Politics

The Obama farewell address: advice from another world?

Posted on May 16, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

At long last we wrap up the close reading of President Obama’s farewell address that we began on January 13! We, like most of the nation, have been waylaid and distracted many times since then by the almost daily, certainly weekly news bulletins from Washington alerting us to almost every conceivable type of crisis or question or misstep arising from the Trump administration.

Five months into that administration, we begin to wonder if it serves any purpose to follow all those bulletins. What good does listening to accounts of our Constitution being violated, our national commitment to making liberty and justice for all a reality being ridiculed and undermined, or our president acting like a king do? What action can we take? Do marches work in the long term? Petitions? Shouting matches at town hall meetings? Jokes on late-night talk shows?

One of those things does work, and it’s nice that it’s the town hall meetings. On this site that so often discusses the Puritans, creators of the American town hall  and town hall meeting, it’s good to be able to join with our last president in his optimistic view of the future by recommending a return to something the Puritans valued deeply: taking right action.

In this case, it’s political action. As those Americans who believe our system of government—that any system, almost any kind of government—is the problem and not the solution, a hindrance at best and a trap at worst, attempt to dismantle it, we have to step up to keep it alive. Participate in local government. Vote, attend town hall meetings, go to candidate information sessions, learn how your government is supposed to work. Keep track of your state government. Write or call the people you elect to get information on how they plan to vote on upcoming legislation. Vote. Get referenda or other popular, grass-roots legislative change engines running if you need to. Do the same for your federal government.

This can be exhausting. Many Puritan men who were full church members and thus entitled to vote and run for political office chose never to become freemen and do so. (Freeman was their term for a full [male] citizen.) They knew how much time it took. Going to meetings after work is tiring. People with families may struggle to do it. Taking time out of the weekend is challenging.

But we were never so desperately in need of our democracy as we are now. So answer the call to right action. Be represented in our representative democracy. Choose the optimism Obama sent as his final message, the message that says if we remain inside our government, if we are its engine, we keep it alive and we keep it honest. Don’t let those Americans who break the government and then say we should throw it out because it’s broken achieve that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t wait for Democrats to retake the House and Senate; this is just an aggravation of the partisanship that’s killing us. We need to find ways to unite. Cross as many bridges as you can to create unity behind the real American identity, which is ever-expanding justice, liberty, and the common good.

We’ll finish with a quote from John Adams to motivate us:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

Go unite our states.

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Obama’s Farewell Speech: If only Washington hadn’t been so right

Posted on April 6, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the latest violation of our Constitution re moves to end the right of judicial filibuster.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with this statement: “And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” We pick up from there:

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.

(CROWD CHEERS)

And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?

How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.

—“A common baseline of facts”; we find that even in the short time since Obama’s farewell we have experienced many people lobbying harder than we could have believed possible to deny, denigrate, and destroy that foundation of rational society. “Fake news” has become the most used phrase in America, to our detriment, because it just doesn’t make sense. If something is untrue/a lie, it’s not news at all. There aren’t two kinds of news, the real and the fake. There is news of real events and lies/rumors of fake events. But we have been worked on so diligently by anti-democratic people that we seem now to accept that news itself is somehow suspect, and those anti-democratic people slander the truth as “fake news”, which is such a big leap into some dystopia from a YA novel that we can’t quite believe it’s happening, but it is.

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that (at) the promise to save this planet.

(APPLAUSE)

But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects. More environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. Now we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.

—It’s amazing what ancient history this seems like just a few months later, as the Trump Administration has begun the process of undoing all of the climate change prevention measures the Obama Administration put in place, and has actually forbidden government agencies to use the term “climate change” in any written or oral communication. This is such a big leap into dystopia that it moves beyond YA to 1984, but it’s also happening. We will indeed be “busy dealing with its effects” even if we don’t say the words “climate change.”

It is that spirit — it is that spirit born of the enlightenment that made us an economic powerhouse. The spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket, it’s that spirit. A faith in reason and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies.

An order based not just on military power or national affiliations, but built on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.

—The “spirit” is that of “innovation and practical problem-solving” and it is indeed beholden to the Enlightenment; faith in reason and primacy of right over might, rule of law, human rights, and an independent press are what made the United States a great nation. Those are the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

(APPLAUSE)

That order is now being challenged. First by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam. More recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who seek free markets in open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.

