March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
I attended a meeting this week where a close friend of mine introduced me as a believer in relativism as distinguished from truth as an immutable concept from which any aberration is, by definition, an error at best and a sin at worst. My friend’s intention was to provoke a discussion. He succeeded.
I had not been asked to defend myself on this ground for several decades. I once practiced law with a lawyer who was the product of a Jesuit education. He delighted in baiting me into arguments about this subject.
I have an advantage in these arguments because I don’t recognize any idea as permanent or immutable except those based on mathematics and physical science [2+2 is now, always has been and always will be 4, if those symbols are expressed in the decimal system]. So far as concerns physical science, the truth concept is more complicated. Scientific principles are always stated with a caveat warning label reading, “until proven otherwise”. This caveat came in handy when Einstein proved that light does not always travel in a straight line, related velocities depend on a relationship with the speed of light and space is curved, not rectangular or circular.
Despite these complications, scientific discipline insures a kind of objective reliability because its principles must be reproducible, regardless of the instutional context in which they are accessed. The laws of physics are the same in a Catholic cathedral as in an opium den. The same is true for Chemistry’s Periodic Tables.
Relativism, for me, is not frightening. In fact, as a trial lawyer I had no trouble with the duty of opposing lawyers to argue with equal vigor and enthusiasm that each of two opposing propositions is true. I did not see that as evidence that lawyers are liars for hire. Their skill is to frame facts favorably for their clients’ interests. There are many examples of this phenomenon. The Civil War settled the most significant conflict of this kind: The South contended that natural law protected their property right to own slaves. The North contended natural law protected black people from being deprived of their liberty without due process. Before the war overruled him, Mr. Justice Taney, in his Dred Scott decision, argued that natural law favored the South’s position.
The Concepts Which Frame My Judgements and Perceptions of Reality
In college the ideas of Thorstein Veblen made sense to me. He was a rebellious dissenter from most of the underlying principles offered to justify capitalism. He spent his academic life teaching and writing about the logical faults and hypocrasies offered to defend capitalistic methods of distributing wealth.
I learned about Veblen in two semesters of a class taught by Clarence Ayres, a follower of Veblen. He taught me to view social and economic activity as composed of two different but related forces: technology and institutions. Technology is the dynamic force that results from human curiosity and creativity. It drives and shapes the way humans engage in work, play and form relationships. Institutions change in in response to technology, but they lag behind technological changes. Thomas S. Kuhn’s long essay, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describes elegantly the way these two forces interact. Here is a link: http://projektintegracija.pravo.hr/_download/repository/Kuhn_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions.pdf
As I read and thought about these ideas, it became apparent, at least to me, there was no place in that analysis for truths unaffected by these forces. The most powerful institution in our western culture has been and is religion in all its thousands of forms. The Roman Catholic Church, relying on its historical roots in Greek philosophy as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas as well as Jewish/Christian religious teachings and writings, is a major defender of absolute truth and a system of morality based on that concept.
The Church’s conflict with Galileo is a good and, I think, a fair example of the Church reacting to the relativistic ideas I discussed above. Galileo’s study and telescopic exploration enabled him to see that the Earth revolved around the Sun, an idea in conflict with the Church, which believed the Earth to be the center of the solar system. When Galileo tried to explain the basis for his research, he was threatened with the horrors of the Inquisition. He recanted but was imprisoned for the rest of his life in his home, where he continued to study and write.
I mention this well known episode because it illustrates the way truth is impacted by technology. Galileo did not learn how the solar system worked because of divine revelation. He did so because Hans Lippershey, a Dutch scientist , invented a serviceable telescope. Technology illuminates the darkness protecting institutional “truth”. The process never ends because curiosity is hardwired in our brains.
Stephen Crane has captured this idea in a short verse:
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never — ”
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
Our Brain is a Universe
Because we are human beings our universe is perceived with, and is subject to the limitations of. our brains. We are not capable of experiencing “reality” as it is perceived by other species of life. For example, we can guess, based on the structure of their hives, the bees do not perceive reality as 90 degree angles. A bee-probably functions efficiently in a “reality” that is structured as a hexagon. The eyesights of an eagle as well as a fly are fundamentally different from ours. It seems likely to me that those creatures see a reality different from the one we perceive. If this is true, then their “truth”, based on their reality is likely different from ours.
In the same way, when, through our technology, we change the way we can perceive reality, it seems obvious to me that our conceptions of morality and reality also change. For example, when the wagon and buggy were replaced by the automobile and the railroad, we changed the way we regarded the sexual relationships that affect the process by which we choose mates. The size of the available choices increased because the distance from our birthplaces increased. The rituals of courtship changed because they included interactions with a much larger and more varied set of people. The days of people on farms living their lives within a hundred miles of their birthplaces were over.
This steadily increasing mobility has resulted in a culture that bears practically no resemblance to the one in which our grandparents and great grandparents lived. And, it seems to me that when culture changes, cultural norms also change. Our literature is filled with stories about these changes. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is only one example that illustrates this fact. People “going native” are common themes of fiction as well as accounts of characters changing their attitudes after becoming involved with and aware of cultures different from their own.
In our own lifetimes, we have seen a dramatic change in the cultural attitudes toward black people, homosexuals and women. I think these cultural changes are accompanied by changes, not only in our moral judgments, but also in the way we perceive the world. Of course, I acknowledge these changes do not occur at the same rate for all of us. But I don’t think the cultural norms claimed to be “natural” and immutable were universally accepted. That is the reason those “norms” had to be so vigorously defended and imposed with the force of law and threats of eternal damnation.
The Structure of Brain Change
The process and mechanics of how our brains make changes in these fundamental principles is a matter of endless fascination to me. I don’t pretend to know or understand this subject but my amateur exploration has convinced me it involves brain science, psychology and religiosity.
