Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Fat Lady Has Sung

Donald Trump was not my preference to be the next President of the United States. Nor did I vote for him. I cannot make these two statements strongly enough. I am still trying to get my head around how someone that angry, thin-skinned, disrespectful, and ill-prepared could be elected President after such a divisive and untruthful campaign.

That said, Donald Trump will be my President come January 20th. That decision has been made, because that is how our American democracy works. Candidates present themselves; an election is held; a winner is determined. Sometimes our preference wins; sometimes our preference loses. My track record for results over my adult life is mixed, as should be expected. This time, by rules well-known in advance, my choice between the two major-party candidates lost.

Hillary Clinton was an imperfect campaigner at best, regardless of what kind of president she would have made. Given much of the public’s negative opinion of her – for whatever nonsensical or justifiable reasons – she needed to be the best. Hilary did not lose because of FBI Director James Comey’s atrocious handling of her email investigation concurrently with the campaign. Nor did she lose because of Russian hacking into the DNC and Clinton campaign’s computers, and their interference on behalf of Trump – which clearly happened and is a significant intrusion into our sovereignty demanding a response. Nor did she lose because the Electoral College is an antiquated device that supposedly thwarts the will of the people. (See the 11/30/2016 posting to this blog site – “Defending the Electoral College.”) She lost because the American electorate demanded a substantial change in the status quo. It was a revolt by a powerless middle-class America against being left out and behind a changing global economy and social landscape that has favored a few insiders. A manifestation of years of less-than-20% approval ratings of ineffective Congresses and their self-interested leaders more focused on gaining power for themselves rather than serving the people’s needs. A two-party political system that provides no home and no candidates for the majority political demographic of Independent voters. Hillary was not seen as the needed response to that dissatisfaction.

Early in 2016, in response to questions then being asked about the Trump phenomenon, I said that the real story was not about Trump himself, but about the Trump voter – and why they were so willing to overlook his outrageous (and untruthful) statements and actions. It was a story Clinton never read, lulled into the faith that traditional voters would show up, even though Bernie Sanders showed that story to her within the Democratic Party itself. Clinton, the ultimate and best-prepared policy wonk, had all the papers prepared for a message not enough voters were looking to hear. Papers that she was never able to reduce to simple, comprehensible themes about what she would do to respond to these voters. She was the wrong person at the wrong time, in spite of all her years of commendable public service.

It was a hard loss, yes. And a missed opportunity to show that even the presidency is finally now gender-neutral. But when you are worried about holding onto your job (with few alternatives in view), providing for your family’s well-being and security, and maintaining a way of life you have firmly believed in, then you are able to make some choices that may look questionable on their face (e.g. Evangelical support for a faux-religious Trump). Instead of reaching out to that discouraged and disaffected audience, Clinton wrote them off as racist and deplorables. Some Trump voters no doubt are, just as some Clinton supporters have behaved inexcusably to their fellow Americans. Writing off those Trump supporters was the biggest blunder of her campaign. The “Trump voter” was not only Republican, but also Democrat and Independent. The Democratic base progressively shrunk; Republicans won votes but no new party loyalists.

So Clinton won the votes but lost the country. Trump lost the vote but won the country. He won fairly, even if perhaps not so square, and in spite of his claims that the election was “rigged” – which it most certainly was not. When you lose, you lose. Among America’s many problems, we have been suffering nationally from an inability to accept defeat graciously, whether it is Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012, or the passing of Obamacare, or judicial decisions on gay marriage, or continuing wars overseas. We demand our way or not at all; we accept no defeat, but keep fighting rear-guard battles unendingly. As a consequence, we have had few new ideas put forth on our political agenda, and made little progress on many unresolved problems. We are too busy refighting old issues over and over again – a political equivalent of “Groundhog Day.”

It is time to quit litigating and replaying this election, however unhappy one may be. Al Gore had a legitimate basis for challenging the Florida election results in 2000. Jill Stein’s Green Party has wasted millions of good dollars asking for multiple recounts with no reasonable basis for doing so. The Clinton campaign team’s support in those efforts was not helpful, if not unseemly. Ditto the efforts to change the Electoral College vote, which was destined to fail, just as was Ted Cruise’s efforts to undo Trump’s nomination victory after-the fact at the Republican Convention.

It is past time to close the book on this 2016 election, as painful and legitimately frightening as it may feel. Starting on January 21st, changes of direction and issues of real substance will begin arising very quickly. In some instances, people may be surprised to find some unexpected agreement with these new directions. In other instances, not. I certainly have concerns about where Donald Trump’s character, personality, and thinking may try to take this country. When it is what we may consider a “wrong” direction, he and his Team should be resisted. Not by name-calling, or speculation, or knee-jerk negative responses such as we saw misdirected at Obama for eight years. But rather by arguments of reason that seek accommodation and mutual benefit. Regardless of the side of the aisle on which our beliefs sit, there will be many battles to be fought over our country’s future. Battles with surprising alternating winners and losers on each side. Right now everyone needs to take a holiday break, conserve their energies, prepare to pick high-value battles worthy of fighting, and substantiate their arguments in the ensuing debates.

We can choose once again to divide up and yell at each hunkered down in our separate end zones, or we can try to march upfield and meet one another at the 50-yarrd line and find some mutual accommodation. The choice is up to us. But the election is over. “The fat lady has sung.” It is not about what was or could have been. It is all about what comes next.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Defending The Electoral College

In my book “The Myths of the Founding Fathers and Their Constitution” (www.MckeeLearningFoundation.com) I describe six key issues that those Founders struggled with in pursuit of a new form of government for the United States. Among them were the questions of the basis of representation, and the manner in which power should be shared and distributed. How the power of thirteen individual, unique, and here-to-fore autonomous and equal states should be subsumed to a new central government proved contentious from the outset of the Constitutional Convention. Should representation be based on geographic size, wealth, or population? How should the mighty Commonwealth of Virginia sit next to the small state of Delaware and pretend “fairness” to each other? The wealthy powerhouse states sought recognition of their strength; the small states fought to protect their viability from being overrun and swallowed up. The division over this issue threatened to sabotage the entire Constitutional effort before it barely got underway. Yet the unity of all thirteen was the understood targeted outcome.

In the end, after hours of deliberation, many written drafts, and seemingly unending changes of mind, the conflicting positions were finally reconciled. The result was the creation of two separate bodies within the Congress: a House of Representatives based upon population (a concession to the large states); a Senate based upon equal two votes for each state (a concession to the small states). It was a compromise balancing size with maintaining the integrity of each unique state.

When the discussion subsequently moved to the question of the President, the same issue of “who gets to decide” arose. It was the “big states / little states” yet again, combined with a broad distrust among the convention’s Delegates as to the capability of the general population to make such a critical choice. (It was already presupposed that such capability could only be entrusted to a select subgroup within white adult males.) To get out of this philosophical bind, the Delegates ultimately returned to the solution that they had used to resolve the representation argument regarding the Congress. That is, voters in each state would elect representatives to a similar body, but one with the sole and temporary charge to elect a president. Representation to that electoral body would be equal to each state’s combined representation to the Congress – i.e. two Senators plus their number of apportioned Representatives – a combination of an equal vote yet weighted by population. Those electors would thereby vote on the people’s behalf for the person they felt to be most qualified for President, with a majority rule. Having fulfilled this singular Charge, the electors would then adjourn and go home, their business completed with no subsequent role to potentially complicate their decision. It was a solution the Founders loved – a compromise, with something for everyone.

And thusly was born the Electoral College. A compromise mechanism for: effecting the delicate balance between the powerful versus the weak; confirming majority rule while protecting the important role of the minority; ensuring that a stampede of the masses does not overwhelm the concerns of the few, while conversely preventing the few from unduly blocking the national will. It is an imperfect system because we are an imperfect, diverse country of competing interests and divergent beliefs that we attempt to accommodate, not ignore or defeat.

Given this objective of balance, over the years the Electoral College has worked pretty well for us overall. It failed to choose a winner in 1800 between Jefferson and Burr, and forced the election into the House of Representatives. It failed in 1876 when disputes in three states over the voting results resulted in Hayes defeating Tilden is spite of Hayes losing both the original Electoral College vote AND the popular vote. In the last sixteen years, we have now had two occurrences of the Electoral College winner losing the national popular vote – “a losing-winner.” These two losing-winner elections have raised voices calling for the end of the Electoral College system in favor of one nationwide direct popular vote – such voices perhaps understandably coming from the losing side of the decision. It is a call with which I could not disagree more.

We need to remind ourselves that we are a federal system of governments. A national government that reflects shared values and principles applicable to all Americans, and able to act on their collective behalf. We are also a collection of individual, dissimilar states with little in common, thereby providing opportunities to do some things differently that reflect local needs and more appropriate solutions. The federal government is our commonality; the state governments are our separateness and individuality. Both are good ideals engaged in an always difficult and evolving dance to jointly serve the citizenry.

