Terms of Use

Finally, I am reading Leaves of Grass. I am not skimming it to find some pretty lines to recite for company. No, I am reading the full work because the twilight of the American experiment seems like a good time to pause and reflect upon the meaning and nobility of that experiment. One could just as easily read Condorcet, or the Federalist Papers, but Leaves of Grass better suits my present mood. If the philosophers of the Enlightenment were the brains of our crumbling project, Whitman was and is its heart. In the sadness of the present historical moment, I find myself more in need of solace than intellectual reinvigoration.

Yesterday, I came upon the poem, For You O Democracy:

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will make divine magnetic lands,

With the love of comrades,

With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,

By the love of comrades,

By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!

For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

I read and re-read the poem. I thought: If only these words, and nothing more, were the terms of use of Facebook, and all social media. Imagine that you could not post opinions without asking yourself whether your writing promotes the indissolubility of your community, or its dissolution. Imagine that you required of yourself that your writings help make the human race the most splendid the sun ever shone upon. Imagine that before you hit “Post,” you had to explain—if only to yourself—how you intended to make divine with the love of comrades these magnetic lands. Imagine that these terms of use were enforced only by conscience, and that this was enough. Perhaps then we would stop cutting down the trees along the riverbanks in order to provide a clear line of sight for our weapons of mass dysfunction. Perhaps then we would throw our arms around each other’s necks, instead of each other’s throats. Perhaps, like Whitman, we could know ourselves as manly comrades and as ma femme, simultaneously and without contradiction.

It’s a pretty thought.

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, Again

In the 1950’s, as Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt degraded the nation’s political culture and terrorized the entertainment industry, a young writer made a breakthrough with his award-winning play, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He began to receive offers to write novels, screenplays, and television shows. But he frequently found himself being censored by sponsors who were loathe to back any work that might invite scrutiny from Washington. Eventually, Rod Serling realized that the only way he could say what he wanted to say was through the indirection and metaphor afforded by the genre of science fiction. Although some of the episodes of the show he created, The Twilight Zone, are pure sci-fi, many others are thinly-veiled political statements. Some are direct shots at Joe McCarthy.

In The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, the residents of Maple Street see a light in the sky that looks like a spaceship. They gather in the street to speculate about what they just saw. The more they talk, the more they reinforce each other’s fears. Someone raises the possibility that aliens have come to invade Earth. The power to the neighborhood fails inexplicably. One resident can’t start his car, then the car starts by itself. Terror overtakes the neighbors. Someone suggests that the aliens must have a spy who told them that Maple Street would be a good place to begin their invasion. In a flash, the neighbors turn on each other violently, and Maple Street descends into chaos.

It doesn’t end the way you’d think. The light really was a spaceship. Aliens really are planning to invade. They’ve been standing on a hill outside town, playing with the power and preying on people’s fear. This is how they will conquer Earth without firing a shot: they will turn the humans against each other and watch while we destroy ourselves.

Today, the monsters are returning. Not to Maple Street, but to our new virtual neighborhood: social media.

In 2020, I’m supporting Senator Amy Klobuchar for President. The reasons don’t matter for purposes of this post. The point is that as a supporter of Sen. Klobuchar, I get her Facebook posts in my feed. A few I read, most I glance at, some I ignore. Regardless of the subject matter, however, the comment threads are uniformly terrifying.

Today Sen. Klobuchar posted a story about a staffer of hers receiving a fellowship, and offering her congratulations. As you might expect, the comments section went right off the rails. One Jeff Ritzko responded, “Remember 9/11.” Huh? What does that have to do with the post? It gets much worse. Regina Massini said, “I SEE YOU’RE A LYING DEM-O-RAT WHOSE [sic] ON THE SIDE OF THE MUSLIMS[.]” The all-caps are all hers; everyone knows you’re more persuasive when you shout. The award for Most Deranged Comment of The Day, however, goes to one Mark Flesberg, who writes, “OMAR MARRIED HER BROTHER. AMY SUPPORTS HAMAS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. TODAY’S DEMS ARE A RADICAL BUNCH. #OBAMUNISM”

At this point, you’re probably reaching for the Tums. What the hell is wrong with this country that people think these things? How did their perspective become so distorted that they’re perfectly comfortable spouting lunatic ideas in public?

