Fascism Comes to America
Ever since Donald Trump (barely) won the presidency in 2016, I have occasionally expressed my bewilderment at how millions of my fellow-Americans could find the man so appealing as to support him. His repellant personality is such that, were I to meet him at a party, I would distance myself from him as fast as possible and vow to maintain that separation. Wouldn't any non-sociopathic adult feel the same as I did and keep away from him?
But then I remember why that's the wrong way to view the Trumpian phenomenon. His MAGA base supports him because he is not an establishment politician but a man who shares their grievances against the establishment. That makes him one of them. But at the same time, what makes Trump unlike them is what also binds them to him. That is his self-proclaimed ability to provide them with the retribution they are sure they deserve. Trump's promise is that of the strong man to the masses eager to take orders that will save them. Their devotion has nothing to do with welcoming him as a neighbor.
This is the very model of how fascism works. Almost exactly a century ago, Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy on virtually identical premises. A few years later, Adolph Hitler followed in Germany, as did Generalissimo Franco in Spain. None were men you'd want to share a beer with on your front porch. No, it was their very hardness that turned millions into followers, convinced that these guys would deal ruthlessly with their mutual enemies. And they did.
In America today, the foes of Trump and MAGA are the globalists who have let far too many immigrants into the country, people who, Trump tells them, channeling Hitler, "are poisoning the blood of our nation." These are the same alien forces who are taking the jobs many in the base have lost while contributing as well to a rise in crime. Meanwhile, the globalists in charge of things have been shipping the money of honest citizens overseas instead of fixing the border and restoring the nation's industry. To sum up how this globalist elite is their enemy, Trump assures his base that these people "aren't just out to get me. They're coming after you as well."
So, how will our nation fare in the event of a Trump victory next November? He has pretty much told us. Although he plans to be a dictator "only on day one," those twenty-four hours are time enough to launch a putsch against our Constitution. I make no predictions as to how that might unfold, although it shouldn't be hard for him to find an excuse for declaring a state of emergency. That would militarize at least some of what has been within the realm of our civil society, all in the name of rendering the nation safe from its enemies. Given the likelihood that Trump would take coercive action against those he perceives to be his enemies, that would no doubt bring resistance, more coercion, and an escalation in the use of force. Given the power he would have at his disposal, it is hard to see how the republic as we've known it could long survive.
So, the U.S.A. now appears to be on the doorstep of its greatest crisis since the Civil War. It will soon be up to the voters to decide whether to step over that threshold or move back away from it.
Lessons Not Yet Learned from the War in Gaza
I continue my consideration from last month of the current state of affairs in the Gaza war. Nearly three months have passed since Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel provoked the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to strike back by invading Gaza. His goal was to "eliminate" Hamas, which has governed that tiny territory of some 2.3 milliion people since 2016. In short order, Israel's invasion made Gaza the site of the most destructive war of several that have erupted between the Jewish state and its Palestinian neighbors since Israel was created 75 years ago.
Start with the October 7 attack by Hamas: an unprepared Israel saw roughly 1,200 of its citizens and other residents killed, with 240 taken as hostages. These were unquestionably atrocities, as most of the world agreed, justifying Israel's response as the legitimate effort to punish those responsible. Initially, the Israel Defense Force focused its airstrikes on the northern part of the strip, and warned the million or more souls living there to evacuate to the south for their own safety. But in short order, the destruction was directed to the south as well. Within a matter of weeks, refugees were on the road for a second and third time in the effort to remain alive. The death toll mounted quickly. After one month of warfare, the Palestinian death toll surpassed 10,000; by the time 2023 was coming to a close less than two months later, that figure had more than doubled to nearly 22,000, a huge percentage of whom were women and children.
Meanwhile, Israel claimed to have killed large numbers of Hamas fighters, in addition to having discovered--and in some cases destroyed--a number of Hamas-constructed tunnels from which its officials directed the fighting. Much of northern Gaza is now leveled and some 85% of the population has been driven from its homes. Still, at year's end, Israel insisted it must keep the war going for many more weeks or months to eliminate Hamas as a viable force. At the same time, with only very limited aid entering Gaza, a U.N. report stated that more than half a million people in Gaza--a quarter of its population--were starving. The territory evidently was undergoing the worst famine anywhere in the world in recent times.
As the tragedies mounted, the prospects for peace grew ever more distant. The Israeli government evidently had no end game in mind, even though crushing Hamas, even if that were feasible, could be little more than a first step toward a better future for the region. Netanyahu had long since backed away from the goal of an independent Palestine as Israel's sovereign neighbor. That rightly added to the growing criticism of the war Israel continued to wage in Gaza. The terrible ordeal Palestinians in that strip of land are undergoing currently has made plainer than ever before how the long denial to Palestinians throughout the region of their rights as a free people perpetuates a grave injustice. It is an injustice that even previous Israeli governments have acknowledged as a condition that should be overcome.
It seems clear to this observer that the United States, which has long been Israel's staunchest supporter, must take the lead in pointing the Israelis--and the world--back toward a two-state prospect as the only ethical way forward. No, achieving that will not be possible in the immediate future, given the history of grievance that must be overcome, including the goal of the most militant Palestinians to wipe Israel from the map. But it must be embraced as the goal of all the key players because it is the only eventual outcome that can bring peace and dignity to all who live in the region. The tropes of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia can only be brought to heel once a two-state solution takes root in the minds of millions. Getting to that point will be difficult. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with an initial step.