The peril each poses to our democracy is more far reaching than a car bomb or a missile. They represent the fear of change. The fear of people who look or speak or pray differently. A contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable. An intolerance of dissent and free thought. A belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform. Because of our intelligence officers and law enforcement and diplomats who support our troops…

(APPLAUSE)

… no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years.

—Sadly, that Enlightenment order we call the American Way is being challenged by Americans who are not Muslim or immigrants or “suspicious” in any other way. Freedom is being attacked by mainstream Americans who see it as standing in the way of their power. Our federal government is being dismantled, and what is left is being honed to serve individual profit. We are being turned against each other in the interest of people who will gain by our division.

We are, in short, seeing what George Washington warned us about most passionately and directly in his 1796 Farewell Address: treachery from within. Let’s turn to the first Farewell Address in American history, which seems as if it was written expressly for us in 2017 (we did the bolding):

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

—That is, you love your democracy and your democratic government, and you should. But remember that it is a painfully new idea, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy, and get you to go back to the old ways. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

That was Washington’s message. We’ll continue on with Obama’s next time.

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Obstruction or democracy?

Posted on March 27, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We keep hearing TV broadcasters asking Democratic members of Congress whether their attempts to rebut the Trump Administration’s platform isn’t just the same sort of obstructionism that Republicans were accused of during the Obama Administration.

In a discussion about whether Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation would be blocked by Democrats who a) were skeptical of his record and b) were protesting the Republicans’ refusal to give President Obama’s candidate Merrick Garland a hearing, a Democratic member of Congress was asked, “Isn’t that the same sort of obstruction of justice Democrats accused the Republicans of when they wouldn’t allow Merrick Garland a hearing?”

In interviews about blocking the Republican alternative to the American Health Care Act, Democrats are repeatedly asked whether their efforts aren’t just like the Republicans voting over and over to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act.

And discussions of the travel ban on seven Muslim nations have gone the same way: “aren’t you just obstructing anything the new president wants to do?”

The list goes on. We want to just step in to say no, it’s not obstructionist to stand up for democracy, liberty, and justice for all. Those Republicans who wanted to block expanded health care, a Democratic president’s Supreme Court Justice, and our Constitution’s ban on creating religious tests were all engaged in anti-American, anti-democratic harm. Those Democrats who are now trying to block reduced health care, the fantasy that the Constitution says a President can’t nominate a new Justice in an election year, and religious discrimination are engaged in pro-American, pro-democratic good.

It’s not just member of Congress of course; college students protesting the invitation of speakers to their campuses who promote discrimination and practice hate speech have also been accused of violating the First Amendment by denying those speakers their freedom of speech. But not all speech is protected, and hate speech is certainly not. Refusing to treat someone who promotes discrimination differently than someone who does not is not protecting fairness and equality, it’s protecting hate speech, and saying it’s no different than other speech in the guise of protecting, somehow, “diversity”.

As Kate Knibbs says, “The phrase ‘ideological diversity’ is a Trojan horse designed to help bring disparaged thought onto campuses, to the media, and into vogue. It is code for granting fringe right-wing thought more credence in communities that typically reject it, and nothing more.”

Let’s not let those who would violate our Constitution tell us that by standing up for it we are being obstructionist.

Next time: back–yes, back after all–to Obama’s farewell address.

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George Washington didn’t show his tax returns

Posted on March 6, 2017. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

…yes, this statement was made on national television last week, in an interview that Bill Maher conducted with Trump supporter and virtual spokesman Jeffrey Lord, who answered Maher’s demand that the current president show his tax returns “as all presidents have done in my lifetime” in this way:

I totally disagree with this. I don’t think he should ever show his tax returns. We’ve had presidents in the United States from George Washington all the way through to Lyndon Johnson who never released a single tax return.

There was scattered laughter in Maher’s audience as people realized the enormity of Lord’s seeming ignorance. Income tax was not instituted in U.S. law until 1913. While an income tax was levied during the Civil War to help the U.S. pay for the war (the Revenue Act of 1862), that was an emergency measure that did not last beyond the war. The 1894 Tariff Act imposed an income tax, but Congress was still debating its constitutionality, and it was not until 1913 that the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, legalizing and instituting a national income tax.

