August 9, 2016 § 5 Comments
The title of this essay means that when there are two choices, one or the other must be chosen. The average preschooler can deduce this kind of math. It is, however, too complicated for some of those who have realized Trump should not be President, but who have not figured out the consequence of their realization. I hope to convince them that their actual choices are limited and failure to understand this limitation may lead to a result inconsistent with their realization.
The Late Responders
As I read and watch the news about the political Hamlets who have finally realized the obvious fact: That Donald Trump is an amoral irresponsible narcissist, I am astonished and outraged about the next act in the drama of many of their lives. Like Hamlet, they express their “dark night of the soul” [to mix a couple of different referents] and conclude that they will not vote for Donald Trump but they also will not vote for Hillary Clinton.
Their epiphany tales are all similar. They noticed that Trump does not distinguish between reality and fairy tales. They express dismay at the prospect of his childish impetuosity and habit of enraged response to any criticism , ensconced in the Oval Office, the red telephone at hand. They have, at last, concluded that such a temperament is unsafe for one with the power and authority of a Commander in Chief of the worlds most powerful military force, a force that includes control of nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, wearing serious faces, wrinkled brows and pursed lips, they declare that Hillary is “untrustworthy”; that her emails and her flailing around about them violate their high standards and moral purity.
These complaints, offered as an excuse for passively refusing to use a vote to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States, are either evidence of abysmal ignorance of the American political system or an astonishing degree of dispassionate indifference toward a disaster that could threaten the lives of millions and perhaps render much of this planet uninhabitable. Even the presumed instinct of self preservation does not seem sufficient to jar these people out of their effete fantasy land.
The Difference Between Moral Purity and Political Reality
These converts to UnTrumpism are, in many cases, in their 50’s and 60’s, having held responsible government positions.. Many of them confess to having voted for Republican candidates for President during their past lives, presumably for George W.Bush when he was re-elected after four years of decision-making that should have been enough to convince any serious observer that he was plainly unqualified to govern the United States or any other significant government entity. It is somewhat easier to understand the present ignorance of those who voted Republican in that election, but still their present awakening, after sleeping late, with an appropriate decision about Donald Trump is inconsistent with their failure to perceive its obvious cerebral consequence.
As incredible as it seems, there are some simple facts about American politics that have not been noticed by these UnTrumpers. The American political system is built around two political parties. Even before the creation of the GOP, presidential elections were contests between two competing variously named political organizations. Third-party insurgents, even when led by a candidate as famous and respected as Theodore Roosevelt, have not been successful in defeating candidates nominated by the two major political organizations. Teddy’s Progressive Party, nicknamed “Bull Moose” after he described himself as one after being wounded during a campaign appearance, merely allowed Woodrow Wilson to take advantage of the division between Taft and Roosevelt and become President.
This fact leads to a second fact. If one is convinced that Donald Trump would be a reckless and dangerous President, the only rational thing to do is vote for his opponent. Not voting or wasting a vote on a sure loser seeking attention through some form of political purity, is both dumb and indefensible. Dumb because, having acknowledged the dangers of a Trump presidency, failing to do everything necessary to prevent him from becoming President is like confronting an armed and dangerous intruder in your home with spitballs. Indefensible because failing to do the simple act of voting for Trump’s opponent amounts to sharing responsibility for a Trump presidency if he wins.
I agree completely with the premise of the arguments made by those who understand the danger of a Trump presidency. But that premise absolutely requires a vote for Hillary Clinton and committed efforts to persuade others to vote for her. It does not require and, in fact, has nothing to do with agreeing with her or approving of her. It has to do with defeating Trump.
Never in my lifetime have I voted for a presidential candidate with whose policies I agreed completely. If I ever find myself in agreement with mainstream politicians, I will go off somewhere and figure out how I have sold out. And I doubt that will become necessary. When this election is over, I will try to support the political revolution led by Bernie Sanders. Election campaigns are useful for recruiting and identifying people for the next political contest. Campaigns end. Organizing goes on forever.