Whither Israel and Palestine after the War in Gaza?
It is now seventy-five years since the state of Israel was created along a coastal strip of land that had been home to Palestinians for some two thousand years. True, the Jews who became citizens of the new state starting in 1948 traced the birth of their religion, and hence, their identity, to that same territory long before they began to be dispersed to distant territories across the globe starting with the Christian era. But in returning to the place of Judaism's origin, some 700,000 of that land's Arab-speaking population were made to emigrate from what had long been their homeland.
The hope of the global leaders at the time who supported the creation of this new state was that a Palestinian state would also be established as Israel's neighbor. But from the beginning, Israel claimed territory beyond what had been agreed to by the U.N.; at the time of its birth, it added some 60% more land following its military successes against its Arab neighbors. Twenty years later came its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and Golan. Since then, Israel has put down many settlements in the West Bank. So, in spite of lip service to the two-state idea, such a reality has slipped ever further out of reach.
When the current war began after Hamas's brutal attacks on Israel on October 7, Israel stood on the moral high ground in returning fire against the attackers. Now, however, some two months after Israel began its effort to root out Hamas terrorists, upwards of 15,000 Gazans have been killed and more than half of Gaza's 2.6 milllion residents are homeless. Their cities and infrastructure now resemble a moonscape. As a result, what was initially widespread support for Israel's mission is crumbling, with increasing numbers of officials and citizens of countries friendly to Israel supporting a cease-fire. Still, the Netanyahu government continues to insist that it will not end the war until it has "eliminated" Hamas.
Therein lies the rub. Even if all those identified as Hamas officials are brought down, others are sure to rise in their place for, whatever their brutality, the Hamas movement will coninue to attract those who view it as a weapon to advance the Palestinian cause, and Israel be damned. The Netanyahu coalition, after all, has not so much as hinted at a goal of a two-state solution at the end of the current cycle of destruction. There are sure to be more such cycles and more death and devastation unless, and until, some viable prospect arises that a free and independent Palestine can be helped to thrive in peace beside its thriving neighbor. Getting there will be arduous, but first steps in that direction are demanded now.
The moment should be apt to remind ourselves that among the nations that are most successful in the world today are those that are welcoming and have become beacons of diversity. The goal of marrying nationhood to a single tribe or ethnic group was largely the agenda of the 19th century. The USA led the way from early in its existence to welcoming people, originally from all over Europe, and later, from the rest of the world as well. Yes, I know that immigration is a fraught subject both here and elsewhere today, as it often has been in the past. But liberty's beacon never was extinguished, and has been raised high repeatedly to welcome the displaced to our shores. May it burn brightly in the years to come!
Meanwhile, it behooves all those who support genuine peace in the Middle East to work for the creation of a second free and independent state to stand beside Israel. The road there will not be easy, but it's past time to take the next steps. Once that comes to pass, we can hope that, over time, the tribalism that has defined both communities can recede to the point that those who have been regarded as "the other" will be welcomed in as equals.
Our Shoot 'Em Up Nation
Last month, a mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, made the news. Eighteen people were mowed down and thirteen others were injured by a deranged citizen with an AR-15 in a bowling alley, then a bar. It was the 36th mass murder in the U.S. to that point in 2023. Since the year still has two months to play out, it's pretty clear that it won't be the last such event before a new year dawns. In my own city of Philadelphia, by the date when the Maine shooter had been found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, this year had already brought us 1,113 nonfatal and 320 fatal shootings. Nearly 150 of these were children, for whom gun violence is now the leading cause of death nationwide.
Once more, I guess we just shrug and say yes, we know, but that's how it is. Ho hum. Every time we try to pass legislation to curb some of these deaths, we meet with defeat from the gun lobby and their supporters. In 2008, the Supreme Court, after all, ruled for the first time in its history that our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms meant that lawmakers could not ban handguns from being kept and used for the protection of one's home and family. Last year, the Court went even further, ruling that citizens had the right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home. Sorry, distinguished justices, but these look like mad-house decisions to me, designed to make the mad-house wrought by our gun culture crazier still! What's more, at least 27 states now permit carrying of a handgun without a permit, and allow teachers and staff to carry such weapons on school property.
We Americans constitute only about 5% of the world's population, but we have 40% of civilian-owned guns on the planet. There are now some 393 million firearms in the hands of our citizens, which comes to about 120 weapons for every 100 persons. In Yemen, the country that ranks a distant second when it comes to citizen ownership of guns, there are approximately 53 such instruments of death for every 100 persons.
I know, the gun folks want us to understand that it isn't guns that kill, people do. The newly elected Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, put that concept almost poetically in reference to the Lewiston massacre; "the problem," he said, "is the human heart." Could be, but the murderer in this case, as in so many others, owned a long-gun to do what his heart bid him do. In this nation, the death rate from guns in one recent year was roughly five times the rate in Canada, ten times that in Australia, and nearly twenty times the rate in Spain. Does the Speaker believe that American "hearts" are simply that much more blood-thirsty than those of Canadians, Australians, and Spaniards?
