Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Company We Keep

It has often been said that we are known by the company we keep. Over the years I have begrudgingly come to recognize a measure of truth in this admonition. Granted, one’s circle of associates, and who she/he attracts into their orbit, is only one element of our overall assessment of a person’s judgment and character. But it is a valid criterion to consider, especially in the case of individuals who reach a position of great power and influence.

Donald Trump came into his presidency promising to bring “the best people” into his administration to effect his change agenda, and to “drain the swamp” of self-serving government employees and lobbyists (ex-politicians and otherwise) enriching themselves and their patrons. Yet two years in, the opposite result has occurred. Too many high level positions have been filled by persons with minimal experience or qualifications. Or by people hostile to the mission of the agency they are directing. Too often, appointees have exercised questionable ethical, self-enriching, or arrogant abuse of the privileges of their office.

One demonstration of Trump’s “company that he keeps” is the revolving door of people who have come into his Administration, and the record-setting turnover of these appointees. Such turnover reflects negatively not only on the individual, but quantitatively calls into question Trump’s judgment and processes for assessing people’s abilities and appropriateness for their job. Given that any new jobholder needs four to six months to begin to get their feet on the ground, Trump’s turnover record contributes to the level of chaos and amateurism we have seen. We need only to look at the track record to affirm this:

·        Secretary of Defense: Mattis (resigned in policy protest) → Shanahan+ (acting).
·     National Security Advisor: Flynn* → McMaster → Bolton.
·        Attorney General: Sessions → Whittaker* (acting) → Barr (nominated).
·         Director of FBI: Comey → Wray.
·        Secretary of State: Tillerson Pompeo.
·        United Nations Ambassador: Haley → Navert (nominated).
·        Director, CIA: Pompeo → Haspec.
·        Secretary of Interior: Zinke* → Bernhardt+ (acting).
·        EPA Head: Pruitt* → Wheeler+ (acting).
·        Secretary for Veteran’s Affairs: Shulkin → Wilkie.
·        Secretary of Health & Human Services: Price*   Azar+. 
·        White House Chief of Staff: Priebus Kelly → Mulvaney (acting; split job)
·        Director, Office of Management and Budget:  Mulvaney (concurrently, split job).
·        Director, Office of Consumer Financial Protection: Cordray → Mulvaney (acting; split job) → Kraninger
·        White House Counsel: McGhan → Cipollone.
·        Communications Director: Miller → Spicer (acting) → Dubkje → Scaramuchi → Hicks → Shine.
·        Press Secretary: Spicer Sanders.
·        Secretaries under the gun: Commerce: Ross*; Homeland Security: Nielsen; Treasury: Mnuchin*.

+Former lobbyist from industry now being supervised.
*Under ethics &/or criminal investigation for misuse of office &/or budgetary funds, by FBI, &/or Inspector General, &/or Congress, &/or state Attorney(s) General.

The second demonstration of Trump’s “company that he keeps” is the number of his associates outside of his administration appointments who are now mired in legal proceedings. It is a number that is continually expanding, driven by Congressional and Special Counsel investigations into Russian interference in our 2016 elections, and FBI and/or state investigations into sidebar criminal activities.

·        Donald Trump – obstruction of justice, potential collusion with foreign interests
·        Donald Trump – Emoluments Clause violations (NY and MD investigations)
·        Trump Foundation – dissolved for misuse; potential civil &/or criminal charges for Trump &/or children (NY investigation)
·        Trump New York real estate –illegal billings to evade family taxes (NY investigation)
·        Immigration fraud at Trump’s golf courses (state-level investigations)·        Mike Flynn – National Security Advisor (pleaded guilty; cooperating)
·        Bijan Kian and Kamil Alptekin – Flynn business associates (foreign agents for Turkey)
·        Roger Stone – long-time Trump friend, Republican “dirty trickster” (lying, obstruction)
·        Michael Cohen – Trump personal attorney (pleaded guilty: cooperating)
·        Paul Manafort – Trump Campaign Chairman (convicted; cooperation agreement cancelled)
·        Rick Gates – Deputy Trump Campaign Chairman (pleaded guilty)
·        Maria Buttina – Russian unregistered agent; infiltrated NRA (pleaded guilty; cooperating)
·        George Papadopolous – Trump Campaign foreign policy advisor  (pleaded guilty)
·        David Pecker – National Inquirer publisher facilitated hush money paid (granted immunity)
·        Matthew Whittaker  – Acting Attorney General; under FBI investigation – business fraud
·        Allen Wessilberg – Trump Business Organization – VP-Finance (granted immunity)
·        30+ Various Russian military / government / intelligence officials indicted

