Friday, March 31, 2017

Do Republicans Even Want to Live in a Democracy? Part Two

While I was doing research for my wife and I's recent book, Maryland's Chesapeake: How the Bay and its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine, I was struck by how little I really learned about our nation's early history in grade school. We were taught about the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock and John Smith helping to form Jamestown in Virginia. Sure, the Native Americans were here, but they just showed up with some pot luck dishes at Thanksgiving and one young squaw prevented John Smith's beheading. The rest of the history lesson was Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and a bunch of other white guys doing stuff. Given our early introduction to the founding of this country, it's little wonder so many white Americans have adopted the notion that Europeans were the dominant race in this country and our governance should be based on white supremacy.

The reality of our history is much different. It's not simply that the Native Americans were here first, they had been here since the Ice Age. By the time we arrived, they had established a complex, interconnected tribal system and a form of self-governance along with an elaborate system of growing and gathering food. The Europeans who first arrived here would simply not have survived had they not learned from the Native Americans how to grow and store corn and feed off the native creatures that walked the land and swam in the waters.

There's also a perception among a section of white Americans (although they might not state it publicly) that the Africans who were brought here were merely ignorant savages who were too stupid not to get captured and, by inference, deserved to be nothing more than slaves. This is also, of course, a major fallacy, but something that many Whites might not be aware of is that the English landowners in America initially brought over their own countrymen to function as slaves. Granted it was for only a period of seven years rather than a lifetime, but I think it illustrates the point that slavery has nothing to do with a person's intellect or brain size or whatever, but everything to do with the rich oppressing the poor.

There's always someone with more money or more power who is in a position to oppress someone lower on the totem pole. I find it amusing that President Trump's chief adviser, a White Nationalist, has the last name of Bannon. Clearly, he has Irish roots. So what happened with the early Irish who came to America? They were thought of as the lowest of the low, even less valued as human beings than slaves. A slave, after all, was property and had monetary value. The Irish were completely expendable and only hired to do the dirtiest, nastiest, most dangerous of jobs.

And then I think of my own grandfather, who was white and British. He had been unemployed in his native country for a long time and decided to start fresh in the United States. He came here on a ship in third class because, as he put it, "there was not fourth class," and hardly had any money to his name when he landed in Boston. Since he had learned a trade as a bricklayer, he ended up working at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. He worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week in the beginning. Eventually, the unions fought for better wages and better hours, and he was able to buy a house and raise a family and do all the things we put into the category of the American Dream. I don't see any difference between my grandfather and the Hispanic workers I see in my neighborhood, putting up brick fences and repairing roofs and laying down cement sidewalks. People come here from all over the world because this is the land of opportunity where everyone has a shot at making a better life for themselves and their families.

Still, we have an administration and a political party that's pushing the notion that Whites, and particularly White Christians, are somehow more valuable to our republic than any other group and that they should be given priority. Of course, all of this flies in the face of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and everything we've tried to build in this country over the last 250 years. Any government that "holds these truths to be self-evident" that everyone is entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" cannot impose a form of governance that holds one group of people above another or who makes laws infringing on the rights of one group over another. Yes, we done it many times, particularly in the case of slavery, but we have fought hard to overturn these laws and we can never go back.

But I guess that's the point. For the Baby Boomers who remember the early 60's when the country was 85% white, they were used to seeing mostly white faces in their daily activities and could feel comfortable with their prejudices against minorities because, hey, we're the main ethnic group so we can do what we want. As they turn into senior citizens and feel more vulnerable with the onset of aging issues, they are also seeing more brown faces around them and changing attitudes about racial stereotypes. The "snowflakes" don't want you to make fun of the Hispanics or the Asians or the African-Americans. Suddenly, whites are asked to throw away their prejudices and treat others with respect. For some, that just isn't the America they're comfortable with.

By 2011, the white population in the U.S, had dropped to 63%. As the Baby Boomers die off over the next 20-30 years, that number will drop significantly. The projection is that whites will only represent 47% of the population by the middle of this century. That is no longer a majority.