Unlike us, a number of rich-world countries have enacted legislation that actually reduces the number of guns their citizens possess. In 1996, a massacre in Port Arthur, Australia, led that government to buy back some 650,000 firearms; the result was that the number of murders and suicides in Australia plummeted. In New Zealand, less than a month after a massacre in Christchurch in 2019, the government passed a buy-back scheme and restricted the sale of AR-15s. In 2020, Canada banned military-stye assault weapons two weeks after a mass shooting in Nova Scotia. These nations, which never came close to matching ours in gun deaths, nonetheless all took action that reduced them further.
Meanwhile, here in America, we continue to wring our hands and act as if we think that shooting 'em up is ordained in nature. It's way past time for us to lead the world by following the example of other nations and enacting legislation that would begin to reverse our epidemic of gun violence.
The Ukraine War and the Future World Order
The nearly two-year-old war waged by Russia against Ukraine is the most serious conflict in Europe since World War II. From the start, it drew the United States and other NATO countries to provide substantial military support to Ukraine while taking pains not to become belligerents themselves. After close to twenty months of warfare, two opposing assessments are clear: first, Ukrainian forces have done an amazing job of holding off the Russians thus far but, second, at the same time, they've made little progress in their spring and summer offensive in retaking land occupied by the enemy early in the war. Because the size of Russia's population is more than three times that of Ukraine, a war prolonged indefinitely seems certain to favor the invader.
The stakes are huge--for Ukraine, of course, but also for the world. This confict presents the most clear-cut case of right and wrong in international politics that we've seen since the Nazi and Japanese aggressors were soundly defeated in 1945. That outcome led to the democratization of nations that had suffered under dictatorships, and the advent of the most peaceable era in Europe that the continent has ever known. Should Putin's war succeed, forcing Ukraine back into the Russian fold, not only will aggression have won the day, so will the prospects for wannabe dictators to try to rearrange the political map of the world to suit themselves.
President Biden, fearful of provoking a Russian attack on the U.S. or other NATO member, has so far refused to give Ukraine the kinds of military hardware that it needs to win. Meanwhile, the situation for Ukraine has become increasingly urgent. We are now at a point where bolder action is needed from the West. Rather than letting the situation on the battlefield become a stalemate, Ukraine now needs to inflict as much damage as possible on the Russian army, pushing through Putin's lines in the nation's southeast to retake lost territory. Putin needs to be convinced, and sooner rather than later, that he is fighting a lost cause.
This means that both NATO and the EU now must change their tune. They need to make it clear to the world that their end-game in the war is to be able to welcome Ukraine into their company. NATO's Article 5 could be used to provide a security guarantee to Ukraine without it becoming a member. That, or an equivalent announcement, would make clear that the war must end on terms favorable to Ukraine. Then NATO membership might follow. Now is also the time for the European Union to offer Ukraine a road-map for EU accession. That could set out clear milestones for Ukraine to meet over the course of several years, thereby fostering hope and goodwill as well as economic reforms in Kyiv.
Yes, I know that there is growing opposition among MAGA Republicans to a continuation of America's financial support for Ukraine. But that is all the more reason for Biden to take the lead in the Western alliance now to increase our stake in the outcome of this conflict. We need to make clear that this is too close to being an existential threat to democracy.
If both NATO and the EU take these steps now, they don't so much risk armed attacks on any of them from Russia as they make clear to Putin the futility of such action on his part when he is up against as many as several dozen governments who have now made clear that Ukraine is one of them. Not only must the West's policy change, all the world must see it change. It is far less risky to make those goals clear than to leave one's adversaries--as well as one's friends--wondering just how far Western assistance may go.
Notes from a Pathetic Grammarian
Calll this an old man's rant, but I feel the need to sound off on some of what disturbs me about what's happening to American English. Yes, I know, if language is to live and thrive, it must change. I doubt that many of us now bemoan the loss of the second person singlar in our speech. Apart from its hold-over in some usage relevant to religion, it's been centuries since we have addressed individual family members and close friends as "thou" and "thee." Instead, we are perfectly accustomed to use of the plural "you" whether speaking to a crowd or no one but our spouse.
The first of my beefs is with our greetings when we meet. The response to "how are you?" these days is frequently "I'm good" rather than "I'm well" (or "fine" or "so-so"), "thank you." I remember a colleague whose reply to "I'm good" in response to his polite query was to say "I don't doubt your moral character. I was inquiring after your health." That no doubt puzzles whole generations of younger Americans who have no idea that those two adjectives--well and good--once applied to two different conditions of our existence, and were not to be used interchangeably. Even now, I think we all understand that to say "he's a good man" does not suggest that he's in ruddy health.
Then there's the matter of the split infinitive. In the not-so-distant past, it was anathema in circles where good grammar was respected to say or write "to almost win" or "to nearly lose." No,
the adverb went either in front of "to"("never to do," "eagerly to go") or after the verb ("to eat heartily," "to sleep soundly.") There never was an acceptable grammatical excuse for separating the
particle from the action verb the "to" introduced. Copy editors at the nation's leading journals corrected every split infinitive that came their way.
