Making History

"The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation."  You could be forgiven for assuming this is Richard Spencer talking during his brief Charlottesville 3.0 demonstration.  It's not, but it undoubtedly cheered him and his companions when they read it in President Trump's Columbus Day proclamation.

Here's what Spencer did say on Saturday:  "We care about our heritage, we care about who we are, not just as Virginians, not just as Southerners, but as white people. ... You'll have to get used to us... We're going to come back again and again and again."  They sang "I Wish I Was in Dixie."  They chanted, "You will not replace us," and "The South will rise again," and "Russia is our friend."

In his Charlottesville Statement, posted back in August, Spencer says,“'European' refers to a core stock—Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Latin, Nordic, and Slavic—from which related cultures and a shared civilization sprang." For the White Nationalists, this is the true and only foundation of the United States.  It's the perceived erosion of that primary culture into a multiracial, multiethnic, egalitarian society that does not privilege any group over another that they find so threatening.  The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, and the tortuous history of our country has been the struggle to figure out how to extend that promise to all people.   This the alt-right can't abide.  When Trump proclaims that the permanent arrival of Europeans was the transformative event that led to the development of the United States, he is explicitly telling them that he stands with them.

In Indianapolis on Sunday, other postures were taken.  Many of the 49ers took a knee, of course.  VP Pence, knowing that would be the case, told the press detail not to bother coming in to the stadium.  He knew he wouldn't be there long.  The Colts wore shirts that read, "We will stand for equality, justice, unity, respect, dialogue, opportunity."  Pence walked out, making it clear where he stands.  It was a great weekend for the alt-right.

History is made from our choices.  How we choose to view the past, how we choose to act in the present.  Where, and with whom, we choose to stand.  What we choose to stand for.  

 


Trustworthiness in the Post-Fact World

How long will it take for the Trump voters to realize they've been conned?

Among the most confounding items in the avalanche of pre-election polls was the finding that Americans viewed Trump as significantly more trustworthy than Clinton. For those of us still living in the fact-based world, this was incomprehensible. Trump's penchant for brazen lying has been well documented. His willingness to say things that are clearly not true, even when there's easily controvertible video evidence baffled observers who looked to past campaigns and saw how quickly a candidate foundered when confronted with misstatements far less blatant than those Trump makes on a daily basis. Clinton, on the other hand, was rated the second most truthful politician of the dozen or so that Politifact rated over the course of the long campaign.  Despite the non-stop chanting by Trump's supporters, Clinton's lies were far, far fewer and of much less consequence than Trump's.  How could it be that most Americans viewed Trump as more trustworthy?

Elizabeth Kolbert pointed the way in a piece in the New Yorker. We now live in a post-fact world (as Ron Suskind explained when reporting on the Bush White House more than a decade ago).  Facts are mushy, malleable things.  Everybody lies and everybody throws "facts" around as weapons to prove their own points of view.  All media are biased, so you're foolish to take at face value anything that you see.  You can't base your trust on "facts."

You go with your gut.  When Trump contradicts himself, it still feels like he means exactly what he says in the moment that he says it.  It doesn't matter if he says something different the next day or the next hour.  Those are just "facts."  His willingness to say horrifying things is evidence that he "tells it like it is."  He's not going to modify his language to appease some PC norms about what it's okay for a candidate to say.  Clinton, on the other hand, appeared to be always hedging, always carefully thinking about the impact of what she was going to say before she said it.  Even if she was saying true things, how could you tell if she really believed it?  And that's what counts -- belief, not facts.  Belief is all you can trust.

On the internet, an article in the New York Times and a piece on Breitbart carry the same weight.  How do you choose?  Whose biases line up with your own?  Who gives you more comfort and reassures you that they see the world the way you do?  "Trustworthiness" in the post-fact world has nothing to do with an adherence to things that are true.  What matters are the words that justify and confirm.  Trump has been so good at that.