So my point to White Nationalists is, the numbers are against you. America is becoming more brown. Trying to manipulate the government to oppress people of color won't change that. Whatever short-term gains you may attain are simply that. Maybe it's time to stop worrying about how the country does not have the same demographics it once did and focus on the underlying principles that make our country great in the future.

Besides, race is a distraction put forth by Republicans to cover their fundamental end game: the wealthy oppressing the middle-class and the poor. Next time I'll try to sort out the whole Wall Street versus Main Street thing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Do Republicans Even Want to Live in a Democracy? Part One

When I was 11 years old, a friend of mine talked me into going to summer camp. I was content to spend my vacation reading comic books and watching Days of Our Lives, but he convinced me that there would be so many fun things to do there like swimming and horseback riding, so I agreed. His family were Southern Baptists and, unbeknownst to me, so was the summer camp. My family was Lutheran, but we were pretty relaxed about our faith. If my religious experience was a lite beer, this summer camp was 150 proof rum.

My friend didn't lie completely. I did go swimming (once) and I went horseback riding (once), but mostly it was singing cheesy Christian songs and bible study and hell-fire preachin' in the evening. Pretty much cult brainwashing without the group sex. Although it was "Christian," we spent most of our time reading the Old Testament and Revelations. Doom, gloom, and everything you did was going to send you straight to Hell! Since my friend basically abandoned me once we got there to suck up to the "cool kids," I felt alone and homesick. I sought some guidance from one of the few laid-back counselors at the camp (most were sadistic morons who enjoyed beating up on little kids). He told me to read the Gospel According to John. To my surprise, I did find some solace there, for in the words of Jesus I found the compassion and humanist teachings that gave me some hope.

After I returned home, I found my mother's red letter edition of the New Testament, where all of Jesus's spoken words are printed in red ink. I would read only those passages, and it gave me a clearer understanding of what the true intent of Christianity was. I still had issues with some of what he said, as I always had with Christianity, but at least I felt that there were strong messages here around which I could build my own philosophy toward life. I also found it curious that, with all this good stuff in the New Testament, why the people at camp spent virtually no time focusing on it. After every meal, we would sing songs about how God loved us so much, and then in bible study we would study Revelations to find out how everyone was going straight to hell except those who were faithful to Jesus Christ. Not just God, mind you, but to Jesus Christ specifically. How could anyone who loved those he created so much mercilessly doom people who may have lived perfectly virtuous lives just because they did not believe Jesus was his son? Pretty cold, dude!

The evening services usually revolved around all the nasty sins people were perpetrating like premarital sex and drug use and other indulgent behavior. The preacher was practically licking his chops as he proclaimed that these people would burn in the eternal flames! I wanted to raise my hand and ask, "Are we talking about the same God we were singing about this morning over oatmeal?" While I hated the whole experience, I'm grateful that I had it because it sent me on a life-long journey of studying religion and spirituality. (Spoiler alert: I'm now an agnostic.)

For anyone who's still reading this, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the title of this post. Well, there's no doubt that the Religious Right has insinuated itself into the political dialogue increasingly over the last 40 years. The Republican party embraced them as a way to win over these former Dixiecrats to their side. They are now major players in the party, but I have to ask myself, is their fundamental view of life compatible with a democratic government?

The frame of mind I witnessed in summer camp was essentially that of an abused spouse: "I love you so much! Please don't beat me! I'll be good!" The view was that a strong, authoritarian figure could provide you with a happy life, but only if you followed strict rules and did not question anything. Even as an 11 year old, I had witnessed enough alcoholic and abusive parents to know that this was not a healthy approach to life.

So if your entire cosmic view is that of an authoritarian deity with stringent rules and eternal damnation for those who don't follow those rules, you should probably want a really clear cut, well presentation rule book, right? Well, in this case, we're left with an ancient tome full of archaic language that can be cobbled up and taken out of context to mean pretty much anything you want it to mean. In recent years, we've heard a lot from Christians about how homosexuality is a sin because it says so in Leviticus (chapter 18, verse 22). I watched one Southern preacher on YouTube harping about this, but judging by his wobbling jowls and protruding belly, I'm pretty sure he partakes in some tasty pork products even though that is also a sin according to Leviticus (chapter 11, verse 7). I could go on and on about this kind of hypocrisy, but I'm really trying to make a bigger point.

