Sometimes You Just Want To Cry…

I drafted this post before I heard yesterday’s news that Ryan Zinke is “retiring.” I’m sure that whomever Trump chooses to replace him will be equally awful, equally corrupt–but at least we may be lucky enough to have a breather before that person ramps up.

Why was I devoting today’s post to Zinke? Let me count the ways….Actually, I don’t have to, because Scientific American has done it for me.

When you think of sensationalism or bias in the media, Scientific American isn’t the publication that first comes to mind. The fact that the magazine’s articles are usually pretty sober and deliberate is why this recent article was especially troubling.

It was titled “Monumental Disaster at the Department of the Interior,” and the sub-head was even more pointed: “A new report documents suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of staff.”

Here’s the lede:

This is a tough time to be a federal scientist—or any civil servant in the federal government. The Trump administration is clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources.

According to the author, a former employee of the Department, Zinke and the political staff  he has hired have consistently sidelined scientists and experts, “while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests.”

The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.

I never thought I’d be grateful for incompetence, but really, the only thing that is saving American institutions from Trump and the looters he has installed as agency heads is their monumental ignorance of government and policy, and total lack of any managerial ability.

The report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists; it documents a number of Secretary Zinke’s more egregious and anti-science policies and practices. It describes “suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats.”

It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.

The author follows a damning list of actions taken by Zinke with a rhetorical question: why? Why would any government official choose to be anti-science, anti-evidence? Why–even if he really doesn’t accept the science of climate change– does Zinke pursue policies that he has to know will foul the air we all breathe and the water we all drink?

He then answers his own question (you knew this already, though, didn’t you?):

Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

One of the ways I’ve been clinging to what remains of my equanimity during the nightmare of this administration is to remind myself that nothing is forever, that although a lot of people are getting hurt in the meantime, most of the horrific policies being pursued by this gang of thugs and looters can be reversed.

But every day we fail to protect the environment, every day we double down on practices that accelerate climate change, is a day we can’t get back.

Trump’s criminal syndicate is willing to destroy the planet our grandchildren will rely upon– presumably the planet their own grandchildren will inhabit–in order to please the fat cats whose campaign dollars are their source of political power.

I really can’t think of anything more vile.

Adults And Children

We’re at the stage of the Mueller investigation when shoes are dropping pretty regularly. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with the plea agreements, the guilty pleas, the additional indictments–not to mention the speculation about where this is all leading that is on offer from this former prosecutor or that former Judge on a daily basis.

You would think his base would begin to catch on (and evidently a few of them are beginning to)…but my Facebook page still shows periodic comments from members of the cult that continues to defend him; most are of the “what about Hillary” and “Obama did stuff I didn’t like” variety. And of course, reminders that no public servant is perfect. That’s certainly true; there has never been a candidate or a President I agreed with 100% of the time.

What the Trump defenders are unwilling to admit is the magnitude of the difference.

“I disagree with the policy positions of the adult who holds this office” is dramatically different from deploring the (ungrammatical) tantrums of a wholly unfit-for-office (or polite society, for that matter) child. But then, as post-election research has pretty conclusively determined, most of the people who hated Obama really couldn’t identify a policy position if they fell over it; what they resented was having a black family in the White House. What they voted for was an undisciplined child willing to say out loud what adults had been socialized to suppress.

I’m surprised Trump hasn’t called someone a poopy-head; given his diction, vocabulary and emotional “maturity,” it would seem entirely in character.

Most sentient Americans have figured out that the people who applaud Trump because “He tells it like it is” are defining bigotry as forthrightness, and racism as honesty. And evidently, having a President express and validate those sentiments is more important to them than having even minimally competent government.

Trump’s jealousy of his predecessor is not only obvious, it explains what passes for his agenda. If Obama promoted it, Trump wants to destroy it. The merits or demerits of the Obama administration’s policies are totally irrelevant to the three-year-old brat who–inconceivable as it still seems to me– occupies the Oval Office.

Obama made mincemeat of Trump at a Correspondent’s dinner, and like the child he is, he thinks undoing Obama’s very real achievements will “show him.” The collateral damage to the country is beyond his childish capacity to understand, and because he is a child, he wouldn’t care if he did understand.