So how long will it take for the Trump voters to realize they've been conned?  The Donald is loading his transition team with the Washington insiders, lobbyists and plutocrats he railed against (along with his adorable children, of course).  Drain the swamp?  Hah!  McConnell's cynical strategy appears to have worked.  The Kentucky Tortoise smiles his oily smile at the President-elect and thinks, "You're my bitch now."

The Republicans aren't going to allow 35% tariffs on companies moving operations out of the U.S.  They have corporate profits to protect.  Coal is not coming back unless natural gas production is squelched.  The markets won't let that happen.  Now Trump thinks some pieces of Obamacare are worth keeping.  He says he hasn't given much thought to a special prosecutor to lock up Hillary.  He won't answer questions about banning Muslims.  Parts of the wall will be a fence and he's going to start discussions with Mexico on how it'll be paid for.  He might deport as many undocumented as Obama has, but he's not focused on that right now.  So how long will it take for the Trump voters to realize they've been conned?

That Trump won't be able to actualize some of his most egregious slogans should give comfort to no one.  The viciousness that he's unleashed won't be easily restrained.  When the WSJ asked him if some of his campaign rhetoric had gone too far he said, "No. I won."  He tells Leslie Stahl that he's "surprised" and "so saddened" to hear about the violence committed in his name.  But hatred works for him.  And when the Trump voters finally do realize they've been conned and try to call him to account, he'll turn the blame elsewhere.  His failures have always been someone else's fault.  He'll resort to stirring up the rage and resentment that has worked for him so well this year and direct it at those who've been his targets all along.  He's very good at that.

He's betting that in the post-fact world he can keep saying the things that energize his supporters and garner him the praise and adulation he seeks above all else, no matter what his administration actually does or doesn't do.  He might be right.

I'm not giving up on facts.  But with Bannon in the White House the American Experiment has a fierce and formidable adversary.  Facts won't be enough.  We need to tell better stories.  Trump will rely on hatred and fear because that works for him.  Those who oppose him have to be better than that.  The opposition stories have to speak to what is best about America.  Stories that are true.  That greatness comes when we lift each other, when we listen to each other, when we take each other in.  I still believe that the arc of history bends toward justice.  But it demands that we work for it.

 


One Day At A Time

I empathize with the shock and anger of the many who say they are determined to oppose everything that President Trump does.  I get it.  He's demonstrated over and over again that he's a ghastly human being.  He has the potential to do tremendous damage to everything I hold dear about the American experiment.  I expect that I will vigorously oppose most of what he tries to implement.  But vow to oppose him on everything?  I'm not going to go there.

When Mitch McConnell announced his determination to make Obama a one-term president and quickly made it clear that he would lead the opposition to everything Obama proposed, (even if, like much of the initial healthcare proposals, those policies were rooted in ideas that Republicans had long favored), Democrats and those on the left howled that he was abdicating his responsibilities.  Rather than governing, he was acting solely in favor of his parochial political interest.  We were right to do so.  The unyielding blanket opposition to everything Obama did was shameful.  We shouldn't let our anger and fear bring us to the same low point.

Part of what is trainwreck fascinating about the Donald is that we really have no idea what he will actually try to enact.  He has contradicted himself so many times that any attempt to discern actual policy proposals from his statements of the past year is a fool's game.  Yesterday he praised Hillary for her campaign.  This morning, at the White House, he spoke of his great respect for President Obama (I note that he did have a bit of a deer in the headlights look at finding himself finally in this position).  Does that mean he won't appoint a special prosecutor to Lock Her Up?  Has he changed his mind about Obama founding ISIS?  I don't believe what he said yesterday or today any more than I believe anything else he's said during the campaign.  And that's the point.  I won't know what to oppose until he actually, finally, has to do something.

