Thursday, September 13, 2018

Changing Names

There is a current trend that if a public monument or building is named after someone who we learn was actually a racist, that we should rename it after some more current "good" person.  San Francisco has renamed several streets and a couple of high schools on this basis, and it's related to the urge in parts of the southeastern U.S. to remove statues memorializing the Confederacy.

This is a mistake, and it's stupid.  Frankly, many of our ancestors (yes, I include mine) were racist, and bigoted.  This country was founded economically on racism - the rich economy of the Old South was based on the labor of African slaves, which was justified by a misreading of the Bible.  If you doubt me that it was based on the Bible, read the secession statements of several Confederate states, especially Texas, which make it brutally clear.  Further, this country was expanded on the backs of all the Native Americans we murdered, or gave syphilis or measles to (probably not deliberately); and the transcontinental railroad which tied the country together was built by immigrant Chinese laborers, whom we later prohibited from living here by the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I won't say the racism wasn't our ancestors' fault; I will say they came by it honestly.  Most of the original white settlers in the U.S. came from the British Isles - now the United Kingdom.  Before the 20th century (and for that matter during much of it), Europeans (including the British) honestly believed that people of color were generally inferior to the "white race;" there was a formal hierarchy of races, and some actually believed that they derived genetically from separate origins than white people (see Wikipedia on Scientific Racism, which says that scientific racism was only formally denounced, by UNESCO, after World War II).

So our bigoted ancestors were honored by naming things after them because during their time, bigotry was normal.  Why, then, is renaming buildings and taking down Confederate monuments a mistake?  The Confederate monuments, especially, represent the Old South's cry of victory in establishing the Jim Crow regime.  Why should we memorialize that?

All this renaming allows us to blind ourselves to where we came from.  It lets us pretend, as our schools largely do pretend to our children, that America is a wonderful place with opportunity for all, and that we wouldn't discriminate against anybody.

That is a lie.  America over its history has been a wonderful place with opportunity for some white men; in the beginning, only for white men who owned property.  Over the intervening two and a half centuries, we've gradually expanded the opportunities to other white men (poor men, Irish men, southern European men, Catholic men), to African slaves (Reconstruction tried to do that but was summarily squashed for another 50 years until the Civil Rights movement, see my comments about the Confederate monuments), eventually to the Chinese.  Oh, and to women, who slowly stopped being their husbands' property, and became able to own property themselves, but who couldn't vote until 1920.

If we let ourselves forget how nasty our forebears were, we risk falling back into the same ways.  If you don't know where you came from, how can you focus on where you want to go?  I've written before about tribalism (Hating the Other, Sept. 2010); I see racial bigotry as an outgrowth of tribal attitudes, where "the other" is a threat to the tribe's hunting grounds and other food sources, going back millennia, before agriculture.

We must remember that we have these tendencies, so we can fight to overcome them, especially in the midst of a major recurrence of bigotry and intolerance.  So we should leave Boalt Hall named after the man who backed the Chinese Exclusion Act, but also put up a plaque explaining about his racism.  (The linked article may be behind a paywall, but this one isn't.)  And we should leave up the Confederate monuments, but add a plaque explaining that they represent, not victory in the Civil War, but a successful movement to reduce the South's African-American residents to a state as close to actual slavery as possible.

If we are continually reminded of our bigoted past, we may some day be able to decide, collectively, that racism is a waste of time and energy.  Science tells us that there are no significant genetic differences among the races.  Do we really want to keep arguing about skin color??

Friday, August 24, 2018

Why Not?

I keep hearing and reading that the Justice Department policy is that they can't (won't?) indict a sitting president.  If you Google the subject, you see articles on all sides of the issue.  NPR, on All Things Considered, did a nice dispassionate summary of the situation on August 22.  If I read the interview correctly, there's nothing in the Constitution, and there are no laws, which say this.  It's a very interesting discussion and I recommend you read it before going on.