·        Potential indictments likely to come: Trump Inauguration Committee; Don Jr. / Eric / Ivanka Trump; Jarod Kushner; Jerome Corsi (Roger Stone deputy); Julian Assange (Wikileaks); Paul Erickson (Maria Buttina’s American boyfriend); the NRA (money laundering Russian Trump campaign donations).

One’s personal character lives within one’s mind and heart, demonstrated by one’s words and actions. That internal character in turn attracts people with their own character definitions. When a distinctive pattern emerges involving multiple associates attached to one powerful player, it behooves us to look closely at what portrait emerges. Others may not define us. But the people we attract, and the company we keep, can certainly reflect the substance of who we are for all to see.

©   2019   Randy Bell     

Monday, January 7, 2019

Immigration Standoff & Shutdown

Once and for all: virtually no American is in favor of allowing would-be immigrants to enter America illegally. To suggest that a political party or group believes otherwise is simply political rhetoric, a lie, intended to divide the country and build some form of political advantage.

All immigrants seeking entry into the United States should follow a clearly defined process of rules and standard procedures. Where Americans do disagree is what measures should be in place to stop illegal immigration; how such awaiting immigrants should be humanely treated in the best spirit and traditions of America; how to be responsive to legitimate needs for granting asylum to people who are truly at risk for their lives; and how to meet the real demand that immigrants can fulfill as badly needed workers in our economy.

The solution to illegal immigration ultimately requires a package of coordinated efforts. There is no 1-shot “silver bullet” to solve this. Engaging in political stunts accomplishes nothing substantive (e.g. sending thousands of American troops – at a cost of over $200M – to camp out in Tucson, AZ – 60 miles north of the Mexican border – to provide  “backup support” to Border Patrol agents). Denigrating the nature and character of the immigrants knocking at our door, and lying about their supposed affiliations and circumstances, is of no help either. We will never figure out how to respond to any problem when we do not fully and accurately know who and what the problem truly is.

Donald Trump’s proposed “beautiful Wall” is an ineffective, expensive, and ultimately wasteful solution to the problem at the border. The principal audience that the Wall will benefit is the contractors who will get the contracts to build it. History is littered with the fallacy of defensive walls. The Great Wall of China virtually bankrupted sequential Chinese emperors seeking to build and maintain it, even as it ultimately failed to keep out invaders as was intended. Similarly, the Maginot Line in France proved to be false security as it failed to keep the Nazis out at the beginning of World War II. Russia’s “Iron Curtain” failed to keep Eastern Europeans inside their borders, and also ultimately failed.

In 2016 Trump promised his voters that he would build a Wall to protect us from “illegal immigrant invaders,” and all the “murderers, rapists, and gang members” (and subsequently including “diseased) supposedly (but not proven) found among them. He also promised Americans that Mexico would pay for that Wall; it would cost the taxpayer nothing. It was a package deal, an interdependent, two-part promise. The currently requested $5B is only a down payment towards a projected $30B cost. When Trump now opts to put it all on our credit card rather than Mexico’s, we certainly have a right to rethink this deal and consider better uses for our hard-earned money. Since he has already broken his promise to taxpayers and made the Wall our expense, we should therefore let him off the hook for not building the Wall.

If we are to be outraged at Trump’s broken promises, it should be about his lying to us that Mexico would pay for building the Wall, rather than about the Wall not being built. Therefore, I refuse to follow the President into an endless black hole / money pit to fix only one half of his broken promise. It is not my job to pick up after him and clean up the mess of his own making.

