Category Archives: Constitution

Real Americans

Each day–or so it seems–we are treated to news of yet another set of attitudes or beliefs that divide American citizens. Some of those divisions are beginning to seem insurmountable.

Case in point: According to a recent Pew poll, thirty-two percent of Americans believe that you have to be Christian to be a “real” American. (It would do no good to point members of that 32% to contrary writings by the nation’s Founders–like the occasional commenters who come to this blog to cite Fox News as authority for their evidence-free assertions, these are people for whom history inconsistent with their preferred beliefs is irrelevant. Or “fake.”)

According to Pew,

In 2014, Christians accounted for 70.6% of the U.S. population. Non-Christians and those unaffiliated with any religion totaled 28.7%.

About a third (32%) of Americans say it is very important for a person to be a Christian in order to be considered truly American. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) contend that one’s religion is not at all important.

Presumably, people who identify “American” with “Christian” do so because they believe that the values of Christianity are central to America’s values. (Of course, they ignore that pesky fact that there are some 34,000 different Christian denominations, and a lot of them appear to prioritize rather different sets of values…)

Adam Gopnik addressed the centrality of religious pluralism to our system of government in the most recent New Yorker.

America is not only a nation but also an idea, cleanly if not tightly defined. Pluralism is not a secondary or a decorative aspect of that idea. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, the guarantee of religious liberty lies in having many kinds of faiths, and the guarantee of civil liberty lies in having many kinds of people—in establishing a “multiplicity of interests” to go along with a “multiplicity of sects.

When I saw the Pew poll, I thought about a column I wrote not long after the 2004 election, which was widely seen as a “values” election. I’m reproducing it, because it is a list of what I consider to be “real” American values. It needs updating–the targets of American resentments have changed somewhat–but it remains uncomfortably relevant.

Let me be quite explicit about my values, which are shared by millions of others—values that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, values that are absolutely central to what it means to be American.

Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.

We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging their civic responsibilities.

We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays, or blacks, or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.

We believe, as Garry Wills recently wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).

We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness.

We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.

We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

In our America, borrowing from our grandchildren so that we can pay for a costly war without taxing the President’s buddies and campaign contributors is not moral. Dividing the nation into red and blue, gay and straight, moral and immoral, welcome and unwelcome, is not moral. Excusing our own sins by pointing to the sins of others—torturing people, or engaging in “holy war” because “they” do it too, is not moral. Lying—about sex or Weapons of Mass Destruction or an opponent’s war record—is not moral.

On Election Day, claimants of the “ Christian values” label came to the precinct where my youngest son was working and said they were there to “vote against the queers.” In my precinct, when I handed a Democratic slate to a voter, he accused me of being a “friend of Osama.” A friend’s son registering voters for Baron Hill in a church was called a “fag lover.”

The people who live in my America need to reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism and values from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different.

Unfortunately, that column remains pertinent.


While We Were Sleeping…

Tuesday night, Donald Trump announced his nominee for the Supreme Court seat that has been vacant since the death of Antonin Scalia. When I went to my computer yesterday morning, I found the predictable emails claiming that Judge Gorsuch is an unacceptable, far-right threat to the Republic and must be stopped (and oh, send money).

I agree that this nomination should be rejected (although I doubt it will be), but not because the Judge himself is outside the legal mainstream. He isn’t. He is certainly more conservative than I would like, and I disagree strongly with his particular approach to originalism. But accusations that he is an unacceptable ideologue are intellectually dishonest.

The real reason his nomination should be rejected is that placing him on the Supreme Court would reward an unprecedented assault on the rule of law–the refusal of the Senate to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

They blocked that nomination for entirely specious reasons, simply because they could.

I don’t think most Americans understand the implications of that action–implications that  go well beyond the makeup of the Supreme Court. In fact, the sheer effrontery of that power play requires us to consider the possibility–really, the likelihood– that we are no longer either a democracy or a republic; that during the past several years, while most Americans were comfortably detached from political activism and participation, a far-right faction of the Republican party managed to pull off a bloodless coup.

In plain sight.

Thanks to strategic gerrymandering, voters no longer choose their representatives–the representatives choose their voters. Together with successful vote suppression tactics (aided and abetted by voter apathy and citizen disengagement), the result is that this country is now run by people chosen by barely a quarter of those entitled to vote.

Thanks to manipulation of the filibuster, majority rule is no longer sufficient to pass legislation in the Senate. A minority of that body can block anything.

We are now governed by people who sneer at the rules of a constitutional system intended to constrain precisely the sort of power they now wield.

In the past, America has prided itself on adherence to the rule of law. A fundamental tenet of the rule of law is that no one is above the law–that the rules apply to everyone, governors and governed alike. Senator McConnell’s willingness to place raw power above that principle–and to gloat about it– was evidence that these radical usurpers no longer feel it necessary to give even lip service to that foundational principle.

It was the ultimate “fuck you, America. We have seized power and can do what we want.”

If Gorsuch is confirmed, so is the coup. It has nothing at all to do with his  judicial philosophy or bona fides.

I’m very much afraid that while Americans were sleeping through the warning signs, we lost our country.

This is a Test..

Many years ago, there was a television mini-series about the Holocaust. My mother came over and watched the final episode with me and my (very young) children, and I still remember her firm declaration after it concluded, to the effect that she couldn’t understand the “good Germans” who kept quiet, went along and declined to get involved. She was adamant that she would not have been one of them–that she would have resisted.

