The Revolt of the Masses

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            From his lofty perch as a professor of Metaphysics at Complutense University of Madrid, and as contributor to the newspaper El Sol, the Spanish philosopher, José  Ortega Y Gasset expressed his apprehension at what he described as the rise of the "mass man."  He observed in his seminal book, The Revolt of the Masses, "Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself -- good or ill -- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else."

            A critic of bourgeois culture, Gasset warned about the glorification of mass values - what John Kenneth Galbraith later excoriated as "conventional wisdom " - and the consequences of conformity - the desire to be just like everyone else: "The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: 'to be different is to be indecent.' The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated."


            Gasset's primary concern was that when ideas and principles were reduced to their lowest common denominators, democracy itself and liberal values that informed it would be imperiled. As he noted, "The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: 'the reason of unreason.'"


            Gasset's concern was prophetic given subsequent triumph of General Franco and the fascist dictatorship that he imposed upon Spain though his Falange  party. It also has particular resonance in American politics today. That dictatorship, lest we forget, promoted and protected the interests of the wealthy, destroyed labor unions and stifled every form of dissent. all in the name of restoring Spain's past greatness.


             A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen." Ms. Noonan, an unctuous, life-long reactionary and stalwart defender of the 1%, correctly claimed that elites throughout the Western world all too often disparage ordinary people and are increasingly disconnected from those whom she argues are victims of their policies: "the top detaching itself from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it....From what I've seen of those in power throughout business and politics now, the people of your country are not your countrymen, they're aliens whose bizarre emotions you must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage."


            Noonan concluded, "our elites have abandoned or are abandoning the idea that they belong to a country, that they have ties that bring responsibilities, that they should feel loyalty to their people or, at the very least, a grounded respect."


            Ms. Noonan professes to have little confidence in the candidacy of Donald Trump, even as Trump proclaims himself to be the kind of advocate for the common man and opponent the kind of elite that Noonan rails against. But the "elite" that both Noon and Trump castigate is not the economic elite that controls the levers of power in this county - the Koch brothers, the Romneys and Trumps of this world who received a leg up from inherited wealth - but rather some mythical liberal elite that does not  share their or America's values. In addition, Noonan, a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, espouses the same kinds of policies that Trump endorses. Those policies would only exacerbate the chasm between the 1% and the many and further impoverish ordinary working Americans.


            Rhetoric and bluster aside, one need to look no further than the 2016 Republican Party platform that calls for massive tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of Wall Street, abolition of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, repeal of existing environmental laws, restricting the ability of workers to join unions and to bargain collectively through the enactment of a national right to work law, repealing the federal minimum wage law,   cutting the benefits and pensions of public sector employees, and privatizing Amtrak, Medicare and public schools, among other harmful proposals.


            Trump, as Gasset has warned,  is "the type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions:" he epitomizes "the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: 'the reason of unreason.'"

          In the tradition of so many dangerous demagogues, Trump has succeeded in persuading many "low information" voters that, despite his vast wealth, lavish life-style and unsavory business practices, he is the champion of decent, hard-working people whom our economy has left behind. Implicit in his message is the inference that other less deserving people - i.e minorities, immigrants, etc -  have been permitted to jump t the head of the line. Like Generalissimo Franco, he promises to restore traditional values and to make the country great again. Sadly, many of his supporters,especially those who have been most disadvantaged by current economic policies that have favored the very wealthy, because of their anger, frustration and disenchantment, fail to understand how inimical Trump's policies are to their own best interests.   


            In  his dialogues, Plato has Socrates describe people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, who face a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire behind them, and they begin to give names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners can ever come to viewing reality. 


          If Plato's allegory is not to serve as a metaphor that defines this election, informed citizens throughout this country will need to become more engaged and with fact-driven information explain to their family members, friends and neighbors the importance of this election to their own lives and those of future generations of Americans. The stakes could not be higher, nor the danger to our admittedly imperfect democracy greater. 

Donald Trump, Draft Dodger

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           Over Memorial Day weekend this past May,  Donald Trump delivered a message, via Twitter, to Americans about the debt owed to this country's veterans: "Honor Memorial Day by thinking of and respecting all of the great men and women that gave their lives for us and our country! We love them," Trump wrote. Throughout his campaign, the Republican nominee has pledged his support for veterans and our fighting men and women.