The founding fathers took the path of independence from England because they hated rule by one authoritarian figure. They constructed a Constitution that had separation of powers and a chief executive rather than a king or a dictator. Further, the Constitution is a fluid document that could be revised and reinterpreted to suit changing times. In fact, the Bill of Rights were adopted rather quickly after the Constitution was ratified to clear up areas where the rights of the individual were not specified. The very first amendment states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...", the amendment that Thomas Jefferson said would create "...a wall of separation between Church and State." In other words, you can practice any kind of religion you want and our government will not mess with you, but we will also not adopt an official religion for the government or govern based on religious doctrine.

So we have a government that is secular, representative, and constructed to function in a deliberately slow and complex manner so that the citizens and their appointed officials can have time to study, debate, and reflect on the kinds of laws they want for their country. Pretty much the antithesis of the Christian religious view. For a couple of centuries, Christians in America were generally satisfied with a government that was distinct from their religious life, but in recent decades, we've seen a growing unrest among the Religious Right. Presidential candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum promoted the notion that U.S, law should be based on Christian teachings. Senator Ted Cruz is an adept political operative, but one senses that he too would favor a U.S. government with Christianity at its core if he had that choice. This kind of thinking points to a Christian theocracy, where a religious figure or group of Christian advisers would dictate the rules under which laws are created.

Why does this sound familiar? Oh yeah, because that's the kind of government Iran has, only their religion is Islam. If we think Iran is such a messed up place, why would we want the same kind of government? And given the complexities of our modern world, would an ancient text filled with allegories and vague language really be useful in forming policy regarding nuclear proliferation, climate change, and global trade? There's a reason the founding fathers wanted to keep religion out of politics.

Of course, not all Republicans are Christian fundamentalists. Next time, I'll look at another Republican faction that is pulling us away from Democracy.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Brief History of the World (That I Lived Through) Part Three

Until the year 2000, I had never lived through a tight presidential race. I had read about the close race Nixon and Kennedy had in 1960 and how Nixon chose to concede rather than demand a recount because he felt that it would be bad for the country. The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was also very tight, coming down to one state: Florida. This was a state where the governor also happened to be the Republican candidate's brother. If ever there was a situation where a recount could be bad for the country, this was it. Bush chose to fight and, in a surprise to no one, he was given the win. When Gore took the results to the Supreme Court, the mostly Republican judges ruled in favor of the verdict, but stated that this ruling could not be used as precedent in future cases. In other words, if the shoe is on the other foot and the Democrats are able to pull off a shaky win, we reserve the right to come down on the Republican side. This is when I realized that the Republicans no longer had any interest in fair government.

I tried to accept the situation because I wanted to cling to my faith in our system of peaceful transition. Maybe Bush won't be as bad as I thought. Maybe he can keep Darth Cheney in check. Maybe went out the window with 9/11. I supported the war in Afghanistan. We had no choice really, and I was heartened by the installation of Hamid Karzai as president (he was the brother of a restaurateur in Baltimore). But then word started filtering out that the CIA had Osama Bin Laden pinned down early in the conflict and the White House chose to ignore their advice. The war dragged on and no one seemed to be able to nail Bin Laden. Instead, the White House had lost all interest in Bin Laden, choosing to instead rattle their sabres at Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This was a WTF moment for me.

What did Hussein have to do with anything?

He's making weapons of mass destruction!

Really? Where's the proof?

Oh, we have it! Don't you worry your pretty little head about that!

No, seriously. What do you have?

As I watched then Secretary of State Colin Powell lay out the laughably feeble "evidence" to the UN, I knew this was a fait accompli. It didn't matter what Hussein did or did not do. Bush was out to prove to his father that he could finish the job George H. W. Bush was too prudent to finish. Cheney was out to create new business for Halliburton. Just as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations wanted a Democratic stronghold in Vietnam, this Bush administration wanted a Democratic stronghold in the Middle East. It was king making at its most brazen and, in our blood lust after 9/11, many Americans were happy to fight with any Muslim country.

