Monthly Archives: December 2016

We Will Not See Their Like Again

A phrase borrowed from Shakespeare is appropriate as President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama move toward their last day in the White House and prepare, somehow, to turn the presidency over to Donald Trump. Based on interviews they have given, this must be a bittersweet moment for the Obamas, a mixture of sadness and relief. I have worked in high pressure situations many times in my professional life but never did I have the fate of the nation and even the world potentially turning on decisions I made. No decisions I made came remotely close to directly affecting millions of people. I don’t believe that any of us can imagine the stress on the person who holds the highest political office in the land. The Obamas were fortunate to have the humanist strength and character of the Bidens at their side but at the end of the day it was Barack Obama who made the hard calls and had to live with their consequences. Was he perfect, making all good decisions? No. But no president in history, no matter how venerated today, would have laid claim to such perfection.

I will not recount here the accomplishments or the failures of the Obama administration. Others are doing that. I will simply note that few if any occupants of the White House have lived there with the grace, compassion, energy, breadth of vision, commitment to people of all stripes, humor and drive that the Obamas have shown. They will be missed, oh, will they be missed.

Not by everyone, of course. There are the Republicans who, upon Obama’s election in 2008, made clear their principal, if not only, goal was to prevent him from having a second term. To fulfill that un-American objective, they obstructed almost everything of consequence that the President tried to achieve. They failed to deny him e-election, but were not deterred. The obstruction continued throughout his second term.

There also were the racists for whom Obama’s election and re–election were an abomination. The very idea that an intelligent, educated and accomplished Black man could be President of the United States was almost more than they could bear. Now that the Obamas are leaving, the racists are in full flower again, encouraged and enabled by the rhetoric of the incoming president. We who thought racism was on the way out in America were just dreamers. The exposure of police killings of unarmed Black men and the vicious disgusting racist statements made by members of the anti-Obama crowd, including people closely aligned with and serving as advisors to President-Elect Trump, have shocked all people of good will, including many who disapproved of Obama’s politics but who recognized him as the good man that he is.

While we always like to think that each person is evaluated on his own merits, the reality is that we also judge people based on the groups they choose to belong to. If you choose to hang out with a gang, you will be seen as the gang is seen, whether or not you actually behave the way they do. If your friends and associates are criminals, you likely will be suspect as well.

So it is that Mr. Trump has chosen to align himself with people who are openly racist. A prime case in point is the following undisputed statements by Carl Paladino, former Republican nominee for governor of New York and advisor to Mr. Trump [Caution: this is really offensive]:

“Artvoice: What would you most like to happen in 2017?

Carl Paladino: Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret, who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady cell mate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her.

Artvoice: What would you most like to see go in 2017?

Carl Paladino: Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”

[Source: Washington Post at http://wapo.st/2ixpP8p]

Mr. Paladino denies that these and other similar messages he has sent are racist. He claims they are just political discourse and stands by them. See CBS News Report at http://cbsn.ws/2i8ihda. Judge this for yourself.

Despite all of that and more, President Obama has continued to conduct himself as a President should, with calm resolve and thoughtful actions. He has not responded in kind to Trump’s provocations. He and the First Lady have stated repeatedly that they will do everything they can to responsibly assist Trump’s transition even as Trump actively works to undermine the President’s authority by, among other things, interfering (unsuccessfully) in a United Nations vote related to Israel and by proposing to resume the nuclear arms race with Russia, all the while sucking up to Vladimir Putin for being such a “strong leader.”

Whatever one may think of President Obama’s politics, and I have some serious criticisms of my own, I do not believe it can be disputed that he and the First Lady are a model for the way a President and First Lady should conduct themselves. Based on Mr. Trump’s campaign style, which he has carried over into the transition period and thus is likely a forerunner of his style in the White House, we are about to witness a complete reversal in the tenor as well as content of the conduct of our national affairs. The Constitution itself is in jeopardy in the hands of an angry autocrat.

I do not intend by this to denigrate the point of view, or the people who subscribe to it, of responsible conservatives, of which there are many, who have legitimate arguments that should be considered in evaluating public policy. But what I cannot endorse are those conservatives who saw Trump clearly for what he was during the campaigns, but who now have knuckled under and sought to be employed by him.

If you believe in the efficacy of prayer, now would be a good time for it. But, I suggest, with respect to those in prayer, that we need a better plan than praying for good outcomes.  We need a leader to step forward now to establish himself/herself as the leader of the loyal opposition on a national scale — someone to lead the resistance, lead the effort to restore Democratic control of the Congress, and ultimately to occupy the White House if it is still standing in 2020. Meanwhile, we should all be grateful, as I am, for the often monumental and always difficult work, with grace and compassion, that the Obama and Biden families have given to our country.

