Tag Archives: democracy

The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures”

My wife and I saw the movie Hidden Figures this weekend. It’s about three Black women who worked for NASA as “computers” at the beginning of the space race between the United States and the then Soviet Union. “Computers” at that time meant “human calculators,” who ran staggering volumes of numbers, formulas and calculations in geometry and calculus to determine the necessary acceleration, deceleration, orbital angles and the thousands of other details that had to be exactly right to risk sending a human into space. For the most part they used adding machines and, though not seen, likely slide rules as well.

Without giving away too much, the movie is a well-crafted piece of story-telling, funny at times, painful to watch at other times, sometimes both at once. If it proves anything, perhaps it shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Having grown up in the segregated 1950s and 1960s in Memphis, Tennessee, there were moments of almost physical pain at seeing graphic reminders of the cruelty and stupidity of the suppression of Black Americans throughout our history.

As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

Now many of those people use the consequences of these practices as the pretext for arguing that young Black males are prone to violence, are uneducated, lazy and shiftless and thus make protection against them as the priority. Imagine the result if the situation were reversed and Black people had been the masters and whites were the slaves and everything else was the same. For an interesting incident to the same effect, see http://bit.ly/2jCAG1X.

We can’t undo history. But we can at least recognize the root causes of the way things are now and thereby be inspired to work to correct what all of us have done. It is no doubt true that many advances have been made and I don’t mean to suggest there has been no progress. But isn’t it self-evident when reading the news that the United States is gravely ill. Complaining on social media or railing at Washington may make for warm feelings but it does not address with action the consequences of our troubled past. If people who can influence change fail to act, how long can our democracy endure?

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.

Coal Miners and the Parable of the Snake

The election of 2016 is over. There is little left to say that has not been said by others, though the “saying” will thrive for a few months more as the Trump administration takes its full shape.

I had planned a blog post centering on the virtual certainty that the coal miners in Pennsylvania and former steel workers in Ohio, who are counting on President Trump to restore their industries and the related jobs, are going to be disappointed. They are the modern-day Luddites whose aspirations to restore the way of work and life that once thrived will founder on the rocks of technological movement forward, always forward, and from which there simply is no turning back.

They should know better, but they apparently don’t. I feel some sympathy for them, but then I wake up to the reality that they turned to Donald Trump as the leader who will restore them to their “rightful place.” I see the photos of the hypnotized, adoring crowds, many of whom cannot explain why they voted for Trump, but who chose to ignore, or embrace, the bigotry and other evils that he represented during the campaign. I see the data, always the data, showing who didn’t vote at all and showing the women who voted for Trump even as he spit on them. It has been famously said “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.”

We are now in the obligatory phase of “let’s give him a chance,” even as he stocks the government with white men, always mostly white men, who are hostile, at best, to minorities, women and, frankly, the values that have, dare I say it, made America great. The Republican Party has finally fulfilled its goal, a bit late, to rid the White House of that black man Obama through obstruction and blind resistance. Now they appear ready to return the country to the conditions that led to the Great Recession and nearly destroyed us. Not going to get those steel plants and coal mines back that way.

When I first thought about writing this piece, I was reminded of the old story about the Indian boy and the rattlesnake. The essence of it is that the Indian boy is doing his solitary preparation for manhood by spending time alone in a great valley. He decides to ascend the mountain and at the top he comes upon the rattlesnake shivering in the cold. They snake begs the boy to take him down the mountain so he can get warm. They boy resists: “you are a venomous snake and will bite me and I’ll die!” The snake implores him to help and promises he won’t bite. Finally, the boy gives in, bundles up the rattlesnake and carries to safety down the mountain. As he unwraps the snake, it strikes him in the chest. The boy recoils in pain and shock: “how could you? You promised me you would not strike if I helped you.” The rattlesnake simply responded “you knew what I was when you picked me up” and slithered away.

I had thought of the irony in the story as similar to what has happened in the election of Donald Trump. People representing a majority of electoral votes, but not of the voting population, have turned to a person they perceive as some kind of latter day savior To check my recall of the story, I consulted the Internet and discovered a video of Trump reciting a poetic version of the rattlesnake story and while the video showed no context, it was clear that Trump was using the story to support his view that helping immigrants enter the United States was akin to picking up the rattlesnake. See http://bit.ly/2fPWcP1. And the crowd chanted “USA! USA!”