The reality is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has very little in common with the State of Texas. As Florida has little in common with Idaho. As California has with South Carolina. Meanwhile, Hawaii sits alone in the Pacific no doubt very happy to have its distance from the mainland. These are differences – sometimes extreme ones – of geography, weather, culture, heritage, immigrant background, population, wealth, education, recreation, and natural wonders. Differences not at all unlike those among the original thirteen states that formed this Union, differences as true today as then. Respecting these differences, not steamrolling over them, is the challenge to the federal government vis-à-vis the states.

Actually, the same arguments over power sharing happen within individual state boundaries, among state, county and local governments. Major population centers frequently claim the “weighted right” of population that risks overwhelming their more scattered, rural neighbors. There is sprawling Atlanta and the whole rest of Georgia. Northern and western New York constantly fight to not be overwhelmed by New York City. Northern California and southern California regularly threaten to secede from each other. In North Carolina, we have the rural and coastal economies of the east, the high-tech Triangle and the high-population areas of the Triad in the center, and the Appalachian heritage of the western mountains. Balancing all of these varied needs, goals and perspectives means exercising due diligence while proceeding cautiously. (Clearly, we in North Carolina are not doing this well at all!)

The President is elected to serve all Americans, as varied as we are. The Electoral College ensures that candidates for that office campaign in most, if not all, of America. S/he is obligated to connect with, and be cognizant of, the vast diversity of this nation s/he seeks to lead. One cannot, and should not, just concentrate on the big population states/centers to win an election. A candidate needs to eat county fair food in Iowa, barnstorm the back roads of New Hampshire, conduct town meetings in New Mexico, and fill stadiums in California. That was made imminently clear in this most recent election when rural/small-town voters demanded to be heard, not ignored.

In this high-tech 21st Century, the Electoral College can seem like an old, unnecessary throwback to an earlier, simpler time. But electorally, we are only slightly different now than in those simpler times. This system was designed from the beginning to remind us of the diverse complexity of our country and its citizenry. We are more than just one aggregate number; we are more than just the loudest voice. Rather, we are many versions of shifting pluralities deeply interconnected to, and dependent upon, each other for our overall well-being. Our political representatives need to understand and navigate among these pluralities to build coalitions for action while also respecting those who stand outside those coalitions. We are all the dairy farmer in Vermont, the factory worker in Michigan, the struggling single parent in Baltimore, the cubicle worker in Silicon Valley, the aging fixed-income grandparent in Oklahoma, the forgotten Native-American on the North Dakota reservation. All of these voices need to be heard and responded to. The value of the Electoral College is not measured by whether our choice wins or loses. Rather, it exists to help ensure that each of our voices matters.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Monday, November 14, 2016

Bodies Alongside The Campaign Highway

Election 2016 has come and gone. Decisions have been made. Winners and losers in each race have been anointed. Over the course of this too-long and nightmarish election season, many casualties were left behind long before November 8th arrived. Casualties of people, institutions, and concepts. It is important to not forget those who the campaign defamed, and the meaning of their dispatch, for therein lies much for reflection and learning in the coming times.

In the presidential campaign, many people had their reputations and character unduly damaged by the campaign rhetoric and tactics employed, rather than by debates of issues. The field started with 17 Republicans and five Democrats. The Democratic field was quickly winnowed to three, and then two, by the lack of qualifications and substance of three wanna-be’s. What proceeded as genuine debates of ideas went to assaults of personality when the race became competitive. The wounds were lasting when it came time for the general election.

On the Republican side, the large field included several wanna-be’s, several stale old faces trying to reclaim relevance, leaving around half the field with substantive candidacies but of mixed qualifications. They were, each in turn, chewed up and banished to the sidelines not because of their ideas or their potential strengths and weaknesses as a political leader, but by unrelenting assaults on their character, being painted with insulting nicknames, or by simply being outshouted for media attention due to a swirl of outrageous and negative statements that defied a response. Negative statements were directed to vast segments of American society, without apology or defense. All of these actions continued through to the general election, creating an unworkable environment for conducting an effective political discourse. Most all of it came from one source – the eventual winner of the nomination and election. Some good people were left deeply scarred from it all, and the American public learned little about alternatives for their future.

But it was not just candidates for office that were casualties of this campaign. Institutions and their leaders were wounded in the crossfires. The chairperson and staff of the Democratic National Committee was caught “guilty as suspected” of favoritism to one candidate over another, a cardinal sin for people charged with guiding the party nominating process. There is much party rebuilding work to do, but what trustable person is available to lead that process?

While the race among Republican candidates proceeded forward, the Party itself was engaged in virtual civil war. After much emotional handwringing, “What is a Republican / What is a Conservative” emerged as principal unanswered questions – still unanswered as of Election Day. Large numbers of voters turned out in Republican primaries, but were these really “the Republican base,” or a wholly new contingent of voters unwedded to any political party? Republican party leadership, elected Republican officials, conservative political philosophers, special-issue promotors, business leaders, Republican voters, and the Republican presidential winner are all out of sync. Candidates with “Republican” labels won big, which can temporarily mask deep divisions. But the fight for control, direction and identity of the Party is not over and will likely prove to be brutal.

The FBI, having spent years successfully rebuilding its reputation for neutral objectivity versus past periods of excesses, became political fodder with its conduct of the Democratic nominee’s email handling. The Director’s public statements, the unprecedented revealing of evidence and notes from a non-prosecuted case, and acknowledged “leaks” of investigations and negotiations by agents from various field offices, clearly made the agency an inappropriate and significant campaign player – a concern for those who still believe in a nonpartisan legal process. It will take years for the public and the agency to recover from this. Even the Supreme Court became an inadvertent player in this campaign, though not of its own making, as the failure to replace the current vacancy due to political and campaign reasons created an abrogation of the Senate’s Constitutional responsibility. The entire federal court system was forced to be drawn heavily into the election process just to deal with all of the voter’s rights / voter suppression cases brought before it. Even our vaunted military institution, which has performed admirably for the past 25 years, took a big hit by unconscionable criticisms of our military leaders, the strategies for defending our country, and veterans and POWs.

The national media once again was a major player in the voting outcome. The most blatant example was its handling of the early Republican primary debates by unilaterally deciding who was a valid candidate and who was not, leading to a “kid’s table / 2nd tier” debate group. There may have been candidates who did not deserve much attention, but that is for the voters to decide from a level playing field that gives exposure to all. Decisions about who to give air time to, which issues to over- / under-focus on, who to give how much air time, chasing the sensationalized headlines of the most outrageous comments, and the incessant drumbeat of poll standings which reduced the campaign to seemingly a running score of a sporting event, seemed very poorly made. “The national media” is an easy campaign target, and often an intended distraction from poor campaigning, but at times it is a target well deserved.

Then there were the “values” casualties. Truth probably took the biggest hit. We are used to the normal suspension of reality for campaign rhetoric – out of context TV ads, sound bites over substance, painting the opposition’s bad character as formed by his/her supposed misdeeds. This campaign took mistruth to a whole new level through inventing “facts” out of completely thin air, drawing from unproven conspiracy theories, and using the fantasies of the National Inquirer as research material. In turn, debates –the give and take of ideas to arrive at better conclusions – disappeared, replaced by a series of televised insults and noise-making, won not by the strength of intelligent argument but by who succeeded more in talking over the other. Values of interpersonal respect evaporated in “a basket of deplorables,” social media fights with Gold Star parents and a beauty contest winner, and audio tapes made on a bus ride. Integrity fled when violence to candidates and voters was encouraged while taking no responsibility for frightening outcomes – both real and potential. Unproven accusations of dishonesty (“Lying Ted,” “Lock her up”) and non-impartial federal judges insulted our dearly-held principles of justice.  Respect for America itself was defaced when voting itself, and the elected outcomes, were cast in suspicion as “rigged systems” and probable cesspools of “voter fraud” – accusations which quickly disappeared when the accuser won! (These accusations often put Republican voting officials in the awkward position of defending their voting systems as “safe, secure and sound” after spending several years, and much time and money, on Voter ID Card proposals because supposedly our election systems were so rife with potential abuse!)

Before we get on with the necessary job of planning for governance, why is this recapping of the litany of campaign horrors needed? We were all there. We lived through it all. We saw it all go down, albeit perhaps through very different eyes and interpretations. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we also acknowledge that many of We the Voters did not perform very nobly either, descending into the profanity and violence of character modeled by too many of the candidates. Therefore we recap these events not to emotionally dwell on the past, or to relive our personal disappointment or elation.  Rather, we do so to remind ourselves how bad this campaign really was, involving so many players – both principals and sidelineders, and ourselves. How much this embarrassment cost this country, financially and emotionally, as well as in our principles of character. How the image of the world’s leading aspirational democratic country, the in fact leader of the globe’s developed nations (a leadership now called into question by much of the world), descended into a 3rd-world image of the democratic process. We recap these events to energize ourselves to never let this form and degree of negative experience happen again regardless of our political opinions and preferred directions.