But Lord isn’t ignorant. No, he doesn’t know about the Revenue Act of 1862 or the 1894 Tariff Act, but few Americans do, or need to. Most Americans do, however, know that the U.S. income tax does not stretch back to Washington. There are no cherished stories of Washington traveling to New York City or the new capital, Washington, DC to turn in his 1040-EZ. For Lord to bring up Washington is more than ignorant, and worse than ignorant: it’s dangerous.

Lord is dangerous because he believes the American people are stupid. He’s dangerous because he wants to drape the flag over a breach of trust with the American people. He invokes George Washington to shut people up. We’re not sure whether Lord knows there hasn’t always been income tax in the U.S., but we get the feeling he does, and said what he said to sound a) knowledgeable and b) patriotic. People who peddle you patriotism to cover lies or crimes are un-American, and the opposite of patriotic.

Is the current president hiding criminal activity by refusing to share his tax returns? We have no idea. We will not say that he is, because we don’t know, and that’s not something one should assume. But we do agree with critics that his refusal invites speculation on criminal activity—the worst-case scenario for why he won’t share them.

Those who would defend Lord’s Washington line will say that only pedantic nitpickers would focus on his “little mistake” in the timeline instead of his grand point about individual freedom. They are wrong. Because Lord used Washington in a deliberate attempt to propagandize Trump’s refusal to share his returns as patriotic. That’s the grand point.

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Race and the “hardworking middle class”: Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on February 20, 2017. Filed under: Economics, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post four in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. We left off in our last post promising to get to President Obama’s frank address of race, so let’s begin.

There’s a second threat to our democracy. And this one is as old as our nation itself.

After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent…

(APPLAUSE)

… and often divisive force in our society.

Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.

(APPLAUSE)

You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.

—The last comment is important. Older members of the HP who describe their childhoods in the 1970s to teenager today may as well be talking about another planet. While it’s true that hidden racism is no better than outright racism, it’s easy to forget what outright racism represents: a consensus that there’s nothing wrong with it. Overt racism is a sign that people feel comfortable expressing racism; they don’t expect anyone to challenge or reproach them. In America 50 years ago, it was okay to be openly, outrageously racist. In America today, it isn’t, because those 50 years were spent stripping away the social justifications of and legal supports for racism. The biological arguments for racism, the “oh come on, it’s just a joke” arguments for racism, the “this is the way it’s always been” arguments, the “this is how God intended” arguments—all were at last relentlessly, righteously assaulted as the nation pushed to live up to its mandate of liberty and justice for all.

But, as the president says, that doesn’t mean racism ended. Racism will never end. It’s part of human nature. And that means the fight against racism must never end. We have to rise above our nature. All of us will always have more work to do, but if we do it, we will get closer to being free of racism, as close as it is possible to come. We cannot afford to have the work of the last 50 years undone by anti-Americans who want to go back to the old days. Their mythical view of an all-white America that was happy and strong and rich would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to this nation.

If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.

—This single sentence says so much. Here the president is frank about how neo-conservatives and white supremacist/fascists do indeed frame every economic issue. This began with Reagan. His 1984 “Morning again in America” ad (you can find it easily on YouTube) was 90 seconds of showing only white Americans while a voiceover talked about hardworking people buying houses and getting married and thriving. (Yes, for exactly two seconds a black and a Latino child are shown watching an American flag being raised. But apparently when they grow up these non-white children will not contribute to America’s wealth, strength, and happiness.) Since then, “hardworking” and “middle-class” have come to be code words for “white” and “native-born”. Anyone who isn’t hardworking and middle-class is a non-white criminal. In the last presidential campaign, these ceased to be unspoken codes, as neo-conservatives and fascists and other Trump supporters applauded his description of Mexicans, Muslims, and other non-white immigrants as criminals, and stood by Trump’s refusal to call the KKK a hate/terrorist/white supremacist group.

If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.

(APPLAUSE)

And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.

So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.

That is what our Constitution and highest ideals require.

—A loud minority of Americans want a zero-sum game. They feel that any and every advance by people unlike them (non-white, immigrant) comes only at their expense. If anyone else wins, it’s because they lose. That’s why they want to repeal laws against discrimination, ironically by claiming those laws discriminate against whites/white men/native-born white Americans. These people are Americans in name only, as they would violate our Constitution to enrich and (so they think) protect themselves.