Put down the Tums. Breathe. It isn’t as bad as all that. Or maybe it’s worse.

Jeff Ritzko’s Facebook profile shows no activity since 2012. It’s been dormant for seven years. It has no pictures of him. It lists no family or personal information. The chances are very good that either the profile is fake, or it’s a dormant profile that has been hijacked by domestic or foreign trolls.

Regina Massini’s Facebook profile consists entirely of a cover photo and one picture of a document or web page from 2018. The profile lists no friends, no location information, and has no original content. Yet suddenly she’s active in political discussions on Facebook. The chances of her being a real person are low.

Mark Flesberg sounds like the neighbor you shoo your kids away from because you’re pretty sure he’s unhinged and you don’t know what he might do. Except that Mr. Flesberg probably isn’t your neighbor, because he probably isn’t real. His profile has no pictures of himself, and lists no friends. There is no identifiable personal information. The most recent activity is one picture in 2018 and one picture in 2016. And now he’s suddenly active in the threads of a politician whom he opposes? Doubtful.

But wait, you say: perhaps these people just have their privacy settings turned up to eleven. Well, I’ve seen real profiles like that. You can still see profile pictures that show the same person in different settings. You can still see activity. You can still see original content, not just reposted memes or forwarded stories from biased sources on the lunatic fringe. The profiles I’m flagging have none of the hallmarks of authenticity.

Think about it, folks: if you support a candidate, you might follow that candidate’s activities. You might comment on them from time to time. But starting arguments with people whom you will never convince of anything by making inflammatory comments on the threads of candidates whom you oppose is a total waste of time. Sane people don’t waste their time like that.

The point isn’t that the political right is nuts, because this isn’t a right-wing phenomenon. Quite the contrary. Russian trolls are on every side of every argument. Their purpose is not to convince you of any particular thing. Their purpose is to convince you only that they are your neighbor—and to make you angry. Their purpose is to drive a wedge between you and the people with whom you share your community, your city, your state, and your country. In this way will we become too divided to act purposefully as a nation. In this way will we destroy ourselves from within, just like the residents of Maple Street.

The measure of how effective these trolls are is that it takes extreme effort and supreme self-control not to be drawn into arguing with them. The argument is what they want. They feed on anger. Irrational argument turns political adversaries into enemies, and enemies fight to kill.

The United States has the strongest military on the planet, and it isn’t close. We are unconquerable from without. Any country that seeks to do us harm must weaken us from within. It must make us so distrustful of our leaders, our institutions and each other that we refuse to believe that existential threats are real. It must paralyze us into inaction by distracting us with internecine battles. Right now, the Russians are doing a pretty good job of that.

The enemies of this country are real. They do not live on your block. They do not vote for the party you don’t belong to. They are standing on their hills outside our borders, playing with our emotions and preying on our fear.

Go Ahead, Build the Wall

Donald Trump had a public spat with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi the other day about funding for his border wall. Trump threatened to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t fund construction of the wall.

I confess I do not understand.

In 2015, Donald Trump kicked off his campaign for President with a speech characterizing Mexicans as criminals and rapists. He promised to build a border wall to deter immigrants and—crucially—to make Mexico pay for it. It was an insane promise: why would Mexico pay for the wall? Why would that nation even entertain the notion of quarantining itself behind a wall as if it were diseased? What possible inducement could Trump offer that would convince Mexico to debase itself in such a manner? What persuasive power could he have left after disparaging Mexicans in openly racist terms?

Whatever. He made the promise. And he kept making it, again and again. According to the Washington Post, from the time he announced his candidacy to today Trump publicly repeated his promise that Mexico would pay for the wall approximately 190 times. That promise was the centerpiece of his campaign, the raisin d’etre for his candidacy. Supporters chanted, “Build the wall” at campaign rallies. (They also chanted, “Lock her up,” another lunatic commitment that Trump could not keep and has not pursued, but that’s a subject for another day.)

