All posts by Sheila

Book Burning As “Symbolic Speech”

The First Amendment protects the transmission of ideas–all ideas, good or bad–including messages conveyed through what the courts call “symbolic speech.” Flag burning and Nazi marches, among other examples, are offensive precisely because they send messages with which other people strongly disagree.

So much for legal analysis. Symbolic speech can also tell us a great deal about the health of a society and the nature and significance of its cultural conflicts .

In the 1930s, university students in college towns across Germany burned thousands of books they considered to be “un-German”–by which they meant inconsistent with the country’s growing Nazi ideology.

Last week, students at Georgia Southern University burned books written by a Latina author who spoke about white privilege. According to the Washington Post,

In response to Jennine Capó Crucet’s talk on the Statesboro, Ga., campus Wednesday, where she focused her discussion on white privilege, students gathered at a grill and torched her novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers” — about a first-generation Cuban American woman struggling to navigate a mostly white elite college.

Jennifer Wise, a university spokeswoman, issued a statement:

“While it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.”

A subsequent event was canceled, according to Crucet, “because the administration said they could not guarantee my safety or the safety of its students on campus because of open-carry laws.”

A Time Magazine report about the episode had this added–chilling–information:

The university decided to relocate Crucet to a different hotel outside of town after a crowd began to form outside her original lodging. Photos and videos of her book being burned also began to appear on social media, including by many who tagged Crucet in tweets. (Some of these messages have since been deleted.)

This is what happens when prominent people–like the President of the United States– trash the most basic norms of civility in furtherance of racial and religious intolerance, creating an environment in which denigrating the “other” replaces respectful debate, and unwelcome perspectives are met with rage and threats of violence rather than with contending arguments.

This is what happens when people fear the loss of hegemony and yes, privilege. It’s what happens when a President and his political party appeal to those fears and intentionally inflame racial animosities in order to win votes.

We don’t know how many of the students at Georgia Southern University participated in this orgy of resentment and anti-intellectualism. We can only hope they are not representative of either the institution’s student body or the population of Georgia.

I think it was the political philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn who said “People who are afraid of an idea–any idea–are unfit for self-government.” Meiklejohn was right.

I don’t remember who said “It can’t happen here,” but I’m very much afraid that whoever it was, was wrong.

 

 

 

Corruption Everywhere

Talk about the “times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.”

I am not naive; I know the dark side of America’s history. I know we have repeatedly failed to live up to our professed values. But there has also always been a bright side– a reason this country has been a beacon of hope for so many oppressed people, a reason idealistic citizens have dedicated themselves to public service, a reason millions of  individuals have been proud to be Americans.

It is no longer possible to ignore the degree to which those values and ideals are being trashed by the gangsters in this administration and the self-serving GOP cowards in the Senate. Washington lawmakers are no longer engaged in disagreements about policy. Instead, the government has been paralyzed by an administration that is a criminal enterprise–a criminal enterprise abetted by Republicans in the Senate, most prominently Mitch McConnell.

The corruption is breathtaking, and Trump is only one manifestation of the rot.

The Campaign Legal Center recently filed an FEC complaint detailing the NRA’s coordination with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in the 2016 campaign. It used a shell corporation through which it illegally funneled millions in in-kind contributions– unlawfully coordinating with Johnson and other candidates it was backing.

Last August, Jonathan Chait had an article in New York Magazine titled “The Whole Republican Party Seems to be Going to Jail Now,” in which he ticked off the operatives who were then behind bars (and those who belonged there).

There was Paul Manafort, who embezzled funds, failed to report income, and falsified documents, and his partner and fellow Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, who confessed to participating in all these crimes.

There was (and is) Wilbur Ross.

Forbes reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have stolen $120 million from his partners and customers. Meanwhile Ross has maintained foreign holdings in his investment portfolio that present a major conflict of interest with his public office.

There were the three Trump cronies running the Department of Veterans Affairs, despite lacking  any official government title or public accountability. According to Pro Publica, all three “used their influence in ways that could benefit their private interests.”

Chait concluded that

Trump appears to select for greed and dishonesty in his cronies…. The sorts of people Trump admires are rich and brash and disdainful of professional norms, and seem unlikely to rat on him. The sorts of people who are apt to work for Trump seem to be those who lack much in the way of scruples.