I have many concerns, if not fears, about where our country will be driven over the next four years. One of those concerns is that there are many aspiring politicians out there right now thinking about running for office in the future. “How to win” is one of the things they are thinking hard about, perhaps more than they are thinking about their positions or about actually serving the public. Will they conclude that 2016 is now the model for how one runs a campaign, how one wins an election in America? A model not based on our best American Character of optimism, respect and good will but of negativism and division.  Is what we just saw to be the “new normal” for us? We passed up the opportunity to say “No” to this form of campaigning in 2016 by in fact endorsing it. How will we – Republican, Democrat, Independent of all differing political views – stop it from coming back around again in 2018/2020? Sometimes, the past is our future. We have unleashed a Pandora’s box of electoral demons. Whether we can return those demons to their container is highly questionable. It will be for all of us to decide.

©   2016   Randy Bell             www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Sanctity Of The Vote

Voting. It is one of the remarkably small number of things (like jury duty) that we are asked to do in order to enjoy the many benefits of U.S. citizenship. Voting is a pretty painless obligation, one of government’s more well-performed functions. It is a shame that one of our presidential candidates is unjustifiably seeking to undermine the sanctity of this most basic pillar of democratic government. When confidence in the value and meaning of one’s vote is shaken, it leaves the resulting government open to questions of legitimacy. Too many of those questions can, in turn, lead to Constitutional collapse. Trifling with that confidence for one’s personal political advantage stands on treacherous ground.

America’s commitment to voting has been absolute and resolute. As with anything, there will always be some margin of unintended error, errors that, in the end, likely do not change the overwhelming outcome. That said, getting to the voting booth has been under attack for some years now. It is an attack fueled by a push to try to make voting rules inherently favor a particular candidate or political party. We have pushed for voter IDs to solve a voter ID problem that is acknowledged to be virtually non-existent, with “approved ID cards” slanted to particular groups. We have adopted more restrictive rules for registering to vote. We have cut back on the hours, days, number of locations for early voting, and their proximity to their neighborhood voters. This is happening at the very time when we should be doing everything possible to encourage people to vote. Many of these maneuvers are winding up in court, mostly being overturned, but at a significant cost of time, energy, money, and endless confusion.

The Candidate claims – with no proof offered – that the election is “rigged.” Against him, of course. But if there is any rigging going on, it is We the People who are doing the rigging to ourselves. We do it by not voting, and by accepting questionable new voting rules. A few examples may illustrate this.

In the 2008 presidential election, roughly 230M people were eligible to vote. Only around 130M did – a 57% turnout. In 2012, 235M were eligible, but again only around 130M did – a 55% turnout. We claim to be the shining example and promotor of democracy around the world – government by Law rather than by person – and almost half of our citizens do not show up when needed. Many of these no-shows will nevertheless be happy to subsequently complain about government services and decisions, write insulting postings in social media, all while staying minimally informed about issues of the day. That sideline seat is far too comfortable to hide on.

In 2015, Kentucky held an election for governor. Up-and-comer Democrat Jack Conway was far and away the polling favorite over Tea Party Republican Mast Bevin. To everyone’s great surprise, Mr. Bevin won with 52.5% of the votes cast. Why? Because only 30% of Kentucky’s eligible voters showed up for this off-year election. Put another way … in a country founded on “the majority wins,” all Mr. Bevin needed in order to win was to take just 15.1% of the eligible voters in his state – i.e. 50.1% of the small (30%) turnout. It was the same strategy Donald Trump used to vanquish his 16 other Republican primary competitors: split the field and get a simple plurality of the only 20+% of America’s voters who are registered as Republicans. (In the early going of the primary, Trump rarely got more than 30% of the votes, versus 70% to other candidates.) Today, to lead the pack, to win the vote, you do not need a majority of the citizens. You only need one more vote than anyone else from the reduced numbers of people who enter the polling booth. It is a very different way of strategizing a political campaign.

Take another example. In June, North Carolina had to hold a special primary election solely for candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. This was necessary due to a federal court ruling overturning the Legislature’s redistricting plan. In that election, less than 10% of voters in my county turned out to vote, with a similar pattern in other counties. The resulting vote was so small, so close, that it generated more indecision. Yet another round of candidate protests had to be resolved in order to finally bring that election to conclusion.

Speaking of legislative redistricting raises the discussion of gerrymandering – drawing congressional and legislative districts is such a way as to deliberately tilt future elections to a particular party or group. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a “1 man / 1 vote” (now “1 person / 1 vote”!) basis for drawing electoral districts, requiring that all districts should have roughly equal populations. In 2016, the Court rejected a suit by conservative Republicans in Texas who argued that the “equal count” should rather be based upon the number of “eligible voters,” which (just coincidentally, of course) would thereby favor smaller, rural (i.e. more conservative – read Republican) communities over large, urban areas. The Court instead reaffirmed that the comparative count for redistricting will continue to be based upon the TOTAL population of would-be districts. End of this attempted subterfuge. For now.

Other than this rule mandated by the Court, the criteria for creating districts are vague, if not non-existent. When gerrymandering comes into play, things can go haywire to substantively defeat the people’s will. For example, North Carolina’s Congressional districts look like an abstract Picasso painting superimposed over a state map. District lines weave in and out and around population centers, and inexplicably snake their way into narrow tributaries of individual streets and neighborhoods. The result is not comic relief, but profound impact. In the 2014 Congressional election, Republican candidates received 1,555,364 combined votes (56%); Democratic candidates received  1,234,027 combined votes (44%). Yet due to gerrymandered districts, Republicans won 10 Congressional seats (77%); Democrats won 3 (23%). So much for the “will of the people.”

Voting is the one process that reaffirms what democracy is: governance by the People. When we forgo our responsibility to speak up – not in social media or conversations among friends, but at the ballot box – we hurt both our neighbors and ourselves. When we play with the voting rules and processes, we turn the democratic process into just another political game of sport. We rig the voting process against ourselves by accepting phony excuses that disguise anti-voting maneuvers – just as my southern ancestors did for a hundred years after the Civil War. We rig it against ourselves by fighting about personalities instead of exploring and debating ideas. Going to the polling place may not be as fun and quick as sending out an ill-thought Tweet, but it has a lot more tangible impact than those 140 characters ever will. We need to reject institutional voter rigging as odious to our democracy. Vote. Our country needs our civic service.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Perspective On Sexual Assault

“If you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, like you don’t belong in the workforce. Like, you should go maybe teach kindergarten. I think it’s a respectable position." Donald Trump, Jr., 2013, in radio interview discussing his view of women who make charges of sexual harassment.

The roll call begins. At the last Presidential debate, Donald Trump said that the audio recording of him on the bus was “just locker room talk.” When Andersen Cooper asked Trump whether he had actually done the things (i.e. assault) he had talked about, Trump replied, “No, I did not.” We knew instantly that that “No” would spell the death knell for his campaign because, given Trump’s virtual dare, victims would begin coming out one after another. It only took three days to start. It is the sound of the final shoes dropping. Yet as this depressing political campaign descends even further from the gutter into the lowest sewer, it is important to keep something in perspective.

Joe Scarborough (“Morning Joe”) cautioned everyone to keep a reasonable skepticism about the victims’ stories. Not regarding their content, but about their timing. After a year and a half of campaigning, he asked, why are these women just coming out now, 30 days before the election? That might be a question many men might ask, but very few women would. And the answer is no evil doings or grand political conspiracy. It is far more basic than that.

We need to put ourselves in these women’s place. You are a young, single female out on her own, perhaps for the first time in your life. Probably fresh at the beginnings of your career. In an isolated, unguarded moment, some famous, powerful man makes a move on you against your will. It is probably for only a short moment. But it leaves you shaking, embarrassed, confused, and fearful that your personal vulnerability has been irrevocably exposed. But who do you tell? Who is going to believe the “little nobody” against the word of the famous, powerful one? You have no proof. He has an army of defenders (and protectors) at his disposal. Who is going to believe you? You have seen the attacks and public humiliation that other women have gone through, innocent or otherwise. So you just bury it, and hide it, and keep quiet. For years, even. Because you assume it happened just to you. But you never forget it.

Then, all of a sudden, the dam burst. Some woman not so powerless spoke up. She got heard and she got results. Finally, you are not alone anymore. Then the famous man in question was unexpectedly caught bragging that he does these things, but now he denies actually doing them. Suddenly your believability goes up; maybe now people may listen to you. His lies are just another form of a renewed assault on you. So you set aside all the hurt, all the buried and numbed feelings, and muster up your courage to finally tell your story. To finally release the demons that have long haunted you.

