Friday, June 26, 2020

The Burden Of Our Heritage

Heritage. A small word packed with the breadth and depth of many meanings. It represents multiple ancestral lives, people with many backgrounds and experiences melding into one resultant individual. It includes stories from times past, often with little regard for accuracy. It is a hand-me-down litany of beliefs, conclusions, and “truths.” It nourishes, if not inflames, old wounds, unresolved grudges, bitter animosities. It glorifies that which has been ennobled – from the vantage point of the ennobler. It evolves from legacy into the cornerstone of one’s culture.

“Our Heritage” provides a bulwark against attempts to tell an old story through contemporary eyes. When difficult questions are asked of us about our view and understanding of past times, or how those past times reemerge in our current life, “It’s Our Heritage” neatly obviates a need to answer rationally or from one’s own fresh critical self-analysis. The past simply remains frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging, unassailable. As a result, WE remain frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging, our perceptions unassailable.

Nowhere is this idea of heritage more visible than with Southern Culture. It is an idea, an institution, currently under great scrutiny during this latest struggle over racial equality and justice, particularly as regards the African-American community. While virtually every ethnic group in America (except for the English) can point to a legacy of discrimination and intolerance in their American heritage, African-American heritage holds a special distinction in their story. Unlike other immigrants, African-Americans came here involuntarily – by kidnapping and thereafter into the bondage of slavery. 245 years of the structural buying and selling of them as merely “property” was followed by 155 years (so far) of de facto continued enslavement and 2nd-class citizenship. This is a current reality that needs to be, must be, changed. But “It’s Our Heritage” is one of the biggest obstacles to making that change.

A pause for full disclosure. I am a white Southerner by birth and my first two decades of upbringing. (I am now finishing off my last decades relocated back in the South.) I was born into a family and culture steeped in the Old South, including the Daughters and Children of the Confederacy organizations. It was a culture that operated within the “legal” Jim Crow restrictions and separation pervasive in those times. All the while, I was virtually oblivious to the racial segregation which surrounded me; “it was just the way things are.” I asked no questions, while my eyes (and mind) were shielded from what was standing right in front of me.

I was a voracious student of Civil War history in my youth. Like any good Southerner, I came to idolize the names and places and artifacts of that War – “the heroic war to defend the right of our state and its (white) people to live without outside interference (i.e. ‘Northerners’).” The destruction of that way of life by that war, combined with the forced redefinition of the South’s legal, political and economic structures, was a bitter pill to swallow. So when the hated ten years of Reconstruction ended, and the opportunity then presented itself, everything was moved back to the way it had been. Slavery was effectively reinstituted by disguised legal barriers, social isolation, educational disadvantage, and economic exploitation. To make this restoration of ante-bellum Southern life truly work, though, required “justifying” – i.e.  ennobling – the War. And the way to do that was to ennoble not the War, but the men who fought in it: “the patriots” – the husbands, sons and brothers of Southern families – who gave of themselves in service to their state and family. And so the statues and shrines went up across the South to honor “the men,” rather than slavery and the slaves, emblazoned with the adornment “Lest We Forget.” The statues served to cover over the continuing horror and maltreatment of Jim Crow domination of the “freed” slaves.

My great-great-grandfather was one of those ennobled heroes. As a teenager from Tennessee, a non-owner of slaves, he likely enlisted more out of peer pressure than a real conviction on his part. Nevertheless, he saw the War to its end, and I have no doubt that he fought valiantly and served honorably. After the War, he became owner of a general store, raised a large family, and ultimately wound up in California – a normal, unremarkable life far away from the War and its legacy. Samuel Carroll Lee is part of my personal and Southern heritage, and I honor his legacy as part of the family ancestry that created me. But that does not require me to honor the Cause that he fought for. It was the wrong Cause to fight. It is today the wrong heritage to honor and celebrate.

The South lost the Civil War. As it should have, as it was destined to do. Yes, there was a legal and philosophical argument about the rights of the States versus the Federal government. But men do not go to war over philosophical arguments. They go to war over power and wealth. Slavery represented Southern wealth. The South lost the war due to Northern over-powering manpower and armaments, and the lack of the right side of a moral and patriotic justification. Human slavery is a reprehensible concept, and the fact that it existed in world history for thousands of years did not justify it in America in 1860. It is an institution that cried out for redressing in the evolution of human civilization, and America was unforgivably one of the last to let it go.

My great-great-great-grandfather David Baggerly, Jr. from North Carolina also fought in a war as a teenager – the American Revolution that created this great Nation. However one might try to dress it up, Samuel Carroll Lee fought to undo David’s work, and to split this country into two parts. There is a word for the action of a citizen who wages war against our Nation: Treason. However right he thought it to be at the time, whatever was the call from his community, if one takes up arms against these United States we would appropriately charge them with treason, and/or designate them as an internal terrorist. I may feel compassion towards my ancestor(s) for doing what he thought was right at the moment, but he was wrong. And the consequence of his wrong-ness is not to ennoble him for that wrong, but to de-glorify his decision. Which means de-glorifying the statues and memorabilia we have erected and perpetuated over the last 155 years.

