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   

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Campaign Lessons From Donald & Hillary

Remember the Election Days of the past? After months of campaigning, accusations and speeches, people would show up at polling sites and make their decisions on leaders and issues. On that particular Tuesday in November, we said, “we have spoken; we have decided; let us move forward.” For better or worse, we went about governing anew.

Not so with Election 2016. Almost two years later, that election is still going on unendingly. The declared winner – Donald Trump – cannot seem to accept his victory. He continues to attack Hillary Clinton (“lock her up”) and accuse her of all kinds of (disproven) misdeeds. Illegal  interference in the campaign by Russia on his behalf, charges of collusion in that interference, plus the loss of the popular vote count, has paralyzed him into a constant campaign to legitimize his victory. He is the President that cannot stop being the candidate.

Similarly with Clinton. She wrote her obligatory book “What Happened,” even though she appears to not know. She has her laundry list of evil doers who sabotaged her: James Comey’s FBI pronouncements; the Russian hack of Democratic servers; lack of full support from the Bernie Sanders Democrats and the Obama coalition turnout. Clinton continues to complain about “it was other people’s fault.” Trump continues to complain “I don’t get credit for winning.” Actually, the 2016 election turned on several fundamental issues:

1. Both candidates were highly unpopular. Going in, Trump had the highest unfavorability rating in modern history. But Clinton was not far behind him. It resulted in a significant “lesser of two evils” decision by many voters.

2. 2016 was a “change” election. Approval ratings for Congress and both political parties are depressingly low. More Americans now designate themselves “Independent” than either political party. Most Americans are frustrated and angry, and feel that government – federal, state, and local – is not working for them. Many of them were hungry for something different – radically different. Trump’s campaign was built on top of Congressional ineffectiveness.

3. The internal fabric of the country has been changing quickly and dramatically. Economic wealth is not flowing fairly to all Americans; more wealth is moving to the top of the income scale, while middle-class income stagnates. Unemployment rates are low, but many workers have been forced into lower-paying jobs, and a cross-section of “old technology” jobs are disappearing with no alternative employment in sight. “Traditional Values” Americans feel threatened by a rapidly changing national demographic profile and social structure, changes supposedly preventing them from enjoying their personal lifestyle, freedoms and beliefs. (Ironically, many of these same Americans do not recognize that millions of “other” citizens have felt unaccepted by these Americans, and unable to live their life fully, for generations).

4. Against this electoral backdrop, Trump was the new political face, the outsider, who promised to change America’s direction and resolve the ignored grievances. Clinton was the old face, the continuation of the “more of the same” status quo. Trump may have been an inexperienced, reckless, morally-questionable candidate. But given how entrenched the established political structure was, an even bigger shake-up force was needed. Clinton was not seen as that force. Trump was, so many voters decided to take the risk. Besides, how much damage could he do?

5. Clinton took her constituency (and the election) for granted and played only to her Party’s left wing. She built her campaign on simply running against Trump and his character issues and outrageousness. She never spoke to the genuine concerns of those who were hurting and frustrated – many of whom were not “incorrigible,” racist or anti-American. Trump identified those hurts, spoke to these angers and frustrations, articulated the dissatisfaction with ineffective government, and exploited these fully (if not shamefully). Clinton painted all Trump supporters as the worst of the worst. She completely missed those who may have been appalled at Trump’s words and actions, but saw Clinton turn a deaf ear to their concerns – concerns about an unrecognizable future, and a fear of losing out in that future.

There are a number of 2016 election lessons to learn from Trump and Clinton. Republicans are in a quandary. The “change voters” that ultimately decided to go with Trump have not changed their minds or their expectations. For the rural middle class, the members of the “old economy,” and the “traditional values” and evangelical communities, Trump is still the only significant one speaking to their concerns and angers. They continue to believe him because they have no other choice. So even if they have to hold their noses at his words and actions, there is no other place for them to go. In the short term, they are getting some things they want (e.g. conservative justices). What they have yet to see is whether Trump can truly deliver substance for them over time, or whether his unconventional presidency will ultimately backfire on him (and us).