I think Trump got it wrong. The rattlesnake here is Trump himself and the coal miners, steelworkers and farmers who saw him as a messiah will soon feel the sting of his bite. And, like the awakening of the Indian boy, it will be too late.

A TRIPLE THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

The Washington Post ran three editorials today that should have the rapt attention of all thinking Americans.

The first editorial observes that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to American democracy by his raising the specter that his victory will lead to criminal prosecution of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, because, as President, Trump will be able to order the government to prosecute and jail any enemies of his choosing. I am confident that Ms. Clinton is not intimidated by these threats. She is well-schooled in the tripartite legal system that divides power among three branches of government and thereby restrains the unlimited use of power by any one branch, including the Executive.

These threats should nevertheless give pause to anyone who remains undecided at this late stage of the campaign. As the Post notes, this type of threat conflicts with the peaceful transition of power in a democratic society governed by a Constitution and not by a dictator. I suspect that Trump made these extreme statements mainly to pander to his core constituency who seem to be obsessed with thoroughly examined but unproven claims of email malfeasance while Clinton was Secretary of State, enhanced now by Trump’s repeated claims that the only way he can lose the election is if the voting is rigged. There are, of course, many other reasons that Trump could, and should, lose the election but from his “rat in the corner” position, striking out at the “rigged system” is probably the only strategy left to him.

I suspect that his defeat, which seems more likely every day, will lead to the vast majority of his core supporters just going home unhappy but equipped with new “evil forces” and conspiracies to complain about. They can take some solace in their moral certainty, removed from any connection to reality, that the “system” was against them and they never had a chance.

On the other hand, if Trump loses, will he, as the Post editorial implies, call on his “movement” to rise up against the United States in rejection of the outcome? This group of Americans appears to be impervious to facts, motivated by anger and fear and heavily armed. Mr. Trump should be very careful how he proceeds, lest he trigger events that will escalate beyond his control. ­­­By his own admission, he is not much interested in book learning, but he should at least scan Title 18, section 2381, wherein the definition of Treason is set out. Then he can start a new “reality” TV show, as some have speculated is his real objective.

The second editorial addresses the issues that the Post thinks should be covered in the final debate Wednesday night. It’s a really good list that includes many of the hugely important issues that will face the next president. It includes the nuclear threat from North Korea, Pacific Rim expansion by China, the failure of democratic movements around the world, cyber warfare, the endless dispute between India and Pakistan and others of similar gravity. It would be refreshing, though perhaps too much to expect even from a veteran like moderator Chris Wallace, that the debate will stay on track on the issues. For once, just once, the moderator should, I suggest, act aggressively to stop the personal attacks, evasions and mis-directions that have characterized the prior “debates.” Wallace should absolutely demand that the candidates not talk over each other, not interrupt and respond to the questions asked. Unless he does that, we likely will get just another harangue by Trump of his campaign talking points, which to date have precious little to do with substantive issues.

Finally, and equally disturbing, the Post editorial board has called out Sen. John McCain for his recent statement that “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.” This promise, from a man who claims his word is his bond, is essentially a reprise of the Republican congressional leadership’s oath that during Barack Obama’s first term in office, the main Republican goal was to defeat his agenda and to prevent him from gaining a second term. The Republican Party thus became the “party of no” and resisted almost all efforts to achieve bipartisan compromises on anything of substance, thereby, among other things, shutting down the federal government for a period of time.

­­­It appears that for the Republican Party, ideology trumps (forgive me) all other considerations. Sen. McCain is sending the message that more congressional deadlock lies ahead if a majority of the American people elect a president not of that Party’s choosing. This is a different form of political blackmail than Donald Trump’s normal fare, but it is blackmail nonetheless and Sen. McCain’s legendary deeds on behalf of his country cannot excuse it.

Time grows short. The army of Trump supporters has consistently shown that it not only has no objection to Trump’s constant lies, misogyny and other crimes against human dignity, but they in fact approve of them. They don’t care what the facts are – they just want to bring the house down. If we are not careful, they may succeed. This is the most important national election in modern times. If you agree with me, urge everyone you know to vote for Hillary Clinton. If some of them have to hold their noses, so be it. That will be the least of their worries if Trump succeeds.