As history has shown us, great things can happen when a defeated country separates from its wartime misadventure and begins its future anew (e.g.  post-WWII Japan and Germany), rather than stagnates in “what was.” It is long past due that we Southerners move on from the stranglehold that “It’s Our Heritage” has trapped us under. “It’s Our Heritage” freezes us into a time and circumstance that is long past. That freezing prevents us from seeing the Truth of the past, and embracing the legal, social and moral demands of the present. There is a reconciliation with some of our fellow citizens that is right to do, and long overdue to do. We need to consign the past to the museums and halls of study where it belongs, that we might learn from our past, but not relive it. Honor our heritage not by what we may have believed was right yesterday, but by doing what is right today. We do this because it is right for African-Americans to finally participate fully in the Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to which they have long been entitled. We also do this for us, because it is right to finally free ourselves from our own self-imposed enslavement to the burden of “Our Heritage.” We would do so in order that we may move forward and achieve the best of who we are. This is how I choose to honor my ancestor, Samuel Carroll Lee, in the true reality of the year of 2020.

(If interested in an additional relevant reading, click on this link for my previous blog essay “Assessing A Life Lived,” November 12, 2017.)

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Challenge Of Covid-19

According to his official birth certificate, my Father was born in 1905 in a place called “Indian Territory.” Four years later, that Territory would become “Oklahoma,” the 46th American state, another chapter in the closing story of the Old West. Even at his earliest age, my father was cast into a lifetime of historical change that he could not have possibly predicted.

World War I (“The Great War”) broke out when he was 13. Too young to serve, he could only read about what was to date this most consuming war in world history. The death toll of a generation of young men the world over, occurring concurrently with the Spanish Flu pandemic, would combine to take millions of lives. Eleven years later at 24, the Great Depression hit America, an economic disaster the scope of which was unknown before and thereafter.  Around 25% (13 million) of the workforce were unemployed with no or limited income. Despite broad-ranging plans of response on various fronts, the Depression lasted over ten long years (versus our current 3-month shutdown from the Covid-19 pandemic). As a young professional CPA, my Father survived economic disaster, even as he personally lost his father to divorce and his youngest brother in a fatal automobile accident. Yet he could only watch as family and friends packed up and headed west to California, hoping for a better chance in life.

The Great Depression did ultimately end, but only due to, and replaced by, an even more deadly and altering World War II. Millions of military and civilian deaths ensued, with Europe and Asia left in devastated shambles. Too old for this war, my father fell in line with the new order of the day: rationing of food, gas, supplies, and services; wage and price controls; government mandated and directed manufacturing and economic controls. With the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 to end the war, world civilization and American life were forever changed. At that point, my father was 40 years old, the normal midpoint of life.

I have often wondered how those great international events shaped the perceptions of my Father and his contemporaries. Age and events precluded our conversation about such. Change, loss, uncertainty all combined to mark the first half of his life. How did he react? How did his thinking change? What conclusions did he draw about life’s challenges and how to respond to them?

“How will we respond?” was the challenge given to my Father’s contemporaries, and respond they did quite decisively and successfully. But it was a series of long-term demands that required patience, commitment, and cooperation. Today, America and the world are going through a shared pandemic called Covid-19. An invisible threat to our physical life, causing great upheaval in our comfortable daily routines. With Covid-19, our contemporary world did not see this threat arising, and we have found ourselves ill-prepared to respond to it.

In my Father’s time, political, military and health leaders defined their respective threat clearly, created a well-thought out plan of reaction, and marshalled the resources needed to achieve the plan. Within that focused framework, the American people were able to unify their individual efforts, find his/her slot in which to contribute, and share the burden of making the plan work.

In today’s America, however, there is no overarching top-down plan of response, no organized division of labor integrated into an effective whole, and therefore no unity of action. State-by-state, we are fighting fifty desperate and different wars against this public health attack. Meanwhile, our national government lurches from one scattershot hot idea to the next on daily basis, while the “leader” continues to disavow the plans of his own advisors. Amid all of the structural confusion, our citizenry is fractured, emulating the fractured response of our government to its own oft-changing directives.

We see the images of empty streets as people cooperatively stay at home to avoid infecting themselves or others. Or we see protestors armed with military assault weapons threatening local officials, state legislators and governors over their right to get a haircut or drink a beer. Somehow, the right to sit on a crowded beach, or attend a dining establishment, is deemed some kind of “constitutional right,” a demonstration of hallowed American freedom. Somehow our 1st Amendment right of religious freedom is distorted by some arrogant religious leaders’ belief that this includes a right to congregate inside a church building and risk infecting parishioners, as well as those with whom they later come into contact. (I suspect that such dubious claims of hardship and sacrifice would be quite a shock to George Washington, who had to watch his troops suffer a bitterly cold and ill-equipped winter at Valley Forge to secure those freedoms.)

Over many years, my Father and his contemporaries made commitments, endured genuine sacrifices, and worked together to survive – indeed triumph over – true threats to the American way of life. Millions of Americans today are trying to do the same, and their success stories are exemplary. Nevertheless, all of their efforts are threatened by bands of renegades that believe their individual desires trump a far greater community need. Yet it is sustained commitment to sacrifice for others that is the only path to defeating this virus and preventing its recurrence.