Ailsa Chang interviewed Philip Lacovara, a lawyer who was counsel to the special prosecutors who investigated Watergate. Yes, this issue was discussed at that time, and they concluded that there was no constitutional bar to indicting a sitting president; they just didn't do it. I was delighted to read that Mr. Lacovara agrees with my totally instinctive reaction to this position:  this is a huge load of baloney.

To assume that the President can't be indicted says that the President is - above the law.  What really bothers me is that Brent Kavanaugh, the current SCOTUS nominee, agrees with this position, which is called the "unitary executive theory."  Here's how Mr. Lacovara summarized it:
It's the notion that all law enforcement resides in the president and that everybody else in the executive branch, including prosecutors, is essentially irrelevant. And the president, therefore, would in effect be prosecuting himself. And they think that that's a bizarre conundrum which the Constitution shouldn't allow.
This theory says the President isn't subject to the laws.  King George III would probably have agreed with that.  I'm sure Donald Trump agrees with that.  But I think the faint screams you hear in the background are the Founding Fathers, ranting and raving from whatever afterlife they are in.  I don't think they agree with that.

I thought we were a nation of laws. I thought we had 3 branches of government so that each branch could act as a check on the other two (Congress, are you listening to me?).  Congress doesn't want to know; the Republican leadership has been turning their collective eyes so far away from the emerging evidence about Trump that their necks are about to break.

As far as I'm concerned, the President is not above the law; and Mr. Lacovara agrees with me.  Here's how he concluded the interview:
The whole purpose of the Revolution and our Constitution was to treat officials of our government as different from the royal in England. And I think they would be astonished at the notion today that the president is somehow immune from criminal prosecution if he violates the norms that apply to everyone else.
If you haven't talked to your representative about opposing Kavanaugh's confirmation, do it now.  And remember all this when you vote in November.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

E Pluribus Unum

Out of many, one.  This was the original motto of the United States, and has appeared on the Great Seal since 1792.  Wikipedia says,
"Never codified by law, E pluribus unum was considered a de facto motto of the United States[5] until 1956 when the United States Congress passed an act (H. J. Resolution 396), adopting "In God We Trust" as the official motto.[6]
Or, as I would have put it, until the McCarthyites panicked about the godless Commies in the 1950s and replaced it with In God We Trust, to prove that We were different from Them.  But the original motto of this country was, Out of many, one.

We've heard a lot lately about Russian interference with the 2016 election, and potentially with the 2018 midterms.  I've been reading a lot about this, particularly in Clint Watts' excellent book, Messing with the Enemy - Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News.  I recommend it.  It's clear that the Russians did hack the socks off the Democratic National Committee computers in 2016, and stole a whole load of emails.  The purpose of that was to leak the emails, via WikiLeaks, and to make the DNC, and Hillary Clinton, look bad.  It wasn't to directly affect anything the DNC was doing. 

The broader Russian propaganda effort, based on American-developed social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Google, was not to damage any particular candidate.  It was to cause dissension around all candidates, and around the process itself. The purpose was to turn Americans against each other, and maybe against democracy itself.  Russian agents set up fake accounts on all the platforms, and had both humans and bots creating multiple propaganda posts, aimed at making Americans more angry with each other.  Some of these posts were adapted from existing posts - America has plenty of angry people. The Russians intended to intensify the polarization, and they played both sides of the aisle.  They posted white supremacist rants; and they posted rants which seemed to come from Black Lives Matter; anything to make somebody angry.

You may have read that Facebook just took down a bunch of pages they thought were run by Russian operatives.  The CNN article I linked notes that one of the pages was an organizing site for a "No Unite the Right 2" march planned for Washington.  This appears to have been a genuine rally, planned in opposition to a white supremacist rally (also planned for Washington), and partly supported by Black Lives Matter.  Since Black Lives Matter is a very decentralized organization, it's relatively easy to appear to be speaking for them.  What this means is that Facebook is still learning how to spot the genuine bad actors.  May they learn quickly.  I know from personal experience that it's much easier to create a "fake" account on Facebook than they want to admit. 

