Eternal Immigration Debate: Opinions and Proposals

The last post discussed the immigration debate as it concerns the United States: the current system, with some explanation for the casual reader, as well as some common refrains on it.  One comment on the thread asked whether I would take up any proposals to improve the system, as well as whether I might address “birthright citizenship.”  This post will address both.  Warning: what you read here will be heavily opinion-weighted, so proceed with that in mind.

Any discussion of the basic issue of immigration must recognize certain factors.  First, the US population is graying because the “baby boom” generation has arrived at a point where significant numbers of us are moving into “senior citizen” status.  If you use the definition of a “boomer” as anyone born between 1946 and 1964 (one of many that takes in the generation, oldest to youngest, born to the World War II veteran cohort), then quite obviously, the leading edge of boomers reached (full) social security age of 65 in 2011, and the rest of this demographic will cross that significant line in the next dozen years.  Since Congress long since threw caution to the wind and raided the Social Security trust fund for other expenditures, Social Security must now be partially funded by those who still are of working age.  A gradual rise in the age of eligibility for full benefits is another consequence.  Taxable benefits for current recipients of SS benefits is still another.  (Taxing the first 50% of SS payments passed Congress in 1983 under President Reagan, and the tax liability was raised to the first 85% in 1993, under President Clinton.  It doesn’t apply to all recipients, exempting those whose only source of income is  Social Security benefits and whose benefit is low, but still, the idea that Social Security is a freebie for Golden Agers is gone.)

The reality of things, 2018 edition, is that there are (and will be) more retirees than ever.  They (we) paid into this system all our working lives with the understanding the benefits were there for the retirement years.  Cuts in benefits will be resisted, as they should be.  So other sources of revenue are needed, and thus, Congress now partially relies on something akin to a Ponzi scheme to finance it all–meaning more younger workers are needed–or, those workers need to make higher wages than has been the case in the past, which has not happened in the last three decades.  Or (as I have advocated in the past) high-wage earners need to pay the SS payroll tax on their entire income, and not just the first $100,000 or so.  Plainly, more younger workers will be Congress’ choice, since there is little political risk in it, and since birth rates are not as high as they once were, you get more younger workers by importing them.  Period.  The reactionary crowd that wants to say “no more immigration” will not win their point.  Take that to the bank.

Nor will Americans be told they can’t marry foreigners and bring them to the United States.  I can’t imagine a louder non-starter.

So, should our immigration system be streamlined?  Yes, I think it is burdened by outmoded thinking as well as inefficiency.  I do not propose any changes in processing immigration applicants herein, only changes to the regulations governing who can immigrate and under what circumstances.

I think that family-based immigration should be retained–to a point.  US citizens who want to bring a spouse or minor children (including adopted children) should absolutely be able to do so.  US citizens who came from elsewhere may have a significant interest in having their parents come here, as well.  However, under current law, I have seen instances (I won’t say in what country, because this is a common pattern) where entire villages have been depopulated by the urge to emigrate to the US.  An officer from the US embassy in country X visited the civil registry of a small town, in which all marriages in the jurisdiction are recorded.  This officer noted 75 marriages during that calendar year.  40 of those marriages involved a villager who  was marrying a US citizen.  34 united a villager and a US permanent resident.  And one was contracted between two natives of the place.  In 74 of 75 marriages, after the wedding, one spouse returned to the USA, and one stayed behind to await the petition for US residency.  You may think, if you want to, that this is only anecdotal, and proves nothing, and I will agree–again, to a point.  But to think that the drive to get to the US by any means (and marriage is the easiest) plays no part in this phenomenon is at best naïve.  Also, in some countries, it is common knowledge that a legally-married person can not immigrate to the US through a petition by his/her green card-holding parent, but a single one can.  So people pair off as unmarried couples, live, have children, etc., as though they were married, and wait until such a petition (by the parent) grants one of them residency in the USA–whereupon that party–green card barely dry–goes back “home” and marries (legally) his/her longtime partner, then goes home and files a petition for the spouse, who in turn then waits until a visa is available.  This is family reunification?

So I would like to see a modest change: the right to petition foreign relatives could be restricted to US citizens only.  If a US citizen wished to have his parents here, he could petition, but for what is called in France a droit de sejour: the “right to stay.”  The citizen could provide for his mother or keep a father who is in declining health close at hand, but the parent would not qualify for his/her own citizenship, nor for the right to petition other offspring.  My hypothetical citizen could still petition for his/her spouse and any minor children.  If an immigrant wants to petition family members, this would give him additional incentive to acclimate–and naturalize.  I realize that this would hand “America firsters” a victory of sorts by cutting into what they call “chain migration,” but it would also do much to remedy the sorts of abuse I describe above.

Similarly, the current family-based fourth preference (sibling of a US citizen)category might well be abolished with little to no ill effect on the US.  Filing a petition for a sibling, only to tell him/her that it might work in 20 years…I really don’t see much purpose.  I would establish a date certain when this would cease to be a category, then “grandfather” all the beneficiaries currently waiting in line, and grant enough numbers over a compressed period, for example, five years following that date, over which the line would be emptied and the category would be history.

The current preference that lets a US citizen file for his son or daughter (as opposed to child) also is open to abuse, since the US petitioner may not have been present during the son/daughter’s growing up and may have no relationship with him/her.  To be fair, under my proposal, I would require an immigrant upon entry to announce the names and biographic data of all his/her children (much of this is current practice anyway) and limit the immigrant’s future rights to petition any offspring (upon naturalization) to the names that appear on the list.

Employment-based immigration: this is always going to be a matter of debate. but I think it is best dealt with by increasing the annual numbers of visas available for people in certain professions, and having a panel of eminent labor experts determine whether, for example, dermatologists or Ph.D. chemists or nurses or whatever are in short supply in the US labor market.  The panel should be small and serve for a period of about five years, appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Labor, and subject to Congressional review.  Frequent turnover and legislative review should aid in objectivity.  Once the decisions are finalized for a calendar or fiscal year, throw the whole thing over to US employers (with assurances against fly-by-night employment entities) to advertise in foreign markets.  Once the demand for a particular profession has been filled for that year, the process closed for until a new assessment the following year.  Unskilled labor should not be included.

Dreamers:”  Make no mistake, these people were brought here as minors through no will of their own and have grown up in the United States, perhaps not knowing their original country.  I would not say that the United States owes these people anything, but I see no reason to expel them to countries they knew only as children or infants.  This is not the action of a great, benevolent nation.   I would let them stay, provided they were otherwise qualified (no criminals, etc.) and grant them limited rights of residency and citizenship–any simple regularization will be seen by a significant part of the domestic population of the US as amnesty, and abroad as another victory for those who persist as illegals for a long enough time.  So grant them probationary resident status, right to work, live, leave and return to the US as tourists or whatever, etc., like everyone else, except no automatic path to citizenship.  they could petition for citizenship after a long period of probationary residency–say, 10 years, and when and if they became citizens with squeaky clean records, they could then petition any foreign relative any citizen could, which would let them bring back their parents.

Last, but not least, birthright citizenship.  There is a lot of hot air about this issue, but it is in fact currently a closed discussion, because by Section One of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which states, simply, that

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof,  are citizens of the United States…”

Interestingly enough, this is not the all-inclusive manner of gaining citizenship, since the child of a US citizen or citizens born abroad, is held by another section of law, to be a US citizen from birth, under certain conditions.  (That’s good for another discussion.  Note also that Ted Cruz, the Senator from Texas, was born in Canada, not the US, and got his citizenship by operation of law, not the 14th Amendment.)  Also, children born in the United States to foreign parents in certain diplomatic statuses are not US citizens, because they are not “subject to the jurisdiction thereof…”

So, back to the 14th, this is open and shut, unless the Amendment itself is amended.  It was originally enacted in 1868 to settle the question of citizenship of the (recently-freed) African-Americans, primarily, though not exclusively, in the ex-Confederate states.  It vacated the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 that declared black persons could not be American citizens.

However, in 1868, there were not such occurrences as tourist excursions organized in foreign countries for the express purpose of having pregnant women travel to US soil to give birth, thus conferring on the infant US citizenship for life.  Such tours are popular in China, but other individuals travel to the US with the same objective from many other countries; the idea is to give the child an “out” in case his/her home country goes south at some point in the future; coincidentally, as nativists point out all the time, the child, once he/she is 21, can petition these same parents for US residency.

The solution (if you think this needs a solution) is to add another amendment to the Constitution that amends section 1 of the 14th to add the following qualifications after the phrase “… are citizens of the United States”:

“…provided that one or both of the biological parents of such a child has been legally admitted to the United States in some status other than a temporary visitor or other temporary nonimmigrant.”

That’s enough.  I hope this starts a lively discussion.