Certainly these accusations should be investigated thoroughly and fairly. But we should not politicize these events, regardless of our political party affiliation or candidate choice. Will there be some fakers in the midst of these courageous women? Likely, but probably only a few. The ones who have come forth, and the ones inevitably still to come, did not control this timing. Donald Trump’s arrogance ultimately caused this timing and opened the door for them. Telling these stories requires great personal courage, however tentative one may feel; witness the very personal attacks against them that have already begun. As adults, we men rarely have encounters of being sexually assaulted. We rarely even think about the possibility of it, and find it hard to relate to a possibility women think about, and have to guard against, continually. So it requires us to have to make a deliberate effort to understand and relate to these terrible scenarios and their outcomes. I suggest we make that effort. Now.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The 7-No-Trump Bid

In the card game of Bridge, “7-No-Trump” is considered the ultimate bid. In the current presidential campaign, we need to make that same ultimate bid: 7 NO Trump to Donald Trump.

1-NO-Trump: Lack of Preparation. Donald Trump has spent ZERO time in public service preparing to be President. No military, no social service, no political experience to prepare himself to take on the ultimate public service job. He claims that his business CEO experience qualifies him to be a government leader. But government leadership is a totally different profession than being a real estate developer. To aspire to suddenly be President with no transitory preparatory step is too big a learning curve in too critical a position. Would I choose to go to a surgeon who had just decided to switch over from being an insurance salesman, but who couldn’t be bothered going to medical school or serving a hospital residency?

2-NO-Trump: Living in a Bubble. Donald Trump has spent his entire adult life as CEO of some form of a private, closely held family business. Trump has never worked for another as a salaried employee. Never known the pressure of being accountable to someone else judging his job performance and employment. It has always been his show to do as he pleases. Living in this insulated bubble for 70 years, his instincts know nothing else. He cannot possibly have any real understanding of what it means to be an “average Joe/Josephine,” living paycheck to paycheck, having your house foreclosed, being unemployed for a length of time, trying to ensure that your children have better opportunities than you did. The continual stream of insensitive statements Trump makes about people demonstrates this myopia and shallowness of his professed concern for others. If Mitt Romney dug himself a hole for not being able to truly relate to the average man/woman, Donald Trump has dug himself a Grand Canyon.

3-NO-Trump: The Fake Businessman. Donald Trump’s claim for qualifications is his supposed business success and acumen. But it is all a façade. Like any good flim-flam man – think P.T. Barnum, the Wizard of Oz, and Bernie Madoff – it is all about duping desperate wannabes into believing your (fake) aura of success, so they will willingly hand over to you their legitimately-earned money. When the hollow promises inevitably fail, you walk away unscathed with their money; they walk away holding your empty bag. The man who promises to rebuild our economy has left a trail of bankruptcies in his wake. The man who will bring back jobs to America has his products imported from overseas factories. The man who would “help out the little guy” built his fortune stiffing small contractors by non-payment, and overpowering them by threats to sue from his legion of lawyers. The man who promised hope to financially desperate people took their tuition money for an unaccredited and content-empty “Trump University”; they walked away with no education and no real business insights, dreams of their financial future in ruins. Even his phony “Trump Foundation” received no donations from Trump, but willingly (and illegally) spent its money on his personal expenses. The “business genius” who lost almost a billion dollars in his personal business (versus corporate) has run the most amateurish political campaign seen in recent memory, belying any claim to organizational competency.

4-NO-Trump: The Insulting Bully. The President of the United States is the most criticized person in the country, if not the world. It comes daily from across the political spectrum, a no-win / dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. Donald Trump has shown no ability to handle criticism of any sort, large or small, on any topic. There is more concern about being the center of attention than reconciling or creating effective change. There is no “discussion” with Trump; all disagreement is personal. The mildest criticism is deemed “vicious,” requiring extreme and unending retaliation (e.g. Rosie O’Donnell; Gold Star mother; John McCain POW; Federal judge of Mexican ancestry.) If you disagree with Trump, he brands you “a loser,” your track record is “a disaster,” your company “a failure.” Then it gets personal with insults: “Lying Ted,” “Low-energy Jeb,” Crooked Hillary,” “Look at that face Carly.” There are few groups left in America that Trump has not insulted in one way or another: women; Mexican/Latinos; African-Americans; Muslims; veterans; Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Republican Party and its leadership; virtually the entire federal government workforce. All people with whom he would need to work as President. There is a never a debate about the substance of the disagreement, never an apology nor an admission of error. Just insults hurled towards the disagreer. Make no mistake: what we see in the campaign is what we will see in the White House for four years. No change.

5-NO-Trump: Propaganda and Alternate Reality. Trump has no core, thought-through ideas of substance that he can articulate beyond the headline or catchy phrase, so his “positions” turn on a whim from one day to the next. There are no actual plans to solve our problems – unless they are plagiarized from other politicians: a “secret plan” for defeating ISIS (Richard Nixon); “Peace from Strength” on foreign affairs (Ronald Regan); the “Law and Order President” (George Wallace). Like demagogues before him, Trump has learned well the art of rhetorical propaganda. Say anything outrageous, it will get you noticed. Say it loudly and frequently enough, it begins to sound like “truth” – even though it isn’t. “They are all rapists and murderers.” “No Muslims allowed into America.” “I know more about ISIS than the generals [because I went to a military boarding school].” “African-Americans are all living in ghetto hell.” “Muslims in New Jersey cheered on 9-11.” The list is endless. Next step: deny ever having said those things. Or raise an false, unsupported issue but immediately claim someone else (e.g. National Inquirer) said it, not you. Find a convenient villain to blame our problems on (e.g. Mexicans, Muslims). Never take personal responsibility, but blame your mistakes on some paranoid, non-existent “conspiracy” or “rigged system.” And if all that fails, just fabricate a story out of thin air and the truth be damned. It is the classic “big lie” built on top of a mountain of other “big lies.” “Trust me” and “I am the only one who can fix this” are not real strategies for change.

6-NO-Trump: The Bull in the World’s China Shop. The world is in a very dangerous and precarious state right now. It is unsteady, skittish, violent, and can turn on the simplest misunderstanding. Each nation is a sovereign entity that cannot be told what to do (a reality that escapes too many U.S. politicians). Yet we are all interdependent among each other militarily, economically, and socially. America is still the place many look to for real leadership and problem-solving, even as they resist subservience to us. So cautious and patient diplomacy, and careful nuance of words, matter greatly. Donald Trump has shown no understanding of world history, no skills at diplomacy and nuance. International relations and agreements are not “deals” negotiated from the “I win/you lose” perspective that characterizes Trump business dealings. Much of the free world is anxiously in fear of a Trump presidency, who appears oblivious to those concerns. The triggers on our nuclear weapons need a calm and thoughtful commander; Trump has demonstrated neither calmness nor thoughtfulness.

7-NO-Trump: Understanding the Presidency. The Presidency is not just a functional position, sending out orders and making policy decisions. It is also the embodiment of the American Character. The President comforts us when our nation is hurting; lives the values our parents taught us as children; steadies us in crises;  brings us together when we seem to be pulling ourselves apart. We have been fortunate to have had a number of presidents with such abilities, even though we may have differed on agenda. Can you really imagine Donald Trump standing in the well of the AME church in Charleston – or any of the multitudes of similar places of grief that now occur so regularly? Or standing at the podium of the United Nations with no knowledge of the individual histories and concerns of those countries? Or bringing together aggrieved community groups after he has run a campaign built upon division and fueled by hatred towards each other? Or building a climate of sharing after demonstrating a lifetime of self-centeredness and self-promotion? Sitting in the most challenging and powerful chair in the world also requires the humility of knowing your own limitations to keep one in balance. That requisite humility has not been seen in Donald Trump. Yet one’s arrogance inevitably catches up with each of us.

The real story is not about Trump himself, but about the voters who are supporting him. Trump is a caricature riding a wave of discontented voters angry about an America moving away from their experience and expectations; angry at the ineffectiveness of government in protecting them; angry at the Republican Party for not delivering on promises made. They deserve to have their concerns acknowledged and addressed. So the single good thing Trump has contributed to this election is to expose self-serving political hypocrisy and give voice to this national frustration. But history says that the messenger is rarely also the fixer. Paul Revere alerted Americans of the British threat; but George Washington was needed to defeat them. Donald Trump may seem the voice of change, but is he, and his style and ideas, the change we want?

America has always turned away from “doom and gloom” apocalyptic candidates, because we are a confident and optimistic people. Leadership ultimately comes down to the character and humanity of the person, and Trump is simply not someone to admire as a person. Trump’s “can do” is a fakery, because it is all driven by the glorification of Trump, not the America people. I have no idea what in Trump’s background caused him to be so insecure and angry. But he epitomizes the full opposite of what parents have been trying very hard to raise their children to become. Donald Trump is simply not a nice human being, concerned about and respectful of others. He is not someone I would invite into my home, or want within miles of my family. He is not someone to look up to and admire, as we expect with our presidents. My children and grandchildren deserve better than this. We all deserve better than this. At a certain point, we have to trust our gut instincts. The 7-NO-Trump bid rejects Donald Trump hands down.