Here's one example -- he's talked about a massive infrastructure overhaul to create jobs and refurbish roads and bridges.  This is something we've desperately needed for many years.   If a solid sensible proposal that looks like it could get through Congress and actually accomplish something were to appear, I'd support it, even if it originated from the Trump White House.  I'd expect Chuck Schumer to lend his weight in getting it through.

I don't expect there to be many opportunities like that.  I expect that most of what he tries to enact will require my full-throated opposition.  But I'm not going to declare my "principled" opposition to everything he might do just because I'm horrified that we elected him.  

We've had eight miserable years of obstructionist politics.  I'm sick of it, and I won't be a part of it.

 


Voting in Alabama

One of the advantages of voting in Alabama is that you can vote your conscience without worrying that you're going to tip the election in an undesirable direction. When I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, my liberal friends in other parts of the country, who might have preferred Nader over Gore but were frightened at the prospect of a Bush presidency, were torn. I had no such dilemma. W was clearly going to take Alabama no matter what I did.

I was convinced by Nader's argument that there was so little difference between the Democrats and Republicans in the degree to which they are beholden to the moneyed oligarchs that neither Gore nor Bush would effect the kind of changes the country needed. It was an idealistic, impractical way of looking at the choice but it didn't matter. I happily voted for Nader, secure in the knowledge that my vote would make no difference whatsoever. (As it turned out, Nader's argument was deeply flawed. Correct he may have been at the macro level but it's hard to imagine Gore making the kinds of horrific foreign policy blunders W did).

Despite the lack of effect, I always vote in the election. I don't always vote in the primaries and I don't know if I will this time, although Sanders vs Clinton at least seems to have elements of a real choice. I'll vote for somebody next November. It won't be the Republican nominee, although that's who will take the state.

I am eager to see how the primary voting starts to play out. It's certainly been the most entertaining run-up to the actual voting that I've ever seen. I haven't looked at any recent Alabama polling but it's not too hard to predict. Trump is wildly popular.  Cruz will do well because of the evangelical streak. Bush will do better here than his national polling indicates. The traditional Republican establishment remains very strong in Alabama.

Whether Trump holds at his 30-ish percent of likely primary voters probably depends on how he does in the earlier contests, and how many candidates are still standing. Despite the state's reputation, the racist, nativist streak that is so appalling in a segment of Trump's constituency isn't dramatically worse here than in other parts of the country. When I moved from St. Louis 20 years ago I found it refreshing that racial issues were explicit, compared to the covert and deeply entrenched institutional racism of Missouri. The crowds and the fervor that Trump sparks all across the country (not to mention the various hot spots of civil unrest that we've seen in the past couple of years) make it clear that hatred of the "other" and a manipulation of the power structures to keep "them" out are not restricted to any particular locale.

It's a mistake to think that Trump's support is restricted to that racist, nativist subset. That element of the population has always been there. If you break down the numbers Trump's supporters represent a minority of a minority of likely voters, which is already barely a majority of eligible voters. What Trump has done is give those people permission -- indeed encouragement -- to vent. It makes them feel fabulous and hopeful and deludes them into thinking they are more numerous than they actually are. Deep in the core of those numbers are the people who genuinely believe that they speak for a vast unheard majority of Americans who will sweep Trump into the presidency, to the shock and awe of mainstream politicians and media as well as the hated liberals.

More interesting to me than those flag-waving idiots are the more thoughtful supporters who rally around Trump because they have become disgusted with the compromising, corrupt and ineffectual politicians that, they feel, have abandoned the real promise of America in order to serve themselves and their masters. In their view of the American political system they are not so different from those Nader supporters of sixteen years ago. The system is corrupt and has utterly failed. It needs to be torn down and President Trump is the guy to do it. The fact that he has no remotely coherent plan to replace it is beside the point. He has fabulously satisfying slogans. He's successful in the ways that matter the most to Americans and he's beholden to no one.