Immigration and the USA: Here We Are Again…

More than two years ago, I posted on the topic of immigration to the USA and how it surges to the forefront of national political debate every four years.  And here we are again.  President Bonespurs is waxing as eloquent as he can about how we need a wall atop the southern border to “make the country safe.”  Apparently he really believes that a wall will keep out people from what he called “shithole countries” (Or was it “shithouse countries”?) from setting their contaminating feet inside the USA.  But that is a topic for another discussion.  Hint: no wall will stop illegal border crossings.  Banks have walls and locks and alarms and guards and more–and they still get robbed.  This time I want to talk about immigration under the law, not about trying to put barriers around the country.

(Disclosure: In my career in the US State Department, I held primarily held positions as a Consular Officer: Vice Consul, Consul, or finally, Consul General. Consular Officers are designated to review the eligibility of applicants for immigrant or nonimmigrant visas. I saw many thousands of such applicants in my tenure, so I do speak from experience.)


Legal immigration to the United States is governed by a series of laws passed by Congress, most prominently the Immigration and  Nationality Act of 1952 (otherwise known as the McCarran-Walter Act) and the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 (the Hart-Celler Act), and various amendments to these basic platforms.  Under the provisions of these acts, the basis for a citizen of any other country on earth to become an immigrant to the United States may result from his/her familial relation to some American citizen or legal permanent resident; from his/her qualifications to perform some work designated by the immigration laws; or, in a relatively small number of cases, by a determination that he/she qualifies under circumstances defined in those laws as meriting refugee or asylee status.

US citizens may file immigration petitions for their relatives; i.e., if you are a US citizen, you may request that the US government allow the entry into the country as an immigrant anyone who, by the definitions of the laws, qualifies as your spouse; your minor child (including your adopted minor child); and your parent (if you are at least 21 years old at the time of filing).  Those categories are not subject to numerical restriction.  Subject to numerical limits, US citizens may file petitions in favor of their adult children (denominated in the law as “sons” or “daughters” to distinguish them from minor children), whether married or unmarried, and for the US citizen’s brothers or sisters.  In some of these categories, the person for whom the petition is filed, if he/she has his/her own spouse or children, they may also be included as derivative beneficiaries.

A US Legal Permanent Resident (often popularly called “green card holders”) may file similar petitions in favor of relatives, but not as many: spouses, minor children, and unmarried “sons and daughters” (the definition of son or daughter is the same as for the relatives of American citizens).  In some cases, such a son or daughter who has a child of his/her own may have such child included as a derivative beneficiary.

The regulations for employment-based immigration are complex and ever-evolving, but those admitted as employment-based immigrants constitute about 125,000 individuals annually, and are mostly people who are already in the United States, working under various temporary, nonimmigrant visa statuses.  In a recent year, 86% of all persons admitted as immigrants in employment-based categories became immigrants via this “adjustment” process, administered by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service rather than by the State Department.  Employment-based immigrants may range from professional athletes and entertainers to medical doctors to eminent scientists, etc.

Finally, an annual numerical restriction on preference-based immigrants requires a “priority” to be assigned to all such immigrant candidates.  Current law fixes a ceiling of 625,000 such immigrants annually in such categories, and no more than 7% of this annual figure may be allotted to any single country–or, 43,750 total preference immigrants from a single national source.  So a de facto hierarchy of candidates for immigration exists.  The son/daughter of a US citizen   moves in the queue (in general, though not universally) more rapidly than a spouse of a legal permanent resident, and the brother/sister of a US citizen is assigned a low priority, i.e., few visas are available in that category annually, meaning that the wait time is long from petition filing time to the time when the beneficiary may present himself/herself for application for determination of immigration eligibility.  And then, he/she may be found ineligible because of several factors: criminal records, previous immigration violations, or the inability of the petitioner to offer sufficient financial support to prevent the immigrant from becoming a “public charge” to the US population at large–as in, we do not (knowingly) import welfare cases.

The priority system with a national ceiling also means that, depending on the nationality of an applicant for immigration to the US, he/she must wait until a visa number is available in the applicable category and the applicable nationality.  An illustration of how this works to the disadvantage of some applicants is as follows: because numerous Filipino immigrants have naturalized as US citizens, they have become able to petition for their siblings to follow them to the United States, but in a low-priority category to which few visa numbers are allotted annually.  Thus, an applicant from that country in that category will one day get the call–but the wait time is extraordinary: over twenty years.   I reiterate: close family members of US citizens (spouses, minor children, and parents) are classified as “immediate relatives” and not subject to such numerical restrictions, and they often, depending on how fast they comply with US government requests for documents, medical exams, etc., granted immigrant status within a year.

Whew…  Now that you understand all that, we can talk about…


“If a US citizen marries a foreigner, the foreigner becomes a US citizen, too…right?”  Wrong.  The US citizen MAY then file for the immigration of the spouse, but that immigrant petition is a benefit to the US citizen.  If he or she does not file, the non-US spouse has no independent right to immigrate.  (If the US spouse dies before a petition can be filed, there can be an exception, but this is vanishingly rare.)

“Visa issuance is on a quota system.”  In the case of most nonimmigrant visa issuance, there is no minimum, no maximum, no daily and no annual restriction.  (“H” visas for temporary workers are annually restricted by legislation.)  For immigrant visas, there is an annual maximum figure encompassing all preference categories, though that figure is routinely exceeded for several countries if the “Immediate relatives of US citizens” numbers are considered.  Some countries never approach the annual immigrant ceilings at all.

“Immigrants come to this country and immediately go on welfare.”  This is a tricky one.  Regulations covering visa issuance preclude allowing an immigrant to receive an immigrant visa if the petitioner does not establish (including furnishing tax returns) the ability to provide financial support.  There are also Stateside restrictions on the able-bodied from receiving payments under several federal programs.  State laws, however, are different in different places, and may allow direct or indirect benefits under other than federally-funded welfare programs, leading persons with an agenda to make such claims of “welfare fraud.”  It’s not possible to sort this out completely from here.

“Foreign countries are sending their undesirables here.”  This is actually a two-part claim.  Part one is that persons “undesirable” to the US public interest are coming to the United States.  The answer is that all immigrants are screened for criminal records both in the United States and in their home countries, including by fingerprints. Those with any serious criminal history are turned away (though some may apply for waivers of ineligibility, depending on the demonstrated hardship to the US petitioner).  Will some bad ones slip through?  Probably, though recent advances in cooperation between US law enforcement and other national and international law enforcement make this less likely today than in yesteryear.

Second comes the claim that foreign countries are sending such undesirables to us.  This is so far from true that it should not need to be rebutted.  The US government does not inform foreign governments in general of the intent by any person to immigrate to the United States; thus, foreign governments are not consulted as to who applies for US immigration, and they have no voice in such decisions, except in the narrow circumstance that they might prevent someone from leaving his home country for whatever reason.  They do not send anyone.  Nonetheless, President Bonespurs continues to assert this, citing no source, so it is probably some such reliable authority as “Fox and Friends” or Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist.

” ‘Chain migration’ must be stopped.”

“Chain migration” is a term tossed about by certain think tanks, most of whom identify as “conservative” to describe family-reunification based immigration, which may allow several members of the same family to immigrate by virtue of a single original “anchor”.  The President has lately taken to echoing the refrain.  OK, but the law prescribes the mechanism to be applied to immigrant classification as favoring the reunification of family members.  There are a lot of problems with it, but do we as a country want to come down as opposed to the concept of the reunification of families?  Congress made the law, Congress can change it.  Why can’t it be discussed and debated, leading to rational changes?

“The ‘visa lottery’ must be abolished!”

Well, OK.  The diversity visa lottery was established in 1990 to allow people from countries not well represented in the US immigrant population to “take a chance” on immigrating to the US.  People from countries like Mexico, India, or the Dominican Republic are not included in the applicant pool, since these countries are very well-represented in the immigrant stream.  Unlike many of my former colleagues, I am somewhat fond of the program, since it allows people from almost anywhere who have the old idea of “I want to go to America for a better future” and have not  gone to the extent of looking to marry an American just to get here.  In the lottery, all participants are entered in an annual pool, and 50,000 eventually make it to this shore.  Winners must have at least a high school education or the equivalent in work experience.  A couple of bad apples does not make the whole program bad.  Nonetheless, this is also a Congressional mandate, and they can abolish it, if they see fit, in their collective wisdom, to do so .

Is a Better System possible?  Sure!  I’ll talk about that in my next post.







Cry, the Beloved Country

It has been a longish time since I posted anything new on this blog, which I regret somewhat, since such inattention may discourage even those few regular readers I have managed to find.  Life interrupts, though, and there has been a load of everyday stuff on my plate lately, so…pardon, please.

