It’s About Who’s the Boss

No, I’m not going to talk about a sitcom from a couple of decades ago.

I have to talk about US politics again.  I really do have to; it’s not a desire.  I’m relentlessly drawn to the topic because it is so fascinating–in a morbid sort of way, of course, somewhat like the witness who is asked over and over again to describe the Hindenburg disaster or a 25-car pile-up on an interstate highway.

Hundreds of professional journalists as well as editorialists, spinmeisters, and comedians are busy in this 24/7 “news” cycle describing the latest mental and verbal gyrations from the White House.  President Trump one day issues an impossibly broad and vague Executive Order, and the nation watches, fascinated, as chaos ensues.  Within a day or so, a federal judge stays the Executive Order.  Trump then issues a “tweet” on his Twitter account in which he demeans the judge, a respected jurist who had been confirmed by the Senate a few years before in a 98-0 vote, as a “so-called judge,” says the decision will be overturned and promises to see the judge “in court.”  (Where else?  In the judge’s living room?)

Or the National Security Advisor, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who needed no confirmation from any other part of the government, and thus began in his new position at the beginning of the Trump administration, found himself out of that job within three weeks, after having had contact with the Russian embassy early and often, both during the campaign and during the transition from the Obama administration to that of Trump, then lying about it, including to the Vice-President, then claiming he had less-than-perfect recall of the contact, and then…well, who knows.  First, he was said to have been forced to resign.  Then Trump said that his lying to the Vice-President was the last straw.  Then Trump (sort of) praised Flynn after the fact.

There are a lot of other examples, but it all adds up to one thing: chaos.  It’s not exactly the “inmates running the asylum” scenario, but one could be pardoned for wondering exactly who is in charge here.  It does seem evident that Trump himself is not, except in a figurehead sort of way; this is not a surprise, since he had no government experience before January 20, 2017.  And despite the opinion of many in the public that “government should be run like a business,” that’s way too simplistic.

Business has one overriding responsibility–to make profits, and its shareholders are its constituency.  Those who administer businesses rise or fall based on how well they comply with that responsibility.  Besides, Trump’s experience is not even mostly along the lines of that business model.  He has mainly been in charge of enterprises with his name splashed all over them, privately held, and with no oversight but his.  So it should not come as a surprise to see the new president flail, at least at first.

The US Federal Government has a plethora of responsibilities: national defense, collection and disbursement of funds to various programs meant to encourage economic growth or public health or diplomatic readiness, etc, etc., etc.  And none of it designed to make a profit.  The average Joe despairs at times to describe or even understand what the Government does.  He notices, though, if Social Security is disrupted, or if tainted food products slip by the FDA, or if a military officer’s (or the civilian overseer of that officer’s) poor judgment results in the loss of life.

BUT…all of this is not why Trump ran for president and not at all why he was elected.  And here is where the morbid fascination comes in.  The true Trump supporter did not have any of the ordinary workings of government in mind when voting for the Donald, as it becomes increasingly evident each day.  In fact, I would be willing to wager that, even, as many of the executive departments of the Federal Government become dysfunctional to the point of failure, Trump voters will not waver in their continuing support.

Look at the posts of your friends on their Facebook pages.  If you have no or not many Trump supporters among your friends, then look at the letters to the editor page in any small-town newspaper, and even in some papers from  larger cities.  Trump is doing a great job, these folks are saying.  If they are not saying it themselves, they are copying or parroting copy from such sources as Breitbart or Conservative Tribune or dozens of others, all of which are steady in blaming all the country’s ills on “libtards” or “the left.”  These raw emotional outbursts are just what many Trump supporters want to hear.

Lately those who identify themselves as “conservatives” have been on a kick where they insist that most or all of the people who show up at Congressional Town Halls to protest current doings in Washington are “paid agitators” or “professional protestors.”  I have seen (as I assume you have) wild-eyed stories asserting that the crowds who dare confront their Congressmen are all being paid on the order of $70,000 yearly to protest, all, of course, by some shadowy leftist conspiracy to bring down the current president.  The NRA’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre,  recently denounced such dissent as the work of “..anarchists, Marxists, Communists…” who “…”hate everything America stands for.”  This at CPAC, the gathering of “conservative” activists just outside Washington.