Today we are mired in the continual political and racial finger-pointing of blame, falsely portraying the nature of the people sitting at the border (or in detention camps, with families broken up and scattered across the country), and shutting down many government operations while we argue over a fraction of our 2019 national budget – a budget already four months overdue. Donald Trump stated publicly that he would be “proud to shut down the government” over his Wall, and would “take full responsibility for [the shutdown] and not blame the Democrats.” True to form, within days he reversed course and now incessantly totally blames the Democrats for the shutdown. Meanwhile, Republican representatives and senators sit on the sidelines, trusting nothing Trump says, while waiting for him to genuinely commit to whatever deal he ultimately strikes.

Instead of this wasteful rhetoric, we need to spend our time, energy, and money on finding and adequately funding real comprehensive solutions to this continuing issue. Expanding the size of our Border Patrol force; providing a variety of technology tools to identify and stop illegal immigrants at the point of entry; hiring sufficient immigration lawyers and judges to process immigration applications quickly, effectively, while judicially appropriately; providing adequate humane and sanitary facilities to house those detained and in process; identifying those immigrants who can successfully contribute to American society and our economy, and facilitate their entry, relocation, and assimilation.

In the meantime, we can also still retain our compassion for why these people are at our doorstep in the first place. Many are seeking to escape lives whose circumstances we cannot begin to fathom, circumstances that have driven them to undertake an almost impossible mission of extraordinary hardship. Their situation does not give them a free pass, but being compassionate while still applying an orderly process does not have to be an either/or choice. We are better and more creative than that. Our American values and immigrant traditions demand that we make the extra effort on our part. We need not fear the danger of an eight year old child knocking on our door.

©   2019   Randy Bell     

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Violence Of Political Hate

I am a survivor of the 1960s. “Survivor” may seem a questionable descriptor. But when I look back to those times, it seems appropriate. The 1960s changed everyone who passed through those times and events, even if with different outcomes. Some came away with their existing thinking reinforced and hardened. Others came away with wholly new views and perspectives than before. Everyone encountered a picture of America not seen before; all were confused about what was going on, their role in it, and where the country and its citizens were heading.

Perspectives were shaped differently by age, economic status, educational levels, cultural and racial identity, and geography. The Civil Rights movement of African-Americans said that 100 years of continuing de facto slavery, segregation, and 2nd-class status was a long enough wait; it was time for the promise of equality to be realized. The positive changes that gradually emerged, albeit all hard fought, inspired similar movements from other “left outs,” including women, Native-Americans, LBGTs, the disabled. Social structures and codes of conduct were thereby turned upside down, done in such a relatively short time period that it precluded easy assimilation. Humans can only absorb so much change per unit of time. The 1960s were a fast track of change.

Fear is a byproduct of “too-much-change” and/or “too speedy change.” We worried whether we could keep up with it all – so much new thinking was coming at us so fast – or whether our social order would survive (or even should it?). Is the government on “our side” or “their side?” Would the “new freedoms” take us to a new Shangri-La of equality and fulfillment, or destroy the communal ties that had bound us together? Some looked to follow the new change agents to places heretofore unknown; others looked to follow the defenders of the already known.

Perhaps inevitably, violent actions in support of both change and the status quo became the tool of protest against these times. The television cameras displayed into our homes the images and sounds of mobs shouting hateful epithets towards black children simply trying to go to school to get an equal education. They showed us live in real time the dogs and state police in Alabama wildly attacking black marchers claiming the equal right to vote without obstructions. They documented the burnt-out Freedom Buses which almost consumed their passengers in flames.

Ultimately but unsurprisingly in this climate of violence exposed for all to see, America crossed a line. Political assassination became an all-too-frequent mechanism of resistance. Three little black girls in a church basement were bombed into oblivion. Black leaders Malcom X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot and  killed.  John and Robert Kennedy – who, along with Dwight Eisenhower, were the first to deploy the power of federal judicial and law enforcement to protect the safety of citizen protesters instead of established business and political leaders – were killed. Three voting rights activists trying to register new black voters were kidnapped one night, murdered and buried in an earthen dam.

Viet Nam, of course, accelerated the crumbling of the existing social order in the second half of the 1960s. Over 50,000 young men would pay for this ultimate violence with their lives, given for a war that should never have been fought, done to protect political lies and their cover-up – a terrible price to pay. Television again brought the sounds and images into our homes on a daily basis. When the anti-war / anti-establishment groups began their counteractions, television was right there again at the ’68 Democratic convention, and the Pentagon and Capitol steps.