But, lo and behold, I've now begun to see split infinitives in perfectly respectable publications! Granted, real live copy editors may have given way to editing by artificial intelligence, but such programs surely could be taught to catch those split verbs if whoever is in charge of such things thinks that's essential. I fear that we really are entering a time when the old anathema is crumbling. (OK, maybe it's silly to fear that development, but at least I can bemoan it.)
Here's a sampling of other normalized usages today that I at least semi-deplore:
Start with how we now treat that simple little word "like." Traditionally, it has two distinct meanings. The first, a verb, is to have affection for someone or something, as in "I like her" or "I like this ice cream." The second, an adverb, is to resemble something else: "She looks like her mother," or "This photo is a lot like that one." But increasingly we find "like" replacing "such as." Here is an example: "Educated women often join organizations like the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, and the Junior League." Now, I'm almost sure the speaker doesn't mean to say that women join organizations that resemble those listed. "Such as" makes clear that the list that follows contains examples of the genre; now we are told to use "like" in the same way. I guess it follows that if we want to show things that resemble other things, we now much say "young girls often join organizations like the Girl Scouts or the Girl Guides, the latter being somewhat like the Girl Scouts."
But the truly ubiquitous use of "like" today is simply as conversational filler, replacing the "uh" in hesitant speech. "I had, like, a really bad dream last night," "She's gotten a bit, like, fat," or "What am I, like, going to do?" Although I've set these "likes" off with commas, they are usually spoken without being set aside vocally from the phrase they interrupt, so maybe you should skip the punctuation.
"Kind of" now serves much the same purpose as the filler "like," though it is also a sort of clunky synonym for "almost" or "nearly." I recently saw this phrase in print: "It's now kind of virtually impossible to do that." It seems to me that it's either virtually impossible to do the thing or it's not; "kind of" simply muddies those waters.
But the filler to top all the fillers of hesitant speech is "you know," which now tends to spill out of what would otherwise be every pause in a speaker's effort to make a point. When it first saw the light of day as a neologism, the phrase may have been meant as a tiny compliment to me, the listener, suggesting that of course I know what you're talking about. Yet far more often than not, it's precisely because you're not making yourself clear that I don't know what the hell you are trying to say.
Here's another frequent screw-up. The rule requires that when you introduce an independent clause with the phrase beginning "as far as," both noun and verb follow within the phrase. So, it is correct to say, "As far as Miss Muffet (noun) knew (verb), there was no spider near her tuffet." But the ungrammatical variant in today's speech drops the verb in the introductory phrase and says "As far as Miss Muffet, there was no spider near her tuffet." There has long been an alternative opening phrase where no verb is needed. Make it "As for Miss Muffet, there was no spider near her tuffet," and all is well--grammatically as well as factually since, with no spider lurking, we need have no concern for Miss Muffet once she sits.
When I was considerably younger, the correct, if informal, way to refer to members of both sexes was to call them "guys and gals." Without question, a guy was male, a gal female. But today, both (all) sexes seem to be "guys." "How are you guys doin' tonight?" is the hearty question tosssed off by an M.C. when he comes onstage to greet the men and women in his audience. Did this change come about because "gal" was deemed a demeaning or offensive term in the age of women's liberation? If so, it's an odd evolution, given the fact that women's lib has meant that we no longer refer to humanity in general as "men," but take pains to name both genders.
I remember when the latest slang suggested that youngsters getting together socially might "hang out" in their favorite pub. Now, I hear the suggestion "let's hang" and hope that what's being called for is not as dire as it sounds. Gone also are the days when, if you waited on someone else, you were serving them their meal. To wait for that person meant you were checking your watch in the hope they would show up soon. Today, either preposition seems to suggest you're in the latter state.
Using correct grammar is what allows us to express ourselves precisely and clearly. But I guess that doesn't matter much today.
As far as my health, I'm good, so now I'll, like, go to probably hang in the park with, you know, those guys while I wait on you. That's kind of exactly what I mean. Sort of.
Gun Violence--As American as Apple Pie
There is a considerable literature on the idea of American exceptionalism. I'm sorry to say that I know we're exceptional in at least one very depressing respect. Americans shoot, wound, and kill each other with firearms at a rate that leaves comparable shootings in every other advanced country far behind. Some 390 million guns are sloshing about the nation, which means there are far more of these instruments of death than there are individual citizens to use them. If you're keeping score, more than 45,000 people in the U.S. died from gun injuries in 2021. The total number was down slightly last year; this year has seen more than 25,000 gun deaths by August 1. Even if 2023 should end without having matched the shocking toll of 2021, gun violence remains an epidemic throughout our land.
I know, I know, we are made to believe that the Second Amendment to our Constitution makes sacrosanct our right to bear arms. Yet, that amendment reads in full "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Any sensible reading of that text assumes that what is protected here is the right to raise militias to provide for a state's security. When the amendment was ratified in 1791, the kind of militia referred to would have been composed of male volunteers from the community who were expected to bring their own muskets to the fight. That is hardly the same as supposing that we as citizens are encouraged to go about our daily affairs while armed to the teeth.
