Monday, March 20, 2017

Living and Dying by Symbols

Picture in your mind the American Flag, a latin cross, Hitler, the Statue of Liberty, single moms in Detroit, the US Constitution, Robert Mapplethorpe and Big Bird. What do these disparate objects and people have in common? They're all powerful symbols whose images have been evoked by one or both sides in the debate over the current administration. As a picture is worth at least a thousand words, symbols affect us in visceral, and simplistic ways that reams of text never could. A picture of Donald Trump sporting a Hitler mustache is far more immediate than a thoughtful treatise on how the acts and methods of his administration, bring to mind the political situation in Germany in the 1930s.

Conjuring up an image with words is just as effective. Responding to the logic of cutting all funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the president's budget director Mick Mulvaney created some memorable imagery with this:
Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?
Pundits were quick to respond with vivid images of their own as this headline from the Washington Post attests:

Trump’s budget director understands that the poor prefer jet fighters to Big Bird


Both sides use symbolism to suit their own purposes, Think of Gold Star family Khzir and Ghazala Khan addressing the Democratic National Convention last August, standing in front of the official US Army portrait of their son Hunayun, who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq while protecting the lives of those in his charge. The Khans symbolized not only the diversity of the US, but especially the sacrifice of many of the immigrant groups disparaged by Donald Trump and his supporters.

For his part, Trump, in his many decades in the public eye did not project an image of patriotism and certainly never implied he believed in anything, other than himself. Yet during the last presidential campaign, he wrapped himself in the American flag so often you'd have thought he was auditioning for the lead role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. And it's likely that, with the possible exception of only his most steadfast supporters, most Americans saw right through the ruse of his "finding religion" during the campaign. The joke was that for his inauguration, Trump would use two bibles, one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, and the other, the Trump family bible, still in its original shrinkwrap. 

Perhaps the most successful symbol that Trump used to his advantage in his ascendancy to the presidency, was himself, who in the role as the "brilliant dealmaker-businessman", removed from the stagnation and corruption of politics as usual in Washington, was in a better position than anyone else to "fix" all the problems we face as a nation. Like his new found Christianity, rumors of his business acumen were greatly exaggerated. Yet tens of millions of Americans bought into that ruse, being more impressed by his ostentatious display of wealth and his name plastered on buildings all over the world, than his numerous bankruptcies, the lawsuits brought against him for fraud and other less than noble acts, and legions of former business partners and contractors once under his employ, who were stiffed by him. As the writer Fran Leibowitz quipped last fall: "Trump is a poor person's idea of a rich person."

In his new budget released last week, Trump and his staff have created a new and powerful symbol that may very well lead to their undoing, at least in the minds of a great many of his supporters. In his budget, Trump either eviscerated or flat out executed many governmental organizations that are close to the hearts of his opposition. Those organizations are responsible for funding many worthwhile, some (including me) would say essential activities such as the arts, the humanities, public broadcasting, scientific research, the list goes on and on. Also on the chopping block is the EPA which is responsible for making sure our water is safe to drink and our air is safe to breathe. In fact everything in this president's budget is being cut with the exception of the military, and funds to maintain the president and first lady's elaborate lifestyle. Even the State Department is facing drastic cuts, this administration's unequivocal announcement to the world that diplomacy in the Trump presidency is taking a back seat to saber rattling.

But no, none of these cuts I suspect will move any Trump supporters away from him. Nor will his well established relationship with Russia, his aversion to telling the truth to the American people, his insatiable appetite for making unfounded accusations against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, his utter contempt of the rule of law regarding his presidency, or his failed immigration bans. Heck even his repeal/replacement of Obamacare probably won't be felt by the majority of his supporters (who most likely will be the Americans hardest hit by their idol's new health plan), until after Trump is gone from office.

No, the symbolic monster that Trump's administration has unwittingly created is in the words of the web site Market Watch:
the elimination of the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant, which helps fund programs including Meals on Wheels, which deliver food (and human interaction) to elderly, disabled and poor recipients.
You could hear the collective groan all over the country: "He's cutting Meals on Wheels? Are you f-ing kidding me???"

It's important to point out here that Meals on Wheels and other essential services to our less fortunate fellow citizens, won't be wiped out altogether by these budget cuts. In explaining the cuts, the administration is claiming that they're going after...
...wasteful programs, duplicative programs, programs that simply don’t work, and a lot of those are in HUD,
Again in the words of words of Mulvaney in classic bureaucratese:
We’ve spent a lot of money on Housing and Urban Development over the last decades without a lot to show for it.
Now there may conceivably be some sense to this action; that people served by these programs may in fact be better served by a less top-down approach, but Mulvaney didn't make any case for that. Remember the power of symbolism, we're talking about taking away money spent to help poor, elderly people. Meanwhile the president and his wife continue to live their lavish lifestyle at the taxpayer's expense. We may be comparing apples to oranges here, but given the contrast between the Trumps and the vast majority of Americans, Mulvaney's words that there wasn't a lot to show for Meals on Wheels, other than providing meals and companionship for poor elderly people, may go down in history as one of the most clueless, arrogant, and insensitive remarks coming from a public figure since Marie Antoinette allegedly (but not likely) uttered the words: "let them eat cake."