This was the violent reality of our time. One turned on his/her TV with caution. The desire for escapist entertainment would all too likely be superseded by yet another breaking news update. “We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement” became the most dreaded phrase coming out of our sets. We wondered, “What now?”

We asked, “How could this be happening – in America?” “How and when does it stop?” We wondered, “Where are the leaders who can end this deadly chaos and get us back on track?” Would-be leaders of course did present themselves: “Law and Order” candidates carried the day as often happens in times of extensive social upheaval. Governor George Wallace of Alabama (he of “segregation now, segregation forever”) garnered 14% of the vote (2nd-most in history) as a 3rd-party candidate for president in 1968; Richard Nixon was carried into the White House.

Ending 1968, we had a cautious hope for change in direction, for ending the war and domestic violence, and a move toward reconciliation. But the social and anti-war issues were ignored while “Order” became the priority. It would take six more years before the country would finally settle down and find its bearings again. Wallace was shot in 1972 and disappeared from the political scene; Nixon got swallowed up and spit out in his Watergate scandal. The Viet Nam war finally ended. Enough finally became enough. The nation’s deep wounds gradually healed thanks to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But our blind faith in government was shattered, yet to return as of this day.

2018 marks 50 years since Richard Nixon’s election. The parallels between then and now abound. We are surrounded by racial and other senseless violence, for which only equally senseless “solutions” are offered. Killing is daily; mass killings occur regularly; outward animosity towards one another has become our “new normal.” Alongside our TVs, we now have cell phone and body camera videos documenting events in real-time, confronting our eyes, ears and opinions. Social media incessantly communicates unsocial insults, bigotry and falsehoods. Lies and/or silence from our leaders inflame the ugliness; calls for civility in speech and conduct go unanswered in favor of stoking the cultural antagonisms rather than soothing them. There seems no bottom to this barrel of negativity. Thankfully, good news stories, and reports of our humanity and magnanimity to one another, occasionally penetrate the noise. These keep us going forward each day and after difficult day.

As 2018 ends, 50 years after the pivotal events of 1968, we find ourselves asking ourselves once again, when will our continuing violence against each other finally become enough? In this season of faith and new year beginnings, we once again hold out cautious hope that ending our current pervasive climate of hate can move from being merely lip service to truly become our first national priority. That – in spite of our differences, in fact to honor those differences – we can commit to that great teaching that transcends all cultures and religions: to Love Our Neighbor.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Barricades Blocking The Ballot Box

In the years between 1776 and 1789, our political ancestors accomplished two significant revolutions. The first was a military revolution securing our independence. The second was a governance revolution that established that people had a right to govern themselves through elected representatives. This new government would be a republic, based upon the will of the people as expressed by their periodic vote. Therefore, voting is the fundamental definition, and the basis for the existence, of our republic. When a qualified voter is hampered, the authority and very basis of the country is lost. So our moral and civic imperative is to take every possible step to ensure that each eligible voter is able to vote in as simple and accessible a manner as possible. Unfortunately, all too frequently that has not been the case, as the rules and mechanisms for voting have been skewed for political advantage on behalf of one political candidate, party, or societal group – including in the 2018 election.

The rules and responsibilities for voting are a “layered” responsibility, distributed yet interconnected among federal, state, county and local governments. The federal government establishes the qualifications for elected federal officials, and it establishes the definitions and processes for U.S. citizenship – a mandatory status across the country for voting (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, section 8). The Constitution also mandates that each State similarly use a republican form of government (Article 4, Section 4).

Beyond these basics, the federal government generally defers voting decisions and mechanisms to the states, and whoever is an eligible voter for state offices is also an eligible federal voter. In the beginning of the Republic, most states limited voter eligibility to white, adult, property-owning males. The “property-owning” requirement was ultimately dropped, but the other criteria were kept; federal amendments subsequently expanded access and made it more consistent:

-14th Amendment, 1868: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States  … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State may … deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

“The right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied …”: “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” -15th Amendment, 1870; “on account of sex” -19th Amendment, 1920; “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax” -24th Amendment, 1964; [for 18 or older] “on account of age” -26th Amendment, 1971.