Similarly, Republican politicians and their traditional constituents are getting some things they want (e.g. tax cuts, deregulation, pro-business policies). That, plus a fear of Trump supporters who now dominate Republican Party voters, keeps them mute in spite of Trump’s conduct and his negative attitudes towards stalwart Republican orthodoxy: e.g. strong on NATO/defense, free trade, “orderly” government process. Whether Trump’s cozying up to dictators or instituting trade wars adversely affecting his base will change his support remains to be seen.

For Democrats, finding a strategy to engage the voters seems elusive. No central spokesperson for the Party has emerged, creating a cacophony of diverse voices. (A generational change is clearly needed; Sanders, Biden and Pulosi are not the future answers.) They have not found a unified message to rally around to reach out to the disaffected voters they lost in 2016. Instead, they are still just running against Trump as if that is sufficient enough. It is not. In the voting booth, people do not vote “against.” They vote “for.” Unless Democrats create a reason to vote FOR them, the “big blue wave” predicted in November may well turn into a dry creek bed.

Trump’s problem is that his rhetoric will burn out over time. Americans are not tolerant of repetitive drama; “The Donald Show” will become the old fad as people gradually tire and tune him out. Even if the Mueller investigation absolves him of any personal wrongdoing, Trump’s support will collapse if his promises go unkept. Traditionally, most new presidents accomplish the majority of their agenda in their first two years. That timeline is almost up.

Democrats have high energy and expectations for this fall. But one should never underestimate Democrats’ ability to snap defeat from the jaws of victory. An unfocused campaign, built solely upon rejecting the evil Trump, might bring out their base, but it will not win over the needed Independents or reclaim the former Democratic voters who moved to Trump. If focusing on the pragmatic, such inflammatory things as promising to impeach Trump, or instigating full-blown protests against his Supreme Court nominee (a battle already lost in November 2016), are counterproductive tactics. They will only help Trump bring more of his base to the polls to “protect their guy.” And in off-year elections, it is all about getting the larger share of the traditionally low turnout. Instead, just leave it to Trump to generate his own personal criticism against himself by his continually stepping on his own toes. Democrats need to avoid negative attacks on Trump or stroking the hot-button issues of his base. As tempting as it may be, as frustrated as they are, in 2018 Democrats need to focus on an issue-based campaign, focusing on “local” issues not national ones, explaining “here’s what we would do instead”– the positive message – and “these are the end results of where Trump policies are taking us.” These are the questions voters have. It is unclear that Democrats have those answers.

It is all about winning the Independent voter. The “left out” voter. In 2018 and 2020, Trump will rerun his 2016 campaign and outrages, and for now most new Republican candidates will attach their campaigns to him. Will the Democrats rerun the Clinton campaign? Or will they find a message that peels away those forgotten voters and brings them back? Will 2016 be our model for future political campaigns to come, or will voters (hopefully) insist on a different model?

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Will Rogers, American humorist

©   2018   Randy Bell                 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Political Education Of Donald Trump

Joe McCarthy was a polarizing figure in the political life of the 1950s. A WW II veteran – nicknamed “Tail-Gunner Joe” for his service in the Army Air Corps – in 1946 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin. Ambitious, looking for a way to achieve political fame and power, he found his niche in the pervasive fear of mid-century America: Russian Communism.

America had just led its allies to victory in world history’s most destructive war, but this victory was followed with an insecure peace. Former ally Russia was now our biggest opponent in something called a “cold war.” Determined to “bury America,” Russia was attacking us through espionage, domination of Eastern Europe, support of “proxy wars,” and the development of nuclear arms on parity with America. China had been lost to the Chinese Communists; Communist-led revolutionaries in Viet Nam were fighting for “independence,” threatening all of Southeast Asia to turn Communist. Internally, dissenters against U.S. government policies were accused of being unpatriotic, if not treasonous. A new House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was investigating Communist infiltration of labor unions and government agencies. Spies potentially lived behind our neighbor’s door, ready to subvert the values and security of the country.