July 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Some Idle Speculation
It appears to me that the EU is not making a good faith effort to guide Greece toward a viable economy. My suspicion is that, led by Germany and some European financial oligarchs, the EU is really dead set on forcing the Greek people to disavow the results of its recent election of a left-wing government. If I am right, the EU is becoming a sinister enemy of democracy, not a healthy alliance of European economies.
This smells to me like what the United States tried to do when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara freed Cuba from the oppression of Batista. We are now, decades too late, making amends for that effort. The bad odor of the EU’s treatment of Greece is more pungent because it seems to be driven by Germany. Some of the virulent rhetoric attacking Greece sounds like an echo from the 1930’s.
Yes, I know it has become verboten to make reference to Germany’s Nazi past, but we, during the past few months, have witnessed how ugly pasts are like crab grass, aggressive and hard to kill. Half our country, a hundred and fifty years ago, embraced government protection of an economy based on slavery. A brutal war was required to end slavery. But, for the past few months, a significant segment of our citizens have been passionately defending its symbols, referring to them as respected relics of cultural pride. Today, as South Carolina congratulated itself for lowering the Confederate flag, I heard a TV commentator remark that a recent poll showed that 57% opposed the decision to do so. Those opposed contend the flag represents a valued “heritage” and should be regarded as homage to their ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
I assume there are many Germans who have similar feelings about WWII and their “heritage” and ancestors. But, just as Southerners who honor the Confederate flag don’t discuss the horrors of slavery, I suspect the Germans who still recall with pride the glory of the 1930’s, don’t discuss the horrors of the Holocaust.
My suspicion is that, while the rhetoric has changed, most of those who honor the Stars and Bars have no enthusiasm for ending the continuing prejudice and racism that remains a shame and a plague in our country. I also suspect that there is a broad overlap between the German minority who feel some bitterness about the outcome of WWII and those who are prominent in Germany’s right wing political faction bitterly opposed to the democratic socialist government of Greece.
If I’m Right
If I’m right, Germany will not abide by any reasonable effort to save Greece from an economic meltdown. Unless, of course, its elected leaders resign and call for a new election. Angela Merkel will have the same reluctance to oppose the extremists in her parliament as has been exhibited by some GOP presidential candidates toward lowering the Confederate flag. The political right wing in America successfully delayed the recognition of Cuba for fifty years and, even now, Obama’s executive decision to right this wrong has not been supported by the GOP leadership.
I wish both the Russian and Chinese governments were not going through an economic crisis. The timing is terrible. I think it would be great if either of those governments would send an emissary to Greece with this message:
“It seems you guys are having some trouble getting your so-called friends to lend you money on terms allowing you to stabilize your economy. Tell you what: How about we lend you some money with a structured pay-out that will permit you to survive your problems with dignity and compassion for your people. Of course, part of the deal will be: We partner with you in deals with African nations and we get to establish military, especially naval, bases in your country on favorable terms. See, we Russians have been troubled for centuries with limited access to the Mediterranean Sea. And we would like to have a convenient base from which to launch favorable trade deals with Africa. We think this could be the beginning of a great alliance. We communists are flirting with privatizing some of our economy and you Greeks have taken some steps toward socializing some of your economy. If we’re smart, that could be the basis for mutual success.”
I know this ain’t gonna happen. The Chinese don’t know how to manage a stock market and the Russians have never learned how to manage their economy. When they have to choose guns or butter, they always choose guns. [We make the same choice, but we do a better job of marketing our guns.] Still – it’s fun to speculate what such a deal would do the European bullies who are enjoying pushing Greece around. It would give Angela something else to think about – might get her mind off the right wingers who are making so much noise about Greek socialism. Nothing like a nuclear-armed commie neighbor to focus the mind.
December 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
As I write this, the United States Senate is debating a measure that would weaken Dodd-Frank’s regulation of Wall Street banks, increase the amount of money a single donor can contribute to political parties and enable employers to reduce pension payments of retirees after they retire and have earned their pensions.
These outrages are attached to a budget bill whose passage is required to keep the government operating. None of these dishonest and unwise amendments have anything to do with the budget. They were attached to the budget bill by anonymous members of the House of Representatives at the behest of Citigroup. There was no committee hearing. There was no opportunity to vote on them separately.