So don’t expect Trump supporters to turn on their hero anytime soon.  The love they profess for him is not for him at all–it is for this worldview that things were just great in the USA until these troublemakers were let get too strong.  Many of these same people were shocked to the core of their being in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, and one Donald J. Trump was in the forefront of this wave, insisting that Obama was not American at all–his birth certificate was a fraud, according to a trusted (but anonymous) source.  And when Obama released his long-form birth certificate, Trump said that wasn’t enough: Trump had to see Obama’s college transcripts.

Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler.  Never mind the Federal Government eventually sold off its share of both companies at a profit, which went right back into the Treasury.  He didn’t wear a flag pin in his lapel!  His transgressions were legion, in these eyes.

“Libtards,” “leftists,”  even atheists and Muslims were emboldened to speak their minds.  Gays asked for (and got) the right to marry each other.  “True Americans” like Wayne LaPierre could not be expected to stand for these abominations!  So, in mid 2016, when it was apparent that Trump would be the Republican nominee for president, but was running behind that dreaded socialist/libtard bitch Hilary Clinton, Steve Bannon, James Comey, and Vladimir Putin all got behind the Donald.  The media (the same media DJT now demeans as “fake news”), in their true capitalist motivation to sell TV ads and newspapers, fixated on Trump 24/7, and let him say absolutely anything he wanted without fear of contradiction.  And he said, over, and over, that Hilary was a crook, that she should be in jail, blah, blah, etc., and I’m the law and order candidate, and our military will be yuuuuge…

And evangelicals were persuaded that Trump would be better than that Godless Methodist, and the job was done.  A few thousand in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were persuaded to switch in the hopes of returning to a more black and white time.

People do not give up their hopes easily.  They are holding out, waiting for Trump to bring back their manufacturing jobs.  They are listening to corporate CEO’s who say that regulations that stopped the corporations from polluting air and water are what killed jobs in West Virginia and Kentucky.  Others are sure that Trump will restore prayer in the public schools, and everything will just get better after that.  Or that gays will get back into the closet.

So this is what brought us Trump.  He is going to be the boss that will put everything “right.”  Only when nothing is “left” will all be right.  The Trump/Bannon reign will not last forever.  It only feels like it.

What Is Truth and How Do We Know?

Did that get your attention?  Better yet, did it make you ponder either part of the two-part question?

If you are like me, and have been on Earth several decades, you have seen the world change in ways that would have been unthinkable in the mid-to-late 20th century.  Withdraw money from your bank account in another city with just a plastic card?  Get an accredited college degree without setting foot in a classroom?  Book a flight, pay for the ticket and check in for the flight without ever leaving your desk or talking with another human being?  Well, things change.  And not always for the best.

Of course, the age of the computer ushered in the changes that touch all of us, as in the three examples in the last paragraph.  The computer age means that information is available at the touch of a keyboard–available to anyone with access to a computer which in turn has access to the internet.  We all became very accustomed to that years, even decades ago.  But some things do not change.  It was once said that a lie could run around the world before the truth could lace up its shoes.  That old saying has never been more relevant, because of the same internet.  I have said many times in the last 20 years that with the internet, millions with nothing of value to say now have a platform to say it all, and to a worldwide audience.  We are all left to hope that internet consumers are a discerning group, able to tell fact from fiction.  Alas, we are all to be disappointed.  Many readers are the willing consumers of the most vile falsehoods, and they take in these falsehoods uncritically and repeat them, thus spreading them, and becoming part of the problem. often while congratulating themselves on being “in the know,” and not being “taken in by the mainstream media,” they do the work of propagandists.

Now it is true that misinformation has always spread not only by means of people with an interest in spreading it, for whatever reason, but also by means of people who spread it without knowingly meaning to spread falsehood; they may, as they always have, ask someone, “Did you hear that…” or “Did you know that…”  These people are not part of some grand conspiracy, but they are useful to that conspiracy when they propagate something untrue, even if they do not know it.