Our local Mountain Express weekly newspaper has been running a series of articles about life in Asheville NC a hundred years ago, gleaned from newspaper articles of that time. An article entitled “The Selfish and Selfless” quoted Dr. Carl V. Reynolds, the city health officer in 1919, saying regarding the Spanish Flu pandemic: “I have no desire to frighten Asheville or to create any unnecessary alarm. But I do feel the public should get a warning of the danger of failing to take steps to prevent a return of influenza here. The man who ‘takes a chance’ now by permitting himself and the other members of his family to disregard the opportunity to secure immunization against pneumonia will be, in my opinion, directly responsible for any deaths that may occur among his family group from influenza’s complications … Reynolds also stressed that fighting influenza required every citizen to be selfless. Too often, he proclaimed, ‘individual forgetfulness of … fellowman [drove people to fulfill their wants] at any cost, even risking self [health] and endangering others [so] that a selfish desire may be obtained.”

100 years later, we seem to be revisiting a similar experience with Covid-19, having apparently learned little about serious versus trivial sacrifice, and the need for shared responsibility for each other as the key to our mutual survival. We need to feel great compassion for those small business owners, entertainment / hospitality workers, and manufacturing employees working without proper safeguards. They are trying to survive through this heath and economic crisis, and need our full assistance consistent with public health needs. We need feel no such compassion for people complaining about not getting a haircut, or being able to dine out, or play beach volleyball. Complaints such as these are purely the arrogance of self over respect and consideration for the health and wellbeing of family and neighbors. There are times when Life is properly about “me”; these are the times when Life is properly about “us.”

A recent Facebook posting observed, “The ‘Greatest Generation’ of World War II sacrificed their lives [storming the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima] to defend America. We are being asked to sit on the couch at home. We can do this.” On this Memorial Day of 2020, we remember and honor those many who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect this country. Surely we can make our own commitment to respond – with far less sacrifice  – to what is now being asked of us. Yes we can.

© 2020   Randy Bell               https//

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Covid-19 Kind Of Day

And so another day begins. The morning get-up routines have been completed, breakfast has been eaten, I am all dressed to meet the day. But what kind of today awaits me as we move through month two of a Covid-19 redefined existence?

Each today looks very similar to yesterday, and the now many yesterdays that came before. One of the normal life changes that occurs in “seniorhood” is that one’s schedule is less dictated by external requirements and institutions versus our own created calendar. There is a certain great freedom in that, but it is also an easy slide into a sameness routine – less distinction from one day to the next. “What day is today?” becomes a more frequently asked question. Covid-19’s stay-at-home requirement exaggerates that sameness even more. How does one fill the time, nurture one’s spirit, and generate enthusiasm in such a context?

We catch up on a thousand little household and personal to-dos that have been awaiting our attention for months (years?). We discover reading again, though the closed libraries and bookstores inconveniently thwart our intentions. Gasoline is cheaper than ever, but there are few places open to go to. A good time to start a new hobby – if you have the materials that you need. How many homes are good entertainment and educational respites for engagement, versus now relying on external venues for amusement? It is a good time to catch up with friends and family, though it must now be done digitally. It is less satisfying through technology, but it breaks up the easy slide towards isolation. The afternoon walk becomes the high point of this new adventure: sunshine, movement, nature, fresh air are all good, encapsulated in an unfamiliar but newly found “quiet” (relatively speaking). Sitting on the front porch, one greets the many neighbors (and often their pets) going by, most of whom having been previously unfamiliar faces. As I watch the day pass, I remind myself that I am a card-carrying member of the higher-risk Covid-19 age group; I am cautious, but not paralyzed.

That said, other people have a very differently filled day, even if they also experience a similar sameness. Some people are classed as “essential workers” employed at “essential businesses.” Generally these workers are: 1) those inadequately-supported health care workers fighting Covid-19 on the front lines (e.g. doctors, nurses, maintenance staff in hospitals / nursing homes / care centers; emergency and first responders; pharmacy employees); 2) those that are keeping our infrastructures open and functioning so the rest of us can stay home (e.g. food chain workers and servers; municipal service workers; home / transportation / financial servicers). Without them, our defensive systems would collapse. While they may be thankful to have employment, and an income to help support their families, it comes with an ever-present awareness that they could easily move from defender to patient with little warning. Yet they continue on, their personal worries tucked under their collective hats – save those occasional moments of desperately needed mental and emotional release.

Another group is the cadre of “at-home” workers. For some, this is a totally new experience which may or may not prove comfortable. Some people can be quite productive in this environment. Others are too easily distracted by the temptations of the home; some may react badly to the isolation and miss the “social” element of working in a central office with colleagues; some may find it difficult to do all work and communicating through technology tools. Perhaps they are also part of a family with children who must be homeschooled, entertained, or overseen. A family that is usually dispersed during the day may now find themselves suddenly together 24x7. It can be a combustible mix requiring a creative deftness instituted on the fly. But at least some employment and income can be continued, and thereby some commercial activities can be conducted for the community. The white collar workplace may be forever changed.