One President at a Time

I recall that some years ago, during the Bush-to-Obama transition period, then President-Elect Obama was asked a question about some foreign policy issue that had emerged and responded with, as I recall it, “In this country we have one president at a time.” Thus, he declined the invitation to step publicly on the out-going-but-still-in-charge, administration of President Bush.

Contrast that with the conduct of President-Elect Trump and his crowd of Know Nothings. The issue du jour is the question whether the Russians, perhaps at the personal direction of Vladimir Putin, interfered with the presidential election through electronic hacking. Having expressly urged the Russians to do this during the campaign, Trump is hard-pressed to stand up to the Russians now. But there is another option. He could remain silent. He could defer, for now, to the sitting president of the country by keeping his mouth shut in public about this question that goes to the heart of the nation’s ability to conduct its democratic politics.

Instead, Trump suggests, via Twitter, that the Obama White House was fine with the Russian hacking as long as it thought Clinton would win the election. Then he has his attack dog, Kelly Ann Conway, publicly question the loyalty and integrity of the sitting president in this oh-so-classless statement: “If you want to shut this down and you actually love the country enough to have the peaceful transition in our great democracy between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, there are a couple people in pretty prominent positions — one is named Obama, one is named Hillary Clinton, since his people are trying to fight over her election still, they could shut this down.” In other words, Conway is, in essence, communicating that “we won the election and we don’t care what evidence exists of foreign interference; you, Mr. President, are so disloyal to the country that you put political gain ahead of the national interest in a smooth transition, the only thing that matters right now.” If there is any lack of love for country here, that stone must lay at Trump’s own feet for placing the interests of Vladimir Putin and his anti-democratic politics ahead of the interests of the United States.

Trump’s willful ignorance of foreign affairs is so profound that he may not even realize how damaging this type of public conflict can be. It gives aid and comfort to our enemies by dramatizing in public the conflicts within our own government. If he read a few books and actually tried to learn something before shooting off his mouth, it would do the country a great service.

The hallmarks of autocracy are showing in much of what Trump has said and done since the election. He has personally attacked American corporations and personally attacked individuals who voiced disagreement with his policies.  His transition team has demanded the names of government employees involved in climate change research (later retracted in the face of public outrage), and launched broad-based and factually-deficient attacks on the U.S. intelligence community (in the face of FBI concurrence in the CIA’s analysis of the Russian cyber-attacks) and made clear that anyone who opposes him risks being publicly excoriated by the President himself. This is one of the principal techniques that autocrats use to silence criticism and dissent, the hallmarks of free speech and the means by which a democracy tests and improves its ideas.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Secretary Clinton’s supporters were told “it’s time to suck it up, accept the outcome and get behind the new administration. Support the success of the new leader, for the benefit of the country, they were told. Every day, and every new revelation, makes it that much harder to follow that advice. The Republican politicians who eviscerated Trump during the Republican primaries and the general election have largely lined up at Trump Tower to seek forgiveness, redemption and of course, jobs in the administration. Their dissent has been interesting to watch but so short-lived as to lack any moral foundation.

The evidence is mounting that Mr. Trump only understands how to run a company where he is the sole owner and the only voice that matters. The United States government is so much more complex, so vast in reach and faces such different and more difficult challenges that his experience as the “boss” on reality TV (whatever that is) and building a real estate empire is utterly and completely irrelevant. He has said he is too smart to need regular briefings from our intelligence experts, that he pretty much knows what he needs to know, getting most of his information from postings on the Internet. He had denied the legitimacy of the scientific consensus on climate change, endorsed the possibility of using torture and taken other positions in overt conflict with American values. He has reportedly “walked back” some of those positions since the election, but why should we believe anything a remorseless liar says? Apparently, Trump’s mother did not teach him the lesson of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

The Rust Belt voters who turned to Trump after hearing his rhetoric about returning old-style jobs to the area are going to be bitterly disappointed when they discover the harsh truth that such jobs are not competitive and simply cannot be restored to their central place in our manufacturing plants of yesteryear. A thoughtful piece in the Washington Post just today explains that there are many more jobs available in the Midwest than there are qualified people to fill them:

“Although some companies and state programs will cover tuition bills, some workers, particularly those who have held the same job for decades, are hesitant to take them up on the offer, even if unemployment is imminent and the wages are competitive.”