Within these overriding federal requirements, voting processes are carried out in the individual states as they see fit. Typically, the state legislature sets some ground rules, and divides the state into federal and state districts for elective offices. The state Secretary of State, usually through a state-level Board of Elections, oversees the state-wide mechanisms and timeframes for voting, and certifies the official ballot. County &/or local election Boards register voters, organize the precincts – including determination of voting sites and the technology(ies) to be used – and conduct the actual voting and counting. This pyramidal hierarchy allows for desirable flexible and discretionary decision-making across the levels, but opens the door to inequities, rogue actions, and a diffusion of responsibility. This has certainly been the case in Election 2018.

Gerrymandering Political Districts: Political districts are defined every ten years by state legislators who have a conflict-of-self-interest in drawing these maps to favor their own voters. This practice has been going on for over 200 years, but has reached its zenith over the past decade. It is one of the greatest current threats to our democracy, and requires a separate essay on its own to discuss fully. Suffice it to say that my adopted state of North Carolina has become a poster child for what is wrong. District maps look like a Salvador Dali painting; cities, college campuses, even city streets are inexplicably divided to break up concentrations of similar voters; Congressional seat outcomes by party have no proportional relationship to total votes cast (1,748,173 Democratic votes – 51.5% of the total – elected 3 seats – 23%; 1,643,790 Republican votes – 49.5% – elected 10 seats – 77%). Federal and state judicial rulings have overturned district lines drawn, but issued too late to be applied to the 2018 election. It has been a decade long fight wasting millions of dollars. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Wisconsin.

Voter Fraud: Claims of illegal voters and massive voter fraud have been made without evidence. According to studies by Arizona State University and The Brennan Center, cases of voter impersonation were .0003% to .0025% of votes cast in 2012-2016. (“One is more likely to be struck by lightning than represent another at the polls.”) Only a handful of voter fraud cases have been successfully  prosecuted. In 2016, almost all state Secretaries of State denied any substantive problem exists. Donald Trump’s special commission to investigate this “problem” disbanded due to a lack of interest and substantiation. A non-problem needs no “solution.”

Voter ID: These days we have to show a picture ID to conduct many daily services, so showing an ID when voting can seem reasonable. But as usual, the devil is in the details. What will constitute a valid form of ID? A driver’s license (not everyone drives); a college ID; a hunting license; a special state-created ID (how do you widely distribute and pay for those without it being a new poll tax)? States are inconsistent on this question, and the answer often smacks of favoring the lifestyle of favored voters (e.g. in Texas: hunting license-yes; college ID-no). Finally, how does a state philosophically reconcile requiring an ID to vote when such cannot be required for mail-in and absentee ballots? Theory and practice collide.

Voter Registration: In 2018, the Georgia Secretary of State was also the Republican nominee for governor in a tight race against an African-American female Democratic candidate. As Secretary of State, he sat on and suppressed over 50,000 new voter registration forms – 70% from black constituents – refusing to process or respond to them. An additional 3000 registrations were set aside due to a new “exact match” rule. The judiciary overruled him on this blatant conflict of interest and demanded that these forms and ballots be processed. (His last-minute charge – without proof – that the state Democratic Party hacked the Georgia voter database was appropriately widely derided.) 

Dirty Tricks-1: Kansas also had a Secretary of State that was the Republican nominee for governor. (He was the same individual that Trump picked to chair the now-defunct voter fraud commission.) Dodge City is an Hispanic-majority city. The local County Clerk shut down the ONE central voting site – the Civic Center – that had previously served all 13,000 voters. (The average for Kansas is one site for every 1300 voters!) Claiming that the original site was “inaccessible due to construction work,” she then moved the site outside the city limits to a place one mile from the nearest bus stop. A judge agreed with the lawsuit filed to reverse this action, but ruled that it was “too late to change it without causing even more disruption.” (In fact, there was no construction happening at the Civic Center.)

Dirty Tricks-2: North Dakota’s small population includes a substantial number of Native-Americans living on reservations, and who were the margin of victory for a Democratic Senator elected in 2012. It is the only state that does not conduct an advance voter registration. At the last minute, the Republican-dominated Board of Elections instituted a rule that voters show an ID that included the specific street number of their address – even though the reservations do not assign such to their residents – affecting around 5,000 potential voters. Once again, a judge agreed with the lawsuit filed to reverse this action, but ruled that it was “too late to change it without causing even more disruption.”