My impression of brain science is that the extent of acquired and taught behavior and attitudes is steadily decreasing and the extent and importance of genetically hard wired influences, the result of evolutionary endowment, is correspondingly increasing.. I no longer think of my “mind”, my “soul”, my “body” and my “brain” as being separate parts or places somewhere inside my skin. I believe my entire self is the result of a constant total interaction of my brain connected by neural networks to my entire body. Consequently, what I think and feel and how I react to my environment is a function of this totality, as all parts of it constantly interact. I also believe that we know only a very small part of the way our brain, as it interacts with the rest of us, works or is capable of working. I think, with respect to thenature of our brain’s capacity, we are like Columbus when he stepped ashore on to an insignificant island in the Caribbean. little did he know that he had stumbled on to a vast continent with potential of which he could not have conceived. If we survive long enough I think we will discover ways our brains work that will fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and with the universe.
The Lakoff Effect
My opinion about this was affected when, thanks to my daughter, I read a book by George Lakoff, The Political Mind. This linguist has written many books about the way our mind works, To vastly oversimplify his basic thesis: When we confront an occasion requiring a choice, we make it instantly, based on previous wiring in our brain. Then, a nanosecond later, we rationalize the justification for our reaction. These reactions as well as the rationalizations have been acquired by repetative exposure to similar confrontations in the past. That means we can change our way of thinking the same way we learn to type: By practicing making the connection between a letter and the movement of our finger.
The result of this analysis is: In order to change reactions, e.g. a political judgment, it is necessary to expose a person, over and over and over, to a particular judgment and its rationalization. According to Lakoff, and he has convinced me, the Tea Party succeeded because it selected a particular way of perceiving political activity and created thousands of groups all over America where these ideas were expressed, without any deviation or distraction, for over ten years. That is the way the Tea Party swallowed the Republican Party and changed it from conservatism within the boundaries of traditional American politics to its present form as an uncompromising combination of religious fundamentalism and devotion to unregulated corporate domination.
Lakoff contends that Clinton style center left political “triangulation” will no longer work. He argues we must undertake the same kind of brain rewiring used by the Tea Party.
Carl Jung was a follower of Sigmund Freud. Freud developed the idea that we have a subconscious mind in addition to our conscious mind. He was a doctor and his focus was on methods of treating patients with particular mental problems.
Jung was also a doctor and he used Freud’s techniques but, in addition, he postulated an unconscious mind in addition to Freud’s bi cameral theory. Jung believed this unconscious mind was the repository of the collective consciousness of the billions of human beings who inhabited our planet after separating themselves from other species in the evolutionary process. He based this thesis on a painstaking and wide ranging study of myths and folktales which were part of primitive cultures. He found commonality among these myths and folktales in primitive cultures regardless of whether there had been any contact or interaction between them.
He therefore postulated a medium of communication between primitive cultures other than physical contact. He theorized the existence of a collective unconscious. According to Jung, this collective unconscious was populated with what he called archetypes. He identified personas like “The Wise Old Man”; “The Sage” , “The Wizard” et al.. There is a book called The Red Bookˆ that lists and describes many of these archetypes. Jung believed our brains contain this collective history in our unconscious and that its presence affects the framework of our perceptions of reality.
Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian writer who wrote a series of books in the 1960’s and 70″s about the way the form of communication affects the thinking patterns of its viewer or user. One of his books, The Gutenburg Galaxy, analyzed the way the printing press changed the way people thought . His insight was that receiving information in a totally controlled medium, like a book, by reading, line by line, from one side of the page to the other, was a fundamentally different experience from receiving information visually, like a picture or spoken or sung words or songs. His books were written as television was beginning to dominate public forms of information.
As I read and thought about McLuhan’s ideas, I concluded that, by switching from print to TV and, later, to digital pictures on iPhones, iPads and other forms of computers, we were returning to the culture and mores of civilization that existed for millions of years before the advent of the printing press. During that time, and later for much of the world’s inhabitants who did not have access to TV or computers, the campfire, the cave, the tavern , the church or the meeting house, tent or tepee served as the TV and the internet consisted of myths and stories recounted and repeated, from generation to generation in social gatherings.
As McLuhan explained, this reversion from print to picture changed the reception of information from an individual, rational experience to a mass emotionally experienced reaction to broadcast and telecast performances. He predicted, and subsequent evens have affirmed, this change has enabled demagogues and skilled manipulators to evoke fear and emotions that threaten the Constitutional democracy we enjoy. The truth, to return to the theme of this essay, is no longer a matter of rational thought and reason. The truth has become the consensus of brain sponges. trained through repetitive exposure to visual and oral stimuli, to react emotionally; not individually after rational contemplation.
We are back to ancient Rome when tyrants ruled with bread and circuses. Our bread is the false promise of prosperity and our circus is our television set. Orwell’s 1984 has creeped into our lives, quietly, wrapped in the veneer of entertainment, and bastardized our language, captured our politics and disempowered our ability to resist.
To summarize this effort: Our beliefs, attitudes, conceptions of morality – the qualities that fashion who we are – do not result from our acceptance or rejection of some specific rules and perceptions of the truth. It seems to me that what is true at any given time depends on the context of technological and institutional forces that affect the nature of our culture. As I contemplate the history of these forces and the significance of the changes in the way culture perceives truth, I am unable to discern or imagine any meaningful system of timeless truths unaffected by those changes.
Is there a timeless truth that murder is wrong? In our system, the answer is “Yes” unless it is done in self-defense; not self=defense in reality, but self-defense as perceived by the killer. And unless it is done by an armed peace officer; not only if the victim was doing anything illegal; but if the officer thought the victim was doing, or was about to, or was running or walking away from, having done something illegal, provided the illegal act was one classified as sufficiently serious to warrant deadly force, or if the officer thought it was that kind of illegal act; or was nor responding to the officers’s command to stop or was a threat to the safety of the officer.or was perceived by the officer to be a threat to his safety . . . . I have not exhausted this subject but I hope my reader can understand that, to me, it is nonsense to say that an immutable truth is that murder is wrong. This Byzantine thicket of nuance and exceptions is only true in our system of justice Every country has its own rules and, without being sure, I have every reason to believe the justice systems of other countries are at least as complex as ours.
I cannot see that searching for and identifying universal timeless truths is likely to benefit anyone except those like, Mr. Justice Taney, who are arrogant enough to believe that their beliefs are coincidentally and miraculously coterminous with Natural Law and absolute truth.