           As has too often been the case throughout his privileged life, Trump's words and present recollections stand to stark contrast to his actual deeds and to the truth . Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on Donald trumps' military deferments during the Vietnam War era.  In 1968, during the escalation of that conflict,. Donald J. Trump was 22 years old. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall and had an with an athletic build; and he played football, tennis and squash in school.  His medical record showed that his overall health was excellent, and that, in the past, he had only a routine appendectomy when he was ten years old.

          Despite his overall excellent health,  Donald Trump received several deferments that enabled him to avoid service in Vietnam, despite previous claims by him in which he insisted that he missed the draft solely because he had a high lottery number.

           In April of 2011, Trump told WNYW in April of 2011, the New York Fox affiliate, that he was "lucky" to avoid the draft and remembered the lottery taking place while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "I was going to the Wharton School of Finance, and I was watching as they did the draft numbers and I got a very, very high number and those numbers never got up to," Trump said. In that conversation Trump did not mention he also received several deferments.

          According to his Selective Service records, first obtained by the website The Smoking Gun through a Freedom of Information Act request, Trump received four student deferments between 1964 and 1968 while in college and an additional medical deferment after graduating. Trump graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1968. The lottery occurred in December 1969, conflicting with Trump's recollection of the event.

          Trump received his first two student deferments while enrolled at Fordham University in New York City in June 1964 and December 1965.  He transferred to Wharton as a sophomore that year and received another two 2-S deferments in December 1966 and January 1968 during his last year of college.
          After his graduation Trump was no longer eligible for student deferments and was about to be classified as 1-A, eligible and qualified for conscription. However, in October 1968, he was declared medically unfit to serve except "in time of national emergency," even though he had been declared fit to serve in 1966. In 1972, Trump was ultimately declared ineligible for service and given a final 4-F deferment, purportedly because of of bone spurs.

         In another interview with The New York Times last month, Trump stated that the bone spurs had been "temporary" condition -a "minor" malady that had not had a meaningful impact on him. He said he had visited a doctor who provided him a letter for draft officials, who granted him the medical exemption. He could not remember the doctor's name.

         In the 2015 biography ,The Truth About Trump, the author, Michael D'Antonio, described an interview with Mr. Trump, who at one point slipped off a loafer to display a tiny bulge on his heel. And during a news conference last year, Mr. Trump could not recall which heel had been involved, prompting his campaign to release a statement saying it was both. Trump, who has proclaimed that his health is perfect," claimed that the heel spurs were "not a big problem, but it was enough of a problem." "They were spurs," he said. "You know, it was difficult from the long-term walking standpoint."

           In December of 2015, his longtime personal physician, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, announced that Mr. Trump had "no significant medical problems" over four decades and that, if elected, he "will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." Dr. Bornstein made no mention of the bone spurs but did note the appendectomy from Mr. Trump's childhood
           In an article published last year  in The New York Daily News, Wayne Barrett, a biographer of Donald Trump, justified Trump's evasion of the draft  because it "fit a pattern of avoidance than was commonplace in his generation." What Barrett neglected to mention, however, was the fact that college deferments and medical exemptions supported by physicians' statements were options available only young men of privilege; the children of the working poor and the uneducated were the ones who became fodder in the jungles of Vietnam and  returned home only in body bags.

          Trump insists that he is committed "Making America strong again," a promise that includes strengthening and expanding the welfare-through-warfare machine that has consumed trillions of dollars of taxpayer money since the end of World War II. But, as a draft evader,Donald Trump shares the same lack of credibility that bedevils other prominent GOP weasels who evaded military service such as Dick Cheney and Rudolph Giuliani. If the the past is prologue, Trump's rhetoric is little less than bluster. It simply underscores the fact that the GOP will continue to remain the party of "do as I say and not as I do."


The Sad Demise of the Fourth Estate

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            Students of logic and language agree that facts must not be confused with opinions.  A fact is based on direct evidence, actual experience, observation, inferences derived from direct observation. A fact is a statement that can be shown to be true or can be proved - as, for example, in the statement "The polio virus causes polio," as has been shown by clinical tests and medical observations. A fact may also refer to an event that actually occurred - e.g., the Mayflower landed in Plymouth in 1620, or the name Boston is a linguistic corruption of the original name for the town in England that was named after its patron saint, Botolph.