I do not understand why Congress needs to provide money for a border wall when the money is supposed to come from Mexico. Not being a political consultant type, I also do not understand why Democrats do not talk about this every damned day. It seems so, so easy to me. Democrats should stop talking about the virtues of immigration, although such virtues are real. They should stop talking about why the wall isn’t necessary, or wouldn’t be effective even if it were built, although both of those things are true. They should even stop talking about the racism at the heart of Trump’s views on immigration, although that racism is real, and evil. Instead, they should have one message, and that message should be hammered home every time the subject of immigration is raised: “A promise made should be a promise kept. We welcome the President’s commitment to build a wall on our southern border with money from Mexico. As soon as funding from Mexico is secured, Congress will act to remove any legal obstacles to construction of the wall that may exist.”

Of course, there is no chance that Congress would ever have to remove any such obstacles, because there is no chance that Mexico will ever write the check. Thus, the message underscores the absurdity of Trump’s promise. It forces him to defend himself on ground that is indefensible. It highlights, again and again, the unkept promise. Democrats can claim they are in complete agreement with the President on the evils of illegal immigration, the necessity of a southern border wall, and the need for Mexico to fund it. And then they can sit back and watch as Trump falls on his face, either by trying to engage with Mexico over funding, or by trying to explain why he didn’t mean what he said.

Trump already has given ample evidence that he intends to make a fool of himself on this issue. His latest claim is that Mexico is going to pay for the wall by giving the U.S. more favorable terms in the re-negotiation of NAFTA. That means, of course, that any money gained by virtue of those more favorable terms would be diverted from the American economy to build the wall. Which means Americans would pay for it. His argument is as silly as if he had said he would get the richest one percent of Americans to fund the wall, but that they could do it by docking your paycheck. That kind of pretzel logic doesn’t pass the smell test.

When your adversary promises to do the impossible, you don’t try to talk him out of it. You encourage him to give it a go, because his certain failure is the quickest way to discredit him and his ideas. And it doesn’t require you to do anything but watch.

Guns and Democracy

This is a post that first appeared in my Tumblr blog, and on Facebook. I’m reposting it here in hopes of reaching a wider audience–and because, sadly, its relevance has not diminished.

Did you know that Canadians who wish to possess or acquire firearms must have a valid possession-acquisition, or possession-only, license? It’s true. What’s more, to be eligible for a license, all applicants must successfully complete the Canadian Firearms Safety Course for a non-restricted license, and the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course for a restricted license; the non-restricted class is a prerequisite to the restricted license. Each province/territory’s chief firearms officer publishes information on the locations and availability of these courses.

Licenses are typically valid for five years and must be renewed prior to expiration. Once licensed, an individual can apply for a firearm transfer, and an authorization to transport for restricted firearms. People may hunt with firearms in Canada only with non-restricted firearms, and this requires an additional “Hunting with Firearms” course.

For the most part, high-capacity magazines are illegal. There are further laws detailing how private firearms must be stored and transported. Certain kinds of ammunition are illegal. Devices that make semiautomatic weapons fully automatic are illegal.

Having effectively disarmed its citizenry, Canada has become a totalitarian dictatorship that does not respect the freedom of its citizens to express their opinions or peacefully change their leadership. Oh wait, that’s not true. What I meant to say is that Canada is a vibrant democracy that successfully integrates immigrants into its society at a per capita rate three times that of the United States, has two official languages, wrestles with a separatist movement in Quebec entirely peacefully, and experiences almost no mass shootings. There was one “mass” shooting in 2017; it claimed six lives. There was one in 2016; four people died. Going back several more years yields similar statistics. (Fun fact: the worst mass killing in Canadian history was the Lachine Massacre, in which 72 people died—in 1689. It was an anti-immigrant riot of a sort, which is to say the Mohawk attacked a French settlement. Another example of the danger of nativist politics, I suppose.)