Speaking of Obama–he has been incredibly restrained as Trump has eviscerated important policies he put in place, but as the indictments and the guilty pleas have mounted, he recently took a swipe:

“Not only did I not get indicted, nobody in my administration got indicted,” the former president said at an event in Houston on Tuesday, “which by the way was the only administration in modern history that that can be said about. In fact, nobody came close to being indicted, partly because the people who joined us were there for the right reasons. We were there to serve.”

Adults serve. Children are incapable of understanding the concept of service. Children misbehave–and when they are disciplined, they whine and call other people names.

More shoes please, Mr. Mueller. And ASAP.

 

Truth And Consequences

I told you so. Over and over. (Okay, I know I’m preaching to the choir here–those who read and respond to this blog aren’t the problem…) But here we go again.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a survey of American constitutional knowledge. CNN reported the results, which it dubbed a “bouillabaisse of ignorance.”

  • More than one in three people (37%) could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment.
  • Only one in four (26%) can name all three branches of the government. (In 2011, 36% could name all three branches.)
  • One in three (33%) can’t name any branch of government. None. Not even one.
  • A majority (53%) believe the Constitution affords undocumented immigrants no rights. However, everyone in the US is entitled to due process of law and the right to make their case before the courts, at the least.

“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are,” said Annenberg Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson. “The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Many definitely don’t. Mountains of evidence confirm Americans’ ignorance of their government.

A 2010 Pew poll asked respondents to name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Now, I’m not a big fan of these sorts of “trivia” questions–I’m much more concerned that people know what the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court do–but it is nevertheless disheartening when fewer than three in 10 (28%) could answer correctly. That rate compared unfavorably to the 43% who had correctly named William Rehnquist as the chief justice in a Pew poll back in 1986.

Worse– although most of the 72% of people who didn’t name Roberts as the chief justice in 2010 said they didn’t know, eight percent guessed Thurgood Marshall, who was never  chief justice of the Court (and had been dead for 17 years)and 4% named Harry Reid.

In another widely-reported poll, 10% of college graduates thought Judith  Sheindlin–aka “Judge Judy”– was on the Supreme Court, but it was kind of a trick question….

When large numbers of people know absolutely nothing about the way their government is supposed to work, the consequences are grim. As the CNN report duly noted, we’re living with certain of those consequences now.

The level of civil ignorance in the country allows our politicians — and Donald Trump is the shining example of this — to make lowest common denominator appeals about what they will do (or won’t do) in office. It also leads to huge amounts of discontent from the public when they realize that no politician can make good on the various and sundry promises they make on the campaign trail.

I am alternately amused and infuriated by the fact that people who wouldn’t think of choosing a dentist who’d skipped dental school (bone spurs?) and had zero experience working on teeth are nevertheless perfectly willing to turn the government and its nuclear codes over to someone who clearly doesn’t have the slightest notion how government works (or, one suspects, what government is.)

I can only assume that this willingness is the consequence of the voter’s own ignorance of the knowledge and skills required–the “job description.”

In a very real sense, when American voters go to the polls, we are “hiring” for the positions on the ballot. Yet people who would never choose a cleaning lady who didn’t know how  clean a sink or plug in a vacuum cleaner will cheerfully cast their ballots on the basis of a candidate’s attractiveness, partisan affiliation, or belief in the juicy tidbit their neighbor whispered about the opposing candidate’s spouse.

Or the fact that the candidate hates the same people they do.

No wonder our government is broken.

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall

Robert Frost said it best.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.

Good fences might make good neighbors, but walls signify more impenetrable barriers–barriers to understanding, to friendship, to growth.

Which brings me, of course, to Trump’s threat Tuesday to shut down parts of the government if he doesn’t get the money he’s demanding to build his “big, beautiful wall.”

Forget, for the moment, that Trump repeatedly promised he would make Mexico pay for his wall. (I don’t know who was dumber–Trump for promising something that any sentient being would know wasn’t going to happen, or the presumably non-sentient voters who believed him.)

Forget, too, the inescapable consequences of Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and the urgent need to wall the dark-skinned ones out–the damage to America’s standing in the world community, and the even graver damage to the stories we tell ourselves about the promise of America and the American Dream.

And be sure to ignore the extent of environmental damage that would be caused if a wall were actually  to be constructed along America’s southern border.