©   2016   Randy Bell             www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

America's CEO

A good friend of mine, a successful small business entrepreneur now retired, once observed that “all politicians should have written a payroll check at some point in their career.” He felt that the experience of waking up each morning responsible for keeping business doors open, and meeting one’s employment obligation to employees, would keep many a political position grounded in some appropriate first-hand business realities. Among the CEOs community, there are many fine successful leaders who remain grounded in that “doors open / employee payroll” perspective. Sadly, far too often that connection has been lost. For the big corporations, the organizational layers are too many and too dense, the subsidiaries are too diverse, the employees have no names but are merely summarized numbers on an expense spreadsheet, and the CEO is all-too-frequently a financial manager pouring over marketing analyses with little knowledge of affinity for the actual products and services being produced.

Some “successful” CEOs – meaning they have personally become very rich while their stockholders and suppliers may or may not have benefited much – decided that their business success can be transferred to the national economy and political governance. We have certainly had presidents before from the very wealthy class: George Washington (probably our richest president measured in today’s dollars), Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush. Yet all but Washington were beneficiaries of inherited money, not earned wealth. Such inheritance allowed them to follow a career of public and/or political service that helped prepare them for the presidency. But when a CEO/businessperson directly enters the political ring, it is typically from a “business managerial” perspective. Unfortunately, that perspective does not often translate well into public governance.

Why? Because the business world and the government world are each built upon fundamentally different premises, exist for completely different objectives, operate within vastly different working processes, and are subject to totally different metrics of measurement. About the only aspect they share is a baseline that neither can exist for long if they go broke. Beyond that one commonality, business success is measured by net profit, and the Return on Investment (ROI) to its owners/stockholders. Our American governments are measured by their adequacy of maintaining public safety and delivering certain basic infrastructure services, while ensuring equal opportunity and treatment for all citizens who have widely divergent backgrounds, ambitions and life choices. Business is built on a command-and-control decision-making structure with clear centers of absolute authority. Government is built on persuasion and consensus, even in these frustrating times of “no compromise,” with few centers of absolute authority.

In 2008, Mitt Romney (a very wealthy businessman) ran for the Republican nomination for President, emphasizing his business success and economic promises as his qualifications for office. He lost that nomination campaign to John McCain. In a July 2, 2008, post (full text still available on this blog site) reflecting on “Buying the Presidency-2,” the following observations were made:

“For Mitt Romney, it was not his wealth I objected to, which he seems to have come to quite legitimately.  It is his attitude that came through so pervasively, i.e. that his electability should be predicated on his wealth, that being successful in business inherently qualifies one to be successful in governmental leadership.  The reality is that American government is not a business, was never designed from the get-go to be ‘run like a business’ (although that does not preclude utilizing business-like operating efficiencies).  Political leadership and achievement is about vision, compromise, building consensus among divergent but equal stakeholders, attending to and balancing conflicting needs rather than playing to “niche market segments” (a la Karl Rove and George Bush).  It is not about electability, it is about governing.

The US Congress is not a stockholder’s meeting, the Supreme Court is not a corporate board, and state governments are not subsidiary corporations.  It was Romney’s lack of understanding and connection with many facets of the American citizenry, and the failure to truly understand “government” for what it is, that I think ultimately undermined him.  It is why his (or any other) campaign must show a broad body of public support – via volunteerism, fundraising, and ultimately votes – in order to qualify one for public office (versus being designated as corporate CEO).”

I spent most of my career years in the non-profit world, primarily with public and private colleges and universities, with side ventures in artistic and spiritual organizations. I watched firsthand the difficulty well-intended business people had in serving on Boards of Trustees or in management / advisory positions with non-profit/public service organizations. There would simply be a fundamental disconnect in the thinking, perception, and verbiage of the business people vis-à-vis the non-profit / public service people – a disconnect that would be bridged only infrequently. It is not easy to shift from a “giving orders” environment to a “persuasion” environment.

General Dwight Eisenhower was a career military man, fully schooled in giving and taking orders within the chain of command. When he was elected President in 1952, his predecessor Harry Truman mused privately to friends, “Ike will sit right here [in the Oval Office] and he’ll say ‘do this, do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

The United States Presidency may be the most powerful position in the world. But each President can also speak to the all-too-real limitations of that power. Limitations from other personalities, the various branches of government, the authority of other elected officials, the extended bureaucracy, the sovereign rights of other nations we cannot trample over. Then, of course, are the People of these United States. The real owners of all layers of our governments, armed with their bulwark of rights to express their opinions, criticize at will, protest against perceived injustices, and cast their vote.

Government is built on checks and balances to preclude errors of excess. The checks may be continually tested, the balances tipped on some occasions, but the center must ultimately hold. Decision-making is slow and messy by Constitutional design (though decisions must eventually be made); efficiency in deliberation was never a priority. Unlike in the business environment, governance requires many voices to be heard and opinions to be considered. The President is one voice among many.

After his 2008 loss, Mitt Romney went on to win the Republican nomination on the same platform in 2012, only to then lose to Barack Obama. So far over the years, Americans have intuitively sensed a reservation about the “political CEO.” With some exceptions, wealthy businesspeople, spending large sums of money for political office, have not had a great track record of electoral victory. There are many more “workers” in this country than there are managers and entrepreneurs and CEOs. Perhaps that view from the rungs further down on the career ladder makes the citizenry suspicious of what a CEO of a United Corporation of America might have in store for them. Perhaps they understand corporate America all too well, and seek in their government a counterbalance to the economic driver that prevails over so much of their life. I hope so. Best to proceed with caution when the wolf shows up covered in that sheep outfit.

One other thing we should remember. Being President is about more than just the economy. Certainly our national economic viability and our personal economic well-being are vitally important. They always constitute standard topics for campaign rhetoric. But as any mayor, county commissioner, governor or former President can attest, there is a full and wide-ranging menu of issues that require experience and skill from elected executives. With all due respect to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election, it is not solely about “the economy, stupid.” The Presidency is much bigger than that.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Monday, September 5, 2016

Private Rights, Public Responsibility

The United States Constitution is a marvelous document. It was the first to overthrow the millennia-old idea that the right to govern was “the Divine Right of Kings.” It was a written governing document, defining a framework for running a new form of government “by the People.” And primarily through its subsequent Amendments, the Constitution explicitly delineates certain Rights that are inherent in being a citizen within this government.