Americans’ fear of an unseen (and unproven) menace to their way of  life – a life markedly improving in the aftermath of WW II – was a crucible ripe for exploitation by demagogues and power-seekers. Enter Republican Senator Joe McCarthy. In the early spring of 1950, McCarthy made a statement to a group in Wheeling, West Virginia, that was carried into the news media: “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.” (McCarthy never made his list of 205 available to the public. Most of the names were years-old accusations which had been largely disproved or settled. Over time, his list continued to shrink, ultimately down to just over 50 names.)

The statement made national headlines, and McCarthy was off and running, having found his new career as the “defender of America” against the Communist Conspiracy. What he had not found were any facts or proofs to substantiate his conspiracy claims – a lack which appears to have not troubled him in the least. Along the way, McCarthy proved to be a master of the “big lie” method of political propaganda: 1) identify a dominating fear in a specifically selected audience; 2) make some attention-getting and outrageous statement, without regard for factual accuracy, directed to that audience; 3) repeat that statement over and over until the extraordinary becomes the ordinary; and 4) promise to be the “savior” of the original base fear. Repeat the process as often as needed. The problem: how to keep it all going against the constant need to stack one big lie on top of another.

What followed was four years of “guilt by accusation,” by smear, by a complete disregard for due process, and unceasing attacks on government institutions – all packaged up in bags labeled “patriotism” and “conspiracies.” The list of McCarthy’s injustices is well known, and beyond the scope of this essay, but should be required reading for every current American. Finally, following a disastrous McCarthy-led Congressional Committee hearing investigating the U.S. Army in 1954, the once powerful McCarthy, who had held mesmerizing sway over public opinion, began his long fall. His Republican Senate colleagues, most of whom had been silent throughout his unprincipled conduct, now began to break ranks with him. In spite of McCarthy’s continuing approval by 1/3rd of the country, on December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure him by a vote of 67 to 22 (including 22 Republicans). No longer the center of public attention, McCarthy died from hepatitis and liver failure on May 2, 1957. Thusly, Joe McCarthy’s spotlight finally went dark, even as its afterglow would continue to influence the country for years to come.

Roy Cohn, a young attorney from New York City, served as McCarthy’s chief of staff (and “fixer”) throughout this reign of political assault. As such, Cohn had a first-hand view of McCarthy’s motives, strategies, tactics and outcomes. After McCarthy’s demise, Cohn observed about his boss: “He was selling the story of America’s peril. He knew that he could never hope to convince anybody by delivering a dry, general-accounting-office type of presentation.  In consequence, he stepped up circumstances a notch or two.” Cohn also said, “Undoubtedly, the [Army] hearings were a setback. But there were perhaps more fundamental reasons for his decline. By the time the hearings ended, McCarthy had been at the center of the national and world spotlight for three and a half years. He had an urgent universal message, and people, whether they idolized or hated him, listened. Almost everything he said or did was chronicled. Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs – and especially a holder of high office – cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy. The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause. And Joe McCarthy had nothing to offer but more of the same. The public sought new thrills … the surprise, the drama, were gone.” Cohn concluded: “I was fully aware of McCarthy’s faults, which were neither few nor minor. He was impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic. He acted on impulse. He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had – in order to draw attention to the rock-bottom seriousness of the situation. He would neglect to do important homework and consequently would, on occasion, make challengeable statements.”

After McCarthy’s death, Roy Cohn returned to his law practice in New York City, fully versed in his mentor McCarthy’s tactics. Fifteen years later, Cohn took on a new client, a young real estate developer looking to start up business in Manhattan. The client’s name: Donald Trump.