Our recent orgy of increased gun ownership was kicked off with the 2008 Supreme Court decision which, in a five/four ruling, invalidated a federal law in the District of Columbia forbidding most of those living in the nation's capital from owning handguns. Since then, we have seen state and local efforts to create what proponents see as "common-sense" gun legislation. But, however modest, these have mostly been shot down by the N.R.A. and its disciples as infringements on our Second Amendment rights. They argue that it is mental health issues that instead need to be addressed since, their argument goes, it isn't guns that kill people, it's other people who do.
Even if you grant that those who engage in gun violence are showing signs of mental illness, does it also suggest that the overall mental health of Americans is somehow far worse than that of, say, Germans, Brits, Japanese, or Canadians? Those and many others are nations with far fewer shootings than we have grown accustomed to in our piece of the planet. At least some of the explanation for that must flow from the far greater likelihood that our citizens will own and have easy access to one or more guns.
In my own city of Philadelphia, there were 288 homicides by the beginning of August as well as 960 non-fatal shootings. Although that marks a decrease from the same point in 2022, it nonetheless means that, on average, more than one person died by gunfire every day and between four and five others were wounded. During the last school year, 199 public school students were shot, of whom 33 were killed. Some of the shooters were themselves children who obtained unsecured guns from their own homes. That trend is little changed in 2023.
If those who become shooters are often troubled by mental health, just think how the mental health of our society as a whole would be improved if all the weapons now at loose in the nation were suddenly, magically to disappear. I know, waving a wand will not do it. But until we find the means to rid ourselves of vast quantities of these instruments of death, we shall continue to see our differences and disagreements turn to fatalities, with survivors who are crippled, whether physically because they've been shot themselves, or emotionally, from having been made to survive the shooting of loved ones. America deserves much better than this.
From Hot to Broiling
2023 is likely to be the hottest year globally not just since record-keeping began, but in millions of years--from a time before humans first populated the earth. The July just ended brought record-setting wildfires and deadly heat waves around the world. As the month neared its close, nearly 200 million Americans, or 60% of the U.S. population, were under a heat advisory or flood watch. Waters off the coast of Florida rose to a temperature comparable to that in a hot tub.
These developments are forcing even many skeptics to admit that climate change is real and happening now. Even so, as a new month dawns, our politicians on the right have shown no sign that they have concluded they have an obigation to help curb the burning of fossil fuels, which are mainly responsible for the continuing release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Not a single Republican voted for President Biden's important climate law, which provided an unprecedented $370 billion in subsidies for clean energy. Republicans are now advancing policies that would repeal large parts of that law, beholden as they are to the extractive industries that support them. They also seek to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating pollution from power plants and vehicles.
Last spring, a Democratic polling group conducted a survey which concluded that some 74% of voters now believe that climate change is a major issue, a 5% increase from a similar poll two years earlier. Now it is conceivable that because millions more Americans than usual have since been impacted by this summer's extreme weather events, public sentiment is growing in support of policies to curb global warming.
Yet, even if the electorate increasingly does turn away from the head-in-the-sand folks, it is far from clear that we will actually adopt the kinds of unprecedented policies the moment demands to stop, then begin to reverse, global warming. Such policies of course would include bold steps to halt the production of fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, which must become the norm for providing us with power. It would mean building--or rebuilding--our nation's public transportation system to wean us away from the internal combustion mode of travel that now largely defines how we move about. In 25 years, China built a 26,000-mile high-speed rail network that serves well over a billion riders annually, and the goal is to nearly double that over the next dozen years. A comparable effort in the U.S. could reduce our reliance on highly polluting air travel while decongesting our highways.
Bold steps such as these also require bold changes in how we live. Some of what that would mean is implied in the previous paragraph. It could require a decision to avoid flying even when the comparable trip by electrification would take considerably longer. It might mean that the package you ordered from Amazon would arrive not overnight but in about a week. If there are still millions among us who would find such alteration in their lives "unacceptable," they should know that far worse reversals in their accustomed ways of life will no doubt land upon them as the warming of the planet worsens.
So, no one is an alarmist today who hears the alarm bells ringing loudly regarding the need for unprecedented measures if generations that might follow are to inherit a livable planet. We still have time to prevent such a catastrophe if we move more boldly than we ever have before. But those of us alive today may be the last human beings who will have that capability.
Race (No Longer) Matters?
Days ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities could no longer consider an applicant's race in determining whom to admit as students. That put an end to decades in which affirmative action policies sought to promote greater diversity in higher education by allowing race to be one of the factors admissions officers might consider in assessing which applicants to choose. The six-to-three decision grouped all of the Court's conservatives in the majority with the three liberals in dissent.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that giving black and Latino applicants an edge over white and Asian ones in the name of diversity violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That post-Civil War amendment, granting full citizenship and equal protection of the law to all those born or naturalized in the United States, was written specifically to make equal citizens of recently emancipated slaves and their descendants. Today, it seems that, in Roberts' view, the tables have been turned, with whites and others historically regarded as privileged now the targets of discrimination through the workings of affirmative action. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas asserted that "racialism simply cannot be undone by different or more racialism," which seems to mean that any consideration of race in the quest for equality is inherently racist.