But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.

We have to pay attention and listen.

—It’s hard to feel a lot of compassion for white men in western society. They still have every advantage when it comes to being educated, hired, well-paid, catered to politically, and identified as the “average person”. White men do still have all the advantages, even after 50 years of economic, cultural, and technological change. Again, it’s the zero-sum mentality at work: any change for white men is seen as an alarm bell that the God-ordained proper world order is being destroyed. Not all white men feel this way. But the ones who do should only be paid attention and listened to as part of an effort to re-educate them to be Americans.

For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.

(APPLAUSE)

For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.

(APPLAUSE)

So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

(APPLAUSE) (CHEERING)

And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.

And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

—Bubbles have always existed. They’re not the product of social media. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries in America were always firmly ideological—Republican or Democrat, nativist or pro-immigrant, for blacks or for whites or for Jewish people, etc. But the harm of bubbles is intensified by social media. Now we don’t even have to know that we are buying “our” paper for “our” people; we can go online to a site that pretends to be objective while it peddles ridiculous and harmful, divisive and undemocratic opinions, or, more and more often, lies. People become used to arguing with other people only when they leave those social media bubbles, not within them, and the right to argue a point is confused with the right to win an argument. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the “information wants to be free” movement that destroyed paid journalism was an anti-democratic plot after all…

Next time: the third threat to American democracy

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Watergate and Trump and deja-vu: The Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Posted on January 31, 2017. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’re rerunning this post from our series on the 1972-5 Watergate crisis because of the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

Members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973. They fought for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. They knew that we, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. They knew that Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis.” How will the members of our federal government act in 2017?

 

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

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President Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on January 13, 2017. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Presidential farewell addresses are fairly predictable. They are dramatic, emotional, and long. But sometimes they are very important, because they shine a clear light on how our highest leader thinks about the United States, his analysis of what is good and bad about the nation, and how he wants us to think about it. You may recall our series on the first farewell address, from George Washington, and  our series on Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address. Both are instances of important farewell addresses. Both warn the American people against dangers and urge them to preserve what America stands for (though they could not possibly be more different in how they define each of those categories).

Now Barack Obama has delivered his farewell, and we feel it is important, partly because of the president giving it, and partly because of the president about to follow him. Here is the first installment in our close-reading (we take our text from the official White House transcript, omitting only the times it tells you people applauded [“Applause”]):

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home! Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody sit down. We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat.

—Right away we see Obama doing something different: he’s the only president since Lyndon Johnson to give his Farewell Address in front of a live audience (Johnson gave his as part of his last State of the Union Address in 1969). Presidents before TV generally saw farewell addresses as literary artifacts: they were published without ever being delivered as speeches. Presidents in the radio age gave their addresses over the radio. And with the exception of Johnson, presidents in the TV age gave their addresses on TV. There is usually no call-and-response between president and audience. Here, we see Obama responding to the audience, and we deleted about a half-dozen references to applause.

Why the actual speech? There seem to be two possible or likely answers: first, Obama enjoys talking to a live audience; second, it was particularly important for him to see the faces of his supporters (since people who do not support him would be unlikely to show up at this event). He has always expressed great affection for and closeness to his supporters, and as he hands off the presidency to someone who clearly does not like Obama supporters, Mr. Obama wanted to “be with them” one last time as president. This jibes with the overall optimism of Obama’s message; he seems to have wanted to bolster the mood and hopes of those who look forward to Trump’s presidency with dread. It’s far easier to do this in person, where you can gesture and laugh and walk around a little—not things you can really do as well on TV.

My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

—It seems odd to us that people began to chant “four more years” at this point. It’s something Americans do, but not usually this early in a speech, and not usually until the president says something about what he’s accomplished in office. Here, Obama has made only  a fairly boilerplate statement, so far as presidential speeches go, about what he’s learned from the American people, and just begun to talk about his early years (something almost every address since Reagan seems to do). And even this reminiscing, so far, is pretty standard—talking about the dignity of hard-working Americans who meet challenges bravely.