Roy Cohn first met Donald Trump socially in the early 70s, and took an immediate shine to the young man. Roy Cohn offered to serve as Donald and his father Fred’s legal counsel when the Trumps were sued by federal prosecutors for refusing to rent apartments to African-American tenants. Cohn attacked, countersuing the government, ridiculing the government’s case, though eventually settling by agreeing to provide such rentals in the future. Thereafter, Donald Trump became a Cohn client in his own right, with Cohn serving as legal counsel (and intimidator) for most of Trump’s business deals. Along the way, they also created a deep personal relationship, spending much social time together. Cohn introduced Donald to the New York scene – the movers and shakers – and opened needed doors for his business deals. (In 1979, it was Cohn who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, a long-time Republican political operative.  Stone’s work with the Trump 2016 presidential campaign is now a focus of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.) In his legal work, Cohn used all the McCarthy techniques of intimidation he had learned so well at McCarthy’s side. Now, an eager Donald learned them as well from Cohn.

Cohn died from AIDS in 1986, shortly after being disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional, and particularly reprehensible” conduct. Trump subsequently remarked on his relationship with Cohn (and his expectations of the role of his lawyer), “Roy was an era. They either loved him or couldn’t stand him, which was fine ... he was a very good lawyer if he wanted to be. He’s been vicious to others in his protection of me ... If I summed it up in one word, I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.”

Cohn’s last lover and partner, Fred Fraser, observed of Cohn and Trump: “I hear Roy in the things [Trump] says quite clearly. That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth – that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice ... having trained or mentored someone who became president, that would have been quite exciting for Roy.”

It has been said that a Joe McCarthy could not happen again in America. Yet political bloodlines can run deep. We look around at our political landscape today. Any Questions?

(With particular appreciation to Jon Meacham, “The Soul of America,” and Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, “McCarthy Aide Helped Shape Young Trump,” New York Times)

©   2018   Randy Bell

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Past Words For Current Times

The 1920’s. A time variously nicknamed “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Jazz Age.” Coming after the end of WW I – “The Great War to end all wars” – it was a time characterized by excess. The destructiveness of the War shocked many of the American doughboys who went to Europe to fight in the stalemate trenches. It was a Valley of Death that broke the “can do” spirit of many, and/or infused a “live for today” attitude in others. The experience made for a time ripe for unbridled responses to take hold in America, not all of them good ones.

During the Roaring Twenties, the corporate barons that emerged in the 1880s were still running the economy, if not government itself. Getting rich was the order of the day, pursued with gusto by financial barons, corporate giants, and, increasingly, everyday Joes alike. But it was not just economic excess. Women had finally won the right to vote, which stoked not only a new sense of legal freedoms but also social ones – it was the age of the independently-spirited “flapper girl.” Prohibition ended the people’s access to alcoholic drink – except that it didn’t. Booze flowed freely in speakeasies and private homes, supplied by organized crime and moonshiners. It was one big party time, danced appropriately to the frenzied moves of the Charleston.

But there was also a darker underside to this national party. The American borders had become porous with immigrants coming in. During 1900-1920, it was Southern and Eastern Europeans knocking on America’s door, most all passing through the processing station at Ellis Island. Many Americans felt vulnerable to all these “non-English” people who seemed to threaten the cultural and economic landscape – if not the very security – of the country. Calls for tighter immigration limits grew ever louder as many felt that their government was not doing enough to stem this flow. Growing numbers of people looked for an alternative force to speak for them and push back – forcibly if necessary – on these open doors. They found that alternative in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The Klan had originally risen from the collapse of the South after the Civil War. In the 1870s and 1880s, it had terrorized the newly freed ex-slaves. It promoted the role of White Southerners by reinstalling de facto slavery through economic servitude, “legal” disenfranchisement, and systematic killings with impunity. By the end of the 19th century, the Klan’s influence had faded. But the replacement cultural and legal structures it had created endured, set firmly and inalterably in place. Its resurrection always stood ready to be recalled to active duty.