What fascinates me about this element of Trump support is how little these people are interested in the practicalities of government. But maybe that's part of the point. The voter's job isn't to figure out how things should be improved and then identify a candidate who seems best able to carry that out. The voter seeks to identify the candidate who most explicitly speaks to their fears, frustrations and desires, put that person into office and trust them to figure it out. And among the Republican herd, Trump has been touching that nerve much better than anyone else. I've always said that the democratic electoral system that we follow always gives us the president we deserve, and I'm confident that will be the case this time. It still seems highly unlikely to me that Trump will be the Republican nominee, and the electoral map is such that it'll be very hard for a Republican to win the election in any case. But the next few months will clarify things. Carson, Fiorina, Kasich will all be out soon. Huckabee, Santorum and Paul were never really in it in the first place.

Whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be, they'll carry Alabama by a huge margin. I wonder who I'll vote for. Maybe Nader?


"Joy As An Act Of Defiance"

"Rock 'n' roll is a life force.  It's joy as an act of defiance." That's Bono explaining why it is necessary and important for U2 to get back to Paris as soon as possible to do the concerts they had to cancel after the attacks.

Terrorism drains joy from the soul. Replaces it with fear and suspicion. When we give in to that we are doing exactly what the terrorists need us to do.  

As Scott Atran and Nafis Hamid explain so very well in a recent New York Review column, the theorists of radical Islam are driven to destroy the corruption of the modern materialistic world and create "a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner."  Their tactics are not mindless nihilistic violence.  They are "part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies."  They are intended to provoke a particular reaction that will rip the veil of illusion from the spiritual impoverishment of the West.  As prominent voices throughout the United States proclaim that we must do "things we haven't considered before," that we must all arm ourselves, that all Muslims are a threat, and on and on, it is apparent that the strategy is working fabulously well.

I was raised to believe that "liberty and justice for all" was the truth of America, that the dream really was a dream for everybody.  As I grew older I became more aware of how often we, as a country, and as individuals, fail to live up to that ideal, but I have still always believed in its potential.  When Americans are at our best, we are that shining city on the hill.  We are capable of astonishing acts of kindness and generosity.  In those moments, when we live up to our ideals, we deserve to be known as the country that people all around the world want to be a part of, we deserve to be the example that patriots everywhere want to model their own countries after.  That's when I'm proud of my country and the people who are a part of it.  There is no contradiction in feeling that pride while still wanting us to be better.

The jihadists believe that I am either a fool or a liar.  They believe that this talk of freedom and equality is a charade, that the system is created only to sustain the power of the powerful, to keep the weak in their place, where they will supply what is necessary to sustain the culture.  These horrific acts of violence are very specifically designed to generate a response, to send a message to those who they would call back to the fold.

 Did you think that if you went to the United States they would embrace you? Did you believe their chatter about liberty and justice for all? Did you think you were really going to have a share of the wealth and power that they dangle in front of you? All lies.

See now their true colors. See how quickly their fear turns loose their hatred for you. They have always hated you. When they felt they could control you and keep you down they tolerated you because they needed your labor. But they have no souls.  They are easily frightened and when they are frightened they become vicious. 

Some of their leaders claim to be appalled at the violence turned towards immigrants.   They say 'this is not who we are.' But they are as deluded as you have been. This is exactly who they are. You have no place there. There is nothing for you. See how quickly they shout their readiness to abandon their so-called principles in order to round you up, beat you, chase you from their shores. They have nothing for you.  Come home.

I imagine the leaders of the caliphate watching the bellicose rhetoric unfold, grinning at each other in amazement.  Even better than they'd hoped.  