February 21, 2017 § 1 Comment
The dictionary describes a zombie as “. . . a creature capable of movement but not of rational thought. . . .”
The essential responsibility of those charged with the supervision of law enforcement in a democratic republic like ours is prosecutorial discretion. District Attorneys, County Attorneys, US Attorneys and the Attorney General of the United States are obligated to use judgment informed by principles of justice and fairness to impose guidance and limits to those entitled to use force to kill or capture people suspected of unlawful acts and omissions.
This feature of law enforcement is necessary because it is impossible and undesirable to use the criminal justice system to proceed with equal zeal to arrest the hungry person who shoplifts a loaf of bread and the bank teller who embezzles thousands of dollars. Priorities are necessary as a matter of justice as well as efficiency.
The Immigration Problem
Nowhere is this fundamental principle of criminal justice more obviously important than in our response to the problems of immigration. We have eleven million of our neighbors in large and small communities throughout our country who did not comply with the prescribed procedures for becoming citizens. Many of them have lived and worked and paid taxes and contributed their support to our country for periods of time varying from thirty or forty years to a week or a day. Many have children and grandchildren who are citizens because they were born here. Many have formal permission to be here – holders of “green cards” or visas entitling them to stay here for extended periods of time to attend schools, work as doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, engineers – the gamut of useful employments.
The classification of these “undocumented aliens” is a daunting task because it should be done with gumption, fairness and discretion.
This classification process should have been done by Congress. It was not done for two reasons: First, a substantial segment of Republican members of both the House and Senate were more interested in blocking any significant accomplishment by President Obama than they were in performing the job which they had sworn to perform. Second, a sizable group of those GOP elected officials were unwilling to agree to any rational arrangement for deporting some aliens and granting conditional permission for many of them to remain as citizens of the United States. They were more interested in appealing to the bigotry and hatred of some of their constituents than in designing a reasonable and humane immigration law.
As a consequence of this legislative dereliction of duty, the task of seeking a solution to the immigration problem devolved to the President, who sought to create some degree of stability and rationality through executive orders.
As a result of the recent presidential election that responsibility is now dependent on President Donald Trump. His recent blunderbuss mishandling of travel from five predominantly Muslim countries bodes no confidence he will respond to this immigration issue in a rational or just way.
The Horrors of our Past as Cautions for out Present
Our history is littered with examples of how not to deal with problems like these. It began with our treatment of the Indian population that inhabited this land for thousands of years before our ancestors arrived. With many fits, starts and stumbles we ultimately solved this problem with genocide, almost destroying the Indian culture and most of its population. As we engaged in that atrocity, we simultaneously imported a segment of our population from Africa, against their will; then enslaved them and afforded them the right of citizenship only after a war than came close to destroying our nation.
In the 1940’s we imprisoned Japanese people living along the West Coast, regardless of their citizenship, because we let anger and fear overpower our Constitution and the principles upon which our country was founded.
At different times in our past we have discriminated against immigrants from China while simultaneously using many Chinese immigrants as close to slave labor to build our railroads. For awhile we discriminated against the Irish who fled Ireland for America to escape a famine. Later we discriminated against immigrants from Eastern Europe and from Italy. These examples of bigotry were some what moderated by the fact that, until the late 1900;s we had a sparsely populated frontier to which the victims of our prejudices could flee. That frontier has now been closed for over a hundred years and is no longer available.
Tu summarize, we have had several examples to warn us against wholesale mistreatment of people because of generalized classifications. We should not add another chapter of hateful abuse to our already embarrassing past. Simple rules should guide us: Punishment should be administered based on individual wrongdoing; not like an indiscriminate scythe, wounding the innocent along with the guilty, the children along with their parents and the worthy like the unworthy. Children should not be denied the stability of a family. Long time residents should not be treated the same as recent arrivals.
Statements like “They are all here illegally, therefore they are all equally guilty of a crime and all should be treated as criminals.” is the idiotic declaration of a simpleton; not a person with the mental equipment necessary for serious matters.
The Gathering Storm
Today, February 21, 2017, we have the first evidence that, having had his first ham-handed effort graded a failure by four federal judges, President Trump is revising his directions, while still, like a four-year-old child snuffling after a scolding, insisting that his rejected effort was perfectly crafted and expertly executed. This is not encouraging because it indicates he is uneducable, even by experience.
I have not read the new Executive Order but, based on the commentary about it, it apparently preserves the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) exemption in one place but, in another paragraph seems to call for deportation to all who have broken the law. It is not clear whether “broken the law” in this context means committed a crime after arriving in the U.S. or committed a crime by crossing the border into the U.S. without legal permission.
Regardless of the ambiguity of the new Executive Order, its application to the fate of the eleven million undocumented people in our country will depend on the way the Justice Department and the other government agencies involved in the enforcement of our immigration laws exercise discretion concerning the timing and choices based on that Order. If they proceed, willynilly, sending ill trained armed officers into communities all over our country with vague orders to arrest and detain everyone suspected of being here illegally, America will become a dsreputable example of a zombie nation, where the imposition of punishment and harm are meted out without regard to justice, fairness, rationality or morality.
We have already tarnished our reputation by turning a blind eye toward the abuse of Palestinians by the Netanyahu government in Israel. If we apply that same level of abuse to millions of men, women and children living in our own country, we will forfeit any right to boast of our standing as a beacon of justice and hope for the rest of the world.
February 6, 2017 § 3 Comments
I have been trying to compose these ideas in my mind for several days. My dilemma is to write carefully about religion and politics without attacking religion while expressing my sincere fears about the nomination of Betsy DeVos. I am not a religious person but I respect the choices of others who find comfort and helpful guidance from their faith. The narrow balance for me results from my hostility toward anyone or any government which considers his, her or its particular religious belief to require enmity and forceful opposition to other religious beliefs, especially when that opposition is translated into law.
I am aware of the often repeated retort to this distinction: “I hate the sin but love the sinner.” The history of this idea is long and bloody. To an Evangelical Christian the fatal sin is the failure to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and, for most members of that sect within the Christian church, the failure to believe in the literal infallibility of the Christian Bible. This doctrine obviously envelops the corollary belief that adherents of other religions, who reject the tenets of Christianity entirely, are sinners.