Which leaves another group of people living in limbo. For them, working at home is not an option. For employees, the job is gone; for small business owners, the building is shuttered. Yet unstoppable bills still must be paid, food must be bought, prescriptions must be filled, but “$0” only stretches so far. Many have minimal-to-no financial cushion to absorb this blow, have no idea when – or  if – jobs and businesses will return. Their paycheck-to-paycheck life is now a day-to-day decision about how to survive. The one-time $1200 stimulus check is helpful, but is only an already insufficient month’s pay for a minimum-wage worker; an even shorter timeframe for a previously higher-paid worker. They may spend their day on long lines at the food bank, while farmers dump milk and plow under crops for lack of market reach. They file unemployment insurance claims and applications for small business loans, but those offices are overwhelmed by the volume of millions of filings happening concurrently. So the checks are slow to arrive, if at all. And the next dinnertime comes all too soon.

Alongside this on-the-fly societal reinvention stand the Covid-19 deniers. It is a group that considers the whole pandemic an overblown phenomenon (if not hoax), blown out of proportion by the “fake news” media in search of a story filled with necessary villains. They quote statistics suggesting the Covid-19 numbers are less than other typical cyclical causes of health crises. Or they point to small numbers of cases/deaths in rural areas where they live so the probability of their being infected is assumed to be minimal. (It is unclear how many more than 800,000 Covid-19 cases / 40,000 deaths they require to qualify as an epidemic.) Or they protest the shutdown / stay-at-home program that is the only thing with hope of protecting them – or their neighbors.

I recently saw a Facebook post arguing that that America was simply overreacting to an everyday medical problem. That by giving into this disease by shutting down and staying home and not reopening the economy, Americans had become “soft,” or more specifically, had become “wimps.” I would suggest that that writer speak directly to some of the medical personnel and first responders who are showing up each day to tend to the sick. They fight everyday feeling as if they are carrying a sophisticated automatic rifle, but have only one bullet to use; they wait desperately for the cavalry to come to their rescue, but they never show. The “success” of their efforts is no longer measured by the number of people cured, but instead by how many less people died today. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Or speak directly to some heads of families with no job and no income trying to hold mind and body together, but who understand why they are home. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Or speak directly to the millions of Americans who are quietly cooperating with the social distancing and stay-at-home orders not because it is easy or convenient, but because they do it for their own good and for the good of others. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Most importantly, speak to one of the sick or dying Covid-19 patients, alone in a cold institutional health facility, devoid of family or friends, trying to get through the day not knowing if they will survive this experience – 40,000 Americans have already died in just six weeks’ time. Theirs is a very different Covid-19 kind of day. They are truly some of the most courageous people I know of.

These are among the best of our citizens. All told, there’s not a wimp among them.

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Friday, April 10, 2020

Two Commentaries On Covid-19 Responses

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite. Remember that name. Imprint it on the very front of your brain. Why? Because he is the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps that moves stuff, builds stuff, puts it exactly wherever it is needed, on a short timetable. When they don’t have exactly what they need, they improvise – American ingenuity on display. That is their job, every single day. I have seen General Semonite interviewed twice now. A no nonsense, old school kind of guy. If you can be clear about what you need (as some governors and mayors are), he is totally focused on just getting the job done. “No” and “can’t be done” are not part of the vocabulary.

Thanks to General Semonite and his extended team, there are temporary, makeshift, and converted facilities going up as hospitals all over this country to respond to the Covid-19 onslaught on our medical centers. Convention centers, dormitories, and vacant hotels converted to overflow hospitals. Tent hospitals built on football fields, parking lots, any open space that can be used. Usually completed in less than a week. It is what the Corps does. And thereby, they demand our respect and admiration as part of the best of America.

This is what you get from true leadership in times of crisis. You turn to someone who has experience in getting done what must be accomplished. Who has a clear understanding of what is needed, what has to be brought to bear, what has to be done, and in what sequence. As President Lincoln turned to General U.S. Grant to defeat the Confederate Army and end the Civil War. As President Roosevelt turned to Dwight Eisenhower to end World War II in Europe; “Ike” then turned to General George Patton to spearhead the allied drive to push the Nazi army back to Germany. Whatever issues of personal character might legitimately be questioned about Grant and Patton, they were singularly focused on getting their assigned job done – no excuses, no distractions. General Todd Semonite appears to have all those similar qualities of leadership (without the character baggage). The leadership needed in these times. What do we get to fight this “war” against Covid-19? We get a responsibility-denier President who still thinks he is running a tiny family-owned business in Manhattan. He in turn appoints his son-in-law (Jared Kushner) to be our Covid-19 point man in background charge of the federal response – notwithstanding that he has NO experience in logistics, health and medicine, pandemics, crisis management, or running a multi-organizational operation.

The art of leadership is all about finding the right person (people) at the right moment to fit the right demand. Clearly defining the results expected, putting those people fully in charge, and then getting out of their way. We do not have anything close to that “right person in charge.” What we have got instead continues to be amateurs at the top, the skilled professionals below. As a result, many people are and will suffer in a variety of different ways. Some will unnecessarily die. Why?

On Tuesday April 7, Wisconsin held an election. Other states that had originally scheduled their elections for March and April long ago rescheduled them to May or June in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Democratic Governor of Wisconsin, together with the state Public Health Director, tried to postpone the election, but the state’s Republican legislative leaders sued to overturn the postponement. They won in the state’s Supreme Court and the federal Supreme Court. So the election went on.