Understandably in the aftermath of a Revolution to separate ourselves from an autocratic King,
the Constitution is very focused on Rights; the “Bill of Rights” was a first order of business for the new Congress. What it is less clear about is the flip side of Rights: citizen Responsibility. The Rights statements define obligations of the government to citizens of the United States, but Responsibility was assumed by default. You start out with Rights until you abuse them in some way by injury – either real or as a highly probable potential – to others. (A 12-year-old child does not have the right to drive a car. He may not have killed someone, but the likely possibility from lack of good judgment is deemed too high to risk.)
Another one of those assumed principles in our Constitution is our Right to Privacy. To be left alone. If I am causing no substantive harm to you by my actions, then leave me the hell alone. Nowhere in our Constitution is a Right to Privacy specified. (Perhaps the closest to it is the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches.) But this important Right has been explicitly presumed in various Supreme Court decisions, most notably(and perhaps ironically) in a 1965 decision overturning laws prohibiting married couples from obtaining contraception aids (e.g. “the pill” newly available), and a 1972 decision overturning laws prohibiting abortion (“Roe v. Wade”). Not withstanding the lack of an express statement, most Americans  believe and expect that Right to be part of their citizenship package. Whatever legal briefs may be filed, the Right to be Left Alone is at the heart of much resistance to a perceived intrusive government. But Privacy, and Rights in general, often collide in the face of expectations of Responsibility. It is a collision that is at the root of many of our social arguments.
For example, take our 1st Amendment guarantee of Freedom of Religion, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In our homes and churches, temples, and mosques, we have a Right to adopt and practice whatever religion we may choose – including none at all. This individual Freedom can only happen if our government remains strictly neutral about all religions, and prohibited from showing any preference of one religion over another. It is a promise virtually every President has upheld, even when “religious leaders” – and some politicians and lay people – periodically call for their institutions and religious beliefs and practices to dominate over others. (People seem to easily forget that that neutrality is the very thing that allows them the freedom to practice their religion at all.)
The Right to practice the religion of our choice in the privacy of our homes and houses of worship nevertheless bumps up against the Rights of all citizens in the public marketplace and government services. We are all equal citizens one-to-one, an equal count in the voting booth, an equal voice in the public debate, an equal owner of our government. Our Constitution guarantees each of us equal opportunity and standing as a citizen unrestricted by race, color, heritage, marital status, gender, or, with some limitations, age or physical health. Nor by most any other categories we have not yet come up with to try to separate ourselves.
Our Constitutional Rights are generally personal to the individual. But the detailed laws that carry out these Rights define our Responsibilities to the Community in which these Rights are exercised. We always live simultaneously in both worlds, as individuals while concurrently a member of a mutually interdependent community. Humankind may have once lived entirely self-sufficient lives, without a need for others. That is impossible in today’s shrunken political, economic, social, interconnected world. When we move out of our private lives, and engage in the public place, Responsibility becomes equal to, and sometimes dominant over, Rights. It is a necessary accommodation for creating a civilized society.
In our homes, we can associate with whom we choose – likely people very similar to us. But in the public marketplace, we do not choose: everyone is the same. Some of us remember all too well the signs saying “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” In fact, “anyone” inherently meant Blacks and Mexicans, sometimes Jews and Catholics. Women and LGBTs were not even considered worthy of a conversation. Ultimately, our Constitution caught up with, and abolished, such public bigotry. If one is in the marketplace, all citizens are entitled to be served  regardless of what one chooses to believe or do at home. A  Jewish shopkeeper may open a Kosher Jewish deli, but when my friends in Boston took me there, there were usually as many Gentiles there as Jewish patrons! (No religious test for good ethnic food.)
Taking the illustration further, in the privacy of their own homes, Justices of the Peace and marriage license Clerks can believe anything they want about the moral correctness of same-gender marriage. But the State has its own secular definitions of marriage from a legal ownership and benefits perspective. It is a perspective that cannot deny a citizen’s Rights based upon the religious choice of either the public servant or the couple seeking the marriage. Each religion has its own religious definitions, ritual, and rules of eligibility to sanctify “religious marriage” within that faith – a freedom with which the State does not interfere. The Community obligation to issue a secular marriage license does not also require you to perform the religious ceremonial ritual. If one chooses to be a public official or officer of the court, the law of community takes precedence, not the Right of Privacy or Religion.
The Rights versus Responsibility distinction will always be a source of tension if not outright conflict. Both seem clear when considered separately; the appropriate relationship between the two is rarely easy to determine, especially when two Rights go head-to-head against each other. This same tension is found in all of our Constitutional Freedoms vis-à-vis our laws of Community: gun ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of press, voting procedures. No Right of Freedom can disregard Community Responsibility; no laws of Community can arbitrarily overwhelm Rights. We cannot just have it one (i.e. our) way. The teetering point in between is always a difficult case-by-case compromise, often on a trial-and-error “best effort” basis, determined by people of good will towards each other: respecting Privacy, while building strong Communities.
I am usually comfortable with this Rights and Community tension, willing to let each person hold to their individual beliefs and private conduct while expecting respect and accommodation in the public place. But sometimes I do wonder … if I were a small entrepreneur, a baker of cakes in a small shop in my little town, and a Skinhead or KKK member walked in one day and asked me to inscribe a cake with a blatantly offensive racial slur or societal threat – how would I respond?
Theory meets daily reality. Life is never perfectly clear. Rarely does it offer easy answers. In the end, there is not a “right” answer. There is only our good will, and best wise judgement, brought to bear that truly matter.
©   2016   Randy Bell                           www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Conversations Over The Fence

“I may be wrong, but I’m never in doubt!”   a friend

We hear a great deal of talk these days about the divisions in our country. Political divisions; religious divisions; cultural divisions; divisions of states and nations. These divisions are mostly expressed in words: sarcasm, labels, accusations, opinions – far too often with little thoughtfulness or reasoned argument. With seemingly increasing frequency, these divisions are being expressed through physical violence. Conventional wars, imported terrorism, localized killings from the sick and self-righteous looking to “make a statement,” the rogue cop who forgot “to protect and to serve.” Even though the data says crime is down overall, our hyper-sensitive ears tell us that dangers lurk. That bullets are replacing words.

In reaction to this downward spiral, we build fences to separate us, to hide behind. Mostly these are intangible, social, or policy fences keeping us apart, not a physical “beautiful wall.” But what could happen if, instead of the verbal bombasts and finger-pointing we have been doing, we actually started having conversations across those fences. Like we used to do with our neighbors in days gone by. Where we share a dialog of information, and seek to understand a problem from the broader perspective of people whose life experiences and current situation are far different from our own. That would be a vastly different public conversation than what we have conducted over the last twenty years.

For example, take the subject of illegal immigration. For many people, this issue reduces to a simple either/or “deport ‘em” or “naturalize ‘em.” But this is not just a legal or intellectual argument we are having. This topic concerns an estimated 10-15M human beings now living in America. A border patrol officer charged with securing our borders is likely worn out trying to do a seemingly un-accomplishable job. A social worker along our southern border is likely overwhelmed trying to keep up with the caseload demands. An immigration officer is likely frustrated that people think there are no consequences in effect for being here illegally, yet his/her department has deported more illegal aliens than ever before. A farmer is likely frustrated at the inability to hire competent and willing workers to tend the fields, needed because most citizens now avoid that kind of traditional work. A tradesperson in home construction may feel that illegal immigrants take away jobs and/or depresses wages, even though buyers still demand quality of product and such immigrants often do high quality work – and pay for their own housing with their income. A child advocate is likely opposed to breaking up families and deporting dependent children due to their parents’ decision to come here. A business employer, or even an individual homeowner, may protest illegal immigration while conveniently – and hypocritically – turning a blind eye when hiring that same person. An illegal immigrant him-/herself is likely confused because, having come here for the opportunity of a better life for family members, having broken no laws since arriving, and having contributed positively to American society, no permanent acceptance of you seems possible. A humanitarian, or one driven towards “social justice,” is likely at wit’s end at the country’s inability to acknowledge its culpability in allowing this illegal immigration to occur, and its unwillingness to let past mistakes be past. A minister may be guided by a fundamental calling that, regardless of the circumstances, “people are hurting, and I am charged to ‘love my neighbor,' and I shall.” Finally, an historian will likely remind everyone that we have had illegal immigration in the past, allowed racially-motivated emotions to limit immigrants from certain areas of the globe, and heavily discriminated against virtually all new incoming people until, over time, they managed to overcome that bigotry.

A prosecutor likely believes the Law is the Law, and breaking it is just not permissible. A defense attorney likely points out that the Law has always provided not just punishment but also justice and mercy, with varying options available (incarceration, probation, suspension, clemency) for sentencing. A juror in the large courtroom of public opinion has the unenviable task of sorting out what is “right.”

The point of this narrative is not to “solve” the issue of illegal immigration in America. Rather, it is to illustrate that, behind all of the emotional yelling at each other and rigidity of our opinions, the views of right /wrong and what to do/not do look very different depending upon where one sits in their individual experience. It is as a bicycle wheel: the hub is the issue; the spokes are the perspectives. When all spokes feed into the hub and work together, the wheel is stabilized, turns, and the bike moves forward. We could easily construct a similar model of multiple perspectives about virtually all of the great issues facing us: abortion; voting rights; campaign finance; war against terrorism; gun violence; religious accommodation; gender-based rights. Our challenge is whether our conflicting perspectives have to perpetually lead us to conflict, or can be interwoven into concurrently addressing broader concerns that marks the patchwork quilt of America.

With some unfortunate exceptions, most contributors to this verbal jousting are not cruel, malicious or starry-eyed people (though some operate from a self-interest in keeping the conflict alive). People simply see issues from different angles, each of which is “true and right” within its own domain but represent only a part of the Total Perspective. But because we are not listening to each other, we never see the full scope of the tangential issues, the complexities that smother the search for simple solutions. When we discuss things across the dividing fence instead of yelling from behind it, when we start with the recognition that our neighbor’s view is worthy of a respectable listening, only then can we expand our understanding and find the solutions that seem to evade us.

Arguing stops us in our tracks and is self-defeating. True listening – which demands our humility that we do not have all the information nor the be-all answer – leads us out of the stymied morass and enriches the solution. We are never as smart, or as right, as we think we are on any issue.

“This country is in very hard times, there’s no question about it.  But we’ll dig ourselves out of it once again if we can stop yelling at each other for a half hour.”                       Garrison Keilor

©   2016   Randy Bell             www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Empty Promises From Amateurs

A few weeks back, the NBA Champion Cavaliers made Cleveland the center of excellence for athletic professionalism. After this past week, Cleveland has also now become the center of political amateurism.

The last meaningful political convention that decided anything of substance was in 1976 between incumbent President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan. Today, the sole purpose of such national political conventions is showmanship: crown the winner of the primary elections, and enthuse party members to go forth and do battle for their candidates in the future. It is all done with the American people looking in at the drama and festivities. It is the best campaign opportunity you get to speak directly to the American people, to define who you are, and to show your vision and capability.