The 1920s was a time of fear of the immigrant, fear of the loss of one’s cultural identity, fear of an impotent government sworn to protect its citizens and keep them safe, and fear of attack on “America’s religion” (i.e. Christian Protestantism) by competing religions, scientific reasoning and discovery, and the forsaking of traditional infallible religious teachings. In such times, a substantial number of Americans turned to a reborn Ku Klux Klan. This time the Klan was not just contained within the South; it became a national organization. Guided by the tactics, hate literature and “social theories” of its predecessor, this new Klan offered itself as the balance against “these undesirables” who they characterized as dangerous enemies, criminals, lesser human beings, immoral people intent on subverting True Americans. To expand their message and recruitment, they combined this new hate with the Klan’s historical prejudices against African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Great numbers of followers across the country, estimated at over four million, were drawn into this new KKK, including Congressional politicians seeking money and (re-)election. The strength of the Klan was graphically exemplified in August 1925 when a march on Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue attracted more than 35,000 thousands of white-robed but bare-faced Klansmen.

Yet many people chose to fight back by speaking up against this national travesty: principled politicians, journalists and writers, members of the judiciary, religious leaders. Congress investigated the Klan in 1921, producing no great conclusions or restraints; the ensuing publicity both advanced and hindered the Klan’s popularity. In these times, when American values, principles, and the traditions of our Founding documents seemed in danger of being lost, someone was clearly needed to remind us of who America – and Americans – truly are.

Republican Calvin Coolidge was born in the simple rural countryside of Vermont. He made a political name for himself as mayor in Northampton in western Massachusetts, subsequently as governor of Massachusetts. Vice President Coolidge became our 30th President upon the sudden death of Warren Harding. The thoughtful but taciturn Coolidge – nicknamed “Silent Cal” – was decidedly pro-business, most famously remembered as saying “the business of America is business.” He is less frequently quoted for his follow-on qualifying words: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

As America’s national hate and fear of “others” grew during the 1920s, it was the quiet Coolidge who used his infrequent public words to remind the country of a most important lesson. As historian Jon Meacham relates in his excellent book “The Soul of America,” a man had written to Coolidge that, “It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country.” Recalling that half a million black men had served in the recent War, Coolidge spoke in response:

“The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all of our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support the Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race.”

Subsequently, Coolidge told an American Legion convention in 1925:

“If we are to have … that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.”

Sometimes in the midst of hatred, prejudice or fear, it takes great courage to speak clearly against the popular tide. Calvin Coolidge was a President who knew the value of not speaking often, but making one’s words count for something worthwhile. It is leading not by the quantity of words issued daily, but by their quality and substance. These messages from almost 100 years ago, in times similar to our own, warrant being repeated today.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Week The Light Dimmed

Sitting in the center of New York Harbor is our Statue of Liberty. A gift from our long-term ally France, it is one of our most iconic images, recognized the world over as a symbol of freedom, equality and opportunity. Holding her torch high in her right hand, she lights the way towards those ideals not just for the physical immigrant arriving on our shores, but for the aspirational immigrants who seek a better life for self, family and neighbors in their own country.

America has shown the way for the world over four centuries. It has led not by force, but by ideals and example. Showing what can be possible, we have been respected by being respectful, serving as the yardstick for progress in the great human endeavor. Until the week of June 8 through 15, 2018. It was a week when all seemed to come apart, when America the noble became America the ignoble, and the light dimmed in Lady Liberty’s bright lamp.

First came a meeting of the G-7 group of our most longstanding allies since WW II. In the months preceding this gathering, Donald Trump unilaterally pulled us out of the Iran nuclear treaty negotiated together with some of these world leaders. At the G-7 meeting, he then imposed new tariffs on these valued trading partners. He justified tariffs against Canada as required because “our [non-existent] $100B trade deficit with them constituted a threat to our national security.” Canada? A threat to our security? Understandably, Prime Minister Trudeau threatened retaliatory tariffs against the U.S., while saying that “Canadians would not be pushed around.” Trump and his advisors responded as they usually do when challenged: they resorted to name-calling and insults, incapable of conducting a respectful, intelligent, fact-based discussion. Further insulting our apparently unimportant friends, Trump rudely arrived late to the gathering, then left it early. In-between he called for his best friend Vladimir Putin to be re-admitted to the group in spite of Russia’s previous expulsion due to its military aggression in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, each national leader returned home to determine their own individual courses of future action. No wonder Donald Trump is despised by the general populations of most of our allied countries.