Why the big push? Because on the ballot was one seat on the state’s Supreme Court, and the Republicans were pushing their conservative candidate to win it. At all cost. And the calculus was that a low voter turnout would favor their candidate. So the election went on, combined with other voter suppression tricks that have been employed in the 2016 and 2018 elections: reduced early voting days/hours; no expansion of mail-in / absentee voting; no extending of absentee voting deadline; moving or reducing polling sites – especially in Democratic-leaning Milwaukee. Nevertheless, voters turned out, many enduring average wait times of 2-3 hours. Putting themselves at personal health risk, standing six feet apart where possible, covered in masks where available, many of them senior citizens most-at-risk for vulnerable to Covid-19. Doing what they needed to do to exercise their right to vote. Mocking this risk, the Republican leader of the Wisconsin House posted a video claiming that “it is absolutely safe to go out and vote,” spoken while he was covered head-to-toe in full PPE gear.

Once again it was demonstrated what lengths some Republican Party officials will go to in order to win by manipulating the rules of game, rather than winning on the strengths of the candidate or the soundness of one’s political argument. Except this time it was not just about winning or losing an election. It was literally about risking one’s life in order to vote. This episode is yet another example of our longtime values, our respect for one another, being thrown in the trash can in favor of one’s selfish, personal, or political benefit. We are absolutely losing our collective minds as a Country.

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Virus Unleashed

Coronavirus. It is the dominant word of our time. The centerpiece topic of politicians and government administrators, medical and public health officials, and business owners and entertainment providers. It has swallowed up most all of the media attention, leaving other issues of importance near-voiceless. The major events just past – impeachment, weather catastrophes, election primaries, border wall immigration – seem years ago.

There is also the general public messaging, which similarly dominates space in the non-social media platforms. Typically, many (not all) Americans are aligning in polarized opposite camps of opinion. On one side are the doubters. For them, the whole coronavirus issue is simply overblown. Statistics are quoted comparing current/projected low coronavirus cases and deaths with our substantial cancer, heart disease, and “winter flu” (influenza) numbers. They dismiss – if not ridicule – people’s “herd mentality” and concerns as being out of proportion to “the facts.” Given this perspective, they report making minimal changes in their daily life due to this virus threat.

On the other side, people are expressly fearful, based on images seen and stories heard across the globe. Face masks, mandatory home confinement, deserted tourist venues, overloaded hospitals and medical facilities, empty grocery shelves. Charts with ever-growing, spiking numbers. In spite of other countries’ experiences, America wasted two months doing little to prepare for this eventuality. We had a “see no virus / hear no virus / speak no virus” phase; followed by no information, conflicting information, or inaccurate information; infused with misstatements, fantasy scenarios, and future promises (versus current actions). Few have been reassured, leaving people feeling on their own, dependent upon varying initiatives of individual state/local governments and officials left driving our response. In the midst of such confusion, fear set in.

As America finally begins in mid-March to truly gear up for this public health issue, there are several elements we should keep in mind in developing our perspective.

1. While statistics about other killer diseases are important to keep in mind, they are essentially irrelevant to this current experience. These other diseases are largely known items. We have years of study and mountains of data about them; they are generally predictable as to how they proceed; protocols for successful treatment – including some vaccines – are known or are continually emerging. Coronavirus – more specifically this Covid-19 strain – has none of this. It is a totally new sickness, with no track record, no data, no protocols, no “facts” of where it comes from or how it moves. We have no built-in antibodies, no vaccines, no known treatments. The real danger is not what this coronavirus IS, but what it COULD BE. It is this unknown-ness that is our real crisis, which means we are forced to “wing it” in the short term with educated guesses between worst case / best case scenarios. We are not just fighting a disease; we are fighting an unknown enemy – the hardest battle to fight and the hardest to organize against.

2. That said, data is coming in rapidly, and we are sorting through it as quickly as possible. Each day we know more, but it is an elusive, moving target. China and Italy give us a starting point of experiences – IF we elect to learn from them.

3. Are we overreacting to the significant closures and social distancing being rapidly introduced? It may seem so, especially in geographic areas (like mine) where there are (as yet) no confirmed cases. But Covid-19 is a stealth contagion. Once infected, it can take up to two weeks to show itself. It may even show no symptoms at all, but in that invisible state can still infect others. As it travels on its human host, this insidious disease is unknowingly transmitted to an increasingly wider audience – a sleeper cell that results in the sudden spiked curve of cases as seen elsewhere. Because one is “not sick” does not mean one is not contagious.

4. What is clear is that the relatively low number of current Covid-19 cases is statistically meaningless as a basis for projection and planning. We do not know the true number of cases because we have still not adequately tested our population – in spite of the early warnings we had. This is a collective failure of federal government (mis-)management. It reflects a lack of timely preparedness, collective organization, effective leadership, with scattershot solutions focused more on avoiding blame than solving problems. As of this writing, we are still well behind the demand for testing, analysis, planning, and delivery of needed resources to where they are needed. Planning accurate strategies to fight this virus is highly difficult when one lacks adequate intelligence about who the enemy is.

