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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 heistant 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 muddles 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.


                                         (September 2023)





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 450,000 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.


                                                            (September 2023)






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.


                                                             (August 2023)






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.


                                                              (July 2023)





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.


                                                             (June 2023)





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.


                                                             (May 2023)





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." 


                                                          (April 2023)





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.


                                                       (March 2023)





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.


                                                   (February 2023)





Will There Be a Biden/Trump Rematch in 2024?


At the start of this new year, Donald Trump is again a candidate for president of the United States. So, presumably, is the current occupant of the White House, Joe Biden, although he has not yet made that official. Neither man now garners approval from a majority of voters. One can almost hear the collective sigh rising across America at the prospect of these two oldsters facing off again.


That Trump has already thrown his hat into the ring is very much in keeping with his overarching narcissism. He insists on the limelight and revels in the adulation of his base. More than that, he must have calculated that as long as he's in the race, his chances of being prosecuted for various crimes are diminished. He can continue to claim that all charges against him are manufactured by his enemies to try to keep him from returning to the White House.


Yet, even if a decreasing number of the faithful accept that as truthful, Trump's path to the nomination is not without hazard. His hard-core supporters are dwindling, no doubt, as more and more of them begin to conclude that perhaps his time has passed, that there are others in Trump's mold who are more likely to achieve victory than Trump himself. Governor Ron de Santis of Florida is one such prospect, and there are others.


It strikes me that the most horrifying prospect of all for Trump right now is that he might fail to secure the Republican nomination in 2024. While he might convince himself that his loss to Biden in 2020 was because the election was rigged, that lie would surely not sound plausible to the millions of Republicans who back a different candidate for the election next year. Picture two scenarios: in the first, Trump is on stage at the Republican convention, graciously congratulating whoever beat him out of the nomination and pledging his full support. In the second, at some point well before that defining moment, Trump gives a speech full of heroic tributes to himself explaining why he has decided--perhaps because of Melania's concerns about his health--not to pursue his campaign further. I'm surely not alone in finding the second imagined event way more plausible than the first.


Then there's Biden. Already the oldest president ever to hold that office, these next two years are unlikely to give him the opportunity to do great things, not when the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans, almost none of whom has shown the least interest in cooperating with the president to advance significant legislation. Clearly, some leading Democrats wish that he would step aside at the end of this term and let someone else battle for the presidency next year. Yet, even if Biden is considering doing just that--and there's no indication at the moment that he is--that would pose a dilemma. The moment he declares that he won't run for a second term he becomes a lame duck president, presumably with even less ability to accomplish much during the next two years. But, by not declaring his intentions, Biden either prevents any potential Democratic candidates from announcing their candidacy or--worse yet--invites one or more to compete with him in the primaries. Neither prospect is a recipe for a happy and productive conclusion to his presidency.


The next two years could be less than rosy for either or both of the two men who fought it out for the presidency in 2020. That could mean a bumpy foad for the rest of us.


                                                        (January 2023)





A Well-Lived Life


My partner and spouse of more than half a century died when November was half spent. His end was not unexpected, but that does not make it less painful or his absence less profound. It's a cliche to say that no one is ever prepared for the death of a loved one, but like all cliches, it's true. That, I suppose, is because no one can ever prepare for the silence, the empty rooms, or the sudden inability to bounce a thought, a dream, or a platitude off the one who for so long has been your other half.


I could not have imagined all those years ago, nor, I think, could he, that we would make such a match of it. I was the product of a Midwestern upbringing, newly arrived in Philadelphia, while he had lived here always. I was (too?) highly educated and fully embarked on an academic career. His schooling had largely stopped with high school. But we quickly learned that what we shared was a love of fine music, orchestral, operatic, and otherwise, as well as theater and art. And we both liked to write.


I soon discovered that he was already making a mark in the city as the producer/director of a concert series which promoted promising young artists just embarking on their careers. He had seized that brass ring several years earlier when a local patroness of the arts had offered it to him as a project she would underwrite as long as he took charge of organizing and producing the concerts. She had picked out this young man as one who could implement her dream. And that is exactly what he did. I have no idea how they became acquainted, or how that led to this. I only  know that she recognized an enthusiast and an entrepreneur in him, and that her judgment was sage.