Then it was off in a whirlwind to Singapore for a summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. It was an off-again / on-again meeting, with hardly any planning for the substance of the talks versus the theatrics. Trump was embarrassingly effusive in his non-stop praise of Kim: “smart, strong, funny”; “loves his people, his people love him”; “we had a real chemistry”; “I trust him” – ignoring the poverty, the killings, and abuse of human rights that this absolute dictator exercises. Kim got everything he could have wanted: a rogue nation led by a leader now on par with the President of the United States; an offer to lift economic sanctions and encourage external investment; a unilateral end to US/South Korean war exercises (originally recommended by Putin) – an unwelcome surprise to South Korea, Japan and our own military. The U.S. got a promise “to explore denuclearization on the Korean peninsula” with no specific worksteps or timetable – a promise violated many times before by Kim’s father and grandfather. It was, simply, a big theatrical “photo op” of no material substance and a “signing ceremony” of a de facto blank page. Our negotiator-in-chief got snookered by the lack of any real negotiation.

A day later, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice released the results of an internal probe specifically and narrowly focused on the DOJ’s and FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The conclusions? 1: James Comey did not follow proper protocols and chain of command authorizations in his public announcements. 2: The decision not to prosecute Clinton was correct based upon the evidence. 3: Political bias did not drive the investigation or its conclusions. Trump claimed that the IG report fully exonerated him of any collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign, and that the Mueller investigation was improperly initiated. In fact, neither issue was within the scope of the IG’s investigation or conclusions.

On Friday, Paul Manafort, one of Trump’s several campaign managers, had his bail revoked due to witness tampering. He was then sent immediately to jail to await his two upcoming trials. He had spent months talking defiantly about fighting his multiple indictments, sitting in his million-dollar home dressed in his thousand-dollar suits. Will that song change when he is sitting in a small, solitary cell dressed in an orange jumpsuit surrounded by an unsavory jail population?

On Friday, it was revealed that over 2500 immigrant children arriving at the Mexican border, from babies to teens, had been pulled away from their parents and sent off to various holding centers. It reflected a new “zero tolerance” immigration policy from Trump/Jeff Sessions against illegal immigrants and legal asylum seekers, all treated the same. Ill-prepared Administration agencies are unable to verify where each child went, which child belongs to which parent, or how (or when) these families are to be reunited. The news led to an immediate explosion of condemnation from virtually all quarters of the country: all living first ladies; bi-partisan politicians; religious, charity and medical groups; governors and national guard units; police and social workers; and the public at large. Trump typically tried to blame everyone else but himself: “it’s the law” (no); “it’s the Democrats’ fault” (no); “Obama and Bush did it” (non-comparable situations with minimal numbers); “it can’t be changed by Executive Order” (disproven five days later when Trump changed course and issued such an Order). Concurrently, Trump did what Trump does best: stoking our worst fears by demonizing these migrants as subhuman criminals “infesting” and threatening our country. The policies were ultimately acknowledged to be a (cynical) negotiating strategy to force the passage of Trump’s border wall and other immigration measures. Nevertheless, the pictures of crying children – all alone, sleeping on mats on the floor, held in cages or dormitory “camps” – rightly managed to shake this country’s sense of itself and its values as no other outrage has done.

In ordinary times with a normal president, any one of these stories would be the headline news and national discussion for weeks. Instead, in these unordinary times with an abnormal president, all of these happened in just one week. Generating dizzying volumes of stories is the Administration’s priority; planning, substance and follow-though are unimportant; competency is irrelevant; chaos is the intended tactical result. The public is left increasingly exhausted.