On the other hand, though, as I start this post, I note that nearly six months have gone by since I bemoaned the fact that the United States of America seems now to be engaged more than ever before in an effort to protect those of its citizens who already enjoy considerable privilege and advantage, while, conversely, going out of its way to seek out those who live on the edge–the edge of financial ruin, the edge of catastrophic health problems, etc.–for a good beating by “the system.”  In June, I vented over efforts by the Congress (and especially by President Bonespurs) to let all the air out of the tires of the Affordable Care Act.

That effort eventually failed, to my great surprise, but in the meantime, President Bonespurs has done his best to cripple the ACA by other means, including attempting to defund critical aspects of it, and now, attempting to lump in a repeal of the individual mandate (which compels near-universal participation) with Bonespurs’ tax “reform” bill.  Inviting seemingly healthy people not to participate would probably result in a shrunken insurance pool, which might mean that people with chronic or catastrophic conditions would end up with unaffordable premiums.  The entire program starts to circle the drain while Bonespurs and the Republican Senate leader (I forgot–is it Statler or Waldorf?) laugh, dance, and sing at the prospect of several million Americans losing their health insurance.

The current mania among the GOP caucus is for “tax reform.”  Yes, I am a cynical type, inclined to think that anything put forth by this gathering currently in charge of our government will be meant to benefit its own donor class, and everybody else be damned.  I would be so inclined, but in this case, I would be so spectacularly correct as to seem like a clairvoyant, since I have now been joined in my cynicism by every reputable think tank, Congressional agency, and economist in the country in my thinking.

Bonespurs himself has led the chorus of praise for this “reform,” endlessly proclaiming that this will be the largest tax cut in history and that the benefit of it will go to what he calls “the middle class,” and quotes fantasy figures like $1200 or so as the annual reduction in taxes to the “average household.”  Other elected Republicans follow his lead, without the dangerous specificity, all crowing that average households will save number of dollars, which will absolutely lead to such spectacular economic growth that companies will hire more workers, wages will go up, and the War on Christmas will be over, a resounding victory for Uncle Sam over the forces of redistribution, chocolate bars will grow on trees, and…uh, OK.  I lied about the war on Christmas part and the chocolate bars, but it sounded like part of the script, didn’t it?

Math, anyone?  OK, let’s take a hypothetical group of taxpayers.  One is named Walton and is heir to the billions of the Wal-Mart corporation. Twenty more are named Smith or Jones or Ramirez or Soprano or whatever.  As this tax “reform” is written, let’s assume that the Walton in the group will get a cut of , oh…say, $500,000 per year.  For illustration’s sake, let’s say that everyone else in the group stays roughly the same in terms of taxes paid under this bill, except one, and this one, for whatever reason, gets a yearly break of $4,000.  Let’s see, now, 21 households, a total of $504,000 in tax reduction per year, divided by 21, and…wow, our selected group of taxpayers gets an average reduction of $24,000!  Holy moly, mama, book us a cruise!

Figures lie, and liars figure.  This old adage has never been more true (and more obvious) than it is now.  The numbers being bandied about mean absolutely nothing until all the ink is dry and all the facts are in, by which time, of course, the damage will have been accomplished.  Reputable analysts agree that the overwhelming majority of benefits under this bill will accrue to the wealthiest 1% of the population, which includes a few dozen people named Koch, Adelson, Trump, Mercer, and all other major Republican donors.  The rest is details, even including the stealthy sabotage of the ACA.  That’s just icing on the cake.

Similar assaults on the ear by Bonespurs and his merry band of reverse Robin Hoods  accompanied presidential executive orders slashing federal parklands in Utah against the wishes of bands of Native Americans, but in complete compliance with the wishes of a uranium mining company, who had lobbied extensively for the opening of those lands for…wait for it…uranium mining!  (And by the way, weren’t executive orders an “unconstitutional abuse of power” when the last president issued them?)

How many examples does anyone need?  There are plenty more.  A Secretary of Education (a multi-millionaire, of course) who appears to know nothing of education.  A Secretary of State who leaves gaping holes in the staffing his agency, with no explanation other than he thinks it may be overstaffed.  An octogenarian Secretary of Commerce who hides his ties to Russian business interests from Congressional oversight.  An Attorney General with a history of racist words, sympathies, and actions as well as selective memory loss in Congressional testimony.

There are many more examples of poor governance and even outright violations of the law.  The chief poor governor and law violator among them is the President himself.  Stunts ranging from violating (every day) the Emoluments Clause, by profiting from the office of President of the United States to probable obstruction of justice; it’s bad.  Bad I can live with.  I lived through the G. W. Bush administration and the embarrassment of the Clinton tawdriness.  What stinks in this administration is the overwhelming sense that the United States is basically for sale.  You want favorable treatment under the law?  How much are you willing to pay for that?  In Sheldon Adelson’s case, he gave millions to the Bonespurs campaign, and got his reward: a hare-brained presidential announcement that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  And our steadiest partners among the moderate Arab states, chief among them Jordan, grew wobbly.  But so what? It was a campaign promise!

How long will this go on?  And hope no hopes about impeachment.  Bonespurs would be succeeded by Mike Pence, who I have no doubt would be just as terrible as his boss, but much more capable of doing things in a quiet, politically astute way.

Cry, the beloved country.


Honor Our Veterans with the Respect They Deserve

It’s November (already).  That makes me think of the same things I think of every November.  Thanksgiving.  Turkey.  Pumpkin pie.  And…what was that…oh, yeah.  Veterans Day, November 11.  I think about Veterans Day a lot these days. (By the way, the official spelling is without any apostrophe.)

Our US observance of Veterans Day traces back to 1919, a year after the end of World War I.  As is undoubtedly a familiar story to the well-informed, President Wilson published a message to all Americans on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the “armistice” that marked the end of overt hostilities in what was then known as “The World War,” since there was at that time no need to number such events.  The word “armistice” itself now seems oddly antique; its meaning is “an agreement among opposing sides to stop fighting at a certain time.”  Wilson used his message to praise the efforts of Americans, in uniform or not, to bring that conflict to a successful end.

Congress acted in 1925 to advise the president to decree each November 11 as a day for “appropriate observance”, and in 1938, Congress again acted (they did things in those days) to designate the date formally as a federal holiday, “Armistice Day.”  It was under this name that it crept into my consciousness when I was very young.  As the oldest grandchild in the family, I spent a lot of time around my grandparents, and they were largely unmoved by Congress’ later official act (1954) to change the name to Veterans Day, and to ratify what had already become the function of the day: a tribute to veterans of military service.  It shifted to a “Monday holiday” observance during the 1970’s, but changed back to its original date in 1978.

As a nation, we mark Memorial Day (once known as “Decoration Day,” because it was to be a date to decorate the gravesites of those who had given their lives in wartime military service) and Veterans Day.  The former is designated for those who “gave their lives” for the nation during war; the latter is a tribute to all veterans.

I am a veteran of the Vietnam era, but did not see any action in that generation-mauling conflict.  With my background in a medical support role (radiologic technologist), I was assigned in 1969 to a Navy hospital, where I saw thousands of young Marines (especially, but not exclusively) who had been sent Stateside for treatment of wounds they had received in the war.  In some ways both they and I were the “lucky ones.”  They had been  brushed by death, but come away partially intact.  With luck, many would return to girlfriends or wives and careers put on hold in places not named Da Nang or Hue.  I moved through the length of my enlistment contract, first at that Navy hospital, and when time was up on that assignment, poised for the inevitable (or so I thought) reassignment to a Marine unit as their medical support.  As it happened, when I was due for transfer, President Nixon announced a freeze in assignments for the next six months because of budget overruns.  At the end of that six-month period, those with less than one year left in service were again frozen until release from active duty.  Bingo!  I was covered, and thus served out my time without any actual combat experience.  (You can see why I never brag of my “military exploits.”  Nobody cares about a crack X-ray tech in uniform.)

Some 45 years after I took off the uniform and returned to college under the “GI Bill,” I still carry with me one of the most vivid examples of a tragic death I have ever known of.  He was a Lance Corporal (the Marines had Privates E-1 and E-2, then Lance Corporals, so he was near the bottom of the rank structure) and he was 19 or 20 years old (Weren’t they all?).  He had been serving in Viet Nam, and while on a patrol, someone near him stepped on a land mine, which exploded near Lance Corporal Whoever.  It did not kill him, but he was wounded by shrapnel, a common thing during the Viet Nam conflict.  In this case, the shrapnel tore through his right lower jaw, leaving many small fragments behind, and simultaneously  ripping away a large part of his jawbone.  After initial casualty treatment onsite and at a field hospital, he was evacuated for further treatment in better facilities in the US.