The administration is understaffed and disorganized to the point of virtual anarchy, opening up promising avenues for insiders to escape accountability. Trump’s public ethos, despite his professions during the campaign that he could “drain the swamp” and impose a series of stringent ethics reforms, runs toward relativism — he famously tolerates anybody who supports him, regardless of criminal history or other disqualifications, defining their goodness entirely in terms of personal loyalty. And above all there is the simple fact that Trump himself is a wildly unethical businessman who has stiffed his counterparties and contractors, and worked closely with mobsters, his entire career. A president who is continuing to profit personally from his office is hardly in any position to demand his subordinates refrain from following suit.

Chait’s article was written in August of 2018. Since then, among other scandals, we have seen William Barr besmirch the reputation of the Department of Justice by mischaracterizing the Mueller Report and refusing to follow clear laws requiring him to inform Congress about the whistleblower complaint.  We have seen Mike Pompeo turn the State Department into a tool of Trump’s ego. (A Washington Post article reported a growing belief among State Department officials that Pompeo has subordinated the Department’s mission and abandoned colleagues in the service of President Trump’s political aims.)

It is highly likely that Mike Pence was involved in the effort to blackmail Ukraine’s President into manufacturing dirt on Biden’s son.

Even administration officials unconnected to the events that triggered the Impeachment inquiry are conspicuously corrupt and incompetent. Betsy DeVos, anyone? Elaine Chao? Rick Perry? (Whoops–evidently Perry is involved in the Ukraine cesspool.)

Political scientists are busy trying to explain how we got here, and–assuming we can turn things around, which is by no means a given–we’ll need to know how and why and what to do to avoid a repeat. But all I can focus on is the need to clean house.

Whatever happens with Impeachment, in 2020 we need massive turnout and an overwhelming rejection of both the criminals who currently control our federal government, and their enablers in the Senate.

We can argue about policy later.

 

 

The Deep State

Since Trump became President (or more accurately, took up residence in the White House), we’ve heard repeated accusations about the so-called “deep state.” The phrase is meant to denigrate government workers, and it has a lot in common with  other rhetoric employed by this administration, which labels immigrants “rapists and murderers,” Islamic citizens “terrorists,” and whistleblowers “traitors.”

It’s all shorthand for “here are people to fear and hate.”

Given the lack of precision with which Trump employs language, I initially assumed that pretty much any civil servant would meet his definition of the “deep state.” But over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall did a “deep dive” into the term–its accuracy (if any) and the identity of the presumably nefarious deep staters.

The phrase “deep state” originally comes from Turkey, where a “deep state” run by the military and security services allowed democratic politics to operate within prescribed bounds — but no further. The real government wasn’t the president or prime minister of the day but this “deep state.” It was autonomous and dominant and self-perpetuating.

In the first weeks of the Trump administration this phrase was taken up by the President and his entourage and applied to the U.S. Over three years it has become the catch-all term for unnamed enemies of the President plotting against him from within the federal bureaucracy.

Although–surprise!–here was no evil cabal lurking within the federal bureaucracy, Marshall and his reporters discovered something no less troubling.

They called what they found the “Conservative Deep State.” It wasn’t composed of shadowy forces motivated by conspiratorial theories, as the term might suggest. In fact, it was all out in the open.

We are talking about a dense network of right-wing lobbies, pressure groups, nurseries of political talent and prefab legislation, well-funded organizations usually operating at the state level which collectively create a strong rightward tilt in American governance. Elections remain critical. But they are contests on playing fields that are staked out, tilted and furrowed by organizing and money between elections.

Why is it, as parties frequently exchange the presidency and control of Congress, that state laws and regulations on everything from consumer protection to labor rights to voting seem to tilt steadily to the right? Why are Republicans so successful at gerrymandering and holding state legislative chambers?

The answer is this deep network. And you already know some of the names: The Koch Network, The American Legislative Exchange Council, The Federalist Society. Many others operate just as effectively, just below the radar.

There are certainly center-left analogs to all these groups, but none have managed to recreate the same levels of organization, funding or success that the Conservative Deep State enjoys today.

The operation of these networks, more than anything else, explains why Republicans control far more state governments than we would expect from their numbers, and why Americans can’t seem to enact policies that, according to survey research, enjoy overwhelming support.

Give credit where credit is due: the GOP is far, far more disciplined than the Democratic Party.  (The reasons are a subject for a different post.) That discipline allows them to do more with less.