Out of Many, One.  In many ways, the various waves of immigration over the last 2 centuries have in fact created a single America out of families whose ancestors originated everywhere else in the world. How many Americans do you know whose ancestors were German?  Russian?  Italian?  Greek?  Mexican?  Chinese?  Japanese? Korean?  Haitian?  Nigerian?  And the descendants all now speak American English and eat American food, and vote in American elections.  But some of these Americans are now challenged by other Americans - "you don't belong here."

We've become extremely polarized, at least partly due to Russian propaganda.  How do we back off of that?  Can we?  E Pluribus Unum is one of those phrases, like the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, which was not totally true even when originally published, but which slowly became more true than it had been over time - a goal or aspiration, rather than a statement of fact.  (See my post, I Miss the America I Thought I Knew.)  In the 2 World Wars, America was pretty united; since then, perhaps less so; it's much easier to be united when you have a clear and present enemy to fear. 

The enemy we should fear right now is Russia and its propaganda.  We need to question extreme social media posts, especially if they appeal to us - not only, "is this true?", but "who is saying this?"  Russia is no longer a Communist state; but it's still an enemy.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I Miss the America I Thought I Knew

As we get older and read more history, we learn that the story of the United States which we learned in school was, let us say, whitewashed.  The genocide of the original inhabitants, the appalling blot of slavery and the later development of Jim Crow, the hatred of almost every immigrant group which ever tried to come here (starting with the Germans who helped us win the Revolutionary War) - we learn all these things later. Yes, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, yes, we refused the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, yes, we incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans because they looked like the people who had attacked us; but we also accepted many other immigrants (including, by the way, my mother), and more recently accepted refugees from natural disasters and wars.  And I don't even include the fact that until the mid-20th century, women were legally inferior to men and couldn't vote or in some places even own property.

I was born after the second World War, and as I became an adolescent, the Civil Rights movement was going on; later, the feminist movement began and flourished, President Reagan allowed amnesty to the undocumented immigrants here at the time.  I've been troubled recently by the police wars on people of color, but I allowed myself to hope that over time we were becoming more civil to each other and more open to the world.

And no matter what Americans did historically , the language of the Declaration of Independence blazes across history like a torch:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Yes, I know the man who wrote that was a slave owner, who carried on an affair with one of his chattels, and that when he said "men" he meant property-owning white males.  I know that isn't what he meant.  But it's what he said.  And somehow over the intervening centuries, people of color have gained the vote, women have gained the vote, it became less socially acceptable to use certain words and do certain things, and even people who prefer to love others of the same sex have moved toward acceptance. I allowed myself to hope that we were moving closer to what Jefferson said, and might actually become the beacon of freedom he wrote about.

Since the 2016 presidential election that hope has died.  The 45th president has enabled and encouraged every form of bigoted, abusive behavior by his largely white, Christian supporters against everyone else.  We've reverted to a world in which people of color are publicly insulted and assaulted by white citizens, where women and people of non-standard sexual preference can be publicly attacked, where immigrants are regarded and attacked as evil animals.  We briefly separated children from their parents at the border, who came here for no worse reason than that they were fleeing danger in their own poorly governed countries.  We are at odds with our former allies.  We have begun a trade war, which could easily throw the entire world into another great depression - tariffs were what caused the first one.  And on top of all this, his people are systematically destroying all the protections against dishonest, rapacious, polluting big business which the country has built up over the last hundred years.

We elected a stupid, self-centered, ignorant and dishonest man, who is convinced that his "gut" is always correct and he doesn't need advice.  If this goes on much longer he will destroy us. He already thinks he'd like to be "president for life,"  which God forbid.  And Congress, which the founders meant to be a check on the president, licks his boots and does whatever he wants.  I didn't vote for him.  I will never vote for anyone who supports him.  But unless everyone who thinks like me rises up and votes to turn over control of Congress in the fall, we'll be stuck with him for 4 or possibly even 8 years.  By which time the America we thought we knew will be dead.