Instead, put yourself in the shoes of those who agree with our delusional President. Tell yourself that you accept the importance of a wall to the achievement of what he calls “border security.”

Then ask yourself how a twenty- five-billion-dollar wall would contribute to “border security.”

It isn’t just that tall ladders are widely available, or that enterprising refugees might dig tunnels. It’s that a majority of the people who are in the United States illegally flew in and overstayed an initially proper visa. That method of entry is unlikely to be affected by a wall, to put it mildly.

(There is, to be fair, the possibility that construction of Trump’s wall  would dampen enthusiasm for migrating here, by acting as a signal that this is no longer a country worth coming to. But the number that would be so deterred is highly speculative…)

That’s not to say that construction of a border wall wouldn’t have an effect. It might not keep determined immigrants out, but it would be a powerful symbol of America’s retreat–not just from much of the rest of the world, but from who we are. It would symbolize rejection of values we may not always have lived up to, but have persistently worked toward. It would be a lasting symbol of small-mindedness, of fearfulness.

It would send the world a signal that the high-minded experiment that was the United States had ignominiously failed.

 

Points Of Light

I was scrolling through Facebook Sunday afternoon, after my return from Danville, and came across a post by a longtime friend, Chris Douglas. He was commenting on a shared article detailing many truly horrifying things done to African-Americans in the period leading up to the Civil War. Chris pointed out that people inclined to minimize these truly despicable behaviors, discounting evil because it was reflective of the “culture of the times,” are simply wrong.

Good people then knew better, and they were doing more than protesting.

Let us note that at the very same time, Hoosier Levi Coffin was among leaders organizing an illegal Underground Railroad (in which the David Douglas family participated); Calvin Fletcher was providing legal defense to escaping slaves; Central Christian Church of Downtown Indianapolis (Disciples of Christ) was advocating disobedience of the Fugitive Slave Act; Hoosier Ovid Butler was providing racially integrated college education; and Hoosier Abraham Lincoln (moved on to Illinois) was speaking against slavery.

I was especially struck by the truth of this reminder, because I had just returned from giving a guest speech at the Danville Unitarian Church (posted Monday), where I had encountered precisely the sort of Hoosiers Chris was describing.

It was gratifying.

Danville, Indiana is a small town on the western outskirts of Indianapolis.(When I say small, I mean it; the town has a population of around 9800.) The church is in the middle of Danville’s small downtown, and I would estimate that somewhere between 40-45 congregants were at the service.

This was the second time I’ve spoken at this particular church, and both times I’ve been really impressed by members expressing a welcoming and decidedly non-prescriptive theology. (The core of Unitarianism is a genuine respect for each individual’s search for his or her own truth.)

This was most definitely not a collection of fundamentalist/Nationalist Christians. (I especially loved one of the songs: John Prine’s “Your flag decals won’t get you into heaven anymore..”)

The entire service emphasized inclusiveness and service to the community. (There were two offerings; one of food for those in need, and a conventional “pass the plate” to support the congregation.) At times, the small congregation felt more like a supportive family than a gathering of co-religionists.

During the question and answer session that followed my talk, it became clear that this group of people, from a very small town in a very red state, is profoundly worried about the direction of the country. Like the early Hoosiers cited by my friend Chris, they aren’t just complaining about the problems they see; the email asking me to speak specified that they wanted suggestions for actions they could take to improve civic knowledge and elevate political conversations.

After the service, one of the congregants proudly shared with me that she had been concerned a year or so ago when a proposal to resettle a Syrian refugee circulated–she’d worried about rightwing resistance and anti-immigrant attitudes. But there had been absolutely no negative response. Her pride was obvious. In small-town red Indiana, the refugee had been welcomed, just as she–a trans woman–had been welcomed by this congregation.

Chris’ point is worth underlining. The tenor of the times and/or the political environment are never an excuse for hatefulness, for bigotry, for brutality. (Ask the Germans who hid Jews from the Nazis.) Fear of social disapproval cannot serve as an excuse for keeping quiet and staying on the sidelines when our fellow human beings are being abused by people engaging in deeply immoral behaviors.

Harming people simply because they are different is always objectively wrong.

In every era, when bad people do bad things, good people stand up to them. And good people are everywhere–including churches in small towns in bright red states.

I always feel better after being with Unitarians.