Thus it was I came to know the Lance Corporal.  His status was basically in limbo for almost a year.  The fragments in his jaw were slowly being rejected by his body, and bits and pieces came out over the period; he was placed on light duty, which in his case meant carrying envelopes of interoffice mail all over the sprawling hospital grounds, often between buildings.  He was a familiar sight, trudging between stops, one hand holding envelopes filled with the minutiae of administration, and the other holding a wad of gauze padding to the still-open wound where his jaw used to be; the gauze caught drops of blood or any other stray fluids that issued therefrom.  He had been told that when healing had advanced far enough, and shrapnel fragments no longer posed a problem, he would undergo surgery to mold a new jawbone of plastic into place to replace his old one.

At last, the surgeons told him he could undergo the surgery that would begin the process of making him whole again.  We all wished him the best as the day approached, and he brightened in spirit as he anticipated the event.  On the day of his surgery, we did not see him with the interoffice mail.  Many of us on the hospital staff wondered how the surgery would go, but we all knew each other; we would hear from an OR tech when the surgery was over, and looked forward to just that.

It didn’t happen.  The Lance Corporal went to surgery amidst many tasteless jokes about how he would become a lady-killer with his new prosthetic jaw.  He was placed on an operating table where he received the standard anesthesia, and promptly went into anaphylactic shock.  And died.  At 20 or 21 years of age.  For us, all of us who knew him, we had seen plenty of death.  We were a little bit immune to it by then.  He probably had seen death, too, those thousands of miles away, but for him, this time, it was personal.  And final.  And tragic.  For me and others, merely troubling.

A few years later, the military draft was abolished.  I watched the announcement  and the “draft lottery” that decided who might be called in the draft’s last days.

So there you have it.  Why I always feel like Memorial Day is 100% for guys like that Lance Corporal, and Veterans Day is 1% for guys like me, who served, maybe with enthusiasm and maybe without, but did serve–and still walk the earth and get to know children and grandchildren–and 99% also for guys like the Lance Corporal, who just had lousy luck, and did not get those pleasures.  Remember him and all the others like him on November 11.

I will ignore politicians who say “Thank you for your service” and who claim to be very concerned with the welfare of veterans.  To those politicians who rail that not standing for the national anthem is disrespect for veterans or that they have done this or that for the veterans, I simply want you to zip it.   Just shut up.  I did not suffer the taunts and curses that many other vets did when they returned to “the real world” after service during Viet Nam, and for that I am glad.  As for today’s veterans, I wonder–do they enjoy the grandstanding by politicians toward them, the empty words?  Or maybe, I wonder, do they just feel as if the so-called leaders of the country would honor them more by not deciding to send another generation of young men (and now women, as well) off to the other side of the world with guns to fight the conflicts older men start with words?

Party Labels (Again)

After two posts on party labels, I feel just about “talked out” on the whole matter, so this post will be shorter.  I promise.

To summarize (quickly) those two, party labels in the early years of the republic were not life or death affairs.  There was a Democratic party ever since the days of Thomas Jefferson.  It was the party of “continuity,” if you will, electing several presidents; opposition came and went, with the longest-lasting being the Whigs.  The new Republican party elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which led to the Civil War, and the elimination of slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  Post-Civil War, Republicans dominated in Presidential elections until the 1930’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the only President to serve more than two terms.

During the Roosevelt era, and partially motivated by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, Democrats shifted to a more pro-civil rights direction through the 1960’s, which cost them the support of the states of the old Confederacy, a shift that has endured to the present.

So what do the Democrats stand for over the last four decades or so?  It’s useful to look at what Democratic Presidents have worked for while in office.  Jimmy Carter kept the focus on civil rights domestically while beginning a new emphasis on human rights in foreign policy.  In the 90’s, Bill Clinton managed to win two elections while governing as if he were a pro-civil rights Republican, with an emphasis on “tight” budgets and welfare reform, while spending large amounts of time and attention quelling scandals of a personal nature.  Barack Obama, inheriting a ruined and sinking economy, had to concentrate primarily on bringing that economy back and establishing a way to let millions have health insurance (once a “fringe Benefit” for millions of workers, but available to fewer each year now); in foreign affairs he shifted to a less militaristic policy in favor of more openness to old foes like Cuba.

In short, there is not a whole lot to say about Democrats except that they have, in recent years, been reduced to pointing at the Republicans and saying, “Not us.”  The Republicans, ever since the 1980’s, have concentrated on winning elections, rather than governing once those elections are decided.  And frankly, it’s been working, so why would they change tactics?

Check this sequence: in 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on constant criticism of Carter’s supposed foreign policy weakness, as evidenced by the Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan and his surrogates insinuated endlessly that such a thing could never happen during a Reagan presidency.  Under Reagan, almost 300 Marines died in the Beirut explosion (as well as numerous embassy staff), but the country didn’t seem to hold the Gipper responsible.  Our current economic situation, with lots of employment but stagnating wages, with concentration of wealth in the upper few per cent of the population, began in earnest at this time.

George Bush, Reagan’s Vice-President and successor, presided, for the most part, over more of the same, but his presidency died after one term as he did the unforgivable: he agreed to raise taxes to bring a budget more closely into balance.  Bush’s son, George W., talked the usual Republican talk of military strength, fiscal responsibility, and inclusiveness.  He spent billions in military campaigns in the Middle East to little avail, and those campaigns continue today, with the meter running all the while.

So, to summarize our situation as it stands today in the good old USA: we still have two parties.  Their differences of policy shift from time to time, seemingly based on very little.  One party has gotten very good at winning elections, while its governance has proven less effective.  The other party is better at governing, but can’t get into office.  This is a recipe for infinite pandering to the single-issue voters I mentioned in the other posts on political parties.

And what shape does this pandering take, and over what issues?  You already know the answers to those questions.  The Republicans promise over and over to restrict abortion right out of existence, while the Democrats promise to protect a woman’s right to choose.  The Republicans stand straight and tall against taxes, and promise to eliminate the estate tax, something that affects only those estates that amount to over 5.5 million dollars, or 11 million for a joint estate.  Paris Hilton and the heirs of Sam Walton (the Wal-Mart empire) must get fluttering hearts at that.  Democrats promise to ward off attempts to repeal the estate tax.  Republicans shake their heads and make sad eyes while explaining that “we can’t maintain Social Security” beyond XYZ date, while Democrats promise to expand it.  Republicans promise to “rebuild our military.”  We already spend more on our military  than do the next 15 highest-spending nations in the world combined. Republicans promise they will not let Democrats impose any name checks on gun sales.  Republicans hint that the right to hate and discriminate is a “freedom of religion” issue.

Democrats talk of “programs” to aid the poor and the disadvantaged, while Republicans hint of vast armies of cheats roaming the country, collecting extravagant benefits that the rest of us pay for.  Republicans campaign to “privatize” this or that because it’s “wasteful” to spend the public’s money on such things as prisons, totally ignoring the simple fact that, in the end, things like this are paid for by the populace at large, regardless of whether by tax levy or some other mechanism.

And what makes me most dyspeptic of all is that, over the last few elections, the Republicans have not even bothered to debate issues to any meaningful degree, preferring to attack the opponent personally, either directly, indirectly, or through docile media that will spread any charges they care to make.  Don’t believe me?  Remember the Clinton years?  Bill Clinton was not at all my favorite president, but the trumped-up “scandals” such as Whitewater?  Vince Foster conspiracy theories?  John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate, was suddenly “exposed” as a “fraud” in regard to his war record.  The Swift Boat Veterans sprung into existence, and then into action, to claim that this decorated Viet Nam veteran had cheated his way into being honored, while his opponent’s wartime service as a sometime Texas Air National Guard pilot proved his valor and fitness. Have you heard of the Swift Boat Veterans since then?

The personal angle to such attacks reached an all-time low during the 2008 campaign and then went downhill from that, as many sleazy claims were made about Barack Obama, including the most insidious and laughably false one of all–that he was not a US citizen at all.  Apparently some actually believed that one day in 1961, a false birth certificate was created in Hawaii, as well as a birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper in favor of a child actually born in Kenya, all in hopes that almost 50 years later, some shadowy interest capable of organizing such a widespread conspiracy would see its favored candidate ascend to the presidency.  And thousands of otherwise lucid human beings actually grasped this straw in the hope that Obama would somehow be deposed.  A small majority of Republican voters actually still believe he was and is a closet Muslim.

Which brings us to 2016, and hatchet jobs done on Hillary Clinton, another new low.  Her opponent, who had been one of the loudest boosters of the “false Obama birth certificate” theory, decided that she was not eligible to be president, and led rallies in chants of “Lock her up!”  Nobody could ever say why she should be locked up.  I rush to add that, once again, HRC was not my favorite candidate either.  This is not 1950’s Argentina, where when Juan Peron was no longer around, his wife (widow) suddenly became a candidate and then president.   But to harass her so relentlessly with fabrications and half-truths to give millions who already think only Caucasian men should aspire to office an excuse to spread  old conspiracy theories as a justification to vote only against her?  This is not what a democratic system was supposed to be.