         By contrast, an opinion is a statement of belief or feeling. An opinion expresses someone's belief, feeling, view, idea, or judgment about something or someone. Opinions express how a person feels about something; they do not have to be based upon logic and may be entirely subjective matters of opinion - i.e. paisley ties should not be worn with polka-dot shirts.

            When supported by evidence - facts - opinions may be deemed credible; when facts are disregarded, or are contrary to the facts, opinions must be dismissed are incredible and nonsensical.

            Despite these important distinctions, ill-informed opinions continue to drive policy-making in the United States and elsewhere, such as the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. To cite but one example, almost all economists agree that government austerity measures during a time of economic travail, such as during a severe recession and its aftermath, exacerbates the plight of the unemployed, the underemployed and middle class employees who have seen their wages stagnate or erode.

            This was a lesson that the Tory government blithely ignored in the aftermath of the Great Recession as its chose to embark on a ill-advised and counter- productive program to drastically reduce government spending and to balance its budget on the backs of the U.K.'s most vulnerable citizens. That effort was,by and large, with a few notable exceptions such as the Guardian newspaper and the Economist magazine, enthusiastically endorsed by the British tabloid media. The effects of that policy, coupled with xenophobia also spread by the tabloid papers, undoubtedly contributed to the chaos and loss of confidence that has now engulfed Britain's political and economic institutions.

           Here in the United Sates, despite all of the same objective evidence to the contrary, advocates for government minimalism have persisted in their monomaniacal efforts to commit the federal government to extreme austerity measures. Every effort by the Obama administration to increase demand by investing in infrastructure and thus creating jobs has been resisted by the GOPs' lilliputian caucus and its business enablers who are unable to comprehend the difference between a static family budget, based upon fixed income, and the U.S. treasury which, unlike families, has the capacity to increase revenue through licenses, taxes, leases and bonds.  Because of their collective obdurance, these minimalists have prolonged the current era of stagnant wages and weak growth by their refusal to support proven macro-economic stimulus measures that would increase demand for goods and services through pubic investment.


            A second case in point is provided by the shared consensus of consensus of the current GOP leadership, including Donald Trump, Paul Ran and Mitch McConnell, on the issue of the issue of climate change. In the aftermath of the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma in May of 2013, President Obama immediately signed a disaster declaration for that state. The Office of the Press Secretary stated that "The President today declared a major disaster exists in the State of Oklahoma and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area affected by severe storms and tornadoes beginning on May 18, 2013, and continuing" and that "The President's action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pedatum."

            The President announced that he was instructing his disaster response team to get tornado victims in Oklahoma everything they need "right away." The President described the devastation that destroyed the Oklahoma City suburbs as, "one of the most destructive tornadoes in history." The president also offered his prayers and emphasized that there was a long road of recovery ahead. But he said the victims wouldn't travel alone and they would have all the resources that they needed.

            The President's concern for the victims of Oklahoma's tornadoes stood in stark contrast to the appalling hypocrisy and lack of compassion shown by Oklahoma's two U.S. Senators toward the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both Republicans, claim to be fiscal conservatives who have repeatedly voted against funding disaster aid for other parts of the country (yet they have willingly accepted federal disaster aid in the form of transfer payments from the more prosperous, more enlightened blue states). They also have opposed increased funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers federal disaster relief.  

            Inhofe, the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has publicly stated that he does not believe that human activities cause climate change. Inhofe, who is not one to be confused by any set of facts, regularly repeats his denial that human activity contributes to climate change and he describes that claim as a hoax. Inhofe insists that the possibility that humans are influencing climate change is impossible because "God's still up there" and that it is "outrageous" and arrogant for people to believe human beings are "able to change what He is doing in the climate."

            For decades now, the Republican media consultants, as chronicled by Roy Brock in The Republican Noise Machine, have sought to persuade ordinary Americans that the print and electronic media throughout the United States is dominated by liberals. For that reason, all news reports that propose to discuss the scientific basis of evolution, the existence of climate change, economic inequality or which suggest that the current political system is dysfunctional should be dismissed as evidence of liberal bias. The purpose of this consistent propaganda effort has been to inculcate a worldview that denies that there is any such thing as "objective reality" or fact-based information. In a world in which all information has been reduced to that which one believes, one's subjective understanding of reality is as valid as anyone else's, and that the opinions of the ignoramus or village idiot are entitled to the same weight as the research of the scholar.   