Today, such misinformation is so rife, so widespread, that much is “common knowledge” without being true.  And I do not mean shading of facts.  I am talking of outright falsehood, placed in the internet stream initially by someone with an interest in shaping public opinion toward some end.  When this method of spreading false information is successful, it can become almost impossible to eradicate it from the public mind.  I have heard or read several such items in recent months, such as…

Kids are not allowed to pray in school.”  This is similar to the truth–just similar enough to cause even some well-meaning people to be taken in by it.  There was a lot of commotion over lawsuits brought by atheists over compulsory prayers in public schools when I was in public school.  The rub was the “establishment of religion” clause of the Constitution.  Some did not want their children to be required to utter prayers chosen for them by school boards.  A 1962 Supreme Court decision held that such a requirement violated the establishment clause.  However, other decisions have permitted prayer groups, etc., on school grounds, provided there is no coercion of students to participate.  (These decisions are available through Google, quoted verbatim.  And yes, I accept Google information as to historical fact.)

I taught in a public secondary school from the mid-70’s to the late 80’s.  During some discussion of the history of the English language, I often passed out a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Modern English alongside an Old English version, to illustrate the changes in diction and word order over 1200 years of history, without incident.  I did so because most kids would have been familiar with the words in Modern English.  I could not, did not, and did not want to, command them that they had to pray it.  And finally, on test days, I witnessed many instances of students praying silently, crossing themselves, or showing in other ways that they were praying.  But no one did it out loud and no one compelled anyone else to take part.  And anyway, if there were to be prayer involving every student, whose prayer would it be?  Non-denominational?  Please.  There is something in every prayer that would not accord with someone’s belief system.

“Right now, in  (city), (state), Sharia law has been established!”  This one made the rounds a few years ago, and has started to gain strength once again recently.  The cited city is usually Dearborn, Michigan, probably because of the size of the Arab immigrant population.  This has been debunked before, and surprisingly easily, because the hysterics have one source: an online satire/humor site called the National Report, which includes the following disclaimer:

National Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.

The above paragraph is available through Google at Snopes’ webpage.

In late 2013, the National Report ran a fake news story to the effect that Dearborn City Council had established Sharia Law by a 4-3 vote.  Predictably, a lot of gullible people and those who prey on them (for votes, fund-raising, etc.) latched onto it as an alarming sign of the approaching apocalypse or something, and it acquired a life of its own.  And yes, I have been in Dearborn, and it looks a lot like the rest of semi-urban Michigan except with better Arab restaurants.  Shawarma, anyone?

Students no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, because SOME PEOPLE would be offended by it.”

Again, this claim somewhat alludes to something like the truth, and thus encourages those inclined to hyperventilate to start on cue.  It may come as a surprise to learn that a Federal Court decision in 1943, yes, 1943, held that no school could force a student to recite the pledge or even to stand for it.  (A Jehovah’s Witness had sued: in that sect, no one is supposed to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but God.)  There have been suits in many Courts of Appeal since then, most centered on the phrase “under God,” which was not part of the original pledge; it was added in 1954.  Nonetheless, the pledge continues to be recited in classrooms at the beginning of the school day just about from coast to coast.  Students may be informed of a right to abstain from pledging or even standing either verbally, or in a student handbook, or in any other suitable method.  It is a quirk of this whole ordeal that the exemption itself allows an individual student with religious objections to opt out and thus preserves the possibility of participation by the others.

“Schools prohibit students from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other.  They are required to say “Happy Holidays’ or some other secular greeting.”

I will include a quote from Valerie Straus in the Washington Post of December 24, 2016:

As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.

It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.”

The claim is undoubtedly part of a “War on Christmas” narrative often used (you guessed it) for fundraising or for political rallying purposes.

There are dozens more provably false claims made every day to whip up one constituency or another.  The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is particularly fond of using claims like these.  One reason for his proclivity in these affairs may be that they are commonly used in “alt-right” “news” sources, of which he would seem to be an admirer.  The claim that the murder rate in the US is its highest in 45 years may be such an example, or it may be just a symptom of someone with a notoriously short attention span.  Again, from Snopes:

 According to the most recent FBI data available, an estimated 15,696 murders occurred in the United States in 2015, or 4.9 murders per 100,000 people. And while this was the highest murder rate in six years (compared to a range of 4.4 to 4.8 murders per 100,000 each year since 2009, when the figure was 5 per 100,000), it’s less than half the historical high of 10.2 in 1980.