So there you have it.  Differences between the parties.  It ain’t pretty, is it?



Party Labels…Part 2

A couple of things before I dive into this.  (With apologies to Dr. Seuss) Thing 1: I regret that I was not able to continue in the vein of the last post, and that a week or more has gone by.  For the first time in my life, I went through a hurricane evacuation, the return to home turf, and a cleanup, an effort that may last for another week or two, so between time lost to outside labor and the fatigue caused by it, I just haven’t devoted any time to other pursuits.  And Thing 2: Having read my last post again, I realized there were things I should have said in that post and didn’t.  So here’s some more to consider as an addendum to it.  Sorry about that.

So, having described the process by which dog-whistle, “not quite” racism, or its close cousin, covert, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” almost racism came to be a component of Republican core values (Hey, it wins a lot of votes, so…) it was an oversight on my part to fail to enlarge on a “single-issue voter” comment I made.

Single-issue voters are the most faithful straight party voters in existence.  Regardless of how a party or its candidate feels about or promises to enact other policies, the single-issue voter wants to hear that this candidate is a true believer in whatever this voter’s obsessive cause is.  There are several of these issues, but the most lasting, most effective of these for the Republicans in the modern era has been abortion.  Before the late 1950’s abortion in the United States had not been a subject of controversy.  Accurate figures on the numbers of abortions performed in the country were not available; so-called “back alley” procedures were rumored.   The procedure was, for the most part, simply banned. There was some debate about a woman’s being forced to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term, but no large-scale movement to legalize it in any form.

In 1962, the local host of the children’s TV show Romper Room in Phoenix, Sherri Finkbine (already a mother of four), learned that she had taken medication containing thalidomide, a drug produced originally in (then West) Germany and marketed as a cure for nausea.  Ms. Finkbine had ingested over 30 of these pills in the early stages of her pregnancy.  (Her husband had picked up the pills on a European trip.)  After taking the pills, she learned that the medication was suspected to cause birth abnormalities if taken by the mother in early stages of pregnancy.  Her personal physician recommended that she seek a therapeutic abortion, legal under Arizona law at the time.  At the same time, Ms. Finkbine went public with her personal situation, to warn others who had taken any thalidomide-based drug of the dangers it posed.  She began to receive death threats and promises of legal action against her as well as the hospital where the procedure was to be performed; abortion had abruptly moved to the front page and to the six o’clock news.

Ms. Finkbine eventually obtained the abortion by going to Sweden; her obstetrician there eventually confirmed that the fetus was grossly deformed and stood little chance of survival.  Following her story, Gallup polls showed about half the general public thought she had done the right thing; as time went on, public opinion shifted further in favor of liberalization of abortion restrictions.   Foes of liberalization mobilized, and positions hardened as some states moved to lift absolutist laws on the subject. Lawsuits and countersuits were filed in many jurisdictions.  Eventually, all this culminated in a case before the US Supreme Court, the famous Roe v. Wade, in 1973.  That decision, which seemed to settle the issue in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, has never been accepted by a large minority of the US public, and that portion has remained active in trying to return to a more restrictive regimen of law on the matter.

Republican party politicians have gradually assumed a rather unanimous position in opposition to the current state of affairs and have promised to pass ever more restrictive laws in many states.  It is difficult to say how many of them sincerely support a more restrictive view.  It is not in question that those voters who vote with single-issue fervor against the right to abortion, even with restrictions as to late term procedures, support the Republican Party.  The national Democratic Party generally adheres to a position laid out by former President Bill Clinton, who said that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

A relatively recent addition to the single-issue voter list is known as “marriage equality.”  In another case decided by the Supreme Court, state laws against gay marriage were wiped out.  So-called “social conservatives” have sought to circumvent this change in legal climate; it is too early to know whether marriage equality has the staying power to become a long-lasting single-issue at election time, but this is another rock solid Republican issue at present.

Perhaps the most rock solid single issue, though, is guns.  Why? Well, according to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the national Democratic Party is coming after your guns.  Never mind that the Democrats have floated only  mild tweaks to gun laws in recent years–things like registration of legally-obtained guns or limiting magazine size.  ANY control of gun ownership or any restriction on the potential carnage that can be caused by guns is anathema to the NRA.  Recently, they attracted attention with a series of ads that said, in part, to those who find them too strident, “We’re coming after you.”  To perhaps millions of voters, the Democrats’ advocacy of some limits to firearms is unforgiveable, and candidates of both parties are filmed ritually at campaign time shooting at target ranges or going on bird hunts.

National health care is the final issue I’ll mention here.  You’d have to have spent the last several years on Jupiter or somewhere not to be familiar with this one.  It has engendered some of the most manifestly stupid campaign talk ever.  The ever ready to speak new levels of stupidity 2008 candidate for Vice-president, Sarah Palin, claimed that the Affordable Care Act would have “death panels” to decide when Grandma would become too expensive to keep alive, and thus, would be allowed to die.  Many Republican voters are fanatically insistent that the ACA amounted to a “government takeover of health care.”  Health care is still in the hands of professionals.  The ACA ensures payment for services through a web of insurance availability and increased Medicaid.

Enough.  My head hurts.  Next time, I promise, I’ll spank the Democrats.

Party Labels and What They Mean Today

In my last post, I wrote about Confederate statues and flags and suggested that ceasing to glorify symbols and partisans of an unconstitutional, illegal rebellion in the United States was simply a matter of decency.  I promised in that post not to talk politics.  This post will talk politics, and will lay out the condensed version of where we (that is, US voters) find themselves today, and how we came to our current situation.

Having touched last time on the emergence of the Republican party and the election of the first US president under its banner, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it seems easier to stick with them this time and talk more in depth about the Democrats in a future post.

First of all, talking of the American political landscape as a “two-party system” is an enormous oversimplification.  Both parties are in fact comprised of people with a range of opinions and positions, some of which they express openly and honestly; others they express more covertly, or at times, in less strident terms  for wider appeal to a general audience.  As a result, political commentators and even journalists (who should and probably often do know better) tend to describe today’s Republicans as “the right” or “conservative” and the Democrats as “the left” or “liberal.”  That terminology is useful only to describe each party in reference to the other party; in general, most or all Democrats hold views that fall slightly or greatly to the left of the views of most or all Republicans.  On a world scale, our Republicans would be seen by most as a coalition of center-right to hard right types, and Democrats as a coalition of centrists to moderate left-of-center believers.  But both include large numbers of simplistic single-issue voters and office holders, too.

To circle back to Lincoln’s time, then: political parties tended to come and go, based on singe issues or a narrow range of issues.  Lincoln himself served one term in Congress, and that as a Whig, not a Republican.  His election was in 1846, and he served from 1847 to 1849.  The Whigs were the more urban, educated party, as opposed to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, who traced their origins to Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic Republican” coalition,  By the late 1840’s, Whig policy was for increased industrialization and encouragement of banks so as to finance public works such as roads, railroads, and canals, which would lead almost inevitably to increased urbanization; the Democrats wanted an agrarian republic, together with liberal immigration.

The Democratic thinking of the time meant expansion of the land mass of the United States and the conversion of that land mass to agriculture.  Whigs, with some justification, pointed at the interests of Democrats were leading, and would continue to lead, to expansion of slavery ever westward and into the territories won from Mexico in the Mexican War.  (Texas proved an example of this scenario.)  Lincoln, having pledged at one point to serve only one term in Congress, hoped to be appointed to a well-paid federal job when Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, won the presidential election of 1848.  Failing to secure the job he wanted, Lincoln left political life altogether rather than accept an office in the Oregon territory, and returned to Illinois.

By a long series of events, Lincoln gained a reputation among Illinois political figures as a strong orator and a formidable intellect over the next decade.  It all came together in his being nominated as the Republican candidate for the US Senate seat then held by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. The Whigs, having fractured in the mid-1850’s, principally over the expansion of slavery–with their northern faction actively in opposition to the expansion while its southern branch was not inclined to “rock the boat”–simply ceased to function as a national party, and Lincoln, as did most Northern Whigs, went to the new Republican party.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are famous for having given Lincoln a national stage.  During seven face-to-face encounters, Douglas talked at length about “popular sovereignty,” the “state’s rights” argument before the latter was well-formulated.  In essence, Douglas was stating that if the people of a state wanted things one way, their will should be sovereign, rather than a statement of national principle or law.  Lincoln argued that the Founders were more anti-slavery than pro, and that the national consensus was shifting toward a prohibition on expansion.  In those days of state legislatures’ electing US senators, the Illinois legislature was composed of a majority of Democrats and Douglas won the Senate seat, but Lincoln had won a large following all over the northern states, and became the Republican nominee for President in 1860.