            On an individual level, it is a sad fact that too many of American citizens lack the basic skills in reading, writing and comprehension to use language to communicate effectively or coherently. Few can read a newspaper such as The New York Times with good comprehension; fewer still read any newspapers or books at all.

            By almost every indicator - whether measured by linguistic, scientific, historic, economic, geographic or legal literacy - Americans, as a people, fare poorly. We have become a "sound-bite" culture. The consequence of this pervasive illiteracy is that many American citizens cannot distinguish between a fact or an opinion, or distinguish myth from reality. In addition, the illiteracy of the American population creates a docile and easily manipulated public. At the political level, the inability to understand and to use language properly has created a vacuum into which slogans and cant have become substitutes for serious public discussion or analysis of issues.

            When language is used imprecisely - or in a slovenly or cavalier manner - the underlying quality of thought is similarly compromised. The link between language and thought is explored in George Orwell's profound novel, 1984. In that seminal book, the central character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to help to create for the omnipresent tyranny which governs Oceana a new language, Newspeak. Newspeak is the ultimate language of control: Each year in the Ministry of Truth, thousands of words are eliminated. In addition, antonyms are collapsed into synonyms. Hence, "Freedom is slavery, "Ignorance is strength, "War is peace." As Orwell reminds us in the appendix to that novel, when one loses the capacity to use words correctly, one loses the capacity to think; when one loses the capacity to think, the ability to rebel or to imagine alternatives to the status quo is irrevocably extinguished.

            The misuse of words impairs our ability to reason and to understand social reality. The deceptive or imprecise use of words denotes fallacious or imprecise thinking. When words are used as epithets for the purposes of ad hominem attacks, the intent of the author of the words is to elicit an emotional reaction and to thus foreclose the possibility of serious reflection or consideration by appealing to the listener's prejudices. Thus, during the past six decades as we have seen, the word "liberal" and a panoply of related synonyms such as "tax and spend," "death tax" and "government mandates" have been used by various politicians and media outlets to convey something sinister, while slogans such as "free enterprise," "individual rights" and the "American way" have been invoked to convey something wonderful and patriotic.

            The calculated use of these words has been to persuade citizens to acquiesce to the roll-back of government regulation and programs in the public interest, and to thwart efforts to regulate heretofore unregulated entities such as hedge funds and financial instruments such as collateralized securities and debt obligations. By 2008, under the political cover provided by this linguistic subterfuge, the unrestrained pursuit of self-aggrandizement precipitated a severe and prolonged fiscal crisis in the United States and throughout the world, the effects of which continue to cripple the U.S. economy to the present.


            This concerted campaign to roll back the modest government regulation introduced during the New Deal--which was designed to preserve market capitalism while attempting to insulate the public against its worst excesses--has been aided and abetted by the print and electronic media which, heavily dependent upon corporate investment and advertising, uncritically toe the party line. Given the decline of the print media, the broadcast media especially have been effective surrogates that promote a partisan political agenda.

            Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Fox Television Network, which claims to present "fair and balanced news," has spewed a stream of political propaganda and invective across the airwaves against those they depict as the enemies of American values. Besides the Fox Network, thousands of radio outlets across the United States routinely promote the partisan rhetoric of right-wing talk show hosts. They stridently espouse "traditional" American values of gun ownership, militarism, jingoism, and eighteenth century notions of rugged individualism punctuated with appeals to pure avarice--"I've got mine, screw you."

            While Fox and its right-wing friends may be the most obvious cases in point, the talking heads and presenters on the other twenty-four hour cable networks are equally culpable. Pleasant, vacuous, uninformed "presenters," many of whom lack journalistic credentials and have gotten their jobs as a result of nepotism or inside connections, are all too often unable to ask insightful questions or are too timid to challenge nonsensical remarks. Hence, for example, equal weight is given on almost all of the cable shows to the opinions of consultants, spokesmen, surrogates and propagandists without any effort to separate the wheat from the chaff or to even suggest that not all opinions should be given value given the lack of factual support.

            A similar problem exists in the print media. Aside from some serious efforts to discuss serious public-policy issues in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today,, the print media in most cities across the United States remain largely dominated by "Rotary Club Republicans" and business-friendly interests who unwilling to offend conventional wisdom.