In practice my observation and reading of history compels me to regard that pleasant expression with profound suspicion. The Inquisition’s proclaimed purpose was to identify and convert those who strayed from the Catholic Church’s teachings. To the man on the rack it was of small consequence whether his inquisitor was loving him or hating his errant belief. The Spaniards who “converted” the Indian population of Mexico by brutal punishment may well have believed they were trying to save the victims from eternal damnation but, again, the victims most certainly did not understand those benign motivations.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, the eleven million citizens of America who are either Muslims, Hindus or Jews should not be compelled to contribute their tax contributions to support religious instruction and political support of religious ideas at odds with their own. When that occurs, democracy becomes a tyranny of the majority and America becomes, thus, not a democratic republic but a theocracy. No adherent of one religious faith should be required to contribute money to support other sects or religions.
It is also important for our public schools be conducted in ways and in a manner welcoming children of all faiths or of no faith. No Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or atheist child should be educated in a classroom where his or her ideas about religion are treated disparagingly or condemned as sinful, contrary to God’s will or destined for eternal punishment.
My Problem With Billionaire Bess
I believe Betsy DeVos is more seriously perilous for our country than any other Trump nominee. She threatens our most valuable resource: the minds of our children. Unless one more Republican decides the future of America is more important than party loyalty, Betsy DeVos will realize her lifelong dream: To covert the education of our children from a secular system designed to teach our children to learn how to think and relish the thrill of exploring new ideas and skills to a system designed to enclose our children’s minds within the framework of Christianity. And not just any flavor of Christianity; the kind of Christianity that regards any intellectual framework other than its own as logically flawed whose adherents are doomed to eternal damnation unless they repent and embrace its doctrinal imperatives.
Here is my bill of particulars;
1. Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school After graduating from a private school she obtained a Bachelors Degree in business from Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan. Here is a statement from its web site; “. . . Calvin’s excellent Christian faculty walk alongside you to ensure that you find God’s path for you in the world.” Calvin boasts of a “252 full time Christian faculty”. One of them, an English Professor, described education at Calvin as follows: “At Calvin, faith and learning work together constantly . . . .”
2.Betsy DeVos is a strong advocate for private school vouchers for parents who chose to send their children to private schools.
3. Private so-called charter schools compete with public schools for federal and state funding for public schools. There is a long history of litigation and Supreme Court decisions concerning the persistent effort of religious sects to impose requirements for religious instruction in public schools and charter schools. So far, the Court has thwarted that effort but it continues. There is no doubt Betsy DeVos would be a vigorous advocate for injecting religion into public schools and public funding for religiously oriented charter schools.
4. President Donald Trump, Ms. DeVos’ sponsor, has proposed the repeal of the “Johnson Amendment”, a law drafted and successfully submitted for enactment by President Lyndon Johnson. It prohibits nonprofit tax exempt organizations from supporting or opposing political candidates. Ms. DeVos is an enthusiastic backer of the proposed repeal.
5. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” As stated, this prohibition has been the basis for several Supreme Court decisions preventing religious involvement with public education.
The origin of this part of our Bill of Rights was the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, proposed by Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Assembly in 1779, ten years before the adoption of our Constitution in 1789. The Assembly adopted the Virginia Statute in 1786. Here is a link to Jefferson’s proposal and a description of its adoption: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Statute_for_Religious_Freedom. It is an eloquent argument for preventing exactly what is now being proposed by President Trump and supported by his nominee to head our Department of Education.
From its origin, the most damaging and shameful thread in the fabric of America is racism. The founders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others were slave owners. The Constitution of 1789 included a provision treating negroes as 3/5ths of a white person. Jefferson’s stirring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” represented an aspiration requiring decades of slavery, a Civil War, bloody political struggles in the streets, lynchings continuing for two and one half centuries, several Supreme Court battles, several Congressional battles – and still remains an aspiration not a realization.
It is now apparent that, while the white man’s behavior can be constrained by laws, his mind and heart will require more decades and generations to become a reality. I believe public education is the necessary remedy for the horrors of racism. Children are not born with hatred based on appearance. It has to be taught. The most impressionable period of a person’s life is between birth and age twenty. The most intense period of time is from birth to age six or seven. During those periods of time, the sources of influence shaping the child’s intellect are parents (not necessarily genetic parents, but those in loco parentis) and schools.
Children in kindergarten do not react with racism toward their classmates. So it is important for the future of our country that the population in those classrooms are reflective of American population. That means we must continue to work to integrate public schools; to insure those incubators of future American adults are free of separations based on race. Privatizing schools is inimical to that objective. It enables parents to “protect” and separate their children from the children of other races and religions.
If secular public schools are protected, adequately financed and designed to have student populations reflective of America’s racial and cultural diversity, the final solution to racism in America will eventually come about because, after puberty, boys and girls will begin to select mates without regard to race and the problem will gradually disappear.
I do not believe we can or should wait patiently for all this to happen. Far from it. We should do everything we can to hasten the end to this plague. I just don’t expect it will cease to be a concern until racism becomes too complicated to be practiced.
I regard Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos as stumbling blocks in the way of this process and, therefore I believe it is immoral for the Senate of the United States of America to consent to her appointment.
This is not required reading. I’m just including it because I found it interesting.
While researching the basis for some of this essay I encountered an essay by a PhD college professor from (of all places!) The University of California. Robert A. Harris has written a series of essays he calls Virtual Salt. One of them is an intellectual disagreement with just about all I’ve written here. Here is a link.http://www.virtualsalt.com/int/intdef.pdf
Here is his conclusion:
“The integration of faith and learning is such an important topic largely because too little of it seems to occur. The bias in the academy and in the larger culture against Christian truth and Biblical authority has had the effect of disconnecting Christian knowledge from other knowledge, even in the minds of some Christians. For that reason, integration must be undertaken with deliberateness. Christians must be intentional about making the con- nections between their faith and the knowledge claims they encounter and careful to keep the Biblical framework in the foreground as the structuring principle of truth.” I include it here to alert my readers that the risk of religious bigotry is real and has powerful advocates. I don’t know how widely Professor Harris’s ideas are distributed but I am sure he has many supporters.