Australia is a similar cautionary tale in the matter of gun control. There, a person who possesses or uses a firearm must have a firearm license. License holders must demonstrate a “genuine reason”—which does not include self-defense—for holding a firearm license and must not be a “prohibited person” (such as anyone having a mental illness that makes ownership of a firearm a hazard). All firearms in must be registered. Safety courses are mandatory for gun owners. Storage requirements and inspections are imposed. Certain types of semiautomatic weapons and other devices are banned entirely. Sales of guns and ammunition are restricted.

Australia’s current gun control regime is largely traceable to mass shootings between 1984 and 1996. The most notorious of these was the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, in which a gunman armed with two semiautomatic rifles killed 35 people. Public opinion was galvanized. Because the Australian constitution does not give the federal government the power to regulate guns, gun control was accomplished by the enactment of national agreements brokered by the federal government and implemented and enforced by the states. Importation of guns is regulated by the federal government.

As a result of these measures, the most recent relevant report of the Australian Institute of Criminology states that the “number of victims of firearm-perpetrated homicide (i.e. murder and manslaughter) has declined by half between 1989–90 and 2009–10 from 24 to 12 percent.” On the other hand, the difficulty of obtaining firearms made it easy for the Chinese Army, and its fifth-column collaborators of armed wallabies, to overthrow the Australian government last year. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. What I meant to say is that Australia is a fully functioning, multi-party, federal republic. Freedom of assembly and association is respected, the judiciary is independent, and workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Do I really need to go on? Guns are tightly controlled in England, France, Germany, and almost every other western democracy. Somehow, freedom survives.

We all know that gun violence in the United States is off the charts compared to its democratic allies. Here, 27 people die from gun violence for every day of the year. If you adjusted the populations of Canada and Australia, the examples cited above, to make them equivalent to the United States, their rates would still be fewer than 5 deaths for every day of the year. The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 killed 130 people, which is nearly as many as die from gun homicides in all of France in a typical year. But even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks every month, its annual rate of gun homicide death would be lower than that in the United States.

Nevertheless, gun advocates claim that the seemingly endless appetite of Americans for firearms is all that stands between us and the loss of our liberties to a tyrannical government. The problem is that to reach that conclusion, you have to ignore all of the available evidence. The experience of every other democracy shows that being armed to the teeth against the supposed predation of your neighbor is not a pre-requisite to freedom. (In fact, the opposite is more likely true. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel freer to speak and live as I please if I didn’t think that my neighbor’s disapproval might result in my death.) Although . . .

. . . I suppose you could distinguish the United States from other democracies. If you believe that Americans are less attached to their liberties than, say, Belgians, or that the roots of American democracy are shallower than those in, say, Italy, or that American political institutions are weaker than those in, say, Luxembourg, or that Americans are more likely to become attached to authoritarian leaders than, say, Germans, then you can plausibly make the case that Americans need to be armed against the possibility of tyranny because their democracy is more fragile than that of other countries.

Do you believe that?

California Dreamin’

Chutzpah, goes the old saying, may be defined by the example of the young man who murders his parents and then begs the court for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan. Today, Republicans are redefining chutzpah by referring to their defense of Brett Kavanaugh as their “Atticus Finch moment.” Senator Tom Cornyn of Texas said this on the Senate floor today:

Some commentators have called this our Atticus Finch moment, recalling the famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. We all remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt. He represented an unpopular person who many people presumed was guilty of a heinous crime because of his race and his race alone. We could learn from Atticus Finch now, during this time when there has been such a vicious and unrelenting attack on the integrity and good name of this nominee.

Sigh. Where to start?