In other words, they were so obviously the result of corruption that their sponsors would not own them. They could only be adopted as part of a legislative blackmail scheme.
This is not, however, the real scandal. The real scandal is that this dishonest scheme could only proceed with votes by Democratic Party members. The bill passed the House by a narrow margin, including aye votes by 57 Democrats.
[I note with some satisfaction that no Texas Democrat voted “aye”.]
No, that is really not the real scandal. The real scandal is that the only two elected officials who are personally identified with pressuring members of Congress to agree to these outrages are named Barack Obama and Joe Biden . Yep. Some things are too dishonest to make it, even given the present sorry state of our politics. So you have to bring out the Big Guns, the Prez and Vice (pun intended).
How did this happen? Well, we get the usual explanation. It was a compromise; the best deal we could get. If we don’t go along, the President won’t be able to work with Republicans on other matters.
Whoa! Say what? When has the President been able to work with Republicans on anything significant? What makes anyone think this will improve in a few weeks when the GOP majority will become filibuster proof? Just how stupid and naive are we suppose to be? Will this be an adequate explanation for the retirees whose pensions will be decimated? When the power of the Koch Brothers and others like them is used to gain even more control of our political parties, will we view the results and say, “Well, it’s bad, but it was worth it to avoid an ugly argument about the 2014 Budget Bill.”
The Perpetuation of “Too Big To Fail/Jail”
Dodd Frank addressed a problem that confronted us when the Wall Street Banks faced insolvency because of their fraudulent marketing of mortgage based derivatives. They used depositor money to finance those derivatives. If they became insolvent, the taxpayers would have to make the depositors whole because of the FDIC insurance program. That is, the taxpayers would belatedly finance the reckless greed of the Wall Street pirates.
Dodd Frank cured this by requiring that future trading strategies that depend on derivatives and Byzantine schemes involving sketchy tools like credit-default-swaps, that look like insurance but have no reserves, would have to be conducted by entities separate from FDIC insured deposits, with money other than depositor money.
In other words, the ones who profit from high-risk gambles would have to risk their own money, not FDIC-insured depositor money.
Predictably, this was regarded as a terrible idea by the high-risk gamblers. They have become addicted to the system of “If I win, I pocket the money. If I lose, you pay for the loss.” So, Citigroup, acting for the other pirates, just wrote a solution to their problem, forwarded it to some elected officials they owned, who transcribed it into an amendment to the budget bill. Their solution is part of the bill Obama and Biden have been frantically calling House and Senate members about, begging them to vote “aye”.
Thank God For the Women
Nancy Pelosi was left out of the negotiations that led to this piece of garbage. She did not join the cheer leaders who whooped it through the House. But the one who has filled a gaping chasm where the political soul and conscience of the Democratic Party once rested, is Elizabeth Warren. What a thrill to see a Senator who has not forgotten how to express moral outrage. And knows how to do it while exhibiting a razor sharp wit and a mind to match.
When she spoke on the floor of the Senate, looked squarely into the camera and addressed Citigroup, the sponsor and author of the Dodd-Frank gut job, and said, “I agree with you. Dodd-Frank is not perfect. It failed to break you up into small pieces.”, I just about fell in love again, despite 65 years of marriage. She is a wonder!
Which Side Are You On?
This episode reminded me of an old union song I taught my daughters to sing when they, and I, were young. It was written in 1931 by Florence Reese, the wife of a coal miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, during a bitter strike. The Harlan County Sheriff was J.H. Blair, an enforcer and strike breaker for the mine owners.
One night some of Blair’s thugs stormed into the Reese home, looking for Sam Reese. He had been tipped off and was not there. They terrorized his wife Florence and his children but didn’t get Sam.