He and I are from different planets but he’s a smart guy and he wraps his argument in an impressive academic package. His essay is a good example of a man who lures you in to agreeing with his first premise and then tells you ,”. . . now that you’ve agreed with that, let me tell you what else you’ve agreed with.”
January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am a Muslim
I am a Mexican
I am a black person whose life matters
I am Sudanese
I am an Iraqi
I am a Yemeni
I am a Syrian
I am a Lybyan
I am an Irani
I am a Somalian
I am a woman
I am gay
I am transgender
I am a lesbian
I am homosexual
I am queer
I am an American
January 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
During the past sixty or seventy years I have picked up a few scraps of prose and poetry. Some of them inspired me. Some made me smile. Some related to my private life. Some were chosen as part of my life as a lawyer. Some expressed my doubts and fruitless quests for certainty. I kept them and reviewed them when I needed inspiration.
I do not share these because I have any claim to wisdom nor with any intent to be condescending. I have reviewed them because I need words to offer me hope as I contemplate the empowerment of a dangerous foe. I especially recommend the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin Louis Brandeis. They remind me that we have faced and survived danger before.
December 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
The Loss of Ari Shavit
For several decades Ari Shavit was a talented and intelligent columnist in Israel’s left-of-center newspaper Haaretz. A few years ago he published a very good book describing the origins of Israel and an incisive analysis of its culture and modern history: The Promised Land. I was charmed by it and, three years ago, expressed my admiration and reaction on this blog:The Broken Promised Land. https://wordpress.com/post/bobsremonstrance.com/2757
Now, a few months ago, as Israel faces what I believe is an international crisis, for Israel as well as the rest of us, Ari Shavit was disgraced and banished from public discourse because he made an astonishingly stupid assault on a woman, a respected journalist, who visited him for an interview. He admitted his guilt and apologized but, as a person with a list of political enemies as long as his list of supporters, he was fired by Haaretz and voluntarily discontinued public professional life.
Here is an article from The Forward, a more than century old weekly newspaper published weekly in New York with news about Jews and Israel. http://forward.com/news/israel/352891/ari-shavit-sorry-for-trump-style-sex-assault-many-israelis-arent-buying-it/
Without defending Shavit’s indefensible behavior, I can’t resist reflecting how his treatment contrasts so sharply with our political embrace of our own braggart about his history of sexual exploitation of women.
I know Ari Shavit, aside from this scandal, has been attacked from both right and left in Israel. He has vigorously defended Israel’s right to exist and has never ceased criticizing the Palestinians for failing to officially acknowledge it. Still, I wish he were around to offer some measured analysis of the present situation.
The Tragic Timing of Shavit’s Foolishness
It seems apparent to me that Israel is now the hub of an international earthquake that could threaten the safety of the United States and, given the recklessness of three men, perhaps the future of our planet.
The three men? Donald Trump, Bibi Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin.
Remember how WWI began? It began in Austria with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie, his wife, by a Serbian rebel. WWIII could begin in Israel, a country long characterized as the hub of conflict between violent internal and external ethnic and national groups. One difference: In 1914, there were no nuclear bombs.
In the past decade Israel, led by Netanyahu, has used its huge military force to control the Palestine population by killing its civilian population and encircling it with a network of barriers, hindering its ability to care for its citizens as a free and separate nation. This has been explained and justified with claims of encroaching rockets launched by Palestine’s small cadre of outraged rebels. The rockets rarely reached population centers and the number of their victims were far outnumbered by the all out responsive assault by the Iraeli military.
So, again, I wish for some calm reasoned ideas from someone like Ari Shavit. But his fatal foolishness has disqualified him.
One feature of this conflict has been the erection of “settlements” i.e. housing for Israeli citizens on Palestinian land. These “settlements” have flourished and expanded thanks to the deliberately passive and permissive unwillingness of the Israeli government to stop them. They are in plain violation of international law. The United Nations assembly has repeatedly tried to declare them to be unacceptable. Until last week those efforts were thwarted by vetoes by the U.S..
Last week, finally, the U.S. abstained and the UN measure was adopted with a large majority vote.
The Dangerous Reaction
Netanyahu reacted angrily, claiming that the UN resolution was a betrayal of Israeli and was “engineered by Barack Obama”, with whom Netanyahu has waged an endless political war during Obama’s terms in office. The intrusion into US politics has always been treated with enthusiastic acceptance by the GOP and, ironically, by the so-called evangelical wing of the protestant church in America. Until Putin’s hacking interference with the recent election, Israel was the only foreign power granted permission to meddle with US politics. See: http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/358334/benjamin-netanyahu-seeks-to-rally-israelis-with-no-holds-barred-attack-on-u/
This time, Netanyahu’s tantrum has exceeded his past performances. He has recalled Israel’s ambassadors from the nations who sponsored the UN resolution. and expelled the diplomatic representatives from Israel. Trump has denounced the UN resolution and Obama’s failure to oppose it. Putin, so far as I know, has not yet waded into this morass but I am confident he will perceive how the attacks on the United Nations can serve his international ambitions.
So, as a dangerously ignorant and reckless man becomes President of the U.S., a situation fraught with peril develops in the world’s most dangerous place: The Middle East, where religious conflicts cause common sense diplomacy and rationality to be regarded with suspicion and hostility. To fanatics, dying in a nuclear holocaust evoked by religious zeal would be a privilege.
A second national leader , Netanyahu, is a single minded, religiously oriented, reckless man whose policies invariably choose military might over reasonable searches for peace. His success has depended on the support of the United States and its military strength as well as its alliances and reputation with the nations surrounding his tiny nation. I believe he will eagerly accept the support of Vladimir Putin, who shares his hostility toward the nations of Western Europe.
