirty years ago to head the Justice Department, a man who quickly began dismantling reforms made to address endemic racism in our justice system and weakening the Department’s vital oversight of civil rights legislation.  His appointments overall were whiter (and more male) than any other recent president.  He continued to say and tweet racially offensive things over and over again.

Trump won’t stop.  He won’t change.  He is a racist.  He has been a racist for many years.  He will likely die a racist.

Just this last week, in a profane outburst in a meeting with Senators that had originally been designed to craft a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform that would keep the government open, Trump revealed his racism yet again s he torpedoed the agreement.  He clearly and unequivocally stated his desire for less immigration from nations in Africa and more from European nations.  His words and their intent were confirmed by both a Democratic and Republic senator who attended.  Others, including Trump himself, two other Republican senators from the anti-immigrant lunatic fringe of the party and the Secretary of Homeland Security, have, as usual, tried desperately to obscure and deny what he said, dishonoring themselves in that act.  But nobody really believes them.

Trump has, once again, openly and blatantly revealed his racism for all the world to see.  He stated clearly that he wants an America that is whiter, and that he thinks immigrants from non-European countries are inferior.  That is textbook racism.

So, it’s time.

Time for all Republicans and conservatives of good conscience who voted for Trump to stand up.  Time for them to acknowledge their sin and ask forgiveness.  Time for them to make amends and change their behavior.  Time for them to do a bit of soul-searching and examine their own beliefs about race, and the beliefs and actions of the political party they support.  Time for them to decide if they will continue to support a racist.  It’s time and past time.

There are many good and honorable people who voted for Donald Trump.  There are many good and honorable people who have continued to generally support Donald Trump, even as they are made more and more uncomfortable by many of the things he has said and done.  As a Christian, I know that good and honorable people do bad and stupid things, things that they come to regret, all the time.  If they didn’t there would be no need for grace.

That support needs to end.  It’s time and past time.

We, as a country, can no longer tolerate and indulge in the interminable and convoluted excuses for his racism.  Excuses that he was misunderstood.  Excuses that it isn’t really racism (as if his almost all-white supporters have any right at all to unilaterally determine what racism is and isn’t).  Excuses that he was misquoted.

It is also time and past time to acknowledge that all of the many reasons reasonable people voted for Trump, reasons that seemed at the time and may still seem important to them, are not sufficient to justify supporting an open racist in the White House.

We have reached a decision point, in which we decide if we can save our soul as a nation or not.  In which those who have supported him have to decide if their support is worth risking their individual souls.

It’s time to stand up for what is right and condemn the obvious evil that stands in front of us.

It’s time.

It’s time and past time.

 

The Surgeon General’s Warning We Really Need

One of the Surgeon General’s most public tasks over the last fifty years has been to warn the American public, for its own good, of the dangers involved in using or even being near toxic substances.  Cigarettes are the most prominent example, although various Surgeon Generals have also warned us of other toxic dangers to our health as individuals.

Now I think the time has come for using the Surgeon General’s authority to warn us of a danger to us not just as individuals, but as a nation.  We are in grave danger from an extremely toxic substance, one that is eating away at our sanity and our moral fiber as individuals and a nation.

We need a Surgeon General’s warning to accompany the tweets and other pronouncements of President Donald J. Trump.  The Washington Post, supported by pretty much every other reputable fact checker, has documented that President Trump is on track to lie to the American people more than 2000 times in his first year in office.  All politicians lie sometimes, of course, but our Prevaricator in Chief has blown previous records for lying out of the water.  By several orders of magnitude.  And the purpose of many of his lies is to drive toxic wedges into our country.  Or to attack the principles of justice, equality, freedom and democracy on which our country is founded, and the institutions that uphold them.

Despite how obvious many of his lies are, 35-40% of America still believes many of them, or makes excuses for them.  They very much resemble the kinds of excuses made by addicts and their enablers to defend their behavior.

Trump is aided and abetted by a sophisticated right-wing propaganda machine that supports and prepares the ground for his assault on the truth.  That machine has a significant part of the American people in near absolute thrall, willing to believe anything that spews from Trump or his minions’ mouths, no matter how ridiculous or hateful it is.  Particularly if what they say resonates with and justifies their own biases and bigotries.

So the Surgeon General’s warning should also extend to the words and/or broadcasts of many institutions in the right-wing propaganda machine that prop Trump up.  InfoWars, Breitbart, Fox and Friends and Hannity pop to mind right away, but there are definitely more.

The warning should read something like this:

WARNING:  The person you are about to listen to or read is a known serial liar with questionable sanity and intelligence.  Listening to and giving credence to what he/she says will gravely endanger your own mental and emotional health, as well as that of the country as a whole.   It will also cause intelligent friends and family members to doubt your sanity, your morals and your judgment, and is likely to cause significant damage to your reputation and your relationships with those people.  If unchecked for a long period of time, it could destroy democracy in America.

If only such a warning were possible.  If only people would heed it.