After they left, Florence, angry and scared, wrote a song on the back of a calendar, expressing her devotion to the union and her contempt for those who failed to support the strike. Here is a link to Pete Seeger and his banjo, singing Florence’s song:
While watching CNN and MSNBC about this budget episode, I kept getting madder and madder and I remembered that old song. So I wrote my own version:
In our US Congress
There are no neutrals there
You either vote your consciences
Or whore for billionaires
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Obama we’re in danger
The wolves are at our door
We don’t need reasoned argument
We need a two-by-four
Barack Hussein Obama
How dumb can you get?
A shepherd cannot safely try
To make a wolf a pet!
It’s time to rein in Wall Street
Our country’s not for sale
At ballot box and in the streets
We must fight and prevail.
Thank God for Betsy Warren
She speaks for us out loud
She does not hedge or compromise
To blend in with the crowd
No go along to get along,
She hews to moral rules
She tells it straight and tells the truth
She has no time for fools
I don’t yet know how this drama will end, but I’m not optimistic.
August 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
A Travis County grand jury has charged Governor Rick Perry with having violated two sections of the Texas Penal Code: 39.02 and 36.03. Those sections are as follows:
§ 39.02. ABUSE OF OFFICIAL CAPACITY. (a) A public servant commits an offense if, with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another, he intentionally or knowingly: (1) violates a law relating to the public servant’s office or employment; or (2) misuses government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.
(b) An offense under Subsection (a)(1) is a Class A misdemeanor.
(c) An offense under Subsection (a)(2) is: (1) a Class C misdemeanor if the value of the use of the thing misused is less than $20; (2) a Class B misdemeanor if the value of the use of the thing misused is $20 or more but less than $500 ; (3) a Class A misdemeanor if the value of the use of the thing misused is $500 or more but less than $1,500; (4) a state jail felony if the value of the use of the thing misused is $1,500 or more but less than $20,000; (5) a felony of the third degree if the value of the use of the thing misused is $20,000 or more but less than $100,000; (6) a felony of the second degree if the value of the use of the thing misused is $100,000 or more but less than $200,000; or (7) a felony of the first degree if the value of the use of the thing misused is $200,000 or more.
(d) A discount or award given for travel, such as frequent flyer miles, rental car or hotel discounts, or food coupons, are not things of value belonging to the government for purposes of this section due to the administrative difficulty and cost involved in recapturing the discount or award for a governmental entity.
Sec. 36.03. COERCION OF PUBLIC SERVANT OR VOTER. (a) A person commits an offense if by means of coercion he:
(1) influences or attempts to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influences or attempts to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty; or
(2) influences or attempts to influence a voter not to vote or to vote in a particular manner.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor unless the coercion is a threat to commit a felony, in which event it is a felony of the third degree.
(c) It is an exception to the application of Subsection (a)(1) of this section that the person who influences or attempts to influence the public servant is a member of the governing body of a governmental entity, and that the action that influences or attempts to influence the public servant is an official action taken by the member of the governing body. For the purposes of this subsection, the term “official action” includes deliberations by the governing body of a governmental entity.
The Factual Background
The Travis County District Attorney presides over the Public Integrity Unit, an agency charged with investigating and prosecuting public officials who are found to have misused their authority in some corrupt or criminal manner. That unit is funded with money appropriated by the Legislature.
In April, 2013, acting on a phone tip from a motorist in Austin, the police arrested Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and charged her with DWI. A video of her arrest and jailing, later released to the media, showed her behaving in a drunken and embarrassing way. She plead guilty and served half of a 45 day jail sentence.
DA Lehmberg is a Democrat. Perry is a Republican.
On June 14, 2013, Governor Perry vetoed the appropriation of funding for the Public Integrity Unit. Before doing so, he publicly demanded the resignation of DA Lehmberg and stated that, unless she resigned, he would veto the funding. She refused to resign. According to press reports, the Governor and members of his staff engaged in negotiations before June 14, offering to appoint a Democrat to replace Lehmberg if she would resign. Those negotiations were not successful.
At the time the funding was vetoed, the Public Integrity Unit was engaged in an investigation of possible criminality related to the handling of millions of dollars worth of public funding for a cancer research facility. There were allegations that supporters and large contributors to the political campaigns of the Governor and other GOP officials were wrongfully benefited.