On my university campus here in the deep South I see young women with headscarves on the sidewalks, walking to class, laughing together like college kids everywhere.  I think they are incredibly brave.  How often do they get jeered at?  When will someone, feeling emboldened by the rhetoric of some congressional leaders and too many presidential candidates, take it a step forward and commit some retaliatory act of violence?  When some young Muslim girl is standing in the dorm room, before the mirror, getting dressed, does she hesitate now before putting on the scarf?  Does she decide, maybe not today?  Maybe she was born in Indianapolis, of immigrant parents so proud to have made it to this country, to raise their children as Americans.  Maybe she spent her life having her mother tell her, when she came home from school crying at the taunts, to ignore them, to stand up for who she is, a real American.  Maybe her father convinced her that the true America would cherish and protect her.  Maybe she believed that.  Is her belief starting to weaken?  Is she beginning to wonder if the hatred and fear that seems more and more to be trained on her is the real America after all?

Yes, it's a war.  When U2 goes on stage tonight in Paris they'll be wielding a potent weapon.  The arena will shake with hope and the belief that the goodness of people will prevail as long as we don't let our own fear subvert that goodness.  They'll use rock 'n' roll as an act of defiance against those who seek to unleash the worst in our selves.

Each of us needs to be a joyful warrior.  Generosity and kindness are the weapons that we all can wield. Yes, yes, we need to be vigilant.  We need to be cautious.  Defeating the jihadists will require multiple tactics, some military, some political.  But those tactics will not prove the jihadists wrong.  We can only do that if we truly live the American dream, if we make the quest for justice and freedom, the realization of the words on the Statue of Liberty and the principles of the Constitution our daily touchstones; if we protect those ideals with all of the joyful fierceness we can muster.  If we don't, if we allow fear to replace joy with hatred, if we let the quest for security eviscerate personal liberty, if we scapegoat and demonize Muslims and immigrants, then not only do we lose the war, we prove that the jihadists were right about us all along.

 

 

 


Epistemology

Mr. Lucky posts to his timeline: If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge and being turned away.

Nicely done, I think, and indicate approval.  As do a couple of others.

But very soon, not surprisingly, comes the dark side. "Why are they all young men? What about women and children first? Think about it."

Absurd, of course. I'm a librarian, so immediately I go looking for facts.  I quickly find them from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 50.5% women, 38.5% under the age of 12. I post that.

Did I expect the dark side to express gratitude and surprise?  Well, no.

He just says, "Sure they are."

Mr. Lucky bans & blocks him. This is good for Mr. Lucky's page and the friends who hang out there, but the dark side remains.  Unmoved.

How do we know what we know? How do we know that we can trust it?

My way of knowing is constructed from a set of principles developed in Europe over several centuries, starting with the Greek invention of symbolic logic and the beginnings of an empirical approach to science, a way of looking at the world that comes to fruition in the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

That way of looking at the world leads me immediately to search for verifiable objective facts, to balance competing narratives using logical principles, leavened by appeals to trusted authority.

But that's just one way of looking at the world. It "works" in the sense that it provides an epistemological underpinning for Western science & engineering that enables us to manipulate the world pretty effectively to improve health and physical comfort -- along with building extremely effective tools of destruction.  Those of us who follow this path believe that it gives us an accurate picture of the world.  It leads to true knowledge. (It is, however, pretty useless for answering questions about morality or the meaning of life.)

So what of someone who rejects all that? What if one's epistemological principle is to rely on intuition and how one feel about the world? Rather than building knowledge empirically, using logic, construct it from emotion, a sense of tribe, an appeal to religion, history and family. Knowledge comes from who one is and the place one occupies in the world.  Perhaps the goal is not to test knowledge, but to keep it safe.   Use information to reinforce a construct of the world that is organic and that rejects western logic altogether. Make judgments about facts in an entirely different way -- accept those that reinforce one's views and reject those that challenge them. Rather than an appeal to some objective reality, to logic or science, measure facts against the reality that one already knows to be true. Proceeding in this way makes my views ever stronger, makes my hold on reality -- my reality -- that much more solid.

I can't argue against this using my tools of logic and empiricism.  My appeal to the UNHCR is useless. Since my antagonist already knows that the refugees are all young men, the facts that I present are evidence that the UNHCR cannot be a trustworthy source.  I think my facts will undermine his beliefs; instead, his beliefs invalidate my facts.