John Adams sagely observed, "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right ... and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied king of knowledge. I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers."

           There is plenty of blame to apportion in the current malaise, but when the history of this era is written it will also be clear that the citizens of the United States, as well as those in many of the other Western democracies, have been ill-served by their media. Instead of serious journalists committed to educating a public and creating an informed citizenry, the news media has been reduced to a "food fight" in which shrill, barely literate, uninformed propagandists have been permitted to hock "snake oil" nostrums without challenge or criticism. Our public square has been impoverished as a consequence.


Memorial Day, 2016

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    Since the end of the Civil War, our country has chosen to set aside one day in particular to remember and to pay homage to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country. On this Memorial Day, however, we should also set aside some time to reflect upon, and to discuss with friends and families, the terrible toll that war has inflicted upon this country and its citizens.                      

     Today, the United States spends more on defense than any other country, and about five times more than China, which ranks second on the list of major defense spenders. At a projected $597 million for fiscal 2016, defense spending  accounts for about 20% of the entire federal budget and it consumes up to 50% of the so-called discretionary budget, which budget pays for everything except entitlement programs and interest on the debt. By contrast,l federal funding for education, infrastructure, transportation, the arts, and scientific research receive a pittance of tax-payer support..
     As of this date, there are approximately 1,301,000+ active duty personnel in the armed forces of the United States and an additional 811,000 personnel in the seven reserve components, including the Army Reserve and the National Guard, hundreds of thousands of whom have been regularly deployed overseas since 9/11.

     As of 2009, the budget of the United States spent $965 billion dollars on military and military-related expenses. Further, the most recent "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that the Department's physical assets consist of "more than 600,000 individual buildings and structures, at more than 6,000 locations, on more than 30 million acres." Most of these locations listed are within the continental United States, but 96 of them are situated in U.S. territories around the globe, and 702 of them are in foreign countries.

     Currently also, the United States has active duty personnel stationed in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, seventy-one years after the end of World War II and sixty-oneyears after an armistice was declared in Korea. More than 100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three countries, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three countries have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

    In response to the protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from the daily experiences. The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad. As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of most Americans.

    After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence were able to vastly increase their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight,out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality. Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and redundant, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist the lobbying power of defense contractors. Many of these same Congressional supporters decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money and have refused to vote extend unemployment benefits to those who have been unemployed more than ninety-nine weeks.

    Simultaneously, we are all paying the price for two misbegotten wars in which we were viewed as the invaders and in which we had little prospect of ending easily or of achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $4 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated.

    The welfare-through-warfare mentality that continues to dominate Washington groupthink threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules has warned. As a nation, we will increasingly impoverish ourselves while our pandering political and economic elites, and their media surrogates, will continue to argue that this country no longer has the resources to address pressing domestic problems here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, will have allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

    The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

    War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Memorial  Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's creation.

The Rise of the Pubic Police

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            Serious students of American politics understand that the United States is confronted with a number of domestic problems that have imperiled the "American Dream." They range from a dysfunctional political system that has been largely purchased by the I%, to extreme economic inequality, a miserly social safety network, crumbling infrastructure, banks too big to fail, rampant gun violence, and severe weather episodes caused by climate change, to name only a few.




            In this election year, however, not even one of those concerns have been addressed by the leaders of the Republican Party or by any of its presidential candidates. Instead, the GOP establishment continues to march in lock-step with Ronald Reagan's nonsensical argument that government is the problem and not the answer, and that reducing burdensome government  regulations will expand the freedom of all Americans to make personal decisions in their own best interests. Notably missing from discussions of that received article of faith is any recognition of Isaiah Berlin's observation that "freedom for the wolves has often meant death for the sheep." 

            In the past two years, GOP legislators in Georgia, North Carolina, Indiana, and Mississippi have introduced and supported sweeping and intrusive legislation that would require transgender people, under the penalties of prosecution, to use public bathrooms that are consonant with the biological sexual identity with which they were born. In the face of strong opposition - particularly from corporations - GOP Governors in Georgia and Indiana reluctantly vetoed the proposed legislation  Still undeterred, GOP state legislators in Tennessee, Kansas, South Carolina and Minnesota are now trying to enact similar legislation in their states.