According to press reports, two other Texas District Attorneys were found guilty of DWI in the recent past, during Perry’s term of office. One of those DWI charged involved the DA’s collission with another motorist. The Governor took no notice of those convictions, nor did he question the budgets for the offices of those DA’s. Both of them were Republicans.
The Facts Surrounding the Indictments
In June, 2013, Texans for Public Justice, a liberal group, filed a criminal complaint against the Governor, charging him with wrongfully using the threat of a veto to force the resignation of DA Lehmberg.
Ms Lehmberg recused herself from any action or decision based on that complaint.
A District Judge in San Antonio, a Republican appointed by then Governor George W. Bush, appointed Mike McCrum to act as special prosecutor to handle the complaint. McCrum had served as an assistant U.S. Attorney when G.W. Bush was President. His nomination to become U.S. Attorney was supported by Republican Senators John Cornyn and Key Bailey Hutchinson.
McCrum, according to a report by a San Antonio reporter, interviewed over 40 witnesses in the course of investigating the charges against Perry. He presented the evidence to the Travis County grand jury which, as stated, handed down a “true bill”, reflecting their opinion that there was cause to believe that Perry had committed crimes,, sufficient to warrant a trial based on those charges.
The Issues and the Non-Issues
Governor Perry has not been charged with wrongfully exercising his right to veto the funding for the Public Integrity Unit. He has not been charged with publicly calling for DA Lehmberg to resign. Like any citizen, he was and is free to express his opinion about her or any other public official. Perry’s indictment does not have anything to do with whether or not DA Lehmberg should have, or should now, resign and discontinue her duties as District Attorney. That is a matter for her and the voters of Travis County to decide.
It is a crime, however, for him or any other public official, to use his authority to force, or to try to force, another public official to stop performing his or her duties, or to perform them in some way contrary to his or her oath of office. That is what Rick Perry is charged with having done.
So, all the high-toned pontificating by the likes of Professor Alan Dershowitz and David Axelrod about the “sketchy” charges and the “criminalization of politics” has more to do with their cherished images of moral rectitude than with their understanding of the facts and the law.
As usual, the Texas Observer has the best balanced account of the controversy I have read. Here is a link.
May 31, 2014 § 1 Comment
In case you missed the story in Politico, I call your attention to Ken Vogel’s story entitled “Big money, the Koch Brothers and Me”. Here is a link
I’m not sure why I want to share this story. Maybe I want some company in my misery. It describes a problem but suggests no solution. It made an impression on me because it includes a quote from Barack Obama which amounts to the surrender of his hope for the future of our democracy. If you think I’m being too dramatic, just read his statement.
If he’s right, and he knows something about political money and the art of raising it, we are facing a government operated within limits imposed by a group of about 200 very rich people. It’s true that they do not share a common set of attitudes, nor do they agree on a common set of policies. The problem is , according to Obama’s stated opinion, they collectively have the power to choose the officials who govern our country.
I can think of two analogous examples of what this kind of government looks like: Rome during the glory days of its empire, when the Roman Senate effectively chose and controlled its leaders. The other example is the Mafia, which built an empire modeled on the Roman system. Both exercised power based on loyalty imposed by force but, generally not by brutal force so much as loyalty based on a sense of shared pride and trust in overwhelming power. The governed gave up their individual ability to make choices in exchange for the benefits of protection and sustenance doled out by their rulers.
This bargain was dramatically portrayed in some opening scenes of one of the Godfather movies. Don Vito Corleone leaves his daughter’s wedding celebration to hear a request for help and protection. He agrees to solve the problem, but tells the petitioner, “I may, or may not ask for a favor from you at some time in the future.”
The similarity between this scene and the explicit or implicit arrangement between politicians and their multimillionaire donors seems to me to be obvious, although the word “bribery” is never used to describe it.
I’m not going to quote the article. It is not long. I hope you will read it and consider it to be as disturbing as I do.