As manufacturing evolves, skilled labor hard to find,” Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2016, at A14.

The problem of dis-employment due to technological advances that produce more with less human input is a major economic challenge for all advanced countries. The solution, like the solution to climate change, will not be found through promises of a return to the “old ways.” That is the stuff of fantasy, a cruel one at that, because it plays on the deepest anxieties of a lot of good people caught up in forces of change they don’t, and in many cases simply don’t want to, understand. Living a lie does not make it any truer.

Obama, with generosity of which he alone among political leaders seem still capable, continues to say that Trump and his “team” are still largely in campaign mode and have not yet come to grips with the realities of governance. That is how he appears to explain Ms. Conway’s remarks. He appears to believe genuinely that these assurances will indeed have a calming influence. We are a little over a month away from the inauguration when all the powerful instruments of government will be at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief.

Those who still believe in democracy, who still believe that policy should be driven by facts rather than whatever people prefer to believe, who believe in science, who believe that a cornerstone of our freedom is the freedom to speak, write and perform without fear of chastisement, or worse, by the government … they must never yield in their active opposition to the degradation of American values. They must speak out and act up, remembering that the whole world is watching.

Black Friday Redux

I thought “Black Friday” was a day, immediately after giving thanks for all our advantages, when we were supposed to go collectively insane and buy everything in and out of sight because it was cheap because it was Black Friday which is always right after Thanksgiving….

Then, this past Friday, yesterday, I opened the Washington Post to the headline that President-elect Trump (hereafter just “Trump”) has chosen a general with the nickname “Mad Dog” to be Secretary of Defense. In case you missed it, the paper also reported that Trump has threatened U.S. companies with “consequences” for moving jobs offshore, details to come later. Meanwhile, back in Washington (aka the Nation’s Capitol, hereafter the NC), it was revealed that “rogue employees” of the NC’s Metro system have been falsifying reports regarding safety conditions for at least a year, placing thousands of daily commuters at risk for another fatal derailment. Management didn’t know. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Hou­­se Democrats are upset that Trump won’t explain how he will prevent conflicts of interest and violation of his lease for the Trump hotel on Pennsylvania avenue once he becomes the actual President.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Post reports, thousands of protesters are marching in the streets about charges of corruption involving Prime Minister Sharif, whom Trump just days ago called on the phone, without, it appears, consulting anyone at the State Department or other U.S. agency with expertise regarding Pakistan, and whom Trump then declared was “fantastic,” according to a Pakistani transcript. Trump has not denied the adulation he heaped upon Sharif.

Meanwhile, back in the NC, Trump was reported to have picked former high-ranking officers of Goldman Sachs to manage the key financial agencies of the federal government. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the news, on Wednesday of this week, Ms. Scottie Hughes, known for her role as surrogate for Trump declared, on The DIane Rehm Show, that “facts” are no longer a … fact:

“… on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other hand, there are many people that go, “no, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way – it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” [emphasis added by ShiningSeaUSA.com]

Black Friday déjà vu all over again. No more facts. Imagine. A report for The Atlantic said Ms. Hughes stated later in the interview that she was a “classically studied journalist,” which may explain her position on “facts.” It was, in fact (sorry, couldn’t help myself), none other than Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in the 1880’s, who first said there were no facts, only interpretations. Ms. Hughes should be more forthcoming about her sources when she throws out lines denying the existence of facts.

Nietzsche also said:

 “[D]eception, flattering, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could have arisen among men. They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eye only glides only over the surface of things … their feeling nowhere leads into truth, but contents itself with the reception of stimuli, playing, as it were, a game of blind man’s bluff ….”

On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,  1873, reproduced at      http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm

Perhaps this is the root explanation for Trump’s popularity even among people who acknowledge that he is a remorseless liar. That, I suppose, would be a matter of interpretation whether you believe Nietzsche or not. I don’t pretend to have the answer. I am still trying to absorb Friday’s major news items, another Black Friday in what promises to be a long line of them. Buckle up.

It also occurs to me that if you were among the long-suffering college students who took philosophy and always wondered why, this latest skirmish about the meaning of reality may be the answer. People like Nietzsche sometimes come out of nowhere to explain, or at least give context to, the otherwise inexplicable. It helps to have at least heard of him, as Ms. Hughes would no doubt verify, but only, of course, as her “interpretation,” not as fact. For in her world, and in the world of our new Chief Executive, “the truth is whatever I say it is.” Hitler and Stalin would approve.