Maybe people’s emotions were sparked because the president speaking is black, and for the first time, so are the working people dealing with struggle and loss. Obama will address this openly later in the Address, when he says (in so many words) that “hard-working Americans” has become a code for “white Americans”. But as a young black organizer, Obama met with black Americans who struggled but possessed dignity and faith, and he recognized them as real Americans. This may have hit his audience and led them to cry out for four more years of a black president.

Next time: the most important thing any president, any American, could say

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Alt-right and other peculiar institutions

Posted on January 5, 2017. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , |

There was a story on the radio a while ago about the term “alt-right” that said in part:

[Ian Haney Lopez, UC Berkeley] says use of the term alt-right is an effort to make white supremacist views more palatable.

LOPEZ: It’s clearly a strategy designed to obfuscate the central tenets of the movement in a way that will hopefully allow that movement to enter mainstream discourse. That was the goal, and they’ve largely achieved that goal.

[Reporter Adrian] FLORIDO: He points to how pervasive the term has become in just the last few months. Heidi Beirich tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She thinks the term alt-right is just the latest way white supremacists have rebranded themselves since the Civil Rights Movement [to make] their beliefs socially unacceptable.

HEIDI BEIRICH: If you said I’m white supremacist, you weren’t going to get talked to. So they rebranded to white nationalism in an attempt to still be in the conversation about politics in the United States. So it went from white supremacy to white nationalism and now from white nationalism to the alt-right or the alternative right.

FLORIDO: But Beirich says this latest term has done something new and ingenious.

BEIRICH: It specifically ditches the term white [and] it puts right in there. And what white supremacists were doing was to say we are part of the conservative coalition. We are part of the right wing.

Any student of history knows that language is everything. Coin the right name for your movement and you can gain a lot of ground. The name is so clear and persuasive that it not only explains in an instant what your movement is about, it claims the moral high ground. The Anti-Choice movement, for example, was smart enough not to choose that name—they called themselves Right to Life. This name at once tells people the group is against legal abortion and for a “baby’s” right to live. The fact that there is no “baby” to live or die in the first trimester, when most abortions are performed, is erased by an overriding irrational demand that we ignore this fact and agree that a baby is present from conception on and that every baby has a right to live. Who wants to deny that babies have a right to live, even when they don’t exist? A movement characterized by periodic acts of violence and everyday acts of harassment and hatred is given an entirely positive spin by its name.

Before slavery was abolished in this country, slaveholders and slavery apologists worked hard to come up with a name for slavery that made it sound like a “positive good” (the phrase they often used). They eventually hit on “our peculiar institution”. This name did a lot of work: it defined slavery only in terms of the American South so it could not be associated with slavery going on in nations we deplored as primitive (“our”), separated it from other social organizations in this country so that their principles could not be applied to it (“peculiar”), and gave the business of breeding human beings for sale the gravitas of politics and society (“institution”). This worked well for a while. It narrowed some people’s vision and kept them from dwelling on the fact that slavery was unconstitutional and violated our basic national founding principles—you couldn’t think about slavery in that way, like you thought about other features of U.S. society and business. Slavery was “peculiar”. It had its own ways. You couldn’t judge it in terms of liberty and justice for all.

Now we have “alt-right”, as explained above. We remember starting to hear this in mainstream media a few years ago, once in a while, but during the 2016 election it became a constant. You figured it meant “alternative right” and that it’s just a new term to replace “neo-con” or “far right”. And, sadly, the media did little to nothing to correct this impression by stating the truth: alt-right means fascist. The “alt” is “alternative to liberty and justice for all.” Conservatism—the right—in America had been becoming less and less about fiscal prudence and more and more about cracking down on non-whites, non-straights, and non-native-born Americans for decades, until it was easy for fascist white supremacists to just dump that negative name and say they were part of the right—part of a new right that was dedicated to white supremacist fascism. But they didn’t have to say that. They could just say “we’re a new kind of right wing–the alt-right.”

It’s a real problem that media routinely lacerated as “liberal”, like NPR, where the story quoted above comes from, allowed white supremacist fascists to take on a positive name, used that name, and helped make it mainstream. Belatedly now, as a man supported by nearly 100% of white supremacist fascists takes office, media outlets are trying to blow the whistle. Hopefully we can all help to strip away the benign alt-right name from this anti-American hate movement.