Is that what we want?  If it isn't, we'd better act.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Richard Spencer and Facebook

Last week Facebook removed Richard Spencer's pages.  The BBC reports that his personal page was removed, as were the pages for the National Policy Institute, an organization that favors a white ethnostate, and, his online magazine.  All of these are now gone from Facebook, probably as a result of Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before 2 Congressional committees.

Let me be perfectly clear.  I don't agree with Mr. Spencer.  His white supremacist views offend me.  It's also true that his Twitter and YouTube accounts are still there, and both the National Policy Institute and have active web sites.  He has plenty of access to free speech.  But he no longer has access to Facebook.  For some reason this bothers me.

I've posted before that if Nazis don't have free speech, I don't have free speech.  I think Mr. Spencer qualifies as a Nazi, at least in his racist views.  I suspect he was evicted from Facebook because of the bad publicity over the 2016 election, not to mention the riot in Charlottesville.  But when offensive speech is censored, it raises the question:  who decides what is offensive speech?  Also, who decides what platforms are and should be available for public speech? 

Removing these pages from Facebook reduces the size of his audience to the people who know how to find his platforms elsewhere; and there seem to be a lot of people these days who never leave Facebook.  This is a form of censorship.  Is that a good thing?

It's a hard question and I don't have an answer.  But I'm not sure I trust Mark Zuckerberg, if he was the one who made the decision, to be the guardian of free speech.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Numbers and the NRA

I've noticed the #BoycottNRA movement, which sprang up after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.  I've been surprised at some of the large companies which have chosen to cut ties with the NRA - to stop offering member discounts and branded credit cards, and in some cases to quit selling guns.  Not all companies are joining the boycott, of course.  But enough have done so that, according to the Economist, a backlash against the boycott is brewing among NRA supporters and conservatives.  So we face a war of boycotts.  Who will win?

To consider that, I want to look at some numbers.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau and the World Bank estimate the population of the U.S. in 2017 at 325.7 million people.
  • The NRA has 5 million members, by its own report.  That is .015% of the U.S. population. I'm sure it has non-member supporters but I haven't seen the numbers.
In February 2018, Time magazine reported on a Quinnipiac University poll on stricter gun control laws.  The article contains a link to the Quinnipiac polling site:
Sixty-six percent of respondents said they would support more stringent laws, while just 31% said they would not.
If you take that as representative of the U.S. population, and it was intended to be, that's quite a difference from the members who agree with the NRA.  Even among gun owners, "50% were in favor" of more stringent gun laws, and 44% were not.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The U.S. Post Office At Work

I want to share an experience I just had with the U.S. Post Office.

I'm a Kaiser Permanente patient with a much-too-long list of pills to take, and I happily use Kaiser's web page to order prescription renewals by mail.  I have a spreadsheet that reminds me when something needs renewing and gives me about 2 weeks lead time to order.  I rarely have to wait more than 3-4 days for my prescription to appear in my mailbox.  It's a very convenient system.

On Feb. 3, I reordered a prescription.  On Feb. 11, as I was doing my weekly pill reload, I realized that I was almost out of that pill, and that I hadn't received the refill.  Kaiser's site has a "track your order" link to, so I clicked on it to see what was going on.  This is what I found.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Sacred Duty

I didn't listen to 45's State of the Union address.  I've heard a couple of quotes from it, though, which disturbed me greatly.  Here's the first one:
All Americans deserve accountability and respect — and that is what we are giving them.  So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.
 So, he wants his department heads to be able to fire people at will.  This would take us back to the 19th century, before the Federal Civil Service was established in 1871.  At that period any government employee could be fired by the President for any reason, or no reason, at any time; and government employees were chosen for their political allegiance.  The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 and subsequent laws slowly changed the system to what we have today, where the majority of the U.S. federal work force is appointed based on merit, that is, qualifications measured by tests.