The pictures of these isolated kids and weeping parents was just the final culmination to this week from hell. We continue to say, “it can’t get any worse.” And then it gets worse. The current public and institutional outcry may reflect the country nearly at a breaking point. The daily barrage of White House lies and misrepresentations is bringing trust between the people and their government to its lowest point. Lady Liberty’s lamp is still lit, but its intensity has dimmed greatly, making it hard to see our path forward in the political darkness. We were promised to “make America great again.” So far, America – once the great beacon of light for trust, hope, and good will for all – now simply seems lost, unadmired, unexceptional, increasingly alone.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Coming In 2026

All civilizations move in cycles.  Sometimes these cycles are the swing of the pendulum to the extremes of its arc and then back again.  What rises, falls; what falls, rises.  We might like to think of our national story as a straight-line march to and through the “American Century.”  But it has actually been a sequence of major chapters within the Great American Novel through which our erratic story has been told.

It took 168 years to bring America out of its infancy, its Colonial settlement period, from Jamestown in 1607 until the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775.  Quite the long infancy period to get ready for this national adventure.  But when the time came, our forefathers and foremothers were ready.  They moved forward, working (unknowingly) in roughly 50-year major increments.

1776-1826 was our Founding Period, organizing this new American Experiment in popular governance.  It took a Revolution, a Constitution, imagination and deep commitment to move this vague concept into a working reality.  All of the principal characters of this first period were a product of the Revolution and Constitutional Convention, including our first six presidents.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, and John Quincy Adams’ presidency ended in 1828, both events emphatically concluding this period.  But the Experiment in Governance, and the Founders’ goal of national unity transcending the states, had held.

1826-1876 took us into an Expansion and Division Period.  Presidential leadership moved from the patrician Founders to the era of the Common Man.  Andrew Jackson redefined the presidency into a power equal to or greater than Congress, and fought against the wealthy’s backroom hold on national power.  The country moved west and began to fill in the open space that would become the continental United States of America.  Yet this expansion was continually undermined by threats to divide this hard-won unity over the still unresolved Constitutional Convention issues of slavery and states’ rights.  The threats of division came true in the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the subsequent Reconstruction Era over the defeated South.  Reconstruction, and this historical Period, “ended” as a result of the deal-making of the 1876 presidential election.  As it turned out, ending Reconstruction reinstituted the pre-war South, who now fought a rear-guard resistance of continued division lasting through to this day, with laws replacing bullets and legislatures replacing battlefields.

1877 – 1929 was our Capitalist and Labor Period.  An economic division of America.  If you were part of the mega-rich Capitalist sector – the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fords, etc. – it was the “Gilded Age” of absolute monopolies, boardroom collusion, and rigging the marketplace to obtain spectacular wealth.  If you were in the worker sector, it was about poverty, oppressive work, employment conditions without recourse or protection – ultimately giving rise to the organized labor movement.  Money dominated this period, and money equated to power.  Theodore Roosevelt’s attacks on “financial trusts” served as a speed bump along the road to wealth, but it only slowed, not stopped, the Pullman luxury trains.  Even World War I, which changed the map of Europe and the Middle East, was only a short diversion for America.  The “Roaring Twenties” brought all of America into the frenzied chase for wealth.

1930-1976 began our Middle-Class and Government Expansion Period, when the economic frenzy of the previous Period abruptly ended in 1929 with America’s Great Depression.  The family fortunes from the Gilded Age remained fairly intact through the Depression.  It was the common Joe and Josephine who lost everything, the ones who were the last to arrive at the get-rich party before the bubble burst.  Big-money’s power over the government was checked – though not eliminated – as the federal government’s attention, programs and funding were redirected to the needs and suffering of Middle Americans trying to survive the Depression.  Millions of middle-class Americans fought and won WWII at home and abroad.  Upon the war’s end, new opportunities from government programs created the largest middle-class, consumer-based, sustained economy in our history, redefining government and the face of American society. It was a redefinition that came to include a redressing of civil and economic rights across a spectrum of previously hidden constituencies: e.g. African-Americans, women, the gay/lesbian movement, Native-Americans, the poor.  Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to create a “Great Society” blew up in the 1960s/1970s wake of Viet Nam, the youth movement, and ultimately, Watergate.  Gerald Ford promised us that “our long national nightmare [of Watergate] is over.” But so also was America’s Middle-Class and Government Expansion Period.