To recap Lincoln’s presidency relative to the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, please see the immediately preceding post on this blog.  For the purposes of this post, suffice to say that the tone was set for the next several decades, with Republican candidates and administrations standing for reconciliation with the ex-Confederate states, and standing for the rule of law.  From Lincoln’s assassination until 1913, the only Democrat to be elected President was Grover Cleveland, in two separate terms.  Memories of the Civil War and Lincoln’s leadership lasted and are influential even today.  The next Democratic president was Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921, who won with the aid of a split electorate when ex-President Teddy Roosevelt bolted the Republican party to run a third-party campaign.  Wilson was followed by three more Republicans, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 only after an inept and seemingly cavalier response to the stock market crash 0f 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.

During all these years, though, of Republican administrations in Washington, southern states elected a long series of Democratic governors and state legislatures.  In the early 1900’s, with Southern sensibilities looking for relief from the humiliation of  defeat in the Civil War, and seeking, without admitting it, to maintain a strict white supremacist social order, these state legislatures enacted and enforced ruthlessly the infamous Jim Crow laws over most of the southern states.  Marriage between the races was illegal.  Voter laws were written, and enforced, to ensure minority input into state government was minimal.   Maintenance of separation of the races, with African-Americans firmly established as inferior, was maintained by a legal façade of state laws.  And lest it be thought that this system was restricted to the South, some northern cities were just as guilty of oppression as their southern counterparts.

Change began in earnest only with World War II.  African-American workers stuck in menial occupations or sharecropping in the South migrated to industrial jobs in northern cities.  They also were called upon to serve in the military during the war, and sentiment grew for a more equitable treatment for all; in 1948, President Harry Truman, a Democrat from Missouri, signed a decree desegregating the US military, an order which was not fully carried out until 1954.

It was during that same year of 1948 that Strom Thurmond, a Democratic senator from South Carolina, broke from the national Democratic Party to run for President under the “States’ Rights Democrat” party ticket, in protest of Truman’s action for desegregation of the military.  In a campaign speech, he told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters,

I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954,came the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, a 9-0 decision that held that separate schools for African-American students and white ones were inherently unequal, and thus violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.  No more could states legally enforce segregation, even under “separate but equal” justification.  State governors Orval Faubus (Arkansas) in 1957, Ross Barnett,( Mississippi) 1962, and George C. Wallace (Alabama) in 1963, made showy objections to federal enforcement of desegregation orders, but the train of societal change had left the station.  A way of life was going to change, even if grudgingly and slowly.

The seismic shift in American politics came in 1964.  The Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a self-described conservative, to run for President against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who, on July 2, 1964, had signed the Civil Rights Act into law.  Johnson, himself a Southerner from Texas, took up the battle as a memorial act for President John F. Kennedy after the latter was assassinated.  Goldwater opposed the Act on the grounds of federal overreach and Senator Thurmond heartily approved of that opposition.  Thurmond soon changed parties, and other southern Democrats followed; the “solid south” became solidly Republican, largely over the Civil Rights issue.

A mere four years later, in 1968, the defeated Republican nominee for President of 1960, Richard M. Nixon, embraced, little by little, a “southern strategy,” holding that he would speak for the “silent majority, ” and that the majority of the electorate was “unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.”  I believe, although it can never be proven, that Nixon was probably not a racist or absolutely callous to the plight of those less fortunate among us.  He just subsumed the importance of absolutely everything else to that of winning elections.  I have treated him harshly here before, but it bears repeating.  He was, in my estimation, the most corrosive figure in modern American public political life.  His insistence on winning at any cost caused him to lose any scruples he had in favor of a “take no prisoners” campaign philosophy.

Subsequent Republican actions reinforce the Nixonian view that it doesn’t matter as long as you win.  Ronald Reagan, a Republican candidate for president launched his campaign from  Philadelphia, Mississippi, the same place where three civil rights workers had been kidnapped and murdered a few years before.  Part of his opening statement was “…I believe in states’ rights.”  Both of these things are so-called “dog whistle” statements–something that makes a statement to those attuned to know what the words mean.  In this case, the most likely meaning is “I’m with those of you who advocate ‘popular sovereignty.’ ”  I don’t think Abe Lincoln would have missed the context.

Thirty years after Reagan’s heyday, we got Donald Trump, he of “I’m the law and order candidate” fame even as his campaign has come under scrutiny for conspiring with a hostile foreign country, even as his finances continue to draw  the attention of federal and state authorities.   Even after he began his ascent into politics by slandering the last president.   I know…nothing has been proven. I know, he’s the president.  He won’t be forever.  Politics like his, beginning with advocating and currying hate by some Americans against some others are nothing to be proud of.   And I know, the Democrats are not as pure as the driven snow.  (Their turn is next.)  I just can’t pretend I see anything to admire on the “right” side of the aisle.



With Malice Toward None: A Matter of Decency

An apology, first off: I just write when I feel prodded to do so, and even then, more immediate things may delay me.  This summer has been largely taken up by some of those more immediate things.  I have missed writing.  You may not have missed reading it, but, anyway…  No purely political stuff this time.  No Trump.  But for some, this probably is a political issue.  It’s not political for me.  It’s a matter of decency.

If you grew up in the United States of America, as I did, you studied the history of this nation: its birth in revolution from the English crown, its growth, its struggles, and the leaders of all of those struggles that led from our colonial past to where we find ourselves now, more than two centuries after our independent beginning.  Several huge events shaped that history, the most momentous of which were several wars that defined a path this nation would follow.  The horrific death tolls of wars, the sad memories of the sacrifices made in the name of those wars are especially important.  The Revolutionary War, in the eighteenth century, gave this embryonic nation its independence.  The Civil War, in the nineteenth, defined the type of nation it would be from that point on.  Two World Wars in the twentieth dragged it, most reluctantly, from its isolation, where it had watched from afar the ancient cycles of aggression and revenge that consumed so much of the world.

Not everything in our national history is worthy of pride.  The treatment of the original aboriginal inhabitants of this  land was nothing to celebrate.  Starting with the arrival of Columbus and his exploring party in the West Indies, the pattern was set–the New World, including its people, was plunder for Europeans.  Several of these “Indians” were carried back to Spain as slaves: supposedly, they were to  benefit by their introduction to Christianity.

At later times, and in other locales, other Indian (the name was well established by then) populations were subjugated, forcibly relocated, or exterminated if their continued existence was inconvenient to the progress of a technologically superior society that was being built.  Morally, this turn of events was, of course, unjustifiable.  It went on with a simple Darwinian justification: survival of the fittest.  “These savages,” the thinking of the majority went, were not worthy to survive: not Christian, not endowed with immunities to the diseases the majority population carried–the list was long enough to result in the elimination of enough of the original occupants that they were no longer a threat, confined as they were to reservations or dead and maybe buried, and some melting into the American population at large through intermarriage.

The fate of the “American Indian” is a stain on the American psyche, but not the only stain,  and I should note, as a history professor once pointed out, we today (hypocritically) can weep all the tears we like; the struggle for dominance is over and resolved in present-day Americans’ favor, after all, by our ancestors who performed the dirty deeds.  And the Indians altogether were no more than a population of a few million, many of whom survived and even thrived.

A much larger stain is the institution of slavery on a large scale.  It must be understood that at the time of the American Revolution slavery was legal, or at least not illegal throughout the territory of the United States (Vermont had outlawed slavery in 1770, while still independent territory); in the same breath, we all should recognize that individual states began to ban it shortly thereafter.  All states north of the Mason-Dixon line (between Pennsylvania on the north and Maryland on the south) and west to the mouth of the Ohio River had banned it by 1804, and the federal government had banned further importation of slaves to any US state or territory in 1808.  Why did the federal government not ban slavery, period?  That’s easy for anyone who lives under today’s deeply divided government to understand.  It simply could not get support from any southern state for prohibition.  Slave-breeding was common and slave markets were numerous in the pre-Civil War South.  Southern legislators watched westward national expansion critically so as to avoid a situation under which so-called “free” states would outnumber (and presumably, outvote) them in Congress as new states came into the union.  They were able to maintain this rough equilibrium until the eve of the Civil War.

Now, to understand the mindset that prevailed in the Deep South circa 1850-1865, we should take a look at some conditions that prevailed there.  The soils and the climate there were ideal for the cultivation of cash crops such as cotton.  Subsistence farming could be carried on in relatively small plots of land so that tables could be furnished with vegetables as food, but the cash crop meant money for the “finer things in life.”  Virginia tables were spread with Victorian china bought with labor-intensive cotton sold into English textile mills.  The planter class could live well as long as large quantities of cotton could be grown without large labor costs.  The invention of the cotton gin (c. 1800) had caused increased use of cotton, which caused a higher demand for slaves for the growth and harvest of more cotton.  Never were the slaves considered as more than an economic asset to their owners.