I remember telling her that I wished I could be so certain. It’s easy to watch injustice and horrific behaviors from the safety of the sofa and reassure ourselves that we would be among the “good guys,” the ones who did what they knew was right no matter the consequences.

Incredible as it seems, it appears we’re going to have a chance to find out what kind of Americans we really are. Will we be among the apologists who dismiss what is happening (after all, the President isn’t coming for people like me…) and characterize the shock and anger displayed by millions of Americans as “hysteria” and “over-reaction”? Will we be like the pious “Christians” who evidently believe that morality only involves what happens below the human waist, and who evidently skipped over all those biblical references to taking in the stranger and caring for the poor and weak? Or will we go along with the self-proclaimed “patriots” we have elected–the ones who always wear a flag pin and ostentatiously carry copies of a Constitution to which they give lip service but which they read selectively, if at all?

Several readers noted that the unAmerican Executive Order refusing to admit refugees and “certain others” wasn’t even the worst thing Trump did yesterday. While that order got most of the attention, he placed his chief political strategist, Stephen Bannon, on the National Security Council, and limited the roles of both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Bannon–the White Nationalist and neo-Nazi sympathizer who ran Breitbart, the far-Right propaganda site– will now be a regular attendee of the Cabinet-level forum that deals with national security. The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, however, won’t be.

It is hard to believe the extent of Trump’s assault on American values and institutions in just ten days. And it is dispiriting to see the cowardice of our elected officials in the face of that assault.

It is telling that neither Ryan nor McConnell have spoken out.  No profiles in courage there, or among most GOP Senators and Representatives. (Credit where credit is due: Lindsay Graham and John McCain have spoken out, and strongly.)

So much for checks and balances.

I have no idea what will happen to this country I love over the next few months and years. We are in uncharted territory. But I do know one thing: this assault on the rule of law will challenge the strength of our democratic institutions, our American commitment to liberty and equality, and the willingness of each of us to stand up for those principles.

This is our test, and it’s pass/fail.




How Long Can This Last?

Sentient Americans of all political persuasions knew that Donald Trump was unfit to occupy the Oval Office. We knew he was unstable. But even those of us who were terrified by his election have been astonished by the speed with which he is harming critical American interests and plunging the country–and world– into chaos.

Trump’s most recent Executive Order, banning refugees, is as astonishing as it is inhumane. As the Huffington Post reported,

Trump approved the refugee ban amid the biggest refugee crisis in history and on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which honors the millions of people killed during World War II, many of whom tried to flee to the U.S. but were turned away.

It’s not the blanket ban on Muslims that Trump advocated for during his campaign, and it does not single out any country by name other than Syria for its refugees.

But Trump did say earlier in the day that he would prioritize helping Syrian Christians. He also mentioned “radical Islamic terrorists” while signing it. And in the text, it carves out an exception for admitting refugees who are religious minorities even while nearly all others will be barred for 120 days.

The order–which exempts countries where Trump does business or has hotels (business uber alles, evidently)–has caused chaos at airports around the world. It has kept students from returning to their universities, scientists from professional meetings. It applies even to longtime holders of green cards–people who have lived and worked legally in the U.S. for years.

It affects tens of thousands of people: not just refugees already “extremely” vetted and on their way to the U.S., but foreign nationals, immigrants and tourists from the designated countries and Americans whose families will now be unable to visit. It also affects thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives helping this country during the Iraq War.

Like all of Trump’s actions in the days since assuming office, it was hasty, ill-considered, and based on “alternate facts.” As USA today noted,

While Trump has claimed that most Syrian refugees coming to the U.S are single, military-age men, the State Department said those numbers didn’t add up. As of Nov. 2015, 77% of Syrian refugees who entered the U.S. were women and children. Only 23% were adult men, and only 2% were “single men unattached to families.”

As Senator Chris Murphy pointed out, not only does this profoundly unAmerican order not make us safer, “Trump has now handed ISIS a path to rebirth. They can and will use his announcement today as confirmation that America is at war with Muslims, especially those Muslims living in desperate circumstances.”

Even Dick Cheney says this order “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”

It has been a little over a week since this delusional and dangerously ignorant man has been President. In that time, he has poisoned relations with Mexico, a neighbor and important trading partner; continued his inexplicable, fawning relationship with Vladimir Putin; and pulled the U.S. out of the TPP, rather than addressing fixable problems that had been identified with it– an action that will allow China to become a dominant influence in the economies of not just Southeast Asia, but also East Africa and even parts of Europe. He’s announced his support for the use of torture. He has declared war on the media. He has ignored and trashed the Constitution. His insistence that “millions” of illegal votes were cast is both ridiculous and an affront to America’s democratic institutions.

And that’s just week one.

How long will the Republicans in Congress continue to enable this dangerous madman?  How many of Trump’s corrupt and ill-equipped Cabinet nominees will they obediently confirm? How long will their self-serving partisanship trump patriotism?

If there is a silver lining in any of this, it is in the horrified reaction of everyday Americans–the millions who marched, the multiple Resistance groups that have sprung up in the wake of the election, the throngs of protestors that spontaneously descended last night on the nation’s airports: the millions of Americans who know that we are better than this.

We the People cannot allow this to continue.