July 7, 2013 § 4 Comments
A front page story in today’s New York Times describes how the FISA Court is creating a secret body of law that affects the life of every person who has lived in the United States during the past six years and millions of others who live in other countries. Here is a link to that important story::
I believe this story describes an issue far more important to the future of our country than the government mendacity exposed by the Pentagon Papers. To appreciate how fundamentally this threatens a vital principle of our legal system, it is necessary to consider its implications.
First, we claim that our government’s legitimacy is based on our consent, the “consent of the governed”.
Second, our Constitution provides that law making is reserved to the Congress.
Third, our legal system is based on two kinds of law: statutory law, including constitutional law, and common law. Common law is a system of law we brought with us from Britain. It is based on the accretion of precedents consisting of decisions of previous courts. The doctrine according to which it develops is stare decisis, which is Latin for “to stand by things decided”. The principle involved is that the law should be applied alike to similar issues; that its interpretation should not depend upon the identity of the litigants. This enables people to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, what the decision of a court will be, given a particular set of facts. It insures that justice for one will be justice for all.
Fourth, we, the people, choose those to whom we entrust the power to make laws that affect us. We make those choices through democratic elections. To make those choices intelligently, we need and are entitled to pertinent information, so that, if the lawmakers we chose do not exercise their authority to make laws that please us, we can fire them and hire replacements.
I apologize for repeating these elementary principles. I know they are taught, or should be taught in public schools. I do not intend to condescend to my readers but, given the nature of the recent discussion of the FISA court and the N.S.A. surveillance it has been authorizing, I have some doubt that the commentators are paying appropriate attention to these fundamentals of our government and our political system.
We now know that the FISA court, eleven judges appointed by Chief Justice Roberts, ten of whom are appointees of Republican Presidents, has, in a series of hundreds of decisions, each one building on its predecessors according to the doctrine of stare decisis, erected a legal structure that approved the gathering by our government of a trove of data containing every tiny detail of every move, choice, purchase, communication, financial transaction, preference and relationship of every person in the United States and, as stated, uncounted millions in other countries. That data, in turn, has been opened for analysis according to rules and choices made by government officials and private contractors’ employees, supervised by secret decisions made by the FISA court.
Without knowing what, if any, polling has been done following these disclosures, I feel absolutely safe in assuming that most people, here and abroad, were astonished when they discovered that such intimate details of their lives were recorded in searchable databases owned by the United States government. That astonishment means that the above-stated system of government has not been operational concerning this matter.
It is true that, theoretically, the members of Congress have been able to find out about these developments. It is also true that “theoretically” is the operative word in that sentence. It is obvious that a majority of the members of the House and Senate did not take the trouble to find out the details of FISA’s proceedings and decisions. It is also true that, when a Senator, e.g. Senators Wyden and Markey, tried to find out some of the details, N.S.A. declined to answer their questions.
Because of this lack of public knowledge, the Fourth principle stated above, did not work. We, the people, did not express our opinions about what N.S.A. was doing or how the FISA court was interpreting the laws our elected representatives enacted because N.S.A and the FISA court kept what they were doing a secret. In other words, democratic government was sidelined behind a wall of classified insulation.
I am outraged about this and I think others should be also. If we no longer believe that we can bear the risks of living in a free country, we should stop pretending otherwise.
I am afraid my fellow countrymen are in danger of falling into a trap that government always uses to lull guileless people to sleep: “If you haven’t anything to hide, you need not worry about our right to pry into your personal life.” I wish the FISA court would decide that personal diaries might offer “foreign intelligence” and order all diaries submitted for copying by a government agency. Maybe then, people would wake up and realize that, regardless of whether they “have anything to hide”, they don’t like the government intruding into their private lives. Of course I”m dating myself with that fantasy. No one keeps a diary anymore. They post everything on Facebook or Twitter or some other public forum.
The insidious and sinister nature of the N.S.A. surveillance program is that it enables the government computers to fish for “patterns” that are then interpreted to mean various things about the person whose data is analyzed. When we go about our daily lives, we do not consider how our choices made over a period of years can be filtered and sorted to appear dangerous or scandalous or embarrassing. When all the data is available, “connecting the dots” depends on the biases and motives of the connector, not necessarily those of the connectee.