The day we invaded Iraq, I was riding on the Baltimore Metro returning to my old job after a particularly bad interview for a different position. I didn't care about the interview at all. I was sick to my stomach about this country invading a sovereign nation without provocation. We had crossed a line that had destroyed my faith in our country. It was bad enough that we were already holding people indefinitely without due process in Guantanamo and, in many cases, torturing those we captured. These were not the values I was taught in school. George W. Bush, a man who called himself a born-again Christian, was behaving in what I considered a most un-Christian manner.

At the same time, I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the developments in the financial world. As federal regulations continued to fall away under the Republicans, my employer took advantage of these changes to expand their products and services. We were being told that we would become "a one-stop-shop" for investors. I could only think about the old adage, "don't put all your eggs in one basket." I was also disturbed by the overheating real estate market. I won't claim that I foresaw the full scale of the economic meltdown that was to come, but any doofus had to know that the meteoric rise of housing prices were not sustainable without an equal rise in salaries. A family making $60K a year could not afford $350K house without those crazy introductory interest rates. Once the regular rate kicked in, the monthly payment would be out of reach for the homeowner. It was simple math, but as I had seen so many times in the financial world, greed blinds even the smartest people.

I left my job in 2005 for many reasons, but a big part of my decision was that I sensed a disturbance in the financial force. All of it was based on greed and none of it was good. (Okay, I'm out of movie references.) As adjustable mortgage rates started to reset in 2007, foreclosures rose dramatically and housing prices started to fall. By 2008, mortgage-backed securities started to crumble. In the summer of 2008, the economy was suffering from the tremors that would eventually set off the stock market crash, we were bogged down in two wars with no end in sight, and the country's deficits were exploding. Where was George W. Bush during all of this? Flirting with Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor at the Beijing Olympics. We were so screwed.

As he was sworn in as president, Barack Obama inherited the worst state of the union since Franklin D. Roosevelt. There was no time for implementing pet projects or lay out a new vision for America as other presidents had done in their first 100 days. He had to act quickly to turn the economic tailspin around and see what he could do to extricate us from two costly wars. I wasn't sure he could do it, but I really believed that everyone would rally behind the President in our desperate time of need. Oh wait, I forgot. We weren't that country anymore.

I was stunned at the vehement hatred focused on Obama before he had even had time to get his seat in the Oval Office warm. The Tea Party, which started out as a reasonable grass-roots effort to address high taxes, was usurped by white supremacists and ultra-right Christian nutjobs who just couldn't stand the fact that there was a black family living in the White House. Of course, they didn't put it in quite those words, but the disrespect shown toward President Obama made it clear that this had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with race.

Obama still had a Democratic majority in Congress, however, and he took advantage of it by pushing through one piece of legislation that did fit into his vision for our future: Health Care Reform. Based largely on recommendations made by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the Affordable Care Act was an effort to provide greater access to health care for more Americans without upsetting the health insurance apple cart too greatly. If John McCain had been president and had introduced the legislation, I'm sure the Republicans would have been fine with it. Because Obama endorsed it, the Republicans had to hate it. They branded it Obamacare so that their constituents would immediately hate it also without even understanding what it was. The ACA was passed along party lines with the narrowest of margins.

2010 presented the perfect storm for Republicans. Democrats, so thrilled that they had their first African-American president, largely ignored the mid-term elections. Republicans took back the House and gained greater control over state legislatures nationwide. 2010 was also a census year, so Republicans in many states used this as an excuse to draw up gerrymandered districts that favored Republican candidates. The fix was in and Democrats barely noticed. The foundation for rule by the minority was set.

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Brief History of the World (That I Lived Through) Part Two

In the fall of 1987, as the country was slipping headlong into what would become a drawn out economic slump, I was working two jobs that together only earned me $11,000 a year. Even in 80s money, this was not a living wage. I had been told my whole life that if I got that bachelor's degree, I would have it made. Instead, I was working my butt off just to pay my Mom some meager board and keep my '71 Ford LTD on the road and out of the mechanic's garage. As I drove to and from work in my jalopy with only an AM radio, I noticed that the Top 40 stations were steadily being taken over by conservative talk radio stations. With no other options, I had to listen to a lot of it.