Voting machines changing people’s votes in Florida and Texas; reducing the number of polling sites and/or the days of early voting; long lines and inoperable voting machines. All are examples of barriers instituted to affect either one’s right to vote, or the ability to access and express that vote. It is said that when you cannot win on the strength of your position or your argument, then simply change the rules in order to win. We clearly have politicians more than willing to change those rules to win at any price.

We have had 200 years of suppression and barriers to voting in America, most invented during our slavery period or the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Many of us thought such nefarious activities were now behind us in favor of inclusiveness and fairness. Instead, it appears that we still have a way to go. When we undercut voting, we undermine democracy itself. Voter suppression, in its myriad forms, is a real occurrence and genuine issue facing us today. With that understanding, we should begin preparing now for Election 2020.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Call To Vote

For the past two months, I have been traveling around giving a series of presentations to various audiences based on my latest book “Conversations With America.” The book is a collection of essays drawn from the eleven years of this social commentary blog site. But the essence of my in-person presentation is our need to start a different kind of national conversation than what is occurring today. It is a call to stop just arguing with each other in tirades that accomplish little to nothing, but instead to start truly listening to what each other has to say in order to find a new common ground that we can build upon. While the current tour has been a forum for me to share some thoughts with others, it has also been a wonderful opportunity to listen to the diverse questions and thoughtful comments people have shared with me in return. (See the schedule of these events on the “Program Offerings” tab at This direct input has also been supplemented by listening to interviews by thoughtful journalists with people across the political spectrum, as well as discreetly overhearing conversations in restaurants, stores, and other locales among everyday people living everyday lives.

The biggest takeaway to date is how concerned, and truly engaged, our citizenry is in the current social / political landscape. Regardless of which “side” one is on, this is an engagement fueled by frustration; anger; distaste over our political style, language and process; a feeling of powerlessness over decisions and events; a distrust of our neighbors; and a sense that our America has lost its way. Simultaneously with this sense of engagement, many are also worn out from the daily non-stop headlines coming out of Washington, D.C. that swamp time for local and personal life priorities. A time of quiet for all seems badly needed.

The last eight years have been a brutal assault on our nation’s ability to conduct a civil discourse among ourselves, find shared solutions across divergent opinions, and identify some common goals that we can wrap our arms around together. While a given individual may feel that s/he has “won” an occasional battle or achieved a particular objective, those brief moments of victory yield only a fleeting moment of satisfaction as the country quickly moves on to the next headline, the next battle. We spend little genuine time thinking and planning in-depth for how to work with and resolve our national issues. Instead, we make a cursory, quick decision, check it off as “done,” and hurry on to the next item calling for attention. The result is that our issues either come back on our plate to be readdressed once again, or our short-sightedness causes a whole new set of unforeseen domino problems. (Witness the continuing minefield of our legal and illegal immigration issues.) The dog is so busy chasing his tail for the appearance of momentum, he can’t see the steak bone lying just outside his view.

After the last two years of this political meandering, we now have the opportunity for the American people to pause this merry-go-round, assess where we are, determine where we want to go, and communicate these decisions back to our “leaders.” Our next Election Day in America is November 6th, 2018. They call this an “off-year” election because there are no presidential candidates on the ballot. But our current President’s words and actions are very much on the ballot in absentia, as well as the aspirations of those would like to take his place in 2020; that is the special purpose of each off-year election. Through our votes for the entire U.S. House of Representatives seats, and 1/3rd of the Senate, we fill out the national report card for how our leaders are doing, and thereby how we ourselves are doing. Given that we have been pulled apart in two diametrically opposite directions these past two years, that report card, that directional signal, is more important than ever before.

People need to vote. Whatever our political opinions, whatever our personal grievances, they need to be expressed at the ballot box – the place, the action, the voice that speaks the loudest and is the most effective. We need to take stock not just of our politics, but of ourselves. After all of the discordant speeches, the rallies, the letter-writing, voting takes the temperature of the times and reports back to all of us as to where we collectively stand – for better or for worse. As a country, where we have been standing thus far is with each foot firmly planted on separate pathways. In that configuration, it is hard to walk forward in any direction.