1976 began our current 50 year cycle of a simultaneous Retrenchment and Advancement Period. Similar to the previous Expansion and Division Period, it is a time when a deep and contradictory schism has split the citizenry.  It has been a return to times past governmentally and economically, yet concurrently a leap forward in the social order and measures of equality.  Since the Reagan years, we have been on a steady return to the Gilded Age of 100 years ago.  Extreme wealth has returned into the hands of the few, leaving the great Middle Class stagnant economically – if not going backwards from its post-WWII gains.  We neutered the financial controls instituted in the 1930s, and in 2008 unsurprisingly had our worst Recession since that Depression.  (Apparently learning nothing, we are now dismantling the new controls that arose out of that Recession.) Since the mid-1990s, division has been our overriding theme of (non-) governance. The disappearance of bipartisanship has resulted in a virtual end of functioning government and a handover of power to wealthy businesspeople. “Conservative” politicians ascended and pushed for shrinking government’s size while practicing “fiscal responsibility,” but these have proven to be more idealized myths than actuality. Meanwhile, “Liberal” social themes from the prior cycle – civil rights, protected environment, racial integration, economic parity, and gay and gender issues – continued to expand. However, a backlash from social conservatives to this expansion has grown steadily out of a belief that their traditional family lifestyles, and their role in America, is under attack and being lost. The citizenry today is as polarized and paralyzed by two competing views of what America means as much as any time since our Civil War.

If our pattern of 50-year cycles holds true, then our next cycle is due roughly in 2026, 250 years after our founding.  What will this next cycle bring to us?  Like all others, it will unfold gradually, requiring time for us to identify the themes that are emerging.  Will the next phase cement the Retrenchment we currently find ourselves in?  Or will it push the Advancement forward and begin a new period of social, economic and political movement?  Will America achieve greater heights over the next decade, or start our gradual descent as a leader in world civilization – a descent that happens to all civilizations at some point?

When changes have occurred within our historical cycle, they have usually been forecasted by a rising tension between “the old that is” and “the new that is to be.” The end of the Founding Period saw a disputed 1824 presidential election and the political shock waves of Jackson’s presidency. The end of the Expansion and Division Period came with our American Civil War – our most deadly war – and the utter destruction of the Old South society. The end of the Capitalist and Labor Period was America’s twelve year Depression with its 25% unemployment. The end of the Middle Class Period was Viet Nam, Watergate, and the youth revolution which tore apart America’s cohesion and trust. In each instance, a drastic upheaval was needed to move our “current” into “past” in order to open the door to our “future.”

Today, we see governmental paralysis, the Trump dismantling of the institutional Presidency, the reversal of government’s role in America, and the abdication of international moral and political leadership. The result is a country in an angry divide not seen since the turmoil of 1968 and the immediate years beyond; the parallels between 1968 and 2018 – another 50 year cycle – are unmistakable. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964 77% of Americans trusted their government all or most of the time. In December 2017, that number had fallen to just 18% (TIME, 6/11/2018). Donald Trump’s presidency is clearly the beginning of our next transition. What is unclear is whether his time will be the blueprint, the model for America’s next Period. Or, whether his excesses ultimately cross a fault line and become the final hurrah of Retrenchment, thereby giving rise to a new period of government and societal Advancement.

I hope to live to see the beginnings of this next American cycle, at least sufficiently to see the direction it will be heading.  It would be nice to have some sense of what kind of country my generation is bequeathing to our children and grandchildren. I certainly will not be around to see the end of this next cycle.  Perhaps the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections will give us some preview of what to expect; the 2024 election will most certainly commence the opening step.  We should look forward to this next cycle with great interest and anticipation, but also caution.  It will be the next crossroad in America’s journey.

©  2018   Randy Bell