These were some of the green shoots from which our love grew. As I look back on it, I think that what must have drawn me ever closer to him in those early days was seeing how well centered he was. He seems never to have wavered from his conviction early on that it was his calling to do everything he could to provide financial assistance to, especially, young people determined to build careers as performing artists. And that is just what he did throughout the rest of his life, and with a passionate commitment. He was authentic to the core.


I helped to develop his love of travel. Together, we made 36 trips to foreign nations in addition to repeated journeys around our own, visiting 40 countries overall. It's how we endeavored to conquer the world together (and conquering the world has surely been my life's mission). But meanwhile, we built our lives right here in this city we both loved. Philadelphia will miss him, and I shall miss him to the end of my days.


                                                  (December 2022)





Changed Parties and the Greater Challenges to Our Polity


There was a time not long ago when Democrats attracted working-class voters and the Republicans were the party of business and the elite. But recent shifts in loyalty are shuffling party support in something of a reverse direction. Republicans inreasingly win the favor of non-college educated, blue collar workers while Democrats attract those who have college degrees. This shift has been dramatic in the age of Trump--an age which, many supposed, would end with that president's defeat for re-election. Instead, Trump and Trumpism continue to dominate the Republican Party.


In an earlier era, coinciding with the industrial age, it was common wisdom to suppose that an intellectual elite, which served to critique capitalism and the captains of industry, spoke up for oppressed workers and others left behind. As Democrats, these groups formed a natural alliance on the left. Their agenda included greater protections through social welfare for the most vulnerable, and advancing equal rights for all. Republicans were united in their view that, as a Republican president of the period once noted, the business of the federal government was business. Laissez-faire should be the guide to all governmental policy. Critically, however, in spite of their different views of the world, for both left and right the ideal end of politics was a society in which the blessings of prosperity fell on everyone through the creation of a social order in which all had a stake.


Today, however, the politics of grievance increasingly dominate our lives. Those left behind by economic forces are responding to the siren song of Trump and Trumpism: take what you can get, take it for yourself and to hell with any common good. The establishment has done nothing for  you, so you owe nothing to the establishment (which evidently includes everyone who's made it in this world that's left you behind). So much for the alliance between those with a vision for a better nation and those such as you.


This is only some of the evidence that our democracy is being challenged today as it has not been since the Civil War. There is also the alarming rise in challenges to the legitimacy of our elections. I write days before a midterm in which more than half of the Republican candidates across the nation question the outcome of the 2020 election. Here in Pennsylvania, a top adviser to the Republican candidate for governor calls voting machines "cheat machines" and advises followers to vote as late in the day as possible on November 8 to deliberately overwhelm the system. We are likely to see chaos from challenges by the losers, not to mention trauma to follow when such individuals are elected to offices from which they can challenge outcomes with results not to their liking. Federal agencies now have warned that domestic extremists fueled by election falsehoods "pose a heightened threat" to the midterm elections.


Days ago, the 82-year-old husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was attacked by a man who broke into their San Francisco residence, demanding to know "where's Nancy?" The attacker was only the most recent exemplar of the conspiratorial views that were so in evidence in the riot at the Capitol on January 6 of last year. For the millions of Americans who evidently hold such views, the rest of us are not brothers and sisters or even fellow-citizens, but enemies to be exterminated. More than 1800 threats to federal office-holders were recorded in the first three months of this year.


Next week's elections may or may not prove to be the breaking point. But I see no evidence that we are about to shuck off the politics of grievance. Until we do so, we shall continue to see undermined the first principles upon which our republic must stand if it is to remain a multi-cultural democracy offering equal opportunity to all its citizens. And the hour is late.


                                                     (November 2022)





The Midterm Election and the Threat to Our Democracy


I write forty days before the midterm election. These half-way points in any president's administration are typically a referendum on that occupant of the White House. Yet, this year's outcome at the polls could determine whether the American republic will survive its greatest challenge since the Civil War. Across the country, candidates for state and Congressional offices include a number of election deniers, who still insist that the 2020 election was fraudulent in spite of zero evidence to support that fiction. If elected, they will mostly be in position to wreak havoc on the next presidential election in 2024. Most of these individuals also have no qualms about messing with other aspects of our political system. The next two years could bring open civil conflict and the loss of the public's confidence in the viability of our Constitution.