In 2014, our previous off-year election, just over 1/3rd of registered voters voted. It was the worst off-year voter turnout since WWII. Mathematically, the priorities and future direction of the country were then determinable by only 18% or more of voters (even less of a percentage of eligible voters!) – a pitiful minority of the citizenry. This is not how democracy is supposed to work. This is not meeting our civic obligation. This is not giving needed counsel to our government about where we collectively seek to go. This is not honoring the right and privilege of voting that our ancestors marched, fought, and died for.

On November 6th, please Vote. Each of us needs to be heard from. The future course of your life, and the fate of your aspirations, may very well depend on it.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Professor And The Judge

In the fast-moving matter of Christine Blasey Ford v. Brett Kavanaugh in the courtroom of public opinion … For the benefit of our exhausted, battered country, may I suggest that it would behoove us all to inhale a deep breath, take a big step back, and all get down off of our respective soap boxes on the opinionated sidelines of this divide. Our knee-jerk instinct is either: pronouncing Judge Kavanaugh guilty of being a dangerously evil predator rapist while proclaiming the sainthood of Professor Ford’s timely story; or conversely affirming Judge Kavanaugh to be a pillar of model character while judging Professor Ford to be a seeker of headline publicity regarding a decades-old fabricated story. Neither premature opinion is helpful to anyone.

Currently, we are all spectators and speculators to this controversy, at best. An objective and impartial investigation is clearly needed. It should be expeditiously effected, but without artificial time deadlines that would cast doubt on the perception of fairness, thereby tainting the Court for years to come. A responsive process is hopefully being set up, ideally with that rarest of things – bipartisan political support – guiding that effort non-politically (versus the painful Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas politicized confrontation of 1991). We need to give such a process a chance to work, and let the details of these conflicting stories be sorted out one step at a time, without prejudice. And then we can draw our conclusions when and as appropriate, such conclusions likely to be difficult to come by. That is (or used to be) the American Way.

And to the men seeking to engage in this conversation, I urge particular caution. In my blog essay “Perspective on Sexual Assault” (“” dated 10/15/2016), I talked about how we males have minimal comprehension or comparative insight on this topic as it lives endlessly in a woman’s world. Few of us ever experience a sexual assault; few carry the lifetime wounds, isolation and powerlessness that arise from such events; few have to continually live within necessary and forced boundaries of conduct for one’s physical and mental protection. So we would do better to avoid more stupid comments about what we would have done, or what any woman should have done, in such instances. These situations are barely on our radar, or life experience, for understanding.

It should come as no surprise that a process that started from a fully political basis should now be ending as a painfully political exercise.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Friday, August 31, 2018

Taking A Knee

America is fortunate to have a rich portfolio of icons and rituals that help remind us of our past, and connect with each other in the present. As fixed as these things are in our mind, we sometimes forget that these have their own history, have changed in format and usage, and are more tradition than rigid civic dogma.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved that the national flag of the United States include thirteen stripes, alternately red and white; with thirteen stars, white in a blue field, “representing a new constellation.” Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. Initially, the specific layout of the flag was up to each flag maker. Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag which became the basis for all subsequent official designs. (There is no documented evidence to the mythology that Betsey Ross made the first flag as requested by George Washington.) On April 4, 1818, Congress determined that a new star would continue to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes was fixed at 13 to honor the original 13 American colonies.

The song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was the primary patriotic song during our Revolutionary War. But in 1813, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem commemorating the defense of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore from British bombardment. His brother-in-law used the poem as lyrics to a song by English composer John Stafford Smith. That poem and song became known as “The Star Spangled Banner.” In 1899, the US Navy officially adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at military and other appropriate occasions. In 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars started a petition to officially recognize the song as the national anthem; five million people signed the petition. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill officially adopting "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem – in spite of concerns about the song’s “singability.” 