Donald Trump has been riding a tremendous wave of good luck insofar as his ascendency to the presidency. In his campaign, every miscue, every idiotic comment, every unflattering revelation about his past, things that would or should have doomed any other candidacy, seemed only to embolden him, to make him stronger. Since he's been president, far bigger issues have come up and he so far has weathered the storm. But at this moment, exactly two months into his presidency, he has a lower approval rate than any president at this point in his administration.

His good luck can't go on forever. If the big stuff can't bring him down, perhaps it will be small acts of human kindness and generosity that he seems oblivious to that will. He and his supporters may relish the role of the defiant leader who goes to extraordinary lengths, bucking the establishment, political correctness, and even common sense, in order to fulfill his campaign promises to his supporters to make the country great again.

But hardly anyone will tolerate a piddly-shit miser denying our most vulnerable citizens food and companionship.

He may liken himself to Andrew Jackson, but symbolically he's looking more and more like Old Man Potter.

And nobody likes him.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

It may be legal, but is it right?

Our laws are not created equally. Some laws on the books are deeply rooted in our moral and ethical principles. Others exist for the protection of the public, while others still, exist for merely practical purposes. Some laws embody all three principals while others, only one or two.

Sometimes, one of those principles, contradicts another. This past February 19th, we marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, where two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the Secretary of War, the authority to establish...
...military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
The result of this order was the rounding up, forced relocation, and incarceration of tens of thousands of Americans, the majority of them US citizens, who traced their ancestry to the nations who were at war with US the time, namely, Germany, Italy, and Japan. While many German and Italian Americans were rounded up and incarcerated for the duration of the war, the vast majority of Americans who were affected by this order, were of Japanese ancestry.

Despite the fact that there was little or no question of their loyalty to the United States, for the stated purpose of national security, the entire west coast was declared off limits to Japanese Americans, which happened to be where most of them lived at the time. Persons with as little as 1/16th Japanese ancestry were rounded up, had their property confiscated, and were forced to move to inland government relocation (concentration) camps located in remote portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado Utah, Arizona,  and Arkansas. There, roughly 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent would remain under lock and key until Roosevelt suspended his executive order late in 1944.

Japanese American Grocery, Oakland, California, 1942.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
That same year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Executive Order 9066. In their ruling in the case known as Korematsu v. United States, the Court declared that as we were at war at the time, the president, whose power being conferred by Congress, indeed had the authority to "demand that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily." As it was not integral to the specific case presented, the court punted on the issue of the legality of the incarceration of 100,000 plus Japanese Americans without due process, on top of their relocation.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is truly a dark moment in US civil rights history. That fact was acknowledged years later as subsequent presidents rescinded the order (Gerald Ford), created committees to investigate the matter (Jimmy Carter), signed a piece of legislation, known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which authorized reparations payments to surviving internees, (Ronald Reagan), and actually presented payments and a formal apology (George H.W. Bush) to the survivors.

The shameful treatment of Americans of Japanese heritage, while it may at the time have been viewed as a necessary evil for the security of the homeland for two and one half years, turned out to have been a failure on all counts. From a practical and strategic standpoint, the displacement and imprisonment of over one hundred thousand people took up a massive amount of resources that could have been effectively used in the war effort. There is little or no evidence that Japanese Americans were any less patriotic than any of their fellow countrymen, or posed any threat to national security, which made the action utterly pointless.

Of course, both those arguments pail in comparison to the collapse of American moral and ethical principles that resulted in the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

I bring this up not to imply that the current administration's dealings with immigrants compares in its magnitude of transgressions to this tragic moment in American history, but only to illustrate that the laws our government makes, do not always reflect our moral values.

With that in mind, I question why opponents to the current president's first and second travel bans are arguing against them strictly on legal grounds. I understand that the fate of act two of his travel ban is ultimately in the hands of the courts, who themselves can only rule based upon the constitution and legal precedent. From my very limited understanding of the law, the president can legally impose restrictions upon certain groups of people for a limited period of time. In regards to the ban, Donald Trump did himself no favors during the campaign when he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States which in itself, is patently illegal. Those words have worked against him as his proposed ban of travelers from originally seven, now six predominantly Muslim nations, inevitably comes down the question of whether the ban is in fact a ban on people of a particular religious creed. The president insists the ban is not a religious ban, but he is constantly betrayed by his own words from the recent past.o's

I have no idea how the courts will rule on the new "and improved" ban, they could very well allow it on legal grounds, as would be their prerogative should they find no constitutional reason to rule against it.