Instead, this year, given all of the chaos, disruptions, divisiveness, missteps, and desperately false explanations (Really? Hillary Clinton was responsible for Malania’s plagiarism?), we saw a convention plagued by errors –consistent with and reflective of the Trump campaign itself. A  convention designed and executed by a tight family circle of campaign novices. If one cannot successfully manage his/her coronation to expectations, an event over which you have almost total decision-making authority, why should we think that person can possibly lead a country of 300M diverse people over which s/he has minimal authority?

Donald Trump selling himself as the “Law and Order candidate” is a reach-back to Richard Nixon’s and George Wallace’s campaigns in 1968. His rallying cry of “America First” was a reach-back to the pre-World War II isolationist movement. Neither of those ideas worked out very well then, and to speak of them today doesn’t bode well for “new, forward thinking.” Yes we have some problems in our country today, problems that need to be solved. But “Make America Great Again” does not sit well with one who believes America has been, and still is, pretty damn Great already, even if imperfect. If we are ever able to get re-focused again, and stop being distracted  by one-shot fly-by-night would-be leaders trying to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge on the cheap, we can return to the vision and ability to fix that which ails us that we are so admired for throughout the world. And we can fix it without the need for pointing fingers. Donald Trump may be “the Voice” speaking for an extremely angry public, but he does not speak for me with his dark vision of where America is now, and where he would lead it in the future. I learned long ago that anyone who feels they have to yell at me that loud to try to make their point is usually trying to cover over the shallowness of the substance of their argument.

In the end, the phrase “Only I can fix it” is a perfect epitaph of what is wrong with Donald Trump and his pseudo-campaign – a campaign built not on the substance of ideas but on a continual ridicule of the reputations of his opponents and assault on their character. It is the arrogance of a single individual claiming to have all of the answers while saying “Just trust me,” even though he lacks any experience whatsoever in public service or international relations to ground his thinking or demonstrate his ability. That lacking is combined with the highly erroneous view that the Presidency of the United States is just another CEO position in yet another family-run business. It ain’t. The kindergarteners are running the school; the amateurs are running the campaign. All at a time when the need for competence and experience are more important than ever. That competence and experience were not on display in Cleveland.

One wonders just how far afield our fears, anger, and blaming of others are going to take us before our fundamental sanity, traditional self-confidence, and famous “can do” working-together capability set back in. Before we realize – the would-be emperor has no clothes.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Senator's Silence

TO: Senator Richard Burr, United States Senate, Washington, DC

“We the People of the United States, in Order to … establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Silence. That is all to be heard from our Congress. Orlando has barely passed into a hazy memory. Yet over a week’s time, we watched clear video of two African-American men shot to death in Louisiana and Minnesota. Shot by police officers apparently inadequately trained and hyper panicky to properly pursue their jobs. Followed by an African-American sniper killing five Dallas policemen motivated by distorted revenge. Five cops in a city recognized for its demonstrated success in reforming policing. That more were not killed in Dallas – police officers and civilians – is due to the judgment and practices of those good cops who ran towards the gunman in order to protect others. Three bad cops in Louisiana and Minnesota measured against the dedication of thousands of good cops displaying courage every day. While an uncourageous Congress sits silent.

This is my 35th monthly letter to you about gun violence in America. The 35th letter since you and every one of your Senate Republican colleagues voted against expanded background checks – or any change whatsoever in gun legislation or responsible ownership – in the wake of Sandy Hook. Even though 90% of the American people wanted – and still want – action, you chose instead to serve the single organization that inserts six-figure “donations” to your campaign.   Even if those previous 34 letters have not changed your mind or course of (non-)action on this issue, they have served to remind both of us of your failure to act then, and your failure of leadership now.

In spite of your statements of supposed concern about the issue of gun violence in America, I continue to see no legislation being proposed by you. I have seen no instance of you utilizing your chairmanship of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence to provide leadership to your Party and our country on this issue. No visible efforts being made by your Republican Party. If you choose to reject the President’s proposals on this issue, or Democratic politicians’ proposals, or proposals from the ad hoc bi-partisan group chaired by Republican Senator Susan Collins from Maine, that can be your choice. But just saying “no” to everything, while not offering up any of your own better solutions, is not an acceptable choice. That is a copout. Coping out is not what you were elected, and are paid handsomely, to do.

Once again turning tragedy into politics, your Party’s expected presidential candidate recently announced that he is now the “law and order candidate.” He reached all the way back to 1968 to adopt Richard Nixon’s and George Wallace’s campaign mantle. As it turned out, “Law and Order” did not solve anything in 1968. Nixon wound up a step away from impeachment for breaking the law himself, and Wallace was gunned down into permanent disability by yet another man with a gun. Bumper stickers do not solve problems, because you cannot have Law without Justice, and you cannot have Order without people feeling Safe in all forms.

Yes, I hear the same tiring slogans. The handwringing that “nothing can be done.” They say, “guns don’t kill people, people do.” No, people kill people with guns; guns are not inanimate objects when in people’s hands. “The 2nd Amendment guarantees my right to own a gun.” Yes, A gun, but not Any gun. That right is preceded by “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state …”; we have such a militia in every state. That wording also explicitly allows us to REGULATE those guns.

We live in different times now. In 1790, a single-shot musket took perhaps 30 seconds to reload one bullet, hardly the same as an automatic weapon today that needs only a fraction of a second to “reload” and spread its destruction far and wide. As has been said often, the only purpose for an automated assault weapon is to kill people. Many people. Quickly. That is important if you are a soldier. Not so when out hunting a defenseless deer. Dumping even more guns into the populace (as some propose) for “self defense” – like some modern-day version of Dodge City – is certainly no answer. I have no interest in having to wonder every day whether each of my granddaughters will make it home safely only if her teachers have a firearm strapped to their hip.

In the midst of this turmoil, your Congressional colleagues sit silent. This time it was House members who voted to do nothing. The only action that was taken? In the midst of a public suffering and crisis, Congress voted to adjourn and go home for seven weeks, apparently exhausted from their many long days of doing nothing. Maybe that was for the best. Just shut it down, and blatantly confirm what the public already knows: that Congress is completely unable, uninterested, and unworthy in fulfilling its duty to protect and improve the lives of the citizenry. So it is time for you and your colleagues to just get out of the way. Either quit the job or be voted out. Step aside for new people – un-beholden to the gun industry – who have ideas and the energy to help find real solutions.

A package of multiple ideas is needed because that is what it will take to make a difference on this issue. Ideas that look at all aspects of this pervasive violence: the source of the violence; the tools of the violence; the perpetrators of the violence; the punishments for the violence; the glorification of the violence that encourages other perpetrators. Those who think “sending prayers” is enough of a response insult those fathers, mothers, siblings, spouses, and children who have suffered such great losses. They deserve better than you seem to have the capacity to give.

If you have nothing to offer, get out of the chair. I will vote NO to your reelection bid in November. Hopefully many others will do likewise. Three more letters still to go.

“Man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.”     (Chinese proverb)

Sincerely, Randy Bell

© 2016   Randy Bell                 www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Now There Are Two

The Republican and Democratic presidential primaries have ended. Thankfully, mercifully ended. There were originally 22 recognized, official party candidates for the nomination of their Party, five Democrats and 17 Republicans. Can you possibly remember all of their names? This was said to be the deepest pool of candidates ever, but some of them were politically unrecognizable. Once their campaigns started, others made you wonder: what were they possibly thinking – about themselves and the presidency – that had them imagining themselves as President of the United States of America? The “kid’s table” at a presidential debate became a new part of the political lexicon, testament to the implausibility of some candidates.

In a time when numerous serous issues scream out for serious discourse about directions, alternatives and plans, there has been a dearth of such a substantive discussion. The first half of the Democratic debates had some quality discussion on policies and programs, but once the voting started, the campaign went to the usual arguments about personalities and respective qualifications. The Republican debates never had an illusion of policy substance, as from the outset all conversation was centered on the latest outrageous comment from Donald Trump. It is hard to have a serious conversation in any setting when the loudest mouth in the room can speak only in insult, ridicule, and self-promotion. We have all personally experienced people who never allow someone else to share in a conversation. It may be somewhat entertaining in the moment; after a while, no one wants to invite the loud-mouth back again.

In the end, two candidates – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two 70ish-year olds in a year expected to be of new faces – appear to have emerged on top of their respective Party. All that remains are the formal roll calls in July to make it official. That said, both candidates are burdened with the two highest unfavorability ratings in history as of clenching their nominations. It is hard to make sense out of that paradox, even in this year that defies believability.