And Putin will surely see the opportunity to weaken the alliance between the United States and the Western European nations as a means of realizing his goal of restoring the empire which disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These three dangerous men have one thing in common along with their militant policies: Possession of nuclear weapons. That is what frightens me and should concern the political leaders who obediently regard Donald Trump as a useful means of attaining their long cherished wish for a collapse of the political and governmental power to limit the corporate greed that nourishes them. They should remember that nuclear war will not distinguish between liberals and conservatives or Christians and Muslims. The dust from their incinerated bodies will mix indiscriminately.
December 18, 2016 § 2 Comments
A friend of mine, Max Krochmal, a Professor at TCU, has written an important book, “Blue Texas The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Right Era”
It is a meticulously documented account of Texas political history between 1938 and 1963. Reading this book was an emotional experience for me. It describes a series of events that were crucial and pivotal in my life. Because I was active in Texas politics during that period of time, expressing my reaction to Max’s book in this essay has proved to be a very difficult task. I have trashed my first two efforts to write about this book. I submit this one with this warning: No man can be truly objective as he describes his own behavior and motivations or the circumstances which influenced him.
The book is a description of efforts by four groups of men and women in Texas to find a way to work together in politics. The four groups were: White liberals, blacks, mexicanos and labor unions.
The book is written from a particular point of view, strongly held by Max Krochmal. He believes development of a successful political coalition in Texas required a fundamental rebalancing of power among those four groups. He identifies the white liberals as political sinners in dire need of salvation. Over and over he makes the point: White liberals neither understood nor appreciated the rights of the blacks and mexicanos to manage and direct their own political efforts.
As he sees it, liberal political success in Texas cannot occur until and unless the coalition of which he writes overcomes the differences which separate the aims and ambitions of its four groups. He is optimistic that comfortable and workable agreements can be accomplished , but only if actual power sharing arrangements are implemented. And, because, as he believes, white liberals have had an unfair amount of power, they are the ones who must accept a less powerful role in future coalition efforts.
A Troubled Marriage
As I read Max’s book, I thought of some of my professional experiences with divorces. I despised divorce practice and, after a few years as a young lawyer at the beginning of my career, I was able to end my acceptance of those cases. I learned that many marriages continued for decades ,despite a complete lack of love or respect, because the parties were obligated to raise children and were dependent on each other for financial support.
The tension, suspicion and distrust described by Max between the four components of his proposed coalition model were similar to a troubled marriage. And the one thing many of the other three groups could most often agree on was: White political leadership could no longer be tolerated. This judgment was most apparent in Bexar County’s San Antonio, the political capital of Mexicano politics. There the grito of Mexicano Democrats was “Mexicanos must be led only by Mexicanos.”
The Tension Between “Electoral Politics” and Coalition Building
Max’s research exposed an underlying truth that added to the problems of creating a viable liberal coalition: Often the interests of the Mexicanos, based on local alliances in Bexar County, conflicted with an effort to elect a liberal governor of Texas. In fact, I am convinced that, except for that circumstance, Ralph Yarborough would have been elected Governor of Texas in 1956 and Don Yarborough would have been elected Governor of Texas in 1962. Those two defeats ,by margins of about 3,500 votes and 25,000 votes respectively, had momentous and disastrous results, not only in Texas but in the United States.
Following his defeat in 1956, Ralph Yarborough was elected to the U..S. Senate, where he was dependent on Lyndon Johnson, the Majority Leader in the Senate, for support of his liberal agenda that included passage of the Cold War GI Bill and, later, support for all of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s. The price for those accomplishments was ending his organizational help for Texas liberals.
If Don Yarborough had been elected Governor of Texas in 1962, he, instead of John Connally, would have been working with Bobby Kennedy to build a permanent liberal political organization in Texas. Instead, John Connally, who hated Bobby Kennedy, was Governor and sabotaged all efforts to build a liberal political organization in Texas. Don Yarborough, not John Connally, would have been riding in the car with JFK on November 23, 1963. If he had survived with a wound, he would have enjoyed the political invincibility John Connally enjoyed.
B.T. Bonner: A Friendship’s Painful End
Max’s book is a fascinating account of the efforts of a large number of very interesting characters who worked in Texas politics for a variety of motives and in a variety of ways. Some, like B.T. Bonner, never saw an organization he liked unless he created it. He was fearless, relentless and ruthless. His effort to increase the power of black activists was unwavering. I was his friend but that sometimes led to bitter disagreements. Our friendship ended when he chose the Harris County Democrats of which i was the chairman for a surprise raid by a group of TSU students who not only took it over but also denounced its leadership. It is the only time I recall when my law partner, Chris Dixie, and I were accused of being racists.
Huntsville: Organizational Success But Different Opinions About Plowing
For more than fifteen years before that painful conclusion B.T. and I were friends, although our friendship was often tested by disagreements over tactics and choices. Max describes a part of the story of an organizing effort in Huntsville Texas that illustrates our divergent opinions. Hank Brown, using labor union money, sponsored a school in Austin where young people from different parts of Texas were taught the techniques of organizing local groups to demand economic and racial justice. The delegation from Huntsville returned home and began a series of demonstrations and marches protesting the law enforcement and economic policies promoted by Walker County Judge Amos Gates. After their efforts had been under way for a few weeks, B.T. arrived and assumed a leadership role.
Soon thereafter, ten black teenagers were arrested and sentenced to jail in one of Texas’ notoriously brutal juvenile facilities. Judge Gates, with no training as a lawyer, did this without notice to the parents of the children. When this became known a NAACP lawyer, a black Houston lawyer, Chris Dixie and I launched an effort to effect the release the children from this juvenile prison. In concert with these other lawyers, I drafted an application for habeas corpus and filed it with the panel of the Texas Court of Appeals in Houston. Then I spent a memorable afternoon in the Court’s library, assisted by Spud Bell, one of the Justices on that court, helping me draft a Writ of Habeas Corpus. I knew about the ancient writ but had never drafted one.
In response to our application, the Court scheduled a prompt hearing and ordered the children brought to the Court for a hearing to determine whether they were being deprived of their liberty illegally. In addition to the lawyers for the children, a lawyer from Huntsville attended to defend Judge Gates’ action. The parents of the children and a group of local black business men and church leaders were also present. The hearing consisted mostly of questions by the Court directed to the hapless lawyer defending Judge Gates. His answers amounted to a confession that the procedure followed by Gates had no resemblance to due process or the law. The Court ordered the children released upon posting hundred dollar bonds, pending a final decision which the Court promised to render without delay.