A Pledge of Allegiance was first composed in 1887 by Civil War veteran George Thatcher Balch, a teacher of patriotism in New York City schools. Balch's pledge was embraced by many schools, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and by the Grand Army of the Republic. The basis for the Pledge we use today was composed in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian Socialist. Bellamy’s Pledge was first published in the children's magazine The Youth Companion. A Columbus Day event honoring the flag was promoted by James Upham, a marketer for the magazine, and endorsed by the National Education Association. In June 1892, Congress and President Benjamin Harrison decreed that a flag ceremony and the new Pledge be the center of forthcoming October 12 Columbus Day 400th anniversary celebrations in public schools.

In 1923, a National Flag Conference of 68 organizations came together and created The United States Flag Code that established rules for display and care of the flag. This Code is a U.S. federal law, but the penalty for failure to comply is rarely enforced. That same Conference further called for the universal adoption of a modified Bellamy pledge. Congress officially recognized this Pledge on June 22, 1942 during WW II, but eliminated the “Bellamy salute” form of salute to the Flag. It was too similar to the Hitler salute that had developed in Nazi Germany, so the American salute was change to the current hand-over-the-heart position. The rules for saluting the flag are also codified in the United States Flag Code.

These icons and rituals, and their place in American life, has continually evolved over time. The playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh inning stretch  of Game One of the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs is often cited as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game. The tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began in World War II as part of promoting patriotism for the war effort.

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (“West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette”) that requiring the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. West Virginia had passed legislation requiring all students to perform the Pledge and Flag salute. Parents contended that the law infringed upon their religious beliefs, which they said required them not to engage in these secular practices. The Court stated that the key issues were the principles of freedom of thought and government by consent. The ruling declared that "no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

In 1951, in the height of the Cold War / anti-Communist fervor, the Knights of Columbus Catholic organization began to include the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The movement spread; Congress amended the Pledge accordingly;  President Eisenhower signed the bill on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (“United States v. Eichman”) that prohibiting the burning the flag conflicts with the 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech and is unconstitutional. In 2008, wearing a flag lapel pin became a de facto requirement for all politicians, lest one be accused of not adequately demonstrate their patriotism in their campaigns. We now have Facebook postings calling for reciting the Pledge in classrooms (along with prayers from some never-defined religious source).

Why is this history and background important? Because when we begin to fight with each other about their use, and make them controversial merely for political manipulation and partisan gain, we need to remember how we came to these symbols in the first place. I grew up saying the Pledge every day in grade school. I doubt I suffered any damage from doing so. I am also not sure it made me any more American, because there was never any context given around that rote ritual. I suspect our current young people will turn out fine either way.

The kneeling before NFL games is a little trickier an issue, and has created much emotional controversy. This act of protest begun by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 was never about disrespecting our flag or our military – until Donald Trump inappropriately and incorrectly claimed it was. Rather, the kneeling was specifically to protest excessive police violence targeted toward African-American communities. One can choose to be on either side of that debate, but statistically and anecdotally it is a perfectly proper subject for attention and discussion.

Yes, a case can be made that an athlete’s right of free speech – if not obligation – entitles him/her to speak out on important social issues. However, such speech may legitimately be subject to timing and appropriateness. On game day, each player is an employee of a corporation. For any of us, “on company time and using employer resources” can be reasonable limitations to our right of free speech, requiring us to exercise our Free Speech Right in a more “public” venue on our own time. Then again, we might question why the National Anthem is being played at all at a for-profit commercial event – where the NFL charges our military for displaying its honor guard for the “presentation of the colors,” and where sports team owners seek to conflate sports with Americanism, and fandom with patriotism (e.g. “America’s pastime”).

The right of protest is fundamental to our American heritage, starting with the Boston Tea Party, the Stamp Act boycotts, and our Revolution itself. Protesting using our symbols of Americana as a focus may make us uncomfortable, but protests are about confronting uncomfortable truths. From that vantage point, kneeling to the music of our National Anthem, or abstaining from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, does not disdain our flag, military or country. In fact, it celebrates the gift from our military that protects our right, our Constitutional freedom, to redress our government and our Country for their shortcomings.

The kneeling issue, and the surrounding protests of the protests, call upon each of us to express our patriotism from a more personal and generous place within. We should not merely be puppets on a politician’s strings, letting ourselves be emotionally and intellectually manipulated in support of a false patriotism. We created our American icons and rituals by our choices. It behooves us not to let ourselves become captured nor ruled by them.

©   2018   Randy Bell