            In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory signed into law legislation that became effective April 1 st.. The statute in North Carolina, besides regulating the use of public restrooms,   bans all common law actions that raise claims of discrimination based upon age, sex, race, sexual orientation or disability. 


            "I do believe in our high schools, in our middle schools, in our universities, we should continue to have the tradition that we've been having in this country for years. And we have a women's facility and a men's facility. You know, it's worked out pretty well. And I don't think we need any further government interference," Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said on "Meet the Press." 


            In Mississippi, GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed a law last month that allows government employees to refuse to issue marriage licenses or perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples and that allows businesses and faith-based groups to deny housing, jobs and adoption and foster-care services to people based on their sexual orientation. The bill overwhelmingly passed the Mississippi House by an 85-24 vote and by a vote of 31-17 in the Senate. 


            Among Democratic legislators who opposed the bill, Democratic Senator John Horhn insisted that the bill was inherently discriminatory and he urged his GOP colleagues to examine their consciences and to show empathy. "I have experienced discrimination, as many African Americans have - can't you see how this legislation might be seen as discriminatory?" he asked.


            The GOP supporters of Mississippi's self-styled "Religious Liberty Accommodations Act" claim that the act is meant to protect people, businesses, and organizations with "sincerely held" religious beliefs about the sanctity of traditional marriage. The newly-enacted law also proclaims that gender is determined by "an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth."


            Last month also, Indiana GOP Governor Mike Pence, after having cravenly capitulated to corporate pressure over the transgender legislation, signed into law a bill that made Indiana the second state in the nation to ban abortion because of a fetal abnormality. The measure also criminalizes the procedure when motivated solely because of factors such as the fetus's sex or race. Pence described the law as a "comprehensive pro-life measure that affirms the value of all human life" in a statement.


            The head of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky condemned the bill. "It is clear the governor is more comfortable practicing medicine without a license than behaving a responsible lawyer, as he picks and chooses which constitutional rights are appropriate," Betty Cockrum said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.


            NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports that, "North Dakota was the first state to pass such a ban, in 2013, although abortion providers say it's difficult to enforce. The law depends on a woman declaring the anomaly as her reason to abort. Indiana's law is much more expansive since it also bans abortion based on race, sex, national origin, ancestry and color." In addition, the bill holds doctors legally liable for such abortions. Additionally, according to The New York Times "the law restricts fetal tissue donation and requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital or to have an agreement with a doctor who does."


             How then does one reconcile the paradox?  If, as the GOP contends, government minimalism in all levels of economic and social life is the antidote to what ails the United States, why then should any of the fifty states be given carte blanche to intrude into the pelvises, uteri  and vaginas of every American man and women?


            Part of the answer to that paradox may be found in this country's legacy of extreme individualism. Well documented by Harvard University's Robert Puttnam and by other researchers, the effects of that legacy have exacerbated a sense of social isolation, fear, and vulnerability among many Americans and contributed to a precipitous dease in community and civic involvement.


            In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm noted that as "the individual became more alone, isolated, became an instrument in the hands of overwhelmingly strong forces outside himself; he became an 'individual' but a bewildered and insecure individual." The result, as Fromm put it, is the temptation for the self to surrender its autonomy "to give up his freedom, to try to overcome his aloneness, to eliminate the gap which has arisen between the individual and the world." Hence, the danger increases that, as individuals feel more alone, more isolated, more alienated, and more vulnerable, they will succumb to the blandishments of demagogues and snake-oil salesmen who are only able to wield power by appeals to divisive wedge issues that play upon our innermost anxieties, worries and prejudices.


            The attendant fear, that forces more powerful than the self pose a greater threat to personal autonomy, may, in large part, explain the anger, frustration, and vitriol first exemplified by the Tea Party movement, that first came to prominence in the summer of 2009 and which continues to dominate political discourse to the present. It is also a truism that bewildered and insecure individuals are easily manipulated.


            So long as ordinary Americans remain collectively fearful, distracted, incensed by social issues that have no relevance whatsoever to the their unmet needs, and persuaded that they are powerless to change the status quo, those who control the levers of American economic and political power will continue to shape the narrative and control the outcomes of public policy debates.