A short time later the Court rendered two written opinions declaring Gates’ actions to have been illegal and therefore void.
B.T. called to complain bitterly that my “interference” with his organizing had deprived him of a useful issue. I told him neither the children nor their parents had agreed to become useful martyrs and that I had no apology for helping to secure their release. My law partner, Chris Dixie, had a favorite expression: When referring to a proposed action, he would often remark that it depended on “how deep you want to plow.” For me, leaving those children in a juvenile jail was deeper than I was willing to plow.
Max describes the Huntsville organizing effort and B.T.’s involvement in it but he does not mention the legal proceeding that accompanied it. His focus was on the political organizational event.
My Lost Chance to Become a Hero
This Huntsville episode was typical of several of my arguments with B.T. during the years we were friends. On one occasion we did agree. At B.T.’s invitation, I and another lawyer, George Dixie, Chris’s nephew, went to Wallis Texas, B.T.’s home town, to participate in the integration of a local restaurant. George and I slept on the ground in a nearby cotton field. The next morning I and an elderly black man, Brazos Jim Jackson, led a procession of other local black men on a short walk to the restaurant, where we entered and were served without incident.
I had mentally prepared myself for the probability that, for the first time in my life,in this little rural town, far from public attention, I would be physically assaulted by one or more adults. I hoped I would comport myself without cowardice or embarrassment. I was determined to do so but, without previous experience, I was not sure.
Nothing like that happened because, unknown to me or to George, Chris Dixie had called a friend of ours, U..S. District Judge Woodrow Seals, who called the Texas Highway Department and demanded protection for the demonstration. So, when we showed up for our march, there was a line of about six or seven black and white Texas Highway Patrol cars lined across the highway from the small row of businesses in this little village. With that contingent of armed law enforcement officers looking on, the group of young white men who showed up to make trouble were not willing to risk the consequences, so my mental preparation was unnecessary.
More About B.T.
Max describes another organizational experience featuring B.T. in Austin, where some college students had organized a kind of reverse sit-in to effect the integration of a movie theater. B.T., impatient with the pace of that effort, ended it with a personal confrontation with the owner of the theater and effected its integration.
I won’t describe here the other aspects of my friendship with B.T. except to say that, until the HCD meeingI described earlier, my wife, Beverly, and I enjoyed a friendly relationship with B.T. and Florence, his wife. I never doubted B.T.’s sincerity and I admired his eagerness to confront powerful agents of racism. Our tactics often diverged because I was focussed on electing government officials and he was focussed on challenging organizational efforts necessary to accomplish that goal.
Hank Brown and the Mexicanos
Max’s description of Bexar County politics is fascinating. The Byzantine plots, betrayals, constantly shifting alliances are a primer for understanding how real politics is practiced. His description of the heroic efforts of Hank Brown, the head of the Texas Labor council is a profile of courage. Hank was a member of the plumbers union, a part of the old AFL organization of craft unions. Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, the crafts were bitterly opposed to racial integration and jealously protected their unions from integration until legally compelled to open their apprentice programs to black applicants.
Despite this major part of his rank and file, Hank managed to be a reliable source of power and funds in support of liberal political efforts. The CIO part of his organization supported that effort and managed to counter attacks on Hank from his craft union members.
Max does not deal with this background but he does catalogue Hank Brown’s efforts. The fact that Hank was white did not evoke the kind of hostility that nonunion whites did. I assume this was probably because he was a source of money and support.
Max’s Choices of Black Leadership in Texas
Max’s treatment of black leadership consisted primarily of the activity of a black couple from Houston, Moses and Erma Leroy. He describes their involvement in NAACP organizational politics, Erma’s social meetings with other blacks and her occasional work in rural communities, when she was hired by the labor unions to meet with local black leaders to encourage their political activities. He also mentions Christia Adair, a black woman in Houston, who was active in the Harris County Democrats, a political organization formed in 1948. The HCD welcomed members without regard to any qualification except willingness to engage in liberal political activity. It was focussed on electing people to public office and, hence, was not part of Max’s narrative. Max’s interest is in the bases on which different parts of the coalition chose the candidates they would support.
He does mention several times a “block worker” method of political organizing. He does not mention that it was designed and implemented in Houston by HCD members, white, black and union affiliated, in 1960. It did not succeed in carrying Harris County for JFK, but it significantly increased the vote in black precincts and the power of black precinct chairmen.
Max also features the actions of black political leadership in Bexar County. He describes their intermittent political alliances with Mexicano politicos on San Antonio’s West Side. Their efforts to engage in liberal politics were hampered by the influence of conservative black business men who caused internal conflicts within the black community.
The only white political activists who escape disparagement in Max’s book are George and Latane Lambert. They moved smoothly from one liberal cause to another, always in support of progress toward economic justice and the betterment of the working class, regardless of the races or ethnicities involved.
A Personal Comment and Apology
Before he wrote this book Max Krochmal and I had a number of personal conversations about Texas politics, about Larry Goodwyn, my good friend and Max’s strong supporter at Duke. During one of them, I don’t specifically remember which one, I told him about a painful event in my life involving Ralph Yarborough. During one of his political races, I think it was the 1956 race for governor, Lyman Jones and I accompanied him to Houston where he made a speech at an outdoor rally on Houston’s North Side. He was attacking his opponent for having engaged in some nefarious business deal. As he became more and more animated, in his peroration, he used an old East Texas saying that included a racial slur.
A reporter from the Ft. Worth Star Telegram was there. I was personally hurt because, by that time I had virtually lived with this man, traveled with him and shared his triumphs and disappointments. I felt like a member of his family. To hear him utter that ugly word was a painful shock. I had never before heard him say anything like that.
I looked at Lyman Jones, a veteran newspaper reporter who was handing press relations for the campaign. He, like me, was momentarily stunned. After a few seconds, Lyman went straight to the Ft. Worth reporter whom he had known for many years. He persuaded the reporter to omit the gaffe from his report.