5. Much more could be said about this public health case study. The “lessons learned” post-crisis debriefing and analysis will be important to do. But the immediate conclusion for each of us is that we are in unknown territory here. We are fighting blind with inadequate knowledge and insufficient resources. Once again we face the age-old American conflict of values: do I do what is right for me, or do I do what is right for the community of which I am a part? If I think I am fine – even though I might not be – do I ignore the guidelines and go about my business? Or do I consider those who might be far more vulnerable to, and potentially injured by, my singular action? That is the moral question each of us faces.

For now, responsible state and local political and health leaders will continue to fight this battle as best they can – hopefully with increasing resources and support. Six months from now, perhaps we will know this virus more fully, and we can then judge how well we responded to this crisis with what we knew. Depending upon our outcomes, we may never know whether the Covid-19 threat was overblown, or our collective mitigating efforts stopped it in its tracks (as our “victim of our own success” experience mitigating the “Y2K” computer flaw threatening to shut down the world economy.) Knowing the reasons for “success” can be as elusive as knowing the causes of disease.

In the meantime, we need to remember our health professionals and volunteers, and our service workers who are keeping our country semi-functioning. They are seeking to defend us and provide comfort during these times. We are obligated to do the same for them. Simultaneously, we express our compassion to all the people being significantly impacted by this crisis.

©   2020    Randy Bell  

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Democratic Primary Strategies

The American constitutional ritual of voting has begun. Five months of primary campaigning and voting will lead to a presidential nominee for each of the major parties. The Republican nominee is presumed already known. Yet in the crazy political world of Donald Trump’s daily turns and surprises, who continually snatches defeat by stepping on his own victories, anything is possible. (Future essays will discuss separately the Trump candidacy.) On the Democratic side, the ultimate victor is far from clear. Who the Party’s voters will choose, who the Party’s convention will select, can still go a number of different directions – and will be subject to the same currently-unforeseen twisting and turning events as Trump’s campaign.

Unlike the few Republican challengers against Trump, the Democrats started this campaign season with over two dozen candidates. By any criteria, it was as diverse a pool as could be imagined: age, race, gender, background, political / governmental experience, issue priorities, name recognition. By the start of primary season in February 2020, that number has narrowed to approximately six viable candidates: Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (with Tom Steyer in the wings).

From the initial pool of diversity, the survivors include:
-4 are aged 70+, 1 in her 50s, and 1 only slightly above the minimum age of 35
-4 are males, 2 are females
-all 6 are white, with no minority candidate
-4 are married, 1 is in a gay marriage, 1 has a long-term life partner
-3 are former mayors, 4 are current or former U.S. senators, 1 is a former Vice-President
-2 are from New England, 2 are from the Middle Atlantic states, 2 are Midwesterners
-2 are former Republicans, 1 an Independent (making his 2nd try), 3 are long-term Democrats
-all but 1 are millionaires through mega-billionaires
It is diverse, but hardly the expected resulting profile from the original candidate pool.

All candidates agree that priority #1 is to beat Trump in November. But who is best qualified to accomplish that goal is not clear among the candidates, the Party, and the voters, as each candidate has different strengths and weaknesses to match up against Trump. Huge turnout is accepted as the key to victory (as proven in the 2018 midterms). The ability to get that turnout will likely depend on several strategy considerations:

1. Hillary lost some key traditionally-Democratic states (e.g. PA, MI, WI) by narrow margins. Those states were key to Trump’s win. Some of that loss reflected Hillary’s neglect of those states and taking them for granted in her campaign. Some loss was simply Trump’s appeal to a portion of those voters. Then there was a large number of voters who were deeply opposed to Hillary personally and voted against her. How do Democrats get these voters back?

2. “Bread and butter / dining room table” issues won for the Democrats in 2018. While anti-Trump opinions were high, in the important Midwest it was moderate candidates stressing these close-to-home issues who won in previous Republican districts. They won enough to flip the House to Democratic control, and in 2020 they need to win those seats again to keep control.

3. Some Democratic voters are passionate about achieving a “radical change / big ideas” agenda on a quick timeline for America. The changes include economic restructuring, income redistribution, social justice and equality goals. Moderate Democrats also seek economic and social changes, but on more of a building-block basis of accumulating changes. Revolution versus evolution. Nether camp has sufficient numbers alone to win the November election outright. How will these two camps reconcile their differences and unify for November? In truth, all candidates agree on virtually all programmatic OUTCOMES, but simply differ in their methods. For example, Democrats share a desire for all children to receive needed healthcare, and there are multiple good ways to accomplish that. Quibbling now over mechanics and details is not helpful, versus demonstrating the leadership that will be needed to bring America together to accomplish these things later.

4. Each candidate has pledged to support the ultimate nominee, whomever wins. But which nominee(s) can unite the party, bridge the Left-vs-Moderate agenda divide, while still energizing an across-the-board turnout? Will Sanders’ and Warren’s supporters follow a moderate nominee? Will supporters of the four moderates follow a radical change nominee?

5. All candidates acknowledge defeating Trump is Priority #1. There are certainly many line-item reasons to do so. Who can most skillfully make the case AGAINST Trump’s actions and words over the past four years? Who can make the case to America FOR a Democratic alternative – a clear, clean, simple, succinct , but cogent case?