Hillary Clinton breaks the gender hurdle with her apparent nomination, 30 years after Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination for Vice President. Whether or not Clinton can crack the final gender barrier – becoming president – remains to be seen. Regardless, she deserves to be congratulated for her accomplishment thus far. Gender alone will not – and should not – entitle her to the presidency. Qualifications and competency still matter (hopefully). Clinton has been in public service for 30 years: First Lady of Arkansas; activist First Lady of the United States; United States Senator; previous candidate for President; Secretary of State. She has generally been acknowledged as smart and effective in promoting her political views, even with people who have disagreed with the specifics of those views. She has also inherited a bucket-load of negativity from longtime opponents of her husband. Caught in that vortex, combined with her penchant for privacy and her general distrust of press and politicians, it leaves many feeling her to be unknown, untrustworthy, and secretive. Yet it is hard to understand the reflex negativity many people have about her. The adjectives are spoken; the negativity is personal; rarely is offered actual reasons or proven specifics of anything she has done to so anger people. Is it simply style, or is it substance? It is unlikely we will hear any future substance when a bumper sticker slogan or Twitter quote more easily passes for political dialog.

Certainly we will have no substance from Donald Trump, who has never spent one day in public service. For almost one year, the man has spent minimal time on policy discussions or specific proposals. “I’m gonna build a beautiful wall” is neither idealized policy nor pragmatic action. (How deep does that wall have to go to block the underground tunnels that will be built under it?) What passes for “telling it like it is” is in fact nothing but shoot-from-the-hip, unfiltered thought-to-mouth utterances devoid of any previously thought-through principles and developed ideas. The man struggles to speak a coherent sentence, much less an intelligent paragraph. Instead of ideas to consider, we get an endless soliloquy of insults, demeaning nicknames, assurance of full self-confidence, and unproven reminders of how successful and wealthy he is. Given how thinned-skin he is, and unaccustomed to being questioned, challenged or held accountable, the insults have plenty to draw from,  That is, when he is not inciting ethnic hatred and violence while disclaiming any responsibility for same. (“Hit him; I’ll pay your legal bills.” “Ban *****.” [fill in any particular foreign or religious group.]) Trump’s proven talent is in “branding” and marketing the Trump name. He also excels at manipulating the legal/financial codes to insulate himself and avoid any personal responsibility or loss from his succession of business failures. With Trump, “Do unto others” comes out as “Do it to others.”

What Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders in a vastly different way, have thankfully done is to fully expose the deep anger that infuses voters against political ineffectiveness and self-interest. An anger justified after 21 years of a total focus on partisanship politics, non-action / non-results, and hypocrisy. For Republicans, they are now endorsing their presumptive nominee while concurrently distancing themselves from their candidate’s words as they agonize over the condition and future viability of their fractured Party. But it is a conundrum they brought on themselves by continually (and erroneously) preaching about an America in decline, which they promised to correct – promises gone unfulfilled. And now they are surprised when a loud-mouthed bully, completely independent and disdainful of the established political structure, comes along promising to “shake things up” and finds great success with rank-and-file Grand Old Party voters.

Of course, in this election year that is unlike any other, when virtually any imaginable scenario seems possible, there is still a chance that Mrs. Clinton’s and/or Mr. Trump’s name will be missing on the November ballot. Trump thus far has shown no ability or structure for running a national presidential campaign, has no real base of support within the Republican Party organization or elected politicians (phony endorsements notwithstanding), and must now give up his vaunted “self-funded” mantle to take Party and big-donor money to fund his campaign. Which will make him just like every other politician. Will the delegates revolt at the convention and dump him if he looks like an inevitable loser in November – potentially extending to myriad other “down ticket” Republican candidates? And if he is destined to lose, will Trump pack it in and quit the race (under some pretense), given his long expressed disdain for “losers”? In which case, who then shows up on the ballot? Nothing is a given.

Then there is Clinton. She knows how to organize and run a campaign, and will have a strong Party team to back her up. But her “email scandal” still looms. If the Justice Department finds cause to indict her for mishandling secret intelligence, pragmatically her nomination is over. In which case, who then shows up on the ballot? Nothing is a given.

Our general election year is not yet over, and a badly needed “pause and reset” is not in sight. If it is Trump versus Clinton, it is likely to be a very long five months of the dirtiest and un-substantive campaign in our 228-year presidential history. Welcome to the “new normal” – soundbite campaigns in the Twitter Age. Sitting home on Election Day is not an option. But is this really the election campaign, the candidates, the triviality we asked for? I doubt very much that this is what James Madison and his cohorts in Philadelphia expected us to do with their treasured handiwork two centuries later.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Friday, May 6, 2016

Our Obligation To Each Other

What is our obligation to each other? If there is one, what is our level of commitment to meeting that obligation? And what is the most effective manner for us – individually or collectively – to fulfill that commitment? If we have no such obligation, what should then be done with those unable to adequately fend for themselves?

These are some of the most fundamental questions being asked of us today, demanding answers from us that we so studiously seek to avoid, the WHAT questions that should precede the HOW arguments. Is our only obligation to our one sole life, or do we share some measure of responsibility for the well-being of others? On a national level, what does being “an American” really mean?

For instance, does every child in America deserve to be fully fed, clothed and safely sheltered each and every day? If not, then what should we do with a hungry, unclothed or unsheltered child? Is every child responsible for him/her self regardless of their capability to do so?

We can ask a similar question about our older Americans. They have typically lived a productive lifetime, and have supported us in often intangible ways far distant and long invisible to us. Now they find their skills unwanted, their bodies insufficient, and their resources inadequate to their needs. What obligations do each of us have to each of these?

In a land which has the most advanced medical science capabilities in the world, to whom should this science be made available? Should all of those capabilities be available to all people, or all capabilities to only some of us, or should some portion of those capabilities be available to all? What level of safety of life and limb should be inherently available to an American?

The Founding Fathers strongly believed in the necessity of an educated public in order for the country to successfully progress and succeed as a free and prosperous democracy. Over the course of the mid-1800s through early 1900s, America committed to the universal education of all children, regardless of their ability to pay. Yet the quality of that education has never been universal due to issues of discrimination and varying economic support. Is our commitment only to the appearance of educating, or is it access to real quality of instruction regardless of one’s circumstances? And does this include education beyond the basics of adolescence?

We are bedeviled with similar questions around a host of other topics. But instead of answering fundamental questions about our shared obligations, we instead argue about individual self-responsibility, government welfare programs, tax liabilities and national debt, the proper roles for religions and charities, economic theories, and “the 1%.”

In the 1607 Jamestown settlement, founded in pursuit of individual economic success, “earn your own keep” and “work to provide for yourself or be left on your own,” became the social contract. That experience bequeathed to future generations a heritage of American rugged individualism and the expectation of economic success from one’s own hard work. Self-reliance was the foundation.

Conversely, the 1620 Puritan settlement of Plymouth was founded on pursuit of religious freedom to nurture the spirit, built upon a collective (communist) system of economic sharing. All members of the community shared in the collective bounty based upon one’s mutual obligation to each other. That experience bequeathed to future generations a heritage of looking out for one’s neighbor and sharing the wealth, particularly in times of personal disruption and crisis.

These two heritages have left Americans with an ongoing tension between self-responsibility and helping one’s neighbor. We have been inordinately successful economically by our creativity, inventiveness, and “can do” work ethic for 400 years. We have also been extraordinarily generous in our charitable work, giving and sacrificing for others not only locally but across the globe. It is a generosity recognized and rightfully appreciated by people of all backgrounds the world over.

Yet the tensions between self-responsibility and helping others remain, and is a growing divide today. Protecting our economic viability and strength is certainly necessary to be able to be generous. Every major religion – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism – challenges us to be compassionate to, and accept a measure of responsibility for, the well-being of others, especially the “poor, the widows, and the orphans.” Billions of religious people routinely attend their respective houses or worship and attest their acceptance to these moral obligations. But as they end their ritual service and leave their gatherings, what then happens to that profession of obligation? How does it become realized or lost in the everyday business of daily living?

Perhaps as Americans there is no obligation between us, even though each of our lives, and our successes, has been made possible by the enabling actions of many others – often unseen and unknown to us. Perhaps we all make our own way, and create or lose our own reward. Perhaps our religious teachings only apply selectively, and only to those who we deem deserving of our favor. But instead of endless debates about what government should or should not be doing, and what programs should exist and which should be cut, perhaps we should change the discussion altogether. As a collective society with a national border, we have both the right and the ability to decide what our national obligations to each other will be, and how we will choose to execute those obligations. Whether it is every individual for his/her self, or whether all share together, or perhaps something in between.

But in such a discussion, let us first leave behind for the moment the safe protection of unengaged intellectual argument, mathematical economic theory, and abstract principles of governance that we pontificate in the privacy of our living rooms and social media forums. Let us instead encounter the very stark reality of “If not this, then what?” When the social program is cut, what then happens to the individual? If it is not me, then who will feed the hungry child?

©  2016   Randy Bell                www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com