In the late 1850’s, though, Abolitionist sentiment was on the rise through most of the country outside the South, and the scales tipped as new territories in the West were organized into states–states that rejected slavery.  By the time a gangly lawyer named Lincoln campaigned for the new Republican party’s nomination for President in 1860, Southern oratory was rife with talk of secession to protect “our way of life” and other coded language understood by all to mean the institution of slavery.  Lincoln swept free states while advocating an anti-slavery position, won the election, and was inaugurated in March of 1861.  Several slave states adopted “articles of secession” before he even moved into the White House.  An attack by “Confederate” partisans on Fort Sumter, a federal installation in South Carolina, caused the states that willingly remained within the Union to rally to Lincoln’s calls for a Union military campaign to put down the insurrection.

The Civil War followed–not a “War Between the States.”  Connecticut did not go to war against New York, nor did Alabama make war on Georgia.  It was the Union, as it was called, against the Confederate States.  The Confederates were hopeful of recognition from Britain and France, but did not succeed in getting it.  After more than four years of bloody, merciless, and very expensive (to both sides)  war, it ended in the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant’s Union Army at Appomattox Courthouse, near Richmond, Virginia in 1865.  The death toll will never be known for sure; it is variously estimated at from 620,000 to 850,000 (both sides).  That toll was not equaled in all the nation’s other wars combined until some point during the Vietnam war, or if the 850,000 figure is correct, not yet at this writing.

Lincoln hinted at his hopes for a quick national reconciliation in his second Inaugural Address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Shortly after the end of the war, Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, who shouted “The South is avenged!” just before escaping from the stage in Ford’s Theater, Washington, D. C.

Lincoln’s benevolent position toward those who had attempted to destroy the Union can never be objectively evaluated as a success or a failure in terms of the reunion of the country.  A Reconstruction of the former states of the Confederacy had been planned before his death; there is much disagreement as to its success or lack thereof, and Lincoln himself was not around to see it through.  As early as 1863, he had outlined a policy for the pardon of former Confederates and their reinstatement as American citizens on three conditions: that they had not served in a Confederate government civil position, had not abused Union prisoners, and were willing to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States government.  Had he lived, he might have been inclined to return the Confederate states to the Union sooner rather than later.  It was largely due to his efforts, though, that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, enshrining in Constitutional law the abolition henceforth and forever over all US territory the institution of slavery.

Lincoln was a complicated man, as we all are, who at times changed his mind, at times struggled to change things he knew had to be changed, and is often quoted by his detractors as to his main goal of preserving the Union, whether that meant retaining some slavery or not, but it is hard to misunderstand his musing that “…this union cannot stand half-slave and half free.”  He did save his country and eliminated slavery at the same time.   I have visited his memorial in Washington many times.  I see a brooding, tormented man, determined to continue the struggle on which he and so many others had embarked, simply because they were on the right side.  To such leaders are monuments rightfully built, and they remind the population of such strength of purpose.

Now comes the point of all the history I have thrown in a short time.  The country finds itself once again in a spasm of strained race relations.  I have seen these come and go before.  I feel confident this one will go its way as the others have.

If you have read this blog before, you know how I feel about the exhibiting of the Confederate battle flag in public places.  It is a symbol of defiance of the legally-constituted government of the United States, the same government I twice swore to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Though I have no power to enforce my beliefs, I do not like to see this emblem on public display.  This flag was not widely flown in the United States before 1948, when Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina walked out of the Democratic national convention in protest of President Truman’s nascent push for civil rights.  The counterpush–for preservation of a system of caste based on skin color, from elementary schools to cemeteries, putting persons of color permanently in a position of inferiority–gained strength during the administration of President Lyndon Johnston, as Johnston engaged in a prolonged, and successful, effort to establish equal right to strive for all under the law.  There is no other meaning to it, despite smooth-talking types who insist it is a representation of some vague “heritage and way of life.”  Well, OK, maintain your heritage of a distinct speech pattern, public manifestations of religion in defense of whatever you want. Those are matters of heritage.  But just the fact that some forbear of yours rode with General Lee does not entitle you to ignore the law of the land.  You may hate in your heart, but not incite violence and foment hate in the public square with your speech or your actions.

Similarly, I have been disgusted by the outpouring of sympathy for some statues in various public spaces, mostly, though not all, in southern states.  Two examples will suffice: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee.  The former was a Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army who led troops mostly in Tennessee.  He was a ferociously talented military tactician, by all accounts, but his fame/infamy stems from a couple of deeds, primarily.  In Tennessee, during one battle, his troops had defeated a Union garrison composed in large part of freed slaves, poorly trained and poorly armed.   When Forrest’s troops surrounded the survivors, they simply murdered the survivors where they stood, even as survivors begged for their lives.  Some historians claim Forrest was unaware of the actions taken by those in his command.  At any rate, neither he nor anyone in his command was ever called to account for this action.  A couple of years after the war, he was or was not, according to the account you choose to believe, named the first Grand Dragon of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. What is not in dispute at all is that he was there at the Klan’s founding.  For this you get honored with equestrian statues all over the South?

As for General Lee, he was married to a descendant of George Washington, and was Virginia aristocracy as pure as they came.  He had a good position in the US Army, even serving as the Superintendent of the US Military Academy at one point.  Lee at one point swore that same oath to defend the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic, but instead served at the head of an army of those enemies.  Just as Lincoln was complicated, I suspect Lee was, too.  He was not severely punished for his role in the deaths of so many over the fate of the Union.  He spent many lives on his own side and took many on the other side.  His land was later appropriated for the land that today forms Arlington National Cemetery.  A soldier’s grave there might have been appropriate.  Statues in his honor in public squares are not.

After the war, such figures as Jefferson Davis, the supposed President of the Confederacy, and others, began a campaign of revisionist history that would cast the rebellion and insurrection of thousands against the United States as a noble but doomed “lost cause.”  Don’t believe it.  There was nothing noble about the “cause” of racial supremacy, and there isn’t now.  They deserved to lose.  Putting this all behind us as a nation is just a matter of decency.


Venezuela: the Agony and the…Well, More Agony

As I try to assemble some reasonable thoughts on the topic of Venezuela, here and now, we may be about to see a modern, prosperous, beautiful country breathe its last.  This is not an exaggeration, and not said for shock value.  One of Latin America’s more prosperous, modern countries is in the throes of dissolution.  It may well be that in a year or two, we will all look back on this week as either the fuse that lit a civil war or as the moment that Venezuela began its final act on the world stage, and pulled inward to start a quick decline into an ungovernable failed state, remembered by many but known to few.

As I finished that first paragraph, I could picture large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere thinking only in clichés, nodding, and saying with a “knowing” nod, “Well, that’s what happens when you choose socialism.  It never works.”  As is the case with all clichés, this has an element of truth, but only an element.  I would agree that the economy of Venezuela was largely doomed to fail, but other economies and other countries, faced with similar problems, have faced and even solved them, avoiding in the process, the human and material catastrophe that looms over Venezuela.  But nobody took the crucial, necessary steps to avoid the current situation and its likely outcome.

Too many look at Venezuela and assume that it is  “just like Cuba was” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a country that had choked off social revolt for years, only to embrace some revolutionary figure and later watch as that revolutionary figure revealed his true colors and began a despotic multi-decade rule over the people who had elevated him.  No.  NO.  It’s not that way.  Cuba, though it always had had its high society, shoeless rural population, and deep class divisions, was not a country with a well-developed economy.  Its economy was all too typical of Latin America at the time,  typifying what a Latin American economist called “economias de postre,” i.e., dessert economies.  Their fortunes rose and fell with the success of export crops such as sugar, bananas, and other tropical fruits.

20th and 21st century Venezuela, on the other hand, has had its share of military government and (at least) two-party democracy, until the late 1980’s and the rise of Hugo Chavez.  Its economy was based, not in dessert, but in oil.  Yeah, the black, oozing gold.  Oil rigs sprout from the surface of Lake Maracaibo and here and there throughout the country.  Its agricultural sector was less robust than one might expect, given the climate and the fertile soils.  If neighbors Colombia and Brazil could earn export millions from coffee, why could not Venezuela?  A strong agricultural sector, together with an investor class, and untold oil millions, should have produced a vibrant economy that young Venezuelans should never have abandoned.  No such economy ever became strong enough for that outcome, though.

Anyone who has read this far is probably entitled to ask why.  Venezuela is not utterly unique in its economic development, but the order in which things unfolded there is unusual and at least partly to blame.  The agricultural sector as a source of exports, and thus income, was small in the early part of the 20th century, when oil was discovered.  Subsequently production of oil became profitable for investors, a source of employment for laborers, and a national asset.  World War II meant that both the Allied powers and the Axis became, shall we say, intensely interested in the country’s oil reserves.  Because American oil companies had bought more than half of known exploitable reserves, the Venezuelan government of the time both moved to increase its control of the nation’s oil, and to take a somewhat larger share of the profits from it.