There is a good movie that perfectly illustrates the concerns I am trying to express here. “Lives of Others” is a 2006 movie about the Stasi, East Germany’s intelligence police and their obsessive accumulation of information about East German citizens. I don’t know where or if it is still available. I assume it is probably on sale at Amazon. If it becomes available on some TV channel to which you subscribe, check it out. Like “1984” and “Brave New World”, it expresses dramatically what I’m trying to express here.
I have no reason to believe that the present government has malevolent intentions concerning the use of the data that has been accumulated. I do not know, however, about the intentions of those who may have access that data in the future. It is a “weapon of mass destruction” whose ownership and control should not depend on the outcome of future elections.
James Mason, a legal scholar and one of our founding fathers, once wrote, “Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.”
July 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
This week’s developments in Egypt illustrate the dangerous side-effects of a dose of democracy. In this essay I will offer my reaction.
When medicine is prescribed for a patient, it comes with a label or a pamphlet containing advice about potential hazardous side effects that must be understood and preventive measures that should be taken. I think if democracy is adopted as a form of government, it should be accompanied by the same kind of cautionary warning.
Empowering the governed to escape the oppression of tyrants, oligarchs and vestigial neocolonial puppets looks like a trend toward freedom. Recent technological leaps in the realm of communication and social networking have been like a dam-breaking flood that has loosed centuries of pent up rage and frustration as well as the exhilarating thrill felt by rebels who perceive the possibility of toppling a citadel of power theretofore thought to be impregnable.
I find it interesting and, in a way, encouraging that, when these cultural and political seismic events occurred, the model of choice for the rebels has often been the American Declaration of Independence and our form of government generally, though imprecisely, known as democracy. [The conservatives are technically correct in insisting that the United States, as its name implies, is, in fact a republic, not a democracy like Athens. The distinction, however, deserves notice only from academic purists and has not prevented America from being identified as a democracy. After all, Athens had a large component of slaves who did not participate in its “democracy”. Except for New England town meetings , true democracy is, and has ever been, a rare form of government.]
Our Declaration of Independence has, as stated, become the inspiration for many, in the words of Emma Lazarus, “yearning to breathe free”. It has proved far more popular and influential than its main competitor for rebellious inspiration, the Communist Manifesto. Personally I find the latter document to be a stirring affirmation of economic justice, worthy of comparison with our Declaration of Independence. Its focus, however, on the oppression of capitalism, does not fit the aspirations of rebels whose enemies are not private property and capitalism, but the oppression of government. For that kind of oppression, there is no better license for rebellion than these radical words of Jefferson:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights,governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Ideas are the true weapons of freedom and justice and those words, expressing those ideas, are a powder keg waiting for a lit fuse.
Democracy’s Side Effects
When, following a rebellion, a new government is formed based on the outcome of a democratic election, there are some inevitable and serious side effects. The losing side or sides, representing significant fractions of the population to be governed, are at risk for unjust treatment at the hands of the victors. In the Middle East, the Near East and some parts of Asia, where Islam is the religious choice of large segments of the population, there is a long history of violent conflicts between different sects within that religion. The Shiites and Sunnis as well as sects within those two branches of Islam have intermittently killed each other, either based on fear of future violence or revenge for past violence.
Of course, Islam is not unique in this regard. Jews and Christians , in the past, have engaged in similar violent conflicts. One part of the twisted and brutal ideology that led to the Holocaust was based on Christian antisemitism that had been latent in varying degrees for centuries in Europe. The Crusades represented the self-righteous hostility of Christian Europe toward Islam in the Middle East.
This kind of irreconcilable hatred based on religious belief should be part of democracy’s warning label. Democracy means that government will be administered by representatives of the faction that wins the most votes in an election. Every election will involve only a plurality of the population. Thus it will almost always be true that elections will be won by less than a majority of the population to be governed. When there are more than two competing groups vying for votes, the winner may represent only a fraction of that population.