The rationalist says, "You're entitled to your own opinions, you're not entitled to your own facts."  And so the rationalist looks at the comment threads in frustrated bewilderment, throwing more and more facts, never wavering in the belief that eventually facts and logic must win.  They must. Otherwise, how is knowledge even possible?

And yet, it is apparent that for many people, belief comes first.  Then one chooses one's facts.  The rationalist has no way to counter this.  I can say this is illogical.  My antagonist counters, That's your problem.

 


The Despicable Senator Cruz

Throughout our re-watching of The Day of the Doctor last night I kept thinking of the bellicose Senator Cruz arguing that we needed to accept civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat ISIS. Most disgusting is his claim that by trying to adhere to international law on the avoidance of civilian casualties, Obama "does not wish to defend this country."

This will be very popular with Cruz's fans, many of whom would be happy to make no distinctions among the people of Syria and Iraq in any case.

The plot of The Day of the Doctor centers on the Doctor's guilt at having wiped out Gallifrey in order to end the Time War. He made the utilitarian calculation that killing those billions of innocents was justified in order to spare the many more billions who might die in the wider war if it could not be contained. Then he spent four hundred guilt-filled years regretting it.  He has the chance to undo that decision, and he takes it.

The dilemma is a classic one. What lives are you willing to take in order to prevent greater harm?  We see it play throughout the history of war. The U.S. chose the destruction of innocents in Dresden and again in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We still argue about it.  Was it better that we kill all of those innocent, suffering men, women and children in order to end the war?  

At the Nuremberg trials we began to understand what happens to a culture, and to the people who are a part of it, when you choose the path that leads to dehumanizing the "other."  There's no easy solution, and in war, innocent people die, But we try to recognize that the easy acceptance of "collateral damage" (that soul destroying phrase) places us on the same plane of barbarism of those we are trying to subdue.

Cruz appeals to the barbarism that is still within us, to the fear and the tribalism that will make it easy to accept those civilian deaths in order to save ourselves from this "threat to Western Civilization."   But our response, when it leads to torture, loss of civil liberties, dehumanization of those we see as not like us, and a willingness to easily accept the destruction of innocent life, profoundly threatens the values on which that civilization has been built.

I don't know what the solution is. I'm not a tactician.  Clearly ISIS is not amenable to a diplomatic solution. They need to be fought militarily and more aggressively than we have figured out how to do so far.  But I have no patience for the internet armchair generals who will rage in comment threads and on twitter about what we "obviously" have to do, and who will boast about their willingness to be tough enough to kill as many children as it takes.  Idiots, who will never have to stand for the consequences of their choices.  

I am not willing that we should descend to their level of barbarity and ignore the humanity of those who are caught on the ground. I want to see leadership that will find a solution, difficult as it is, that doesn't destroy our values on the pretext of defending them.  Unlike the Doctor, we don't get a second chance.

 


The Ethics of Healthcare

"The design of a healthcare system is a moral issue."

So said T.R. Reid near the end of his keynote address at the MCMLA meeting in Breckenridge last week.

And, "Without the moral commitment, you end up with America's healthcare system."

Reid's presentation style is very relaxed.  He brings a light touch, and a finely tuned sense of humor, even when dealing with very weighty issues.  Still, when he contemplated the fundamental unfairness of the American system, his righteous indignation and frustration showed through.

He said that he undertook the writing of his new book to answer one question:  "How is it that every industrialized country provides better healthcare for all of its citizens and spends half as much as we do?"  He says he thinks he nailed that one.

But as he did his research, he realized the more important question was why do they?  And he thinks he figured that one out as well.  But then it leads to the most pressing question of them all -- why doesn't the United States?  Why is it that the richest country in the world fails so miserably to provide what every other nation considers to be one of the fundamental responsibilities of a civilized society?  He said he's still trying to puzzle that one out.