But there are much deeper questions involved than legal ones. As I see it, there are no moral imperatives for immigration laws, they exist solely for practical reasons and to a lesser extent, public safely. Therefore the implementation and enforcement of such laws should be based upon honestly questioning their efficacy in achieving the goals set for them, a serious assessment regarding their costs vs. benefits, and most importantly, a heartfelt consideration of the moral implications of the actions. No law should be enforced simply for its own sake, and no action should be taken, just because it can be.

So to answer the issues I just presented one by one, no, I don't believe the travel ban currently on the books will make us safer. I firmly believe it will almost certainly alienate an ever growing number of the world's Muslims whose assistance we need to help us in the efforts to defeat groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, and who. regardless of statements to the contrary, will see the motivation of the order of the president to be a ban on Muslims. I can't imagine a greater recruitment tool for terrorist groups than Donald Trump. Singlehandedly he is doing all their hard work for them.

Secondly, I see the extremely broad scope of this ban to be the equivalent of performing an appendectomy with a chain saw. True, you may remove the offending organ, but you will also do tremendous damage to the rest of the body. Affected by this ban will be countless individuals who perform vital services to this country, such as doctors who serve in rural areas where native born MDs refuse to serve, as well as teachers, researchers, scientists and other essential professionals, not to mention tourists from all nations who are realizing that the United States is not the welcoming place it once was, and have already altered their travel plans.

Most important of all is the moral issue of refusing entry of refugees who are only hoping for a chance to live their lives in peace. These people have already gone through a rigorous vetting process in order to enter this country. I have no problem if the vetting process needs to be a little more rigorous as long as we can protect the safety of these people. But we do not want to repeat another shameful episode from World War II, the refusal of Jewish refugees from Germany who were ultimately sent back home to their deaths in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

As I mentioned in my last post, the administrations before this one were very conscious and pro-active regarding the varied issues regarding immigration. While unfortunate and even tragic occurrences have taken place in this country at the hands of people not from this country, with the exception of the events of September 11, 2001, none of them come close to what could be considered a national emergency, or a crisis that requires a drastic response. Despite what the president wants us to believe, home grown terrorism, criminal behavior, and general hooliganism are more prevalent issues today in the United States than "bad hombres" coming from abroad.

If we have learned anything from the 9/11 terrorists, it is that people intent on doing harm to the Unites States of America are smart, and very resourceful. Strongly motivated and resourceful adversaries will not be stopped by closing our borders to immigrants, they always will find ways to get in. To stop them we need help from our allies, especially those in the Muslim world who themselves are the greatest victims of the Islamic terrorists. The current president's decrees are nothing more than misguided attempts at a show of strength, directed at his base as proof that he is fulfilling campaign promises. Trump's saber rattling antics will do nothing to make us safer. On the contrary, the ill will generated from them will only intensify anti-American sentiments around the world and will serve as a launching pad for the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups.

Military leaders have made this perfectly clear but our president, who during the campaign, claimed "he knew more about stopping ISIS than the generals", apparently is not listening.  Teddy Roosevelt famously used the phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick", to describe his philosophy of foreign policy. It would appear that Donald Trump's philosophy is this: Bloviate as loud as possible and carry a limp biscuit. He is like a chess player who thinks you win the game by knocking over all the pieces.

I strongly believe that this president's draconian efforts to curtail illegal immigration, deport undocumented residents of long standing, prohibit travel into this country for people from specific countries, and severely limit the inflow of refugees from war torn nations, will do nothing to protect the safety of Americans. Rather, they are counterproductive, and have the very real potential of causing grave damage to this country. I believe that the costs, both in currency and far more important, in human lives, health, prosperity, not to mention our moral credibility, far outweigh the miniscule benefits.

His efforts may in the end may be ruled legal, but no way in hell are they right. 

Immigration Man

The core argument over immigration goes something like this:
Statement: This is a nation of immigrants. Remember, all of us, either we, or our ancestors, came from someplace else. 
Response: We're not against immigrants, as long as they are here legally.
In theory, that response makes perfect sense; this is a country of ample, but limited resources. Simply put, we do not have enough resources to accommodate everyone who wants to immigrate to the United States. Therefore, government makes laws regulating the number of people we allow into this country every year. And if we make those laws, it is incumbent upon us to enforce them, After all, it makes no sense to force people to jump through hoops and other obstacles to get into this country legally, while looking the other way for those who don't.