These are some of the overall strategy considerations for the candidates, their advisors, and the political consultants to consider. However, there are two overall dominating factors that loom over this election, and what can then be accomplished over the next decade.

First, the American public is tired. They are worn out and exhausted from the endless national political arguing and chaos. The constant Tweets, political maneuvering, personal attacks in lieu of serving constituents. The negative changes in the essence, ethics, and conduct of the Presidency. The dropping of yet one more bombshell shoe after another. The headline-dominating daily conversations about “what did the President do or say today?”

The vast majority of Americans are not looking to be so consumed by political or governmental conversations. They are looking to live lives focused on nurturing and providing for their families. Engaging with friends and their communities. Pursuing their personal, professional, and recreational goals. The “Washington Drama” is not where they want to put their attention. They long for the politicians to take care of the necessary political business, the government to provide the services promised, while the rest of us get on with our lives. The “Theater of the Absurd” has simply gone on too long. And Americans have always had a short attention span.

Second, as important as such topics as healthcare, climate change, immigration reform, economic fairness, and a host of other issues are, they are necessarily secondary to an even greater priority. Before taking on these notable issues, Trump’s replacement is necessarily going to have to face the need to first rebuild the foundations and structures of our government after all the change and damage that has been inflicted upon them. Trust in our governing institutions, respect for the rule of law versus person, and the everyday functioning of our governmental bodies and agencies – all carefully developed over 230 years – have all been strangled or ripped apart in just four years. We are now looking at a federal government hollowed out and decimated of knowledgeable professionals, and the breaking or elimination of orderly processes.

Before any grand agenda of new policies and programs can be put into place – no matter how seemingly desirable on their face – this destruction must be reversed and rebuilt. It will be slow, unglamorous, detailed, and painful work, requiring a steady hand. This work will likely consume the entire next presidential term – a significant factor for Biden and Sanders who would likely be a one-term president due to their age. (It is a transitional role similar to that admirably performed by Gerald Ford following the “long national nightmare” of Richard Nixon.) But until that reversal is done, and pride and integrity are restored, and American confidence and leadership are renewed, and our many competing groups find a way to respectfully talk and actually WORK together – we will be stuck where we are. One cannot build policy and program castles on a foundation of sand using broken tools with no workers on hand to operate them.

Until we restore America’s faith and trust in each other, along with the mechanics needed to accomplish the next extraordinary dreams of America’s story, talking about specific ideas and detailed programs is a fool’s journey aiming at a brick wall. Measured against that true priority, which one of those speakers on the Democratic debate stage can best lead us to our future? Which one has best demonstrated an ability to be truly inclusive and join people in working together? That is the important question for each of us to thoughtfully answer.

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Impeachment Recap And Reflections

At 4:32pm on Wednesday, 2/5/2020, the Constitution of the United States was rushed to the Library of Congress and placed in intensive care, suffering from significant assaults against its Principles and Values. Concurrently, the spirits of the 39 Founders who signed the Constitution gathered in an impromptu vigil, waiting to see whether or not the Patient would survive its injuries. The outcome for the Republic is in doubt.

There is much to take away from these past five months of Impeachment and Trial.  The specific takeaways will vary considerably depending on the lens of our varying perspectives through which we view these events, shaped by our widely varying life experiences. In many respects, our concerns are not over what was specifically said and done. Instead, our greater concerns should likely focus more around issues of “rules of law and rules of order,” new precedents being established, and our basic assumptions about our government’s commitment and responsiveness to “We, the People.” Space limitations of this essay does not allow for in-depth discussion of these events; that will be left to the historians. Meanwhile, perhaps the following reflections may be helpful.

1. It is a violation of federal law to solicit or receive assistance from foreign entities for a political campaign. All discussion starts with that legal reality. Donald Trump admitted in the notes of his July 2019 call to the new President of Ukraine that he did solicit such election help by demanding a foreign investigation of his primary potential election rival. [Such admission was also consistent with his public call for assistance to Russia in 2016 (“Russia if you are listening…”), his interview with George Stephanopoulos in June 2019 expressing his willingness to accept political dirt from foreign entities (“I would look at it and decide whether to use it…”), and his 2019 request of China made on the lawn of the White House inviting them to “also look into corruption by the Bidens.”] These public/confessed actions broke the law. He reinforced his demands by acts of bribery/coercion in holding up a White House show-of-support meeting, along with illegally (per the General Accounting Office) holding up $250M+ of military aid appropriated by Congress. These actions constituted Impeachment Article 1.

2. The violation of the foreign interference law was not an accidental, one-time event, but was a deliberate campaign authorized and orchestrated by Trump that went on for nearly a year. It involved numerous employees and non-employees of the government to either obtain the Biden investigations, and/or to hide these secretive efforts. As was said, “everybody was in the loop” –cabinet secretaries, department heads, and outside players. It significantly included Devin Nunes (House Intel Committee ranking Republican) and Pat Cipollone (lead counsel on Trump’s defense team) – two significant conflicts of interest. Keeping these secrets hidden included a total refusal to comply with any legal Congressional subpoenas for testimony by participants, along with relevant documents. The defense argued that “there was no first-hand testimony about the president’s actions,” yet Trump refused to let firsthand witnesses testify. If Trump was truly innocent of these charges, why did he not flood the Senate with witness testimony and documents that would rebut the prosecution and prove his case? This, blanket refusal to cooperate with the House investigation constituted Impeachment Article 2.