The linked article was first in a series of reports on aspects of the Conservative Deep State.

Earlier this year we decided to publish a series on this topic — to commission a series of originally reported pieces on particular parts of the Conservative Deep State, how it functions, what it does, how it not only wins elections and helps pass laws but creates a right-wing ballast anchoring national and, even more, state and local politics on the right, even as public opinion on many issues shifts in the opposite direction.

As I read the linked article and those that followed, I kept thinking of The Purloined Letter, by Edgar Allen Poe, where the object of the detective’s search was hidden in plain sight.

It turns out that, despite the name, the “Deep State” isn’t very deep at all. It’s right in front of us–subverting democracy.

 

Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.

Rich Guys For Higher Taxes, Businesses For Single-Payer

Are more zillionaires joining “renegade” rich guys like Nick Hanauer and Warren Buffett and recognizing the dangers posed by the current gap between the rich and the rest?

A recent article from the Guardian was titled “Patriotic millionaires want to pay more taxes.” Those millionaires didn’t mince words.

If you believe the prevailing philosophy of US conservative ideology, the handful of individuals in the 1% are entitled to every bit of their wealth and power because they deployed their capital wisely.

As businessmen in the 1%, living in a conservative state, we confront this philosophy every day, and frankly, we’re sick of it.

The Republican party’s embrace of the “I’ve-done-it-all-on-my-own” mentality is extraordinarily delusional, harmful, and counterproductive. Collective goods – like a sound infrastructure system, a strong K-12 and higher education systems, and rule of law – are critical ingredients to building both individual and societal economic prosperity.

The article’s authors have joined the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy Americans “from all walks of life across deep red, deep blue and purple states” who realize that the system that enabled their success, that created opportunity, is fundamentally broken. And they aren’t shy about placing the blame: they write that the system has been ” hijacked by the ultra-wealthy.”

But a substantive and sincere commitment to an evolved form of capitalism requires a few things. It requires us to confront the reality of the climate crisis as the existential threat of our time; and to acknowledge that we are a country founded on the toxic prejudice of white supremacy, which continues to unjustly shape the future of millions of Americans before they’re even born. We must separate money from politics, so that the influence of special interests doesn’t overpower the voices of voters; and shift our financial goals from short-term profits to long-term sustainability.

And it requires economically advantaged folks like us to not only pay our fair share, but also unequivocally commit to and support the policies that will achieve that reality – and to get all of our similarly situated friends and associates to do the same.

It isn’t just the ultra-rich who are (belatedly) recognizing the need for change. Another new group is Businesses for Single Payer.

Activist Wendell Potter has become president of Business for Medicare for All, the only national business organization working for single payer health insurance. This group of the economically pragmatic lends expertise and credibility to the cause of reform at a time when many, including some of those running for the Democratic presidential nomination, question the viability of single payer.

Potter spent twenty years in the health insurance industry, and left to become an outspoken critic of what he calls a broken, dysfunctional and unfair healthcare system. He points to surveys showing that people on Medicare are far more satisfied than people with private insurance, and says one reason is that  private insurance has changed significantly over the years. Premiums have gone up while insurance companies have devised clever strategies to avoid paying for care.

In the linked article, Potter enumerates the reasons single-payer systems are superior to our patchwork approach. Most of us could recite those reasons in our sleep, but until now, the business sector has been noticeably absent from both the conversation and the criticism. Why the change?

About three years ago, I was approached by a business leader in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, Richard Master, who decided to make a documentary on the US healthcare system….

But he began to pay a lot of attention to healthcare costs. He’s got an MBA from Wharton and a law degree from Columbia so this guy’s really smart, has built a very successful business, but he was questioning the sanity of a system in which he has no control over his healthcare costs from year to year….

 I knew what individuals and families were facing, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what is happening to employers who are trying to stay in the game in our uniquely American, employer-based healthcare system. It’s abundantly clear that the system has run its course and is just not working for increasingly large numbers of employers.

Potter quotes Warren Buffett’s observation that “healthcare is the tapeworm that is destroying American competitiveness,” and goes on to say that more and more businesses are recognizing the need to change.

We’ve got several hundred employers who are part of our organization. Our goal is to have at least one business from every congressional district by this time next year. We’re growing pretty rapidly and we already have a voice in Washington.

Money talks, for good or ill. If people with money support higher tax rates and a more robust social safety net, Congress might actually listen.