But what I find compelling here are the dissenting views. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson saw an unfortunate connection in the majority's reasoning to that of Marie Antoinette: "With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces 'colorblindness for all' by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life." Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the majority ruling "cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter."
There is understandable dismay across the land at the Court's decision, for, without question, affirmative action policies have helped to increase--if only incrementally--the minority populations attending leading colleges and universities in recent years. Such an outcome is an unmitigated good for a society that strives to be a democracy in which all citizens have an equal opportunity to succeed. Indeed, such an outcome is a necessity for the future health of the republic. The Court's majority now either willfully ignores that shining need or fails to see it as such. The six justices have thrown down the gauntlet.
Therefore, instead of wringing our hands at the Court's decision, now is the moment for us to find alternative avenues to expand our democracy and make all our citizens thrive. Fortunately, colleges are already exploring other ways in which to diversify their student bodies. These include looking at zip codes to determine where they might recruit more economically disadvantaged students, which would very likely include areas where they have not recruited in the past. Not only are poor neighborhoods very often where minority populations live, they may also include the offspring of a white working class that has been shut out of higher education as well. Several years ago, the University of California system of higher education ended affirmative action when a public referendum voted in favor of doing so. They then adopted a number of policies aimed at determining how to reach disadvantaged populations. Evidence shows an increase since in the number of black and Hispanic students who have matriculated.
The California experience points to a tantalizing road ahead. To the extent it is copied and expanded upon, we should continue to achieve greater diversity in higher education, and then in business and the professions. Only when the day comes that we can confidently say that ours is a true meritocracy--one reflective of the diversity that constitutes our nation--can we rest assured that the health of our nation and our democratic future are secure.
The Threats to Our Democracy
The United States may be approaching a tipping point in its ability to continue as a healthy democracy. Today, it is not implausible to foresee widespread conflict throughout our body politic at a time when a sizable portion of our population is evidently entirely persuaded by the politics of grievance that the "establishment" (also known as the woke mob)--which evidently includes everyone not in their camp--is the enemy and needs to be, not simply voted out of office, but utterly defeated.
Donald Trump, still the clear favorite of Republicans to be their nominee again for president in 2024, tells his MAGA followers that he is their retribution. He has promised that, if elected, he would purge the FBI and Justice Department of all those officials who have been involved in investigating him. That, obviously, would constitute a brazen assault on the rule of law. His opponent (also his near alter-ego as a proto-autocrat), Ron de Santis, paints a dark picture of America today, decrying what he sees as a "malignant ideology," presumably that held by devilish Democrats, taking hold across the nation. He told his Iowa audience at the end of May that "it is time we impose our will on Washington, D.C." Such a call to action ordinarily entails the use of force.
Yes, there are other announced candidates who sound more like traditional Republicans, but none of them has earned more than single digits in opinion polls; as of now, none has the slightest hope of leading the party as its next presidential nominee. To summarize, neither of the most likely prospects to win the Republican nomination for president seems committed to playing by the rules that have made our republic survive and mostly thrive since George Washington was elected our first president. Election deniers and those who seek retribution or to impose their will on the public are not playing by those rules.
What is most concerning here is, of course, the evidence all this provides of the authoritarian sentiment that evidently has settled over a sizable segment of the American electorate. Whether an actual majority of voters no longer wants our elected officials to protect minorities, counter racism and other kinds of bigotry, protect free speech and freedom of religion, the sizable minority that already falls into this camp is sufficient to cause irreparable damage to the life of our republic. They've already denied the validity of one presidential election, so surely would be fearsome, and fearsomely dangerous, deniers of a second loss.
It's when we contemplate that prospect that we call to mind how the nation was ripped asunder once in civil war. Our union eventually was made whole again at an enormous cost in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed. Are we again approaching such an Armageddon?
To put the matter before us too flippantly, now is the time for all good (Republican-leaning) men (and women) to come to the aid of their party. In doing so, they just might save the nation from another civil war.
Your Choice: Morality or Amorality?
Late last month, I came across a column in The New York Times by commentator David Brooks, whose political views align with what used to be the mainstream of the Republican Party. He has long since parted company from Trump and his MAGA base now in charge of the GOP. On this occasion, Brooks argued that the contest between President Biden and Trumpism is not so much liberal versus conservative or left versus right as it is essentially between a moral vision and an essentially amoral one, "a contest," as he put it, "between decency and its opposite."
Bravo! This puts the race for the White House in 2024 exactly where it belongs. Whatever his shortcomings, Biden sees it as his duty as president to engage in a moral struggle to protect our democratic institutions and make our constitutional system work to enhance the lives of all Americans. Trump, on the other hand, offers himself as "retribution" against his enemies right here within the nation that, as president, he once was sworn to protect. The deep state that he bemoans consists of bureaucrats and elected officials whose mostly conscientious service is effectively what keeps our republic alive. If Trump is returned to the White House, he will undoubtedly seek to wreak vengeance on huge numbers of his fellow citizens who do not support him.
