Positive change v. negative: closing Obama’s Farewell address

Posted on May 1, 2017. Filed under: American history, Puritans, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the president’s poignant question “why was there a Civil War?”, since Yoni Appelbaum over at the The Atlantic does a fine job addressing that for us.

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 President Obama’s comments on attacks on the Enlightenment order that is the foundation of the American way, with him saying there had not been a successful attack by foreign terrorists in the United States in the last eight years.

And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists, including Bin Laden.

The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed. And no one who threatens America will ever be safe.

And all who serve or have served — it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your commander-in-chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

But, protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.

And that’s why for the past eight years I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.

—This section starts out as the usual tough-on-crime/terrorism/”threats” section that is in most 21st-century farewell addresses, but then morphs into an attempt by the president to say that military action is not the only patriotic action, and that military action without constitutional underpinnings is as dangerous as any crime/terrorism/threats. But this section falls strangely flat. The quick half-sentence “we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are” is vague and could be used to support more militarization. It’s not clearly stating that military action alone has no moral value; it is judged good or evil by the cause it supports. And the Obama administration did not leave a great legacy when it comes to prisoners at Guantanamo, stopping surveillance of the public, and protecting privacy.

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights.

No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.

Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point — our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

—Here things pick up as the president says that fighting for human rights is “part of defending America.” That’s true. So long as Americans are willing to recognize extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism within the U.S., and not always just in other nations, and to fight it as hard here at home as they do abroad, we are on solid ground. The scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law will shrink if the U.S. only enforces rule of law outside its own borders. That’s what it means to say that no one can defeat America but ourselves—if we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight against injustice in other nations, our credibility is dissolved along with our democracy.

All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.

When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.

When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.

Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

—We heartily second all of the statements made here! When people lose faith in our political system, they stop participating, and begin to elect people they hope will either destroy that system as impossibly corrupt, or reform it through strong-man tactics—bypassing Congress via executive orders and/or pushing oppressive and unconstitutional laws through Congress. But we, the people, have to bring meaning to our government or it will cease to exist. That is the substance of Obama’s next section:

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”

Read Washington’s great address here.

And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others.

When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.

—It’s this kind of optimism that is so desperately essential to democracy. If, over 275 years later we still have to work to improve our democracy, we can see that as a clear sign that it’s hopelessly flawed and we should give up, or we can see it as a clear sign that our democracy has been greatly improved over those 275 years, and can just keep getting better and better. You have to choose the latter—choose optimism—to keep democracy alive.

Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.

—This is a call to energy and real life that more Americans need to answer.

Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen Wounded Warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again.

I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees or work for peace and, above all, to look out for each other. So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined.

And I hope your faith has too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 and 2008, 2012.

—This list of the good and bad moments ends with an emphasis on the good, and subtly reminds us of the historic step that was electing our first black president.

The rest of the speech is shout-out to the First Lady, the Obama daughters, vice-president Joe Biden, the White House staff, and the vast network of volunteers who worked on his campaigns. And then this:

And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

—These are defiantly positive statements to make as Donald Trump prepared to take office. Obama wants to counter the idea that there will no longer be a place in the country for those who did not support Trump, and encourage them to continue to push for the positive change that is the work of improving our democracy by extending and strengthening it, even as proponents of the negative change that is the work of narrowing and destroying our democracy look forward to having the upper hand.

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes, we can.

Yes, we did.

Yes, we can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you.

Next time: thoughts on how to live Obama’s optimism.

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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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Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty

Posted on February 6, 2017. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go with post three 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. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.

And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.

(APPLAUSE)

The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.

Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.

(APPLAUSE)

But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.

(APPLAUSE)

To give workers the power…

(APPLAUSE)

… to unionize for better wages.

(CHEERS)

To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.

(APPLAUSE)

And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.

Next time: tough talk on race

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The 2017 Fugitive Immigrant Act

Posted on January 27, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Slavery | Tags: , , , , |

We’re interrupting our series on Barack Obama’s Farewell Address once again, but this time not because it was removed from whitehouse.gov, along with pages on civil rights, healthcare, and climate science, by the Trump Administration. Instead, we are struck by how much the war on Latin American immigrants (and this one group is the real focus of  anti-immigrant activism in this country) reminds us of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (also known as the Fugitive Slave Law).

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about black slaves, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

When we hear people today, in 2017, talking about the laws and acts they are going to put in place to stop the alleged democracy-killing overflow of Spanish-speaking immigration to the United States, they sound a lot like people who would have liked the Fugitive Slave Act. Here is an NPR interview with Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump during the campaign, from yesterday:

INSKEEP: What do you think about the president’s effort to compel, if he can, local and state authorities to be more helpful to the Border Patrol and immigration authorities in doing their jobs and rounding up people who are here illegally?

JUDD: Well – so my understanding is that he’s not compelling them to help us round them up. But what he is saying is if they come in contact, if a police officer, say, from Phoenix Police Department – if a police officer from the Phoenix, Ariz., police department comes in contact with somebody that he knows is here or suspects that is here illegally, then his responsibility is to contact an immigration enforcement officer to come in and find out. It’s the same with me. As a Border Patrol agent, if I make a vehicle stop and I find that illegal activity is taking place outside of the laws that I enforce…

INSKEEP: Drunk driver for example.