Here in Pennsylvania, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, is a poster boy for such right-wing extremism. A retired career officer in the U.S. Army, a "Christian nationalist," and now a state senator who was deeply involved in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he pushed for an alternative (illegal) slate of electors to cast Pennsylvania's votes for Trump in 2020 in spite of the fact that Biden clearly won the popular vote here. He has received support from Gab, a social platform filled with anti-Semitic commentary. He has argued that women who obtain an abortion after a "fetal heartbeat" is detected are guilty of murder, as are those who provide them, for abortion is "the single most important issue in our lifetime."


Not far behind in importance, evidently, are this senator's efforts to prohibit gender transition surgeries for teen-agers and to end "draconian quarantine and vaccination policies" in Pennsylvania, i.e., those that mandate protection against COVID-19.


So, if it's clear that these are the issues a Governor Mastriano would make his priorities, it's just as evident that nowhere on his agenda are goals of achieving greater social equity, protection of the environment, improving access to health care, or increasing financial support for public schools and state-supported colleges and universities. Like the most extreme Trumpists throughout the nation, Mastriano's political plalybook is all about overturning what has long been the establishment consensus, thereby to get even with those politicians whose policies supposedly have wronged them. They would get their revenge by first putting theselves in positions of power, even if that meant fiddling with--even undermining--Constitutional norms and requirements. "Quasi-fascist" is what President Biden called the outlook represented here when he warned America from Independence Hall recently of the threats we face from within.


Even if Mastriano is one of the most extreme, and therefore dangerous, of the MAGA candidates running for office, the hold of that faction over the Republican Party generally means that once elected, the "policies" I've just ascribed to one candidate will surely dominate many of the others. Pennsylvania's Republican candidate for the Senate, Mehmet Oz, may not be as far to the right as Mastriano, but his campaign has been built around demonizing his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, as too far on the left. Granted that Fetterman, usually dressed in shorts and hoodies, looks less like a senator than any such candidate in memory. But his record as, first, mayorof a small town, then lieutenant governor, reveals a politician who's clearly in the mainstream. (Dare I note that his opponent is always named, and calls himself,"Dr. Oz," perhaps to avoid using his given name, which is a derivative of "Mohammed" and, thus, conceivably off-putting to some in his base?)


This is what we've come to on the eve of what could be a cataclysm.


                                                           (October 2022)





NATO's New Lease


Russia's attack on Ukraine last February quickly united the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in support of the target of Russia's aggression. That was in spite of the fact that Ukraine was not itself a member--if a member-in-waiting--but merely a neighbor of a number of NATO countries. While determined Ukrainian resistance kept the Russians at bay, military and logistical support from NATO nations began to even the playing field, and soon gave the victims a fighting chance of repelling the aggression. 


These events quickly led to other remarkable changes for the coalition of Western democracies. Two perennially neutral states, Finland and Sweden, soon applied for NATO membership. Germany announced a considerable increase in its own defense spending, as did other European members. Meanwhile, the European Union brought Ukraine closer to joining their community.


Whether or not these events marked the start of a new cold war, as some suggested, they were at least a reminder of what brought NATO into being in 1949. Its original twelve members were united in their opposition to the Soviet Union's further expansion in Europe after World War II. Over the course of the next four decades, that goal was accomplished largely thanks to America's military might and the protection its nuclear umbrella afforded the allies.


When, forty-two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, I was among a number of Western observers who supposed that NATO should go out of business. Its goal had been achieved with the end of the Soviet Union itself. But NATO soon began to add new members instead, bringing the total to thirty today. The newest are mostly newly independent states that had recently been part of the Soviet empire. That they wanted to join this U.S.-led alliance of democracies says much about what might be called the spiritual failure of the Soviet system. Yet, several them in addition to Ukraine had been part of the Russian empire before they were made "republics" of the Soviet Union. Putin's desire to restore that empire is what explains his action on Russia's western border since February.