Sigh. Yes, I know he has the most responsible job in the world.  But voters have a pretty responsible job, too, that is, to be on the alert for people who preach fear when asking for their votes–or their money.  This administration has been shown to operate in a realm of their own facts, and to double down on them when confronted.  If anything is ever retracted, it’s by a lower-level official, rather than by the President or by such notorious alt-fact purveyors as Kellyanne Conway, whose word I would not take if she said, “It’s a nice day out.”

The internet has a lot of good information.  It just takes a little searching and a bit of confirmation.  We used to say, in my youth, in the New Stone Age, that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.  The reverse also holds–if it seems too bad or evil to be true, do some verification–it may not be true, either.

The 40-Year-Old Issue That Won’t Go Away

I have thought for many years about trying to set forth a logical, dispassionate analysis about the one issue in U. S. public debate that has refused to yield to any such discussion in any forum.  I don’t think I can do it. I am not sure anyone can do it.  Any mention of the topic brings forth the crowds of marchers, both those passionately committed to unyielding opposition and those equally committed to stopping those opposed from toppling the uneasy, fragile status quo.  No end is in sight to the squabbling; nor is there evident a long-term peaceful co-existence between the two factions.  The issue?  Legal therapeutic abortion.

After hours of thinking, writing, amending, and restarting, I will tell you at the start that if you’re expecting a smashing conclusion, don’t, because there really isn’t one.  I also admit in the very beginning that I feel somewhat like a trespasser even discussing this issue, since, as a man, I will never face the decision whether to undergo such a procedure.  Nonetheless. state or federal legislators who regularly propose laws regulating or attempting to outlaw abortion, as well as judges who must weigh the legalities of such regulation are, in the majority, men, and they exhibit little or no hesitancy to advocate one position or another.  What results is the incongruity of one half of Americans deciding what, if any, limits must be placed on the other half as to the immorality, criminality, or lack of either inherent in the act of abortion.  Also, an ugly, unspoken truth is that men sometimes force such a decision on women by backing out of promised emotional and financial support.

Former President Bill Clinton, as you may remember, offered his opinion that  population will assert that the very act is so abhorrent that it should be absolutely and always illegal.  For this group no consideration of patient safety is necessary, with a zero occurrence rate the ultimate goal.  I don’t think, however, that most Americans are quite so dogmatic.  A more common current of thought seems to be that Clinton’s formula should add “with some restrictions.”  More on that a bit below.

The opponents of abortion in any and all instances and situations, it seems, fall into two broad categories (and a number of small ones).  The first of these categories are those who object on moral grounds: a prohibition on the taking of (human) life, to these people, is or should be absolute, extending even into the womb to cover embryos and fetuses with the protection from harm by the state that the state offers to all of its citizens from birth.  This is a rather appealing stance for anyone who likes his/her positions to reflect certainty, with an internal logical consistency–there is no gray, only black or white, and all questioning is eliminated.

Another segment of the “total prohibition” part of the population arises from religious belief and practice.  The Roman Catholic Church, through its supreme spokesman, the Pope, has been consistent in its condemnation of willful abortion at any stage of embryonic or fetal development (the dictionary distinction between “fetus” and “embryo,” has the latter meaning very early stages of development, and the former referring to later stages, where a form resembling   human has begun to be apparent), without exception that I can recall.  Other Christian confessions, as well as Jews, Muslims, and other groups,  range in their official positions from a near-total condemnation (with most carving out an exception for cases where continuing a pregnancy would endanger the life of the pregnant woman) to general disapproval, but including the proviso that a decision in any case of a potential abortion should be made primarily by the woman usually after prayers and examination of one’s motives.  Some Christian and other sects differentiate between cases of earlier or later development of the fetus.