3. The House Managers prosecuting the Senate trial were well-organized in laying out the detailed course of events underlying Impeachment Article 1. Their presentation earned compliments from a number of senators from both parties. This was in stark contrast to Trump’s legal defense team which never seemed to settle on a consistent line of defense.

4. The facts upon which the impeachment charges were based proved unarguable and uncontestable. This led Trump’s defense team to pursue an evolving line of defense. First: he did not seek a “political favor” from Ukraine. Second: well, he did, but what he did was not wrong. Third: well, his actions may not have been the best to do. Fourth: well, he asked Ukraine for a “favor,” but there was no quid pro quo – in spite of the substantial testimony to the contrary. Fifth: well, he committed no actual crime. Sixth: well, yes, he may have committed a crime, but it is a crime that does not rise to the “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” level of impeachment. Besides, ultimately a) Ukraine announced no prosecutions and b) they got their money. (Is the burglar who doesn’t find the jewels therefore innocent of the break-in?) Various Trump supporters tried to denigrate the significance of Trump’s solicitation of political help from Ukraine (and Russia and China). But for the Constitutional Founders, resisting any interference by foreign entities was a high priority and concern.

5. Twenty years ago in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, Senator Lindsey Graham and constitutional professor Alan Dershowitz separately argued that impeachment does NOT require the commission of an explicit statutory criminal act. In this trial on behalf of Trump, they each reversed course and said that impeachment DOES require a criminal act (an opinion rejected by the vast majority of legal scholars and Constitutional Founders). So which is it? Is legality based upon the law, or who the defendant is (and what political party s/he belongs to? Founder Alexander Hamilton wrote in “The Federalist” that impeachment applied to “the abuse or violation of some public trust” and “injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Professor Dershowitz went on to offer a painfully nonsensical legal argument that if whatever the president does is for what s/he concludes is in the best interest of the country as s/he sees it, it is not illegal or impeachable. This includes concluding that if s/he is the best person to be president, then whatever s/he does to get elected is permissible. It is a discredited reasoning reminiscent of President Nixon’s statement during Watergate that “If the President does it, it is not a crime.”

6. One example of how far integrity has disappeared from Congress was the abdication of the Impeachment Oath. All one hundred senators swore an oath to their god committing them to approach this senate trial, and review the accusations and defense, from a perspective of “impartial justice.” Nevertheless, some senators from both parties announced their decision and intended vote well before the trial started. In particular, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went even further by stating his intention to shut down and dismiss the trial as soon as possible, and that he was “in total coordination with the White House” (i.e. Trump) as to how the trial would be conducted. Hypocrisy reigned supreme.

7. To justify his decisions about the trial rules, McConnell (and other Republican senators) claimed that this trial was following the same rules as the Clinton impeachment. This was wrong. Clinton’s trial was based on the findings of an “Independent Counselor” (Ken Starr, now a part of Trump’s defense team) appointed by the Attorney General, who spent several years investigating Clinton. Starr turned over boxes of his interviews and supporting documentation – including sealed grand jury testimony – to the House, which formed the basis of the House’s Articles of Impeachment. This was supplemented by three witnesses called to the Senate. No such Independent Counselor or grand jury testimony was allowed for the trial of Trump. Trump’s trial was the first to include no witness testimony or additional documentation (though 70% of the public supported such input).

8. Some Republican defenders of Trump made the argument that this impeachment “was a partisan affair from the get-go in the House, an attempt to reverse the results of the 2016 election; the guilt/innocence of Trump should be left to the voters in November.” First, if it was a partisan affair in the House, would not the country be best served by rising above partisanship in the Senate and conducting a demonstrably model impartial trial– instead of tit-for-tat partisanship? Second, the Constitution assigns responsibility to the Congress for determining whether a president should be impeached and removed. It does not assign that responsibility to election day voters. Congress needed to step up to the job rather than pass the buck. Third, the basis for the Article 1 charge was that Trump sought to illegally tamper with the 2020 election. How does one defer his trial to the very process corrupted by his guilt?

In the end, this entire episode was not a proud moment for an America that has been an aspiration and role model for democracy for the world.  Trump broke at least two federal laws, threatened the security of both a European ally and America, and then tried to hide his actions from Congress and the citizenry. Virtually no Republican senator disputed that Trump committed these actions; rather, the trial was reduced to the subjective question of “how important” was it. The Senate “trial” proved to be no trial at all based upon many Americans’ understanding – by their own experience – of what constitutes a trial. In the process, the Senate effectively announced that: a) the President IS in fact above the law; b) House and Senate Republicans will back Trump in virtually whatever he chooses to do; and c) Congress has surrendered its oversight role over the Executive Branch – access to testimony, documents and information will henceforth be limited to only what a President allows.

Where this takes us from here, and what Trump will now feel free to do, is anyone’s guess. Now it is the People’s obligation to speak its impeachment judgment at the polls in November. What will America’s verdict be in November 2020?

©   2020   Randy Bell