Clearly, Putin launched his "special military operation" against Ukraine when he did as a way of pre-empting that country's own bid to join NATO. He no doubt understood full well that, once Ukraine was admitted to membership, the NATO treaty required that such an attack would be regarded as an attack upon all, which would have triggered a full-scale war against Russia from the world's greatest military power and its friends. What he may not have counted on was the substantial support NATO has provided his adversary in spite of the fact that Ukraine was not a member of the alliance. That, after all, has been unprecedented in NATO's history.


Six months into the war, what looks most certain is that it will continue to be protracted, its outcome unclear.Those NATO members who have been contributing arms and training may eventually conclude that they have done enough and back away. That would likely lead to ultimate success for Russia, which has more arms and manpower than its opponent. NATO's more expansive vision of its role in Europe would also take a hit. Whether it could then be trusted to take up arms against a Russian attack on a NATO member state, such as Estonia, might also be in question.


Yet, if NATO were to give Ukraine the kind of assistance that might let them expel the Russians from all the territory they've seized from their neighbor in recent years, Crimea included, that could trigger the kind of apocalyptic war of the sort that the superpowers--and all humanity--managed to avoid throughout the cold war. That prospect may require us to accept an outcome that no one will regard as ideal. It also may suggest a somewhat less expansive place for NATO in the future.


                                                         (September 2022)





The Threat to Our Democracy, Continued


As I noted in this space last month, the Congressional commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol has done a remarkable job in revealing to the American people the events surrounding that most serious domestic attack on the seat of government in our nation's history. Their work has now progressed to the point that we can see that they are uncovering a conspiracy, with Donald Trump at its center, to overturn the 2020 election. We can also see that the Department of Justice, whose work is always conducted out of public view, is very much focused on investigating those efforts by Trump and his allies. It was recently announced that the January 6 committee will share with the DOJ twenty of the interview transcripts its work has produced. 


Neither the January 6 committee nor the DOJ has yet concluded its work. While the public will no doubt hear more damning testimony when the committee resumes in September, its role is only to expose wrong-doing, which it is doing with a vengeance. It is not empowered to prosecute crimes, which is the responsibility of the DOJ.


Although some have feared that Attorney General Merrick Garland is too timid to prosecute the former president since such a move would be unprecedented in American history,  Garland hismself has said that, depending upon where the investigation leads, no one is exempt from legal action. Almost daily, new evidence appears in the press pointing to Donald Trump as a conspirator. The kinds of opinion leaders I'd still like to regard as in the mainstream increasingly are arguing that he should be criminally charged.


Yes,Trump's prosecution would be higihly fraught, to put it mildly. Certainly, the evidence against him must be watertight.It is hard to imagine that anything could be worse for the nation's political health than for Trump to be charged with a criminal offense and then acquitted, once tried. Such an outcome would not only glorify the behavior of our 45th president in the eyes of his followers, it would also legitimize scurrilous challenges to our elections for years to come.


Conversely, although a successful prosecution might rid the nation of Trump, it could also set in motion unknowable changes to the political culture, if not the very constitutional system, that has always made the United States the distinctive democracy it is. One can imagine an eruption of partisanship too poisonous to allow for even the minimal comity and legislative action now still barely possible in Congress. Presidential impeachments might become commonplace. Worse yet, civil conflict could overwhelm the nation. Or--a very different scenario--in order to survive, future presidents would increasingly find it necessary to act as mere heads of state: figureheads, and not leaders of their party and the nation. Where, then, would real political power reside? 


Regardless of the possibilities for discord should Trump be indicted and convicted, not to charge him if the evidence against him proves overwhelming would be a far graver outcome. It would lay waste to what has been America's most fundamental claim since its founding as a republic: that we are nation of laws and not of men. The goal of the January 6 committee and the Department of Justice should be, not to fear the negative consequences of trying a former president, but to complete their investigations no matter where they lead. That outcome will tell us whether the threat to our democracy can, with much effort, be well and fully overcome--laying to rest all the scenarios I laid out above--or whether the events connected to January 6 were but a dress rehearsal for worse to come. 


                                                        (August 2022)



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