Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Words, Words, Words….

Words matter.

In the absence of symbols–words–to express an idea, we cannot form that idea. There is a substantial psychological literature on “framing” (I have often said that all of law school was an explication of the axiom “He who frames the issue wins the debate.”) Control of language is often tantamount to control of the people who communicate in that language.

Inept as it is at actual governing, the Trump administration does understand the power of language. When the President of the United States defends his anti-immigrant policies by claiming he wants to prevent an “infestation,” the equation of immigrants with vermin deliberately dehumanizes those immigrants.

It doesn’t stop with Trump’s vermin and “shitholes.”

Federal websites have been “scrubbed” of references to climate change–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, a regular reader of this blog shared an article with me that detailed a much more thoroughgoing effort to make language a tool of the Trump administration.

Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.

The author detailed her experience putting together an academic program on immigration. She had invited participation from the administration, and immediately ran into a maze of requirements. No ICE representative’s presentation could be taped, and the word “refugee” had to be removed from the description of a panel discussion.

The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.

As the author noted, it made her wonder how many others had been similarly strong-armed, how many other words had been removed from various programs, and how much official rhetoric has gone unrecorded.

The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware of Trump’s assault on science and climate data. The Department of Agriculture has excised the very word “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to “increase nutrient use energy.”

We may be less aware of other areas where language has been manipulated. When the subject is government helping the less fortunate or combatting discrimination, the changes have been striking:  excluded vocabulary includes “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.”

Given the Administration’s preference for “alternative facts,” we shouldn’t be surprised  that the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” have also been discarded.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.”

The State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and downplayed the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.”

The article gives many more examples, including the (particularly chilling) fact that the Department of Justice removed the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”

The United States described by the substituted language is very different from the country most of us recognize. And that, as the author says, is the purpose. After all, language creates our realities.

It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”

Or perhaps “infested.”

It Can Happen Here

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein recently reviewed two books on Nazi Germany for the New York Review of Books.   (It was a timely review; even Godwin of “Godwin’s law” fame is on record saying that comparisons of contemporary events to the rise of Hitler may be appropriate.)

As Sunstein notes, the accounts of the Nazi period with which we are familiar seem barely imaginable. They portray a nation so depraved–so indifferent to evil–that we think it can’t happen here. The books he reviews–including Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished–suggest otherwise.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Mayer’s book focused on the lives and experiences of ordinary Germans–people who, like ordinary Americans today, found themselves living through events they had little individual power to affect. That focus was, Sunstein writes, a “jarring contrast” to Sebastian Haffner’s “devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler.” Haffner

objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.”

Trump’s grudging (and incomplete) retreat in the face of the public outrage against separating children from their parents underscores the validity of Haffner’s point. In a different way, so does Mayer’s book.

Mayer interviewed ten people who had been members of the Nazi party; those interviews took place over a considerable time-period, and were friendly rather than confrontational. Mayer concluded that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

Mayer’s interviewees spoke of Hitler much as the GOP “base” speaks of Trump; the rhetorical similarities are chilling.

And what of “the final solution”?

Mayer did not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism with any of his subjects, but after a few meetings, each of them did so on his own, and they returned to it constantly. When the local synagogue was burned in 1938, most of the community was under only one obligation: “not to interfere.” Eventually Mayer showed his subjects the local newspaper from November 11, 1938, which contained a report: “In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” None of them remembered seeing it, or indeed anything like it.

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

Fake news. Alternative facts. “Those people.” The incremental nature of the Nazi takeover. The daily distractions that allowed ordinary people to become habituated to the unthinkable. It’s all terrifyingly familiar.

Read the whole essay.

 

“Racial Anxiety” And The Social Safety Net

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what aspect of current American political life is most depressing.

Children are taken from their parents at the border. Regulations meant to protect clean air and water are eviscerated. The President’s delusional mental state becomes more obvious–and frightening– each day. Congress does nothing about anything. (Case in point: despite polls showing 90% of Americans want them to protect Net Neutrality, the House refuses even to vote on the issue.) Trump attacks our allies and embraces our enemies….it goes on and on.