In truth, keeping in mind that I lack standing (in legal terms) to weigh in on any individual decision, I think that the moral absolutists need to take a step back and allow all, including themselves, to weigh more than just an abstract position in the debate.  The old hypothetical question of what a husband would do if advised that his helpless, voiceless wife or an equally helpless and voiceless unborn child could survive some calamity, but not both, is illustrative.  To say that he would have to let his wife die in favor of the unborn is not realistic.  (Of course, neither is such a scenario, but still…)

The religious guidance can be binding only on the adherents of that particular religion, unless the law of the land is in harmony with whatever it states. This is part of the American DNA.  No believer of any stripe can force anyone else to observe what his own religion dictates–and no religion can force a legislative branch to adopt its own teachings as law simply based on its belief.  The law may be similar or even identical to a sectarian belief, but that is basically coincidence.

I mentioned a third tendency toward prohibition above when I said “…a number of small ones…” and this is where reasoning becomes a minefield.  There is, among Americans, a substantial group which appears to believe that babies are the logical consequence of engaging in a proscribed act–that is, premarital or extramarital sex or even rape.  Those who take this point of view will almost always divert all discussions of the availability of therapeutic abortion into some blind alley by saying some variation on the theme that “…well, they should have thought of that before they decided to lie around and …”  You finish the sentence; the gist of it is that (1) any type of sex may result in pregnancy;  (2) that such pregnancies are the penalty that is brought on by the act; and (3) crudely stated, those who engage in the act are revealed to society be the resultant pregnancy, either as a warning to others or as an example to all.  Some or all of the foregoing is probably implied rather than fully stated, but that is the thrust of it.

Reasoning with a person who embraces this “just desserts” theory is likely futile.  Like the parishioners in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, they seek reminders each day that some others are less morally evolved than they are.  Why employ such pejorative terms as “bastard” or “baby daddy” except to debase those to whom such language is applied?

With all this as background, we see constant efforts by absolutists to reinstate the total ban many think existed in the US before 1973 and Roe v. Wade.  In reality, states had different regulations before then and after; some prohibited the procedure altogether, and some restricted it according to one standard or another.  What Roe did was to attempt to standardize this patchwork to some extent, essentially by laying out a right to privacy that supposedly let a woman make the decision to terminate a pregnancy or continue it to term in consultation with her doctor.  Religious considerations were left to her; nonbelievers and believers alike set the standards in their own cases.

The law of unintended consequences set in.  At some point, those who were strictly anti- on the issue began to refer to themselves as “pro-life.”  Those who thought the issue settled gradually became known as “pro-choice.” Neither title tells us much about the group it is applied to.  Today, some 44 years after Roe, the pro-life faction is often aligned as well with those in favor of such government actions as elimination of welfare benefits and broad application of the death penalty in criminal cases, leading wags to call them “pro-birth.”  The “pro-choice” title seems to imply that choice is all its adherents favor, even though many who would be labeled as such favor restrictions such as a time/developmental limitation during which a pregnant woman could seek an abortion.  Similarly, most who speak publicly do not advocate this as a form of birth control.

In recent years, the issue has been further exploited for political gain.  The “pro-life” faction is one of the largest groups of so-called “single-issue” voters, i. e.. people who will reliably vote in favor of a candidate who takes the same stand as they do on this single issue, regardless of where he/she stands on any other issue.  Some states have imposed new requirements meant to restrict the availability of abortion, and many private, loosely organized groups have resorted to violence up to and including killing doctors who perform abortions.  There is considerable overlap of the “pro-lifers” with groups who advocate omission of contraceptives from health insurance plans–which would lead to more unplanned pregnancies, which probably would lead to more women seeking abortions…

The issue gives no indication of yielding to civility or logic.  The state impositions I mention above have included, among others, a requirement that those women who seek abortion be advised that there exists a link between abortion and breast cancer, even though medical experts have debunked this and other bits of magical thinking.

One positive fact is that statistics on abortion in the US appear to indicate that, after a peak in the early 1980’s, their numbers have declined (with a slight hiccup or two) almost yearly.  I believe this is due to the gradual spread of contraceptive information and means rather than to sanctions revived in some localities.

Will this be less of an issue with time?  Maybe.  I would like to think so. But it may require a cooling off on all sides, and there is very little “cool” in US politics today.