Unfortunately like most issues, reality is different from theory. The reality is that there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States at the moment. Approximately two thirds of them have been living here for ten years or longer. As a simply practical matter, the amount of effort and resources it would take to deport all those people would be staggering. Even more daunting is the ethical issue. Most of these people work, pay taxes, and contribute in other important ways to the communities in which they live. Many of them have children who were born in this country making them US citizens. Mass deportations of established residents would mean uprooting and separating many of these families, causing them and their communities tremendous hardship.

Ah you say but those people willingly came here knowing the risks of not playing by the rules; their suffering is not the fault of the US government, but their own. While there is some truth to this, the reality is that the US government has in fact rightly or wrongly looked the other way when illegal immigrants have proven beneficial to American industry and the economy. If you're all gung-ho about stricter immigration control, ask yourself this question: how would you feel about paying ten dollars for a head of lettuce, or for that matter, a similar exponential price increase for any product manufactured in the United States.

In other words, it's a complicated issue.

We wouldn't be talking about this at all, were it not for the current president who has put immigration at the top of his agenda. Last week he gave a speech to the American people before a joint session of Congress. As part of his "dog and pony show",  de rigueur for such proceedings, he dragged out no less than three relatives of people who were killed by illegal immigrants. What could be a better symbol of the "American carnage" he described at his inauguration, than law-breaking foreigners invading this country and killing our sons, daughters, wives and husbands? It's a tailor made issue for an ambitious politician, eliciting support by inciting fear and anger amongst would be constituents by creating an enemy that, even better, doesn't vote.

Not to diminish the pain and suffering of the victims' relatives, but again, the reality of the situation does not live up to the president's hyperbole. Statistics show time and again that immigrants, legal and otherwise, are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Which only makes sense when you think about it, most people move to this country in order to better their lives. Most of them truly want to be here, therefore are less likely to jeopardize their status, or blow their cover, by getting into trouble.

That is not to say that of those 11 million undocumented people, there aren't exceptions. As supporters of the current president love to point out for reasons only they understand. under the Obama administration, more people were deported from this country than under any previous administration. Most of those were apprehended either in close proximity to the US/Mexico border as they attempted to cross, or were convicted of crimes. In fact right now, there is a negative flow of immigrants between Mexico and the United States, as more Mexicans are returning home than entering the US. It might seem reasonable looking at those statistics to believe that the US government has indeed taken the problems of illegal immigration seriously all along, and that as far as stemming the tide of alien criminals coming into the country taking away opportunities from home-grown criminals, its efforts are working.

Yet in his infinite wisdom, our current president is not convinced, or at least wants the American people to not be convinced. In the words of one of his executive orders, many immigrants continue to "present a significant threat to national security and public safety”.

Therefore according to him. we still need to build a great wall (paid for by Mexico), intensify the rounding up and deportation of undocumented residents, impose a draconian travel ban on people from specific countries, and perhaps most cruel of all, severely limit into this country, the number of refugees fleeing countries where their lives are in jeopardy.

Now you may be reading this and thinking: "man this guy is completely out of touch. He has no idea what it's like to lose someone to a person who shouldn't be in this country." Well actually I do. Two years ago, my wife's cousin, the father of two boys, exactly the same ages as my children, was killed in a head on collision. The driver of the other car was drunk. He was pulled over by a state police officer for driving the wrong way on an interstate highway. He took off as the trooper approached his vehicle. When he hit my wife's cousin's car, he was reportedly traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. My wife's cousin was killed instantly and his wife was critically injured. Thankfully she survived, leaving her alone to care for her two fatherless children. 

Over and over again I've thought if only this undocumented, criminal jackass had been deported before he had the opportunity to commit homicide, a tragedy would have been averted and my wife's cousin would be alive today.

I'm guessing that had the authorities known what this guy was about to do, action could have, or at least should have been taken. Unfortunately, crystal balls are not very effective, and the drunk, homicidal driver, who may or may not have committed any other crimes in his life, slipped through the cracks. Three of his victims, the young widowed mother and my kids' cousins, could themselves have been guests of the president in the House of Representatives last week. The man who killed her husband and their father is a poster child for the anti-illegal-immigrant hysteria that has taken over this country.

Yes it's true, illegal aliens have killed American citizens. It's also true that other illegal aliens have done some pretty wonderful things during their stay in this country, no doubt they've even saved some lives. Had the good people been deported, who knows what would have been the outcome for the recipients of their good deeds. That's human beings for you, for every large group of them, you can be sure to find a few bad apples along with a few exceptionable ones, and a whole bunch of them who just like of the rest of us, are trying to get by, minding their own business.

One thing is certain, undocumented residents who have performed acts of charity, kindness, or heroism, will never be invited into the chambers of the House of Representatives during a presidential speech, at least not under this president's watch.

To be continued here.