Perhaps worst of all, this Administration consistently panders to toxic attitudes that have always been there, but had mostly been banished from polite society. His rhetoric has encouraged the growth of overt racial and religious animus.

Nowhere has that animus been more poisonous than in debates around social welfare programs. The odious “makers versus takers” construct permeates the country’s already punitive approach to social programs, as the Guardian recently reported.

Endless paperwork. Dirty looks on the checkout line whether you are buying Skittles or pricey organic kale. Hours spent in tedious training for non-existent jobs. Urine tests, supervised by creeps. Unclear requirements, mandatory appointments without regard for lack of transportation or childcare, arbitrary deadlines that are undisclosed until you run afoul of them.

And, after all that, the skimpy benefits obtained don’t begin to cover expenses.

These are just a few of the ways the American social safety net aims to deter aid seekers, ensuring that unworthy “takers” don’t get unearned crumbs from the mighty “makers”.

And, as the article goes on to detail, it is about to get worse. Far from moderating efforts by the Administration to cut back most programs for the poor, Republicans in Congress are positively eager to cut the heart out of social programs. Their justifications smack of moral judgment and “deservingness,” and betray a deeply-held conviction that being poor is itself a sign of immorality–or at least prima facie evidence that bad choices must have been made.

In Trump’s America, one of those bad “choices” is having been born black or brown.

A recent study, highlighted by the Washington Post, confirms the racial “anxiety” at the root of efforts to cut social welfare programs.

White Americans are increasingly critical of the country’s social safety net, a new study suggests, thanks in part to a rising tide of racial resentment.

The study, conducted by researchers at two California universities and published Wednesday in the journal Social Forces, finds that opposition to welfare programs has grown among white Americans since 2008, even when controlling for political views and socioeconomic status.

White Americans are more likely to favor welfare cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that minorities are the main beneficiaries of safety net programs, the study says.

(The irony is that these cuts actually hurt more white Americans, who–despite racist memes about welfare– comprise the majority of Medicaid and food-stamp recipients.)

In the reported study, researchers analyzed 10 years of data on attitudes toward race and welfare. Between 2008 and 2012 in particular, they found a rise in opposition to welfare. That opposition rose among all Americans — but it rose far more sharply among whites. White Americans also began scoring higher on racial resentment scales during that period. (I’m sure the fact that we had a black President was coincidental….not.)

In order to confirm the link between racial attitudes and positions on welfare, the researchers investigated further.

White Americans called for deeper cuts to welfare programs after viewing charts that showed they would become a racial minority within 50 years. They also opposed welfare programs more when they were told that people of color benefit most from them.

I keep telling myself that the re-emergence of these attitudes–attitudes of fear and resentment that largely explain support for this morally reprehensible President–are a temporary reaction. Loss of white privilege is threatening to people who grew up believing it was their due–especially if they don’t have much else going for them, but I keep telling myself this ugly time will pass.

I hope I’m right.

 

 

Did They Really Have Souls To Sell?

A few days ago, I was on the treadmill watching “Morning Joe,” and heard Presidential historian Jon Meacham, from all indications a deeply religious man, respond to questions about the Trump Administration’s “biblical” defense of separating parents and children in order to deter asylum seekers. Meacham predicted a “day of reckoning” for Evangelical Trump supporters, and put it in stark terms: They sold their souls for a Supreme Court seat, and they’ll have to decide whether it was worth it.

Of course, in order to sell a soul, you first need to have one.

Later that same day, The Washington Post reported that Mike Pence (aka “Mr. Piety”)has turned the Vice-President’s office into “a gateway for lobbyists.”

About twice as many companies and other interests hired lobbyists to contact the vice president’s office in Pence’s first year than in any single year during the tenures of Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Richard B. Cheney, filings show.

Speaking of selling one’s soul….(Since this is Pence, one assumes the sale price reflects an appropriate and substantial discount…)

A couple of observations: first, Sessons’ use of a biblical reference to justify a governmental policy is profoundly anti-American. As several commentators have pointed out, America isn’t a theocracy.  Public policies must be attacked or defended with secular reasoning and argumentation, not appeals to theology.