JUDD: Exactly – it’s my responsibility to call the local law – the local law enforcement so that they can come out and take care of the problem.

INSKEEP: Are we not actually arguing about that much then? Because there are local authorities who are saying, yeah, yeah, if we find somebody who’s obviously in violation, we have to turn them over, but we do not want to make that our job. We don’t want it to be our job to seek them out or to hold people when otherwise there would not be reason to hold them.

JUDD: And it’s not going to be their job. It’s not going to be their job to go seek out illegal immigrants in the United States. That is immigrations officers’ jobs and it’s not theirs. But if they do come in contact with people that are in the country illegally, they should have a responsibility and duty to report people that are breaking the law.

Judd’s statements are disingenuous. How would that police office in Phoenix “know” that someone he meets is “here illegally” without a mechanism in place to track all immigrants and make their data available at all times to police, and require the police to consult it? There’s no way to “know” someone is a legal immigrant or not without looking up their information, which means asking/forcing the person you have “come in contact with” to give you their name, address, etc. And of course, “come in contact” with is blandly disingenuous as well: when do police officers “come in contact” with people? We’d wager that 95% of the time it’s by stopping them on the premise of a violation of the law. Judd himself puts contact in the context of a vehicle stop. So already we have a question of who is being stopped and why which has, of course, been asked for over a century in this country, beginning with black Americans stopped by police for no reason and extending to brown immigrants getting the same treatment.

The reporter’s characterization of police officers resisting being turned into immigrant-catchers is in line with all white Americans being forced into being slave-catchers in 1850. Judd says it won’t be the police officer’s job to “seek out illegal immigrants”, but reiterates that police officers who don’t turn in people who are here illegally are violating their duty and the law. If you get in trouble for failing to do something, you will find ways to do it. If police officers will be sanctioned for failing to turn in illegal immigrants, they will begin turning in illegal immigrants. They will look at the data, identify people here illegally in their cities and towns, stop them on another pretext, and turn them in.

And if the police must do this, eventually they will enlist the general public in helping them to do this. They will paint all immigrants here illegally as murderers, as Judd does later in the interview by saying “I think the country is going to be a lot safer. I really do, yes, absolutely. I mean, I was there with what they call the angel families, families that had children that were killed by persons that were in the United States illegally.” And once all illegal immigrants are child-murderers, it will be against the law not to seek them out and turn them in, for everyone.

And then we are all slave-catchers.

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President Obama’s Farewell Speech continues, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

So now we continue with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite 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.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, for as long as it is allowed to post it.

We left off in part 1 with President Obama talking about his time as a grassroots political organizer in Chicago:

Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.

—Those last two sentences are so critically important: we must participate in our democracy in order to uphold it. It doesn’t matter what kind of change you want. You have to act for it, and support others who take action.

That action should be informed by nothing other than our founding principles:

of due process before the law…

of equality of opportunity…

of no discrimination based on race, creed, or sex…

…of liberty and justice for all. Any change, any movement, any one that does not support these things is un-American. So erasing gay people and non-white people is not supporting our democracy. It is un-American.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

—These founding principles are indeed a gift and an imperative. We have to work to maintain them—they are not self-perxetuating. We will have them for as long as we want them. When Americans top wanting everyone in this country to be treated as equal, our democracy will end.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

—All of those examples in the second paragraph are concrete manifestations of “liberty and justice for all.” All of the people mentioned are true Americans.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

—It would seem the president had been reading our blog! Especially our About page.

When we face people saying they want to make America great again, we must ask them what they mean by that. Whose lives will be made better? What should be changed? What exactly isn’t great? How can we solve problems by expanding civil rights rather than curtailing them?

We’ll leave off here for now. Next time, the ridiculous red herring of “the peaceful transfer of power.”

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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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Finding historical context for 2016–or manufacturing it?

Posted on December 16, 2016. Filed under: American history, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Since the presidential election, many people, including historians, have stepped up to say that the nastiness of the campaign and the election of Trump are not unique in American history.

You think this election was nasty? Look at Adams v. Jefferson! You think Trump says crazy things? Look at Andrew Jackson! You think Trump is racist? What about Wilson!

This is meant to reassure us that nothing fundamental is changing in American politics or society. But this is critically inaccurate. This type of comparison normalizes Trump, and fits him into a continuum when he is actually unique in presidential history. First and foremost, no other person has come into office swearing to destroy our federal government. Aside from that, we have had about about 60 years of dedicated expansion of civil rights in this country, to black, Asian, and Latino Americans; to women; to gay Americans; to non-Christian Americans.

Trump goes forcefully against the tide of this history and he is the leader of a backlash against civil rights in this country that we fear will last many, many years. Backlash is inevitable, but the fury of it now is alarming. One can only hope that once all the forces of white supremacy and sexism and homophobia come parading out, real Americans can do battle with them and restore the mandate to offer liberty and justice to all given in our founding documents.

So to all historians and others saying we need more civility, we agree up to a point: civil discourse is crucial to democracy. But 2016 was not about civility.  Yes, Jefferson v. Adams was uncivil—does that make it like 2016? No. Something much bigger is now at stake. Something much worse is happening.

We can’t use history to hide our heads in the sand and to (ironically) deny that this is a historic moment in our history. We can use history to inform our response to this historic moment.

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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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