And he's not particularly hopeful that we'll achieve any significant improvement in the current round.  He believes that Congress lacks the political will.  We'll continue stumbling along through the paradox of having the capacity to provide the best healthcare in the world, while failing on every measure to actually do so.  What does it say about us as a nation that we are willing to tolerate an infant mortality rate that puts us just behind Cuba and only slightly ahead of Croatia?

It might be easier to deal with if we were at least having a debate about the real issues.  But we're not.  What passes for debate in this country (particularly on this issue) is sloganeering designed to make political points.  Actual facts aren't that hard to find.  Reid had a very good op-ed in the Washington Post a month ago in which he dismissed the major myths that are fueling that most emotional of the anti-healthcare reform screeds.  But in an era when most people get their news from cable tv or talk radio, serious attention to actual facts takes too much time and is too boring.  It doesn't provide the cathartic release of frustration and anger that people seem to want.

Reid emphasized several times that if we, as a nation, choose to provide universal healthcare and contain costs, we certainly can do it, without falling prey to the horrors of socialized medicine or rationed healthcare that are used to scare people away.  The fundamental question is whether or not we believe that we have a collective responsibility to take care of each other.  The answer is clear -- we, in this "Christian" nation, believe that we do not.  This is the paradox that puzzles T.R. Reid.


Truth and Reconciliation

One might almost be inclined to feel sorry for still-my-president if one could only forget what a horrific mess he's made of things.  Reading the transcript of his last press conference was bad enough -- seeing the still pictures or the video of the clueless guy struggling to present his administration in a positive light was truly painful.  Jon Stewart said, "He really doesn't know why we're mad at him!"  I think that might be true.  He's been living in an even thicker bubble than I'd imagined.

His petulant defenses of his interrogation procedures ("Do you remember what it was like right after 9/11?") are particularly gruesome when they're followed just a day or two later by the assessment of a senior administration official that she couldn't bring a certain Guantanamo case to trial because "His treatment met the legal definition of torture."

I admit to being of two minds as to how strenuously the Obama administration should investigate and attempt to charge senior administration officials for war crimes.  The country is in such serious shape that I really don't want their attention diverted in that direction.  It's also clear that, unlike his predecessor, Obama really is trying hard to be a uniter (note his unannounced dinner the other night with several prominent conservative columnists), and any attempt to address the torture and civil liberties issues now would severely damage that effort.

But the damage that's been done to the country has been so severe that I'm loathe to let it go altogether.  If you read the comments to the various news stories on the torture angle it is clear that there are plenty of people who now feel that the administration is completely justified in doing whatever they feel is necessary and that concerns about torturing terrorists are just more namby-pamby left wing liberal hand-wringing.

Thank god we've had Bush, they say.  He kept us safe.  Actually, he didn't.  You can't prove a negative in the first place, but if one wants to run with that argument, then it was Clinton who kept us safe and Bush who screwed up and allowed 9/11 to happen.  There were plenty of warnings.  The evidence is now clear and it was pretty obvious at the time.  Remember Condi Rice saying that nobody could have imagined that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings?  The report from the Rudman-Hart Commission suggesting just that possibility had been on her desk for months.  I never could understand why she was not only allowed to keep her job as NSA, but was eventually promoted to Secretary of State.

When I was growing up, and was learning about the United States of America, I learned that its heroes were the people who were willing to die in defense of its liberties.  Young men and women went off to war to protect, not just the lives of those at home, but their right to free speech, to free assembly, to freely practice one's own religion, to be free from excessive government control and surveillance.  I grew up believing that our system of government and our way of life was a beacon to the world showing how a free people were willing to put their lives on the line rather than compromise those precious freedoms.  I grew up believing that protecting our principles was more important than just protecting my personal safety.

That's what Bush took away from me.  And I want it back.