More generally, however, what Sessions and Pence both exemplify is the cynical use of religion to advance personal and political ends–to justify bigotry, to claim privilege, and to reassure a frightened and angry “base” that its hostility to the “other” is God’s will.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not religious. But I have friends who are genuinely religious people, and there is a huge difference between the devout people I know, who tend to be both humble and kind, and the “faux religious” and “holier than thou” hypocrites who are supporting and excusing the behaviors of this administration.

Meacham may be right when he predicts a day of reckoning. If I had to hazard a guess, however, I’d predict that reckoning will consist only of recognizing the strategic failure of efforts to find religious justifications for Trump’s unholy behaviors.

Somehow, I don’t see the Mike Pences and Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions of this world looking deep inside themselves and reckoning with the truly important questions: have I been a good person? Have I been honest? Kind? Have I read my holy book in its entirety, or have I cherry-picked and “interpreted” it in order to convince myself that God dislikes the same people I do? What is the nature of my obligation to my fellow-man and woman? What is justice? What is mercy?

Do I have a soul? Have I sold it for a mess of pottage?

Tough Talk, Delusion And Realpolitik

Tough talk and delusionary braggadocio evidently play well with GOP “true believers,” but people who actually know something about diplomacy and international relations can tell the difference between actually accomplishing something and putting on a reality TV show.

In the wake of the hyped summit between Trump and “little rocket man,” the analysis from knowledgable folks of both parties has been pretty devastating.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof summarizes the summit in his very first sentence, writing that  “It sure looks as if President Trump was hoodwinked in Singapore.”

Trump made a huge concession — the suspension of military exercises with South Korea. That’s on top of the broader concession of the summit meeting itself, security guarantees he gave North Korea and the legitimacy that the summit provides his counterpart, Kim Jong-un.

Within North Korea, the “very special bond” that Trump claimed to have formed with Kim will be portrayed this way: Kim forced the American president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades.

And what did our President–the self-proclaimed “deal-maker” who had no need to prepare for delicate international negotiations and who would “feel” how things would go within the first minute or so–get in return?

In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely “reaffirmed” the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

Had Trump prepared for the meeting, perhaps he would have known that the commitment he is trumpeting is recycled pap. For that matter, Kristof notes that Trump achieved much less than North Korea had agreed to during prior negotiations.

The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this.

What is truly scary, as Paul Krugman points out in his own analysis of Trump’s abysmal performance at both the G7 and the meeting in Singapore, is the complicity of the congressional GOP.

As he notes in his introduction, there is no longer a question where Trump’s “loyalties” lie; any reasonable doubts about that were “put to rest by the events of the past few days, when he defended Russia while attacking our closest allies.”

[T]his isn’t a column about Trump. It is, instead, about the people who are enabling his betrayal of America: the inner circle of officials and media personalities who are willing to back him up whatever he says or does, and the wider set of politicians — basically the entire Republican delegation in Congress — who have the power and constitutional obligation to stop what he’s doing, but won’t lift a finger in America’s defense….

Krugman joins the chorus of commentators who have pointed out that Trump’s accusations about trade with Canada have been debunked by his own administration. GOP members of Congress know that he is manufacturing this dispute.

Why are Republican politicians unwilling to discharge their constitutional responsibilities? Relatively few of them, one suspects, actually want a trade war, let alone a breakup of the Western alliance. And many of them, one also suspects, are well aware that a de facto foreign agent sits in the Oval Office. But they are immobilized by a combination of venality and cowardice.

Venality because the GOP prioritizes tax cuts for its donors over the common good; cowardice because the Republican base continues to drink Trump’s Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to disagree with his conclusion.

What all this tells us is that the problem facing America runs much deeper than Trump’s personal awfulness. One of our two major parties appears to be hopelessly, irredeemably corrupt. And unless that party not only loses this year’s election but begins losing on a regular basis, America as we know it is finished.