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The Problems of American Freedom

Posted on December 2, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

We’re re-running this 2010 post because it seems fitting to revisit these issues as 2016 draws to a close.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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Trump, protest, and being “fair”

Posted on November 17, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In the days since the election, we’ve heard a few consistent messages:

—We need to come together and support Trump because the peaceful transfer of power is crucial to our democracy;

—We need to put aside our differences and unite as a nation;

—We need to acknowledge the other side and not automatically assume that anyone across the political aisle is evil.

The real issue at the heart of these three messages is relativism: there is no absolute, objective truth, like “Trump is bad” or “Democrats are good”. We have to support Trump’s election because accepting him, relative to the chaos that the failure of a peaceful transfer of power would bring, is necessary.We have to give every argument a fair hearing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

We’d like to challenge this relativism. One senses that many Americans would like to challenge it, feeling that there is something different about this situation, that rejecting Trump is not just petty party politics but a way to take a stand for justice. They are right.

What is our basis for saying this, our objective truth? Well, in this context, there is only one objective truth to turn to. We are Americans. We were educated so that we can understand how our government was framed, how it is supposed to work, and what its goals are—both literal, as in what tasks it is supposed to perform, and more figurative, as in what impact it is meant to have, what kind of nation and people it is meant to create.

Our federal government, as described in the Constitution, was created to balance power between three branches of government. Two of those branches are representative, in that we vote people into their offices. The judiciary is appointed by our representatives. The executive branch handles foreign policy and is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. The legislatures creates laws. The judiciary reviews laws to be sure they are constitutional, and amends or invalidates laws that are not.

Our Constitution states that the goal of our nation is to offer liberty and justice to all, and to protect citizens’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It says that we can only protect those rights for all if we offer them to all (that took a few amendments, to extend those rights to non-whites and women, but it got done). It says, in the Bill of Rights, that we have immense personal liberty to worship as we please, speak and write as we please, and generally do as we please—so long as we do not infringe on someone else’s rights by doing that. It’s a balancing act in which our right to liberty is checked by other’s rights to liberty.

Fulfilling these terms has led our judiciary and Congress to pass laws guaranteeing equality of opportunity; laws that give every American as level a playing field for success as we can, through public education that is mixed and equal, through sexual harassment laws, anti-discrimination laws, and more.

These are the objective truths of American government, our Constitution, and our goals as a nation.

Therefore, these are the standards by which we must measure any U.S. citizen. We judge presidents by them, we judge members of Congress by them, we judge state and local officials by them. We judge news outlets and social organizations by them.

And so we must judge Trump by them. When he says he will punish women who have abortions, when he says natural-born American citizens whose parents are not from the U.S. are biased and unworthy to serve in public office, when he says he doesn’t know if the Ku Klux Klan is a hate group, when he says he engages in sexual assault, when he says he will get rid of governmental organizations like the EPA that keep our air and water safe because they hurt big business—in all these cases, he is violating our principles of government and the goals of the American nation.

When his supporters say, as we heard many say over the past weeks and months, that a vote for Trump is a vote for the “angry white man”, and for white supremacy, they are violating liberty and justice for all. When his supporters say Muslims should not be allowed to live in America, they violate the First Amendment.

And most of all, when his supporters say what they want most is for Trump to destroy the federal government, they are striking at the very heart of our nation.

So there is an objective reason for Americans to oppose Trump. He opposes America.

Peaceful transfer of power is important in a democracy—but we have to put the democracy first. We will peacefully transfer power to Trump, but we will not peacefully give him the power to destroy our democracy once he is in office. If all we preserve of our democracy is transfer of power, we don’t really have anything left.

We do not need to come together and support Trump. We need to come together to do what we can to oppose him when he violates our Constitution and our laws and our heritage, and support him when he does not.

We cannot put aside our differences with those who would destroy the American way of life as expressed in our Constitution and system of law. We have to try to get them to see the error of their ways, not say that their opinions are equally valid.

Anyone who wants to destroy this nation’s system of government  and commitment to liberty and justice for all is, in our opinion, either evil or extremely dangerous. They cannot be allowed to carry out their mission on the basis of “fairness”. This is not a question of which political party you belong to. It’s a question of whether you hold the American commitment to liberty and justice for all dear.

This is the only objective truth we can call upon when discussing politics, the only way that does not degenerate into relativism. It’s the yardstick we must use as we move forward.

 

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