They laid out a curious narrative. Since they couldn't blame their hero, Ronald Reagan, for the economy that never really got off the ground during his presidency, there had to be other scapegoats. There were the Germans and Japanese who dared to make better cars and steel at competitive prices. There were the Mexicans who had the audacity to take jobs in the factories that U.S. corporations built there while shuttering factories here. And, when all else fails, they could always blame the people on welfare (code for African-Americans). The lesson for today: your problems, Mr. and Mrs. White America, were not created by you or our fine Republican government; it's everybody else's fault.

I was a White American who was struggling, but somehow these excuses rang hollow. They rang hollow because the news reports that ran prior to the right-wing gab fests told me about Michael Milken and his junk bond scandal. They told me about how the Savings and Loan assholes took on too much risk with other people's money and were now costing the American taxpayers over 100 billion dollars. There were reasons I was having a hard time finding a decent job, but the culprits were just as white as I was. I laughed at these hypertensive babblers. It was a schtick. It was a snake oil salve placed on a wound no one knew how to heal. I assumed only the most gullible were buying this garbage.

In 1990, I got a job working for a mutual fund company. It was a full-time, permanent position with great benefits. Unfortunately, the hourly wage was not much better than what I had been making before. As an English major, I had to go through extensive training to learn the world of investing and all the tricky byways associated with it. Tax law, securities regulations, retirement planning, portfolio management, and so on. I had to get certifications from the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). I could have been a stockbroker with all the training and certifying, but instead I was answering shareholder letters about their portfolios and the related issues. It was hard work requiring quite a bit of knowledge and skill. I wonder how confident the investors would have felt, however, if they knew that the guy answering their letters made about the same as a night manager at Denny's. The only way I could make anything like a comfortable wage was to work copious amounts of overtime, not that I had any choice. The overtime was mandatory.

Some co-workers said that it was the new sweat shop. That was a little extreme, but it was a far cry from the days when a guy in an auto plant could raise a family of four just by attaching the same bolt over and over for eight hours a day. This was the new reality that the Reagan Revolution had brought. While the top guys in the ivory tower downtown collected millions in bonuses, guys like me who were keeping the shareholders happy and placated were getting a check the equivalent of one and one half times my two-week salary...AS MY ENTIRE ANNUAL BONUS. Actually that's not completely true. They took out withholding at the highest possible rate, so the check was a lot smaller.

There seemed some sense of hope by 1992, however. Bill Clinton set about disproving trickle down economics by raising taxes on the top wage earners without hurting the economy. In fact, the economy grew at a rate far greater than anything experienced during the Reagan/Bush years. The markets were on a roll and my stingy employer even recognized that they had to pay us better under the threat of stiffer competition. My life got a whole lot better, I had a new car, a house, and a comfortable nest egg. The promise I had been given as a child was starting to come true.

Naturally, the Republicans hated all this Democratic success and had to vote in a bunch a guys to mess everything up. Newt Gingrich and his band of rowdies were unlike the staid conservatives I was used to. There was an edge to their rhetoric. A nastiness in their tone that mimicked the radio talk show hosts I had listened to. While I was toiling away at life, I hadn't noticed that the Republican party had changed. All the extremists whom the party had given lip service to in order to stay elected were now running for offices themselves. The party was shifting further right, but not just that. They were out to draw lines in the sand. This was no longer government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They wanted government of, by, and for a certain group of people and everyone else was going to pay.

The mood was disturbing, especially when the Republicans in Congress shut down the government in 1995. Still, the economy was strong. Clinton was tightening up the budgets. We were at peace. The country felt happy. I kept telling myself it was all going to work out.

In 2000, I had a better new car, a better house in a better neighborhood, and I was about to get married. Confidence oozed out of every pore for this grand new millennium. And then came the presidential election.

To be continued...