I don't care what happens to him.  I don't feel any need to see him punished.  I wish that Congress had had the guts to impeach him years ago, when it might have made a difference.  That doesn't matter now.  But we, as a nation, still have to come to terms with what went terribly wrong.  If we are going to be able to get back to the country that I grew up believing in, we've got to be able to acknowledge to the world that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz vision of the country was a terrible wrong turn, and that we will do everything possible to see that we don't go down that road again.

In that last press conference, Bush said, "I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope."

Wrong again, George.  But I think we still have a chance to get it back.  I still believe in the best of my country that much.

UPDATE:  At this morning's confirmation hearing for Obama's pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder said what no Bush administration official has been willing to say: "Waterboarding is torture." 

Finally.


Living In The Middle Of History

It took me nearly four months, but earlier this week I finished reading Europe: A History.  (The reading was not uninterrupted by other things -- it's too big of a doorstop to bring with me when I'm traveling).

It's a grim picture.  As gruesome as some of the barbarism and cruelty of earlier ages has been, there isn't much to rival the 20th century.   What the human race seems to have learned most in the previous centuries has been improved methods for destroying each other.

I'm not big on the concept of "progress".  While there have been undeniable advances in the overall level of material comfort (although one should keep in mind that the general living standard of a large portion of the planet is still far below the typical European peasant of the 14th century), it is hard to find any evidence that the human race as a whole has learned much of anything when it comes to kindness, empathy, or a capacity for increasing self-awareness.  We're still pretty much the same brutish, petty, jealous, paranoid and cruel stumblebums we've always been.  The glee with which people have seized upon the anonymity of the internet to exhibit their worst tendencies is a uniquely 21st century exemplar of that.

It's the exceptions that give one hope, of course.  And the exceptions are many.  There's an insurance agency that has a marvelous ad campaign on the theme that every day millions of people do the right thing -- it's little things, like the mother who picks up her kids at a ball game and looks back to see one lone little boy still waiting for his dad, and turns around and sits with him until the dad arrives, or the young woman in the wheel chair who goes out through the rain and pushes past the innumerable small indignities foisted on the disabled in order to be able to cast her vote.  Honest to god, I choke up when I see these ads.

Were I still a christian, perhaps I would see the deplorable lack of empathy as a manifestation of original sin, that what cripples us is our inability to put ourselves in the place of another.  As it is, I can only see it as part of the inexplicable nature of human beings.  And yet it seems to me that it would take so little effort for people to be just a little bit more patient and generous with each other.  Just a tiny bit less selfishness and a little bit more empathetic listening would make such a huge difference.

But looking at the vast and complex story laid out in Europe doesn't leave one with much hope that we're going to see any such changes.  It hasn't happened so far, so why would one think that things would be different from here?  It puts me at odds with traditional Western views of history that tend to be linear, and in their more optimistic versions, a continual ascent.  I lean towards the circular visions of the Lakota or the Taoists. 

I return many times to one of the lessons that my mother taught me.  As a reading specialist in the local small town high school for many years, she spent much of her time with the kids who were not going to make it.  They were the ones who were going to drop out, at best get a halfway decent job in the mill, and end up drinking too much, getting divorced, being alienated from their kids, and wondering what had happened to their lives.  Before she retired, she was working with some of those kids, who were clearly on the same track as their parents.  And yet she went at it with the same energy and outpouring of love and caring for each one of those kids right up until the day she retired.  I asked her one time how she managed to keep doing that, knowing that no matter what she did many of those kids were already lost.

She told me that she knew that she couldn't save anybody.  "But," she said, "it's as if in everybody's life there's a balance, on one side the good stuff comes in, and on the other the bad.  How that tips in the long run is out of my control.  But I can make sure that what I give them goes into the good side."

So I ask you, as you go out into the world today, ask yourself with everybody you run into, are you putting your stuff in the good side or the bad?

I don't believe in progress, and I don't believe in saving the world, but I do believe in the inexplicable magnificence of individual human beings, who are so often so much finer than they have any reason to be.