We could start by noting the irony of this statement coming from the representative of a state that, in Atticus Finch’s time, would have been more likely to lynch him than to applaud his courage. We could point out that Finch defended his client by conducting a thorough investigation of the allegations of wrongdoing against him—not by first denying, then limiting, an investigation into such allegations, as Republicans have done. We could expound upon the fact that Atticus Finch began with an open mind and followed the facts to a logical conclusion—rather than beginning from a conclusion and disregarding evidence to the contrary, as Republicans have done. And we could note the audacity—the chutzpah—of self-congratulatory comparisons between a fighter for the powerless and despised and defenders of the powerful and privileged.

But let’s not. You either see all that, and are sickened by the chutzpah, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ve already stopped reading.

Instead, let’s just take a moment to ponder whether this is really Republicans’ “Atticus Finch moment”—or whether it’s more likely to be their California catastrophe.

It’s hard to remember now, but once upon a time California was a purple state. We gave the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, after all. From the 1960’s onward, the line of governors went like this: Pat Brown (D), Reagan (R), Jerry Brown (D), George Deukmejian (R), Pete Wilson (R), Gray Davis (D), Arnold Schwarzenegger (R, sort of), Jerry Brown (D). That’s a pretty mixed bag. But now California is solidly blue. Every statewide elected official is a Democrat, and that’s been true for a while. Republicans now have such trouble fielding credible statewide candidates that their best bets are self-funded nonpoliticians such as Schwarzenegger, Meg Whitman, and Carly Fiorina.

What happened?

Proposition 187 happened.

(Trigger warning: lawyer humor.) The proposition was appropriately numbered. It killed the state Republican Party.

(California Penal Code section 187 describes the crime of, and punishment for, murder. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Proposition 187 was a 1994 ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other state services. Voters passed it into law. It was challenged in court and found unconstitutional by a federal district court. Nevertheless, conservatives were thrilled by its passage. It meant that the conservative view of illegal immigration represented the majority of voters, right? Republicans would henceforth be able to win at the polls by being tough on immigration and by sponsoring ballot measures designed to divide Democrats on the issue, right?

They certainly thought so. Flushed with victory, Republicans sponsored two more anti-immigrant ballot measures: Proposition 209 in 1996, which ended affirmative action at governmental institutions, and Proposition 227 in 1998, which sharply curtailed bilingual education in public schools. Both measures passed. Conservatism was ascendant in California, right?

Wrong. Numerous studies have shown that the long-term effect of these racially divisive propositions has been to shift Latino support away from the Republican Party and toward the Democratic Party. As California has become more Latino, it has also become more Democratic. For the sake of short-term victory, the Republican Party sacrificed long-term viability, to the point that it has become almost irrelevant in statewide politics.

The moral of the story is pretty simple: If you act as if you don’t give a rat’s butt about people, you don’t get to complain when they believe you. Tell them enough times that they don’t matter, and they’ll vote for people who tell them they do.

Women understand what’s happening with the Kavanaugh hearings. They’re not fooled. They understand that Kavanaugh’s conduct toward women in his youth, and even more so his view of that conduct now, is an important issue. But they are even more keenly aware that Senate Republicans believe it is not important, regardless of the truth or falsity of the allegations against him. Women understand that, while Republicans may say they don’t believe Christine Blasey Ford and other women who have described misconduct by Kavanaugh, in reality they don’t care whether those claims are true. They didn’t want to investigate these claims because the outcome of an investigation didn’t matter to them. They didn’t call relevant witnesses to testify before the Judiciary Committee because they didn’t care what those witnesses might say. When Republicans were shamed into allowing an investigation, they limited its scope because the integrity of the investigation doesn’t matter to them. Women get this.

Tell women enough times that they don’t matter, and they’ll vote for . . . well, we’ll see. Women are not a monolithic voting bloc; they vote against their own interests as often as anyone else in this country. They’re no more intelligent or virtuous than men. But you can only show overt disdain for people so many times before they realize you’re not on their side. Denigrate them long enough, and they’ll find new friends. It happened with Latinos in California. It may yet happen nationwide with women.

So, friends, do not despair as Senate Republicans adopt the mantle of a fictitious civil-rights hero to justify their ill-treatment of women. While they talk about their “Atticus Finch moment,” the rest of us are California dreamin.’