But, wait, you may be thinking, the nation survived Trump's one-term presidency, so surely it could survive a second round. True, our political institutions have proved to be resilient through these and other difficult times, including civil war. Yet Trump, acting largely on his own, has already thrown sand into the gears of our democracy, as with his effort to delegitimize Biden's 2020 election. Should Trumpists take control of both houses of Congress after next year, we could expect much greater damage to our republican institutions. At the very least, we should expect an all-hands-on-deck fight to save our democracy at the expense of action on the myriad social and economic issues that could move the whole nation forward.
Our nation, after all, was born as an experiment built upon a foundation of moral principle. Whenever it has thrived and grown stronger, its success has been constructed on that same foundation. And when occasionally our leaders, losing sight of that vision, have faltered or failed, they have soon been replaced by those still guided by the light. Today, we are once again at a time when, as President Biden noted in announcing his intention to seek a second term, we are "in a battle for the soul of America."
I write at a moment when we are witnessing a prelude to the kind of damage to our polity that would surely come if MAGA forces take control in 2024. We are now close to defaulting on paying the nation's debt for the first time in our history. We have come to this moment thanks to the refusal of the most right-wing members of the Republican House caucus to agree to raise the debt ceiling without simultaneously dismantling virtually all the legislation that has supported Biden administration policies. This is the politics of nihilism, and it characterizes pretty much everything that Trump stands for.
As is often pointed out, democracy is fragile. Its proponents must work constantly to protect and strengthen it, especially when threatening forces are those masquerading as its friends.When democracy's true friends are successful, a moral vision guides those who serve the nation. Without that vision, democracy dies and we are left in darkness.
Trump under Indictment: Standard-Bearer for the GOP?
I write less than forty-eight hours after a Manhattan grand jury indicted Donald Trump, making him the first former president in our nation's history to be charged with a crime. The specifics of the charges brought against him won't be known until April 4, days after I've posted this essay. It is assumed they wil relate to his alleged extra-marital encounter with porn star Stormy Daniels, for which he paid her hush money in violation of campaign finance laws while campaigning for the presidency in 2016. This wait-and-see moment is as good a time as any, however, to consider how Trump continues to threaten our nation's political health.
In the weeks leading up to his indictment, Trump's support among Republican voters actually increased. A clear majority of those polled said they expected him to be their party's nominee in 2024, while half said they intended to vote for him. Political observers have long assumed that indicting Trump would shore up his support with his base, while MAGA extremists might take to the street in violent demonstrations. Yet, opposition to Trump will also likely grow and deepen, turning the current political divide into a chasm. Whether or not we move toward civil war once the charges against him are unsealed will have much to do with Trump's own behavior. If he refuses to go voluntarily and peacefully to New York from Mar a Lago, law-breaking no doubt will surge across the country. Florida's governor, Ron de Santis, made it clear minutes after the indictment was announced that he would not assist in extraditing Trump to Manhattan, thereby telling us that he would be among those breaking the law.
There is no law prohibiting a citizen under indictment--or one convicted of a crime, for that matter--from being elected to office. Once indicted, Donald Trump, like every other citizen, is presumed innocent unless and until he is convicted by a jury of his peers. Trials typically follow many months after an indictment is served, which means that Trump can continue to campaign for the foreseeable future. He would be given a boost should a jury acquit him. It's not even certain that a guilty verdict would keep him from the nomination of his party; he conceivably might convince multitudes of Republicans that he has been the innocent victim of a witch-hunt, one which has also targeted them. As he put it not long ago at his huge rally in Waco, Texas,"they're not coming after me, they're coming after you."
It was also in Waco that Trump assured his followers, "I am your retribution," reminding us (unintentionally?) that this is the essential message of fascism: we, who comprise the pure nation that has been kept in subservience by radical elites and the deep state, are coming for you and will use whatever means are necessary to defeat you. We will then reconstitute the state to serve our pure and patriotic interests. Democracy be damned!
What our Trumpian future holds still depends upon the outcome of criminal investigations into the man's activities in other jurisdictions, both state and federal, where likely charges appear to be more grave than those out of New York. Whether any of them succeed in helping to restore America's faith in its Constitutional system remains, at the moment, an open question. As an opinion writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer noted recently, "today we stand on the banks of the Rubicon, and all of us treading water in a faith in democracy and the rule of law have no choice but to cross it."
Ukraine After the War: Two Scenarios Redux
Last May in this space I considered two scenarios for what Ukraine might look like once its war against Russia's aggression was over. I return to that theme now that the war is in its second year.
Contrary to what most observers expected when Vladimir Putin launched his war, that nation has held on and even pushed the Russian army out of some of the territory it occupied in the Donbas region in the nation's east. I write when a stalemate largely prevails, although Russia appears to have launched a spring offensive in recent days. Ukraine no doubt will soon follow with its own offensive. It is not my intent to predict possible outcomes of such actions here, although few believe that the war will end soon. In a moment, I'll sketch out two post-war scenarios that are polar opposites to suggest their very different consequences for world order, depending upon which side ultimately prevails.
From the war's start, it has seemed implausible for Ukraine to win back all the territory--Crimea included--that Russia has seized in recent years. That is, of course, because of the great disparity in the size of the two countries; Russia has nearly three-and-a-half times the population of Ukraine. Given that difference, it is little short of astonishing that it is now at least conceivable for Ukraine to expel Russian forces from all the land that Ukraine claims. If that is a real possibility today, it nonetheless remains less likely than an outcome favorable to Ukraine in most respects which still might leave Crimea's status unresolved. Given the imbalance in material forces, manpower included, the most likely prospect still may be for Russia to claim at least a partial victory by holding onto some of the territory it now occupies.