These two facts: First, that religious conflicts are often impossible to mediate peacefully; and Second, that democratic elections, even when they are fair and honest, will seldom empower a majority of the governed population; strongly suggest the first necessary warning:
“Enforcement of religious conformity must not entrusted to a democratic government.”
If this warning is not heeded, government becomes a vengeful mob and those whose religious beliefs are challenged and discounted become outraged. Maintenance of order, a basic function of every government, becomes impossible without brutal suppression of dissent.
This first warning implies a second, correlative, warning:
“Limits on the power of government must not depend upon or be subject to the outcome of democratic elections. Those limits must be enforceable in courts whose impartiality and integrity are accepted by a majority of the total governed population . And the procedure for securing the judgments of those courts must involve an adversary process implemented by lawyers free to advocate all sides of every issue.”
This corollary warning, if vigorously enforced, will obviate resorts to violence by those who feel victimized and harmed by governmental policies. They will see that their protests are fairly and fully presented to judges whom they trust. They will not feel hopeless if their arguments are not successful. They will realize that their interests may prevail in future elections and that changed circumstances may demonstrate the validity of their positions. The enforcement of government’s limits will assure them that they need not fear their government. They will be able to trust it to protect them from their neighbors who may disagree with some or all of their beliefs and preferences.
The third warning insures the effectiveness of the first two:
“Freedom of expression must be guaranteed to all, regardless of how repugnant to elected officials or to most of the population that expression may seem.”
Democracy cannot safely be adopted unless competing views are not only tolerated, but vigorously protected. If majority views are the only ones allowed, democracy becomes as oppressive, if not more oppressive, than government by a dictator or an oligarchy. The losers in democratic elections must be free to continue efforts to persuade potential voters in future elections to approve the policies they favor. Otherwise, they are left with no alternative but violence and disorder.
The Egyptian Constitution
A friend of mine, Nivien Saleh, an Egyptian scholar, has translated the 2012 Egyptian Constitution into English. Here is a link: Constitution
I confess that I have not read, much less studied this long document. I have, however, read enough of it to understand how fundamentally it fails to pay attention to anything I have advocated in this essay. Far from omitting religion from the proper concern of government, it proclaims Islam as the “State religion” of Egypt. True, the next section provides: “For Egyptian Christians and Jews, the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.” (emphasis added) This section, to me has a sinister unstated premise: The State is granting to Christians and Jews an exception to the general application of the State Religion. I have no idea what “Christian Law” or “Jewish Law” consists of. The Bible’s book of Leviticus contains a lengthy description of laws observed by Jews thousands of years ago but, so far as I know, the State of Israel does not countenance slavery or punish blasphemy with a death sentence. [‘See Leviticus 24: 10-23.]
Part One, entitled “The Elements of the State and Society” contains three sections: “Political Elements”; “Societal and Moral Elements” and “Economic Elements”. The second of these sections, in Article 11, declares: ” The state promotes morality, decency, and public order, as well as a high level of education and religious and patriotic values, scientific truths, the Arab culture, and the historical and civilizational patrimony of the People.”(emphasis added) This kind of language, to one knowledgeable about historical experiments involving government prescribed morality , prompts an intuitive reaction that, roughly translated, is “According to who?”
So far as concerns freedom of expression, Article 215 establishes a “National Body for the Press and the Media” and empowers that agency as follows: “The permissions and standards it creates ensure that the different media abide by norms of professionalism and decency, preserve the Arabic language, and observe the values and constructive traditions of society.” In other words, “We will be watching you and you better behave in a way that does not offend our ideas of “decency” and “constructive traditions of society”. Keep in mind that some elements of Islam believe it is not only permissible, but obligatory to kill a man who draws a cartoon depicting Mohamed.
Conclusion and Summary
I think President Morsi’s brief and limited tenure was predictable when he permitted a religious faction of Islam to en-graft religious doctrine into the fabric of government. I doubt that the Egyptian people who successfully ousted Mubarak will be content to be ruled according to Sharia law or to conform to religious strictures that do not fit their beliefs. The successful effort to end the oppression of Mubarak was a hopeful sign to me. I hope it will finally be followed by democracy in which warning labels are heeded.