By 1947, oil profits had grown sixfold as compared to the 1941 figures.  The country was largely able to fund its own economic development in the post WWII environment.  There was simply little reason to work in agriculture or other labor-intensive and less rewarding pursuits.  Oil had become the country’s only real export commodity, and the country did not diversify; by the 1980’s, it was a food importer.  All the foregoing led to a crash in the national economy in the late 1980’s, when a world glut in the oil market depressed prices, and Venezuela’s economy dived.

As always, economic disruption produced political turbulence.  A lot of it.  By 1992, an obscure Army colonel named Hugo Chavez had led two unsuccessful coups against the civilian government, and then had been granted a full pardon by President Rafael Caldera in 1994.  By 1998, Chavez was himself running for president at the head of a so-called Bolivarian Revolution; this movement was said to have incorporated the political philosophy of Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator of South America, through a “socialist” lens.  Chavez won.  He quickly obtained a rewrite of the Venezuelan Constitution, granting him increased power to implement his version of the socialist vision.  This is the key to the unceasing hatred shown by US politicians toward Chavez, given the American tendency to assume that the terms “socialism,” “communism,” and “totalitarianism” are all basically versions of the same thing.

In practice, Chavez was, until his death, popular with his natural constituency, the poor.  He accumulated vast personal wealth through the misappropriation of oil revenues (which are still 96% of the nation’s export earnings).  Contrary to much popular belief in the USA, he did not nationalize the nation’s oil.  PDVSA, the national oil monopoly, had been legally constituted in 1976, so as president with large power of distribution, he found it a ready source of cash, both for himself and the other Chavez constituency–the military.

In stark contrast to the love shown to Chavez, a larger than life figure with a natural charisma, by those two groups, was the lasting enmity shown to him by the country’s middle class and its hereditary landed class.  After a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002 (and the Bush administration’s clumsy handling of it) he returned to power on the strength of support from the poor and the military.  But by Chavez’s death in 2013, things were already unraveling.

Oil prices have never returned to their boom levels, and Venezuela’s external debt and oil subsidies given (for political reasons) to Cuba and even China have all added to the crisis which Chavez’ hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been manifestly unable to cope with.  He has no charisma to rely on, and he has dealt with every setback to him personally with massive repression.  His ruling party lost the parliamentary elections last year, and he has resorted to heavy-handed packing of the courts to frustrate opposition efforts to bring him to heel.  Only the military remains as his support system.  About 20 Venezuelans have died in recent political demonstrations.

This is all at a critical stage.  In practical terms, Mao’s ancient political adage that “political power comes from the end of a gun” appears to be Maduro’s  governing philosophy.  He recently called for (and rigged) an election to a new “Constituent Assembly” whose job it will be to rewrite the Constitution again, putting more power in the hands of guess who.  Sadly, the only real hope for a brake on Maduro is if the military turns on him.  He has avoided that by turning a blind eye to corruption in the military.

I have friends in Venezuela.  It is a beautiful country, wealthy in terms of resources.  It doesn’t have to go into political eclipse.  I really hope it doesn’t.

Six Months Later

As I sit drafting this post, it is only a few hours until six months will officially have passed since Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States.  Looking back on many of the opinions I offered over those months (and before) as well as what a lot of people who actually get paid to write down their opinions on political affairs, there has been a lot of doom and gloom.  Six months is not a lot–there are still (supposedly) 42 months to go in Trump’s administration, and a lot could change.  I have no confidence, though, that there will be any positive change any time before 2020, and if there is not a change in thinking by a lot of the US electorate, maybe not even then.

To take a look at trends and directions and the possible effects on the body politic of the USA, six months is probably long enough to evaluate who Trump is and is not, as well as to take a look at how he seems to see the political landscape of the country, and maybe to take a stab at predicting how he will react to what has happened during those six months, as well as what may happen during months to come.

One frequently-asked question is whether Trump is in fact a Republican.  Commentators from both ends of the political spectrum have tried to assign him to one place or another on that spectrum.  I think that is a waste of time.  It appears to me that he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, in any conventional sense of either term.  His public pronouncements and his unconventional methods of communicating with the public (especially his tweets, which are worth a whole analysis of their own) reveal several things.  Foremost is an enormous ego, reinforced by a seemingly rock-solid conviction that no one will or should ever call him on some of his more absurd statements.

Just to take an example, he has made pronouncements on the current state of health care law that have been all over the map–from braggadocio to the effect that he would be signing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) on his “first day” in office to complaints that such a repeal has not yet been possible because of Democratic obstruction.  He thus has gone from complete confidence that he could dictate the fate of the most significant federal legislation of the last decade to whining that legislators of the opposite party won’t assist him in undoing their biggest accomplishment of that period!  What does this represent in terms of his thinking?  In partisan terms, I would submit that these pronouncements mean precisely nothing: they are self-evaluations of his own goal of self-promotion–he wanted to show his own mastery of the whole government apparatus, and reacted with anger and frustration when he was thwarted.

In the James Comey affair (I love the guy, no, he is a disastah who had to be fired because he had lost the confidence of the bureau.  Or something…anyway, I had to fire him!)  I am old enough to remember Nixon and the Saturday Night Massacre; there was a significant debate over whether the President could fire someone who was investigating the President, and in the end, Nixon fired people in the Justice Department until he found one who was receptive to his own views,  but Trump didn’t even look for such a fig leaf.  He simply fired Comey totally on his own, with no recourse to anyone else, and apparently no advance consideration of possible backlash.  The backlash continues to this day, though, and Trump’s discomfort with the situation has been related chiefly to his inability to stop anyone from questioning the propriety of his action.  Again, he appears still to be absolutely convinced of his own ability to do as he pleases without criticism or questioning.  In truth, he appears to have believed that he was elected to exercise dictatorial powers.  None of this indicates an inclination toward either major political party, but a serious tendency toward megalomania.

Much has been written or said about Trump’s treatment of the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution, about his own insistence that the President of the United States can not have a conflict of interest, and other such flouting of convention, at the least.  The more extreme examples of this type of operation are going to come back to haunt him at some point, I think.  The comedy (that wasn’t really funny) of Trump’s trotting out a private attorney, complete with audio visual aids consisting of a pile of papers, to tell the country that his “arrangement” to have members of his own family directing his business affairs during his term satisfied the need for a “blind trust,” as had been customary in the case of previous presidents, was ludicrous.  Not a single government attorney supported it, but of course Donald, Jr., repeated in interviews that this constituted a blind trust, and Trump, Sr. continues blatantly to  helm his various business ventures.  Similarly, he has named various members of his own family to official positions requiring security clearances.

Jared Kushner may find himself in significant trouble over this in months to come.  He filled out a government from (SF-86) that requires disclosure of financial interests as well as any dealings with foreign nationals. (Disclosure: I have filled out several of these, and each contains a warning that failure to disclose requested information or to furnish false information may create legal problems.)  Kushner not only omitted contacts with several Russians (of course, this was inadvertent, wink, wink), but I suspect that coming months may bring news of financial interests in foreign countries, most notably Russia.  This is not an accusation, just a hunch–for now.  Information continues to drip, drip over time.

Fervent Trump supporters point at President Kennedy, who named his own brother as Attorney General.  Bobby Kennedy, though, despite his relative youth, was an attorney of some note and considerable experience in the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice when he was chosen.  Jared Kushner’s chief qualification is that he is Trump’s son-in-law.

What, then, is the aim of Donald J. Trump in becoming President of the United States?  I would submit he saw it as a chance to enlarge his “brand” and concentrate even more wealth in his own hands as well as the hands of his extended family, and was confident he could bluster his way past any objections.  His unfortunate tendency to venerate Russia and with it, the bloody-handed Vladimir Putin, is, I think, mostly a result of an excess of trust in Steve Bannon.

Bannon would merit considerable exploration as a topic.  I’m not going to do it here or now, and I don’t even want to know enough about this sinister character to do it at all.  Suffice to say that before coming aboard the Trump campaign, he was the publisher of Breitbart news, an online source about which the eminently innocent Wikipedia says,

“…A far-right American news, opinion, and commentary website…”

and adds

Breitbart has published a number of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.”

With this as your “strategist’s” background, who needs an erratic, megalomaniacal personality of one’s own?

All in all, in my own humble opinion, Trump eagerly grabbed at a job that is much too big for him.  He is relying on advisors whose expertise is sparse.  He speaks recklessly on topics on which he is ill-informed.  And he seems not inclined to admit any of it, preferring to try to intimidate all in his way.

Two things, I think, can happen within the next three years.  First, Trump could change and moderate his habits and his behavior, which  is not likely, given his self-image as the ultimate success story.  Second, the adults in the Republican party could find a spine and begin to try to purge themselves of this menace.  We’ll see.