Now to my two scenarios. The first model posits a total victory for Ukraine and corresponding defeat for Russia. Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized. Unprovoked aggression is definitively brought to heel. After that, the government of President Zelensky almost certainly moves quickly to join the European Union and NATO, securing its place as a European democracy removed from Russia's orbit. In his defeat, President Putin might be replaced by someone else from his elite circle, though, to take the most optimistic possibility, the kind of humiliation this scenario suggests could lead to popular push-back by the Russian people to demand an end to autocracy.
We might even imagine a replay of Russia's perestroika movement at the end of the Cold War, but this time with sustained liberalization proceeding unchecked for years to come to build a lasting, truly representative system there. In simplest terms, this scenario imagines that democracy becomes strongly rooted in Russia and thrives throughout most of the world.
The second scenario reverses that outcome. Now the Russians succeed in defeating Ukraine so completely that the Zelensky government is ousted and Ukraine becomes a puppet state of Russia, or is annexed as part of Russian territory. Putin remains triumphantly in charge in the Kremlin. Wherever in the world interstate conflict shows itself in the foreseeable future, the threat or force of arms will now likely determine the outcome. NATO may collapse, since to oppose Russia at this point would almost certainly invite a nuclear exchange, and that is an even more dreadful prospect than seeing Ukraine reincorporated into Russia's empire. Democracies that do not fail will surely be on the defensive in the coming era.
In the real world, we can no doubt expect the war's outcome to lean in the direction of one pole or the other without reaching either completely. A victory for Ukraine that nonetheless leaves Putin fully in power could also set the stage for him to direct future attacks to try again to win at least some of what had been denied him. Even with an overwhelmingly positive outcome for Ukraine, democracy-building in Russia would be a long and complex undertaking. Conversely, an outcome favorable to Russia very likely would embolden Putin to try again in the effort to eliminate Ukraine's independence once and for all. However this war ends, western democracies will have an important role to play to keep it from happening again. It will no doubt be essential for them to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity for some time to come.
Redemption: When Hate Is Transformed into Love
The current political era in America is marked by cleavages so deep that normal partisan divisions seem to have been replaced by an all-out culture war. The most prominent physical proof came on January 6 two years ago with the attack by an angy mob on the U.S. Capitol. But the war has continued throughout the land in myriad ways. Election deniers now hold elective office in many states. They and their associates are making it harder for the "wrong" citizens to vote even as they are set to delegitimize future elections not to their liking.
There's also nothing like backing legislation to defeat one's enemies. A number of states have passed laws to ban the teaching of the full history of racism in this country. In Florida, Governor DeSantis is behind recent legislation that limits free speech in its public colleges and universities. That's in addition to the "Don't Say Gay" law which prohibits teaching anything about that subject in public schools. But it's not just Florida. At last count, 202 bills have been introduced in legislatures across the country limiting what can be taught about rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. And then there are the abortion wars.
One further result of all this is likely gridlock in Washington for the remaining two years of President Biden's term.The Republican-majority House of Representatives is dependent on many in that caucus who evidently don't wish to help govern the nation but want to engage instead in investigating members of the president's family. And Trump's MAGA rallies are back, vilifying those whom the participants view as their enemies. It's surely no coincidence that hate crimes have risen in each of the past four years, surging by nearly 30% in 2021.
Disturbing as all this is for the health of our democracy, I recently got a jolt of hope from a short documentary called "Stranger at the Gate." From film-maker Joshua Seftel, this true story unfolds in Muncie, Indiana, when Mac, a middle-aged former Marine, who has recently moved to that city with his family, is stunned to learn that a sizable Muslim community gathers daily in Muncie's Islamic Center. Mac has been convinced from the moment he heard the terrible news of the death and destruction in Manhattan on 9-11 that all Muslims are potential terrorists. He sees it as his duty to construct a bomb, plant it at the center at a time when hundreds of "the enemy" are present, then detonate and kill as many as he can. But first, he has to get inside the building to see how best to carry out his plot.
That visit changes everything.He is greeted by a doctor, now a U.S. citizen, who grew up in Afghanistan. The man greets this stranger with a hug and a smile, and asks if he might help him. Soon others, men and women, gather and greet him just as warmly. Mac soon understands that these people are genuinely kind and interested in helping him. His extended visit leads to another the next day, and others after that. He has discovered that he likes these people. A complete revolution has taken place within his brain: far from wanting to kill these Muslims, now he wants only to be their friend. His terrible hatred has been transformed into love.
I recognize full well that the kind of redemption Mac experienced, though wonderful, is rare, seldom impacting the realm of politics. Nor, I trust, do most Republicans and Democrats regard each other today with an enmity so great that it calls for mass murder of the other side. Still, there are lessons here. We must start by acknowledging that our opponents share our humanity and may have at least some worthy goals. That is the only basis, now and always, for allowing democracy to function and to thrive. We must learn to love, at least a little, all our fellow citizens.
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