Now, as I read Max’s book, i turned a page and there, in black and white, was an account of the whole episode. All I could do was curse and berate myself for being so foolish. Now my friend’s reputation will forever be besmirched as a result of my foolishness. My only hope is that his record for unflagging support for civil rights in the U.S. Senate will overcome my mistake. He did not support the “Southern Manifesto”, declaration of defiance signed by almost the entire Congressional delegation of Southern Representatives and Senators. He supported and voted for every civil rights bill that came before the Senate during his terms of office.
My thoughtless divulging of an incident in which he reacted without thinking with a saying common among the East Texas white Southerners with whom he spent his childhood and young adulthood. In that culture the saying was as unrelated to racism as the curse “Son-of-a -Bitch” in unrelated to sexism. While neither is acceptable in polite society, neither is considered or intended to be taken literally. But in the present age of gotcha! politics, thoughtless comments and slang usage can end political careers. Whether that is evidence of progress or of cynical and hypocritical political tactics can be argued. It is, nevertheless a feature of politics as practiced in this era of moment-to-moment internet unfiltered news coverage and tweets.
As I thought about this entire episode in my life, I was reminded of Mr. Justice Hugo Black. When he was a young man he joined the Ku Klux Klan. He resigned after a few years but he never denied that he had joined. When he was placed on the Supreme Court by FDR, reporters dogged FDR about the former KKK member he had nominated. FDR ignored their questions and never admitted he had been aware of that fact.
There were two consequential events as a result of Black’s background.
When Black was a young man he witnessed events when racist thugs would go to a courthouse, rally there and, after whipping the crowd into a frenzy, break into the jail, drag out a black prisoner and lynch him. Years later, after he was on the Supreme Court, a case from Louisiana come to the Court.. Some civil rights supporters had staged a demonstration at a county courthouse. There was a Louisiana law prohibiting demonstrations at court houses, intended to prevent lynching. Pursuant to that law, local police required the demonstrators to withdraw across the street from the courthouse grounds.
One demonstrator, named Cox, refused to obey the police. He was arrested and fined. Some civil rights lawyers appealed the case to the Supreme Court. In Cox v. Louisiana, a 5/4 decision, Cox won but not because of the substance of the law. A five member of the Court held the Louisiana law unconstitutional for vagueness. I did not define with precision how much proximity to a courthouse was required to constitute a violation of the law. Justice Black joined the dissenters. He would have denied the appeal because he argued that the law had a lawful purpose: To prevent interference with judicial proceedings.
Justice Black’s law clerk was a young lawyer named Chris Dixie.
Many years later, as chronicled in Max’s book, Chris was presiding over a contentious meeting of the Democratic Coalition. He objected to a proposal guaranteeing the right of demonstrators to congregate on courthouse lawns, as they had been doing in Huntsville. He used his position in the chair to divert that proposal for “further study” and action at some future time. Max refers to Chris’s behavior as having been “heavy handed” and one more example of white misbehavior.
Politics is endlessly interesting to me because of the real things that happen and the nature and histories of the people who make them happen.
I know this has become too long. If, however, you have persevered, I promise this will be my final comment.
Max Krochmal describes in detail the various political choices made by Mexicano politicians in San Antonio and other places in South Texas (an area whose northern border was a line from Corpus Christi to San Antonio to El Paso). He attributes those decisions to shifting relationships between local politicians and with their relationships with white politicians.
I believe this ignores what was really happening. Lyndon Johnson built a political career on votes in this part of Texas. In 1937, when he was first elected to Congress, rural South Texas was a huge plantation run by three rich bosses: George Paar in South East Texas, M. Gierra in Starr County in South Texas and M.J Raymond in Laredo, in South West Texas. In statewide elections and national elections, poll taxes were purchased in bulk for the campesinos who worked in the fields. On election day. pickup trucks loaded with Mexicano voters would pull up at polling places. A marked ballot would be handed to each voter, who would enter the polling place, obtain a ballot, stuff it into his shirt, and place the marked ballot in the slot for votes. He would rerurn to the truck, hand the blank ballot to the patron, receive a bottle of beer with a dollar wrapped around it and would be returned to the ranch or farm where he worked.
This is only one way votes were controlled. Some times the “voters” would simply sign in at the polls and the ones conducting the election would mark the ballots and place them in the appropriate box. If, at the end of the day, more votes were needed, additional ballots would be marked and added to the box.
This system ended, or at least was modified, when the GI’s returned from service in WWII. They and their families were no longer willing to obey the directions of the patrons . The old political bosses still had political influence, but their power was now shared by local political organizations in rural counties as well as in San Antonio and other South Texas cities and towns. Some of those organizations were just as illegal as before but the ones in charge were new local jefes who used political patronage and punishment dispensed by captive judges and grand juries to control local politics to impose control over county level politics.
Lyndon Johnson, after a period of military service in the war, returned to Texas and, in 1948, was elected to the United States Senate in a close election that forever branded him as “Landslide Lyndon”. His election featured a contest with Coke Stephenson for the votes of these new political organizations. The outcome was the subject of a sensational investigation by the Texas legislature and a bitter judicial contest. Lyndon ultimately won by less than one hundred votes.
After that stressful beginning, Lyndon Johnson apparently vowed never again to be threatened by political organizations he didn’t control. During the period of time covered by Max’s book, Lyndon was the deus ex machina who actually orchestrated the election of governors and U.S. Senators in Texas. Some of his most loyal lieutenants lived in San Antonio.
So when I read about “Mexicans will only be led by Mexicans”, I did not interpret it as anything other than political theater. Unless those polliticos believed LBJ had become a Mexicano, along with his puppets, John Connally and Price Daniel, the slogan was for consumption only by the uninformed.
The two most traumatic political events in my life (until the election of Donald Trump)j were the defeats of Ralph and Don Yarborough in their races for election to the Texas governorship. And I do not believe those defeats had anything to do with the moral deficiencies or political loyalties of white liberals. It had to do with LBJ’s determination that, if any political organization was created, it would be one loyal to and controlled by him.