Soiled Politics

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           The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced a concept of society and the political community that is conceptually different, and fundamentally at odds, with the  American political tradition. Aristotle taught that " by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low on the scale of humanity or above it...inasmuch as he resembles an isolated piece at draughts..."

            In fact, the root of the English word civilization is derived from the Latin civitas. The Roman notion of the civitas was endowed with the same mystical meaning which the Greeks attributed to the polis: As a member of the civitas, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, believed that a man fulfilled himself and achieved his destiny - which was to discharge his responsibilities in the life of the republic - as a citizen. Through the civitas, therefore, one became a sociable, functioning human being and thus distinguished oneself from lower forms of life or from barbarians, who because of their lack of knowledge of politics could not create political institutions which would enable them to emerge from their servile state.

          Because the classical conservative tradition emphasized obligation as a correlative of right and insisted that citizenship required conscious and willing deliberation and participation in the political process, it was not uncommon that all of the male citizens of ancient Athens often spent days as members of the Assembly deliberating issues of war and peace and the merits of proposed laws. 

            More than two millennia later, here in the twenty-first century United States, notions about politics, citizenship and the obligations of citizens in an ostensibly democratic society stand in stark contrast to the ideas of the ancients. In 2004, a mere 55.7% of this country's citizens were able to find the time or summon the effort to even cast a vote in the presidential election. In the  2008, the number of U.S. voters increased only slightly to 57.1%, but decreased again in 2012 to a only 54.9% of the citizens eligible to vote. The numbers were even worse in the two most recent off-year Senate and Congressional elections: 36.4 % cast votes in 2014; that figure was down from the 37.8 % of voters who cast ballots in  2010. Voter turnout in the United States was thus among the lowest in the developed world.

          As a result of the failure of young voters, women and minorities to vote in those off year elections, the control of the United States Senate and House of Representatives reverted to the GOP. At the state level, the figures were even more daunting: Republicans were able to gain control of both the governorships and legislatures in 24 states; 70 of the nation's 99 state legislative chambers were now controlled by the GOP; both chambers of the legislatures became  GOP controlled in 30 states; and 31 GOP governors were elected across the country.

           The indifference of so many Americans to the political process only underscores the observation that politics - whether through active participation or abstention - has consequences. President Obama and the Democratic Party platform on which he was originally elected have been essentially neutered during the last six years of his presidency while the GOP has been empowered to wage unremitting war at the state and federal level against women, the LGBT community, minorities, the poor, labor unions, voting rights, regulatory reform, student debt, economic inequality, climate change and a host of other issues.
          Compounding low voter turnouts, a recent Gallup poll reports that 43% of those Americans who are registered to vote have declared themselves be Independent or unenrolled. The effect of that decision is that these unenrolled voters are unable to participate in the formulation of party platforms and issues. In addition, because they are unwilling to participate in party politics at the ward, county and state levels, they have ceded the power to choose candidates for public office and to advocate for policies to those voters who are enrolled and do participate actively in either of the two political parties.

          There are a number of plausible explanations for the current gridlock and dysfunction that characterize current American politics. Undoubtedly, the torrent of private money unleashed  by the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the suppression of voting rights, and the continued success of wedge issues to divide a very low information and distracted electorate have all contributed to the trivialization of U.S. politics. So, too, has the disappearance of journalism as a serious, independent profession and its replacement by pundits and talking heads who endlessly prattle on about who is up or down without any effort to seriously analyze the underlying issues. But they bare only a share of the responsibility.
           The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maintain, echoing Thomas Aquinas, argued that  that  "the primary purpose of which men, united in political society, need the State is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the critical need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

           Social justice can never be achieved in apolitical culture where voters are so preoccupied with their own private needs and the acquisition and accumulation of things that they are unable to find any time to participate in the political process. U.S. politics - as exemplified by the current GOP Presidential campaigns - has devolved into to a food fight that is devoid or substance or any acknowledgment of the real problems that bedevil this country. 

           Americans who refuse to perform their civic duty to become informed about the issues and to actively participate in the political process have no one to blame but themselves.

Why Bernie Sanders Is a Moderate

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           In this Sunday's "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe, Jonathan Schlefer  wonders whether Bernie Sander's ideas are unpalatable to a majority of American voters because of the residual  liberalism that is embedded in the American ethos. He invokes Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America, for the proposition that our politics are derived almost wholly from the classical liberalism of John Locke.