The War No One Wants

Listening to President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this week, I was struck—as were most who listened—by his emphasis on the utility and importance of the nation-state. Moreover, the obligatory call for plodding international cooperation to solve the problems facing our world was largely absent, and Trump plainly asserted that his decisions would be entirely guided by the what is in the best interests of America. None of what he said was a surprise—but I am certain it was quite a shock to an inert U.N. bureaucracy long inured to inaction.

Given that the most pressing threat facing the world today is North Korea’s terrifying habit of firing ballistic missiles here and there—while they are also busily preparing future nuclear payloads—it is not surprising that President Trump’s harshest words were saved for Kim Jong-Un, whom he derisively described as “Rocket Man”. Mr. Trump’s message was clear and pointed: If the threat continues, the United States will obliterate North Korea. His language lacked the diplomatic nuance and caveats we typically associate with political speeches, but it certainly got everyone’s attention.

I do not believe our Commander-in-Chief has gone Dr. Strangelove on us. His bellicose rhetoric is both understandable and reasonable.

First, Trump is reassuring our allies that—if all else fails to deter North Korea—the United States will not hesitate to act unilaterally to remove an obvious threat to world peace. Although our allies may soothingly speak in public of the need for caution and dialogue regarding military force, I guarantee they will quietly provide any logistic and intelligence support we need to bring stability to the strategic situation. A nuclear North Korea with a viable payload delivery system is the world community’s worst nightmare, and the size and power of America’s armed forces provides protection for a great many nations other than our own.

In addition, the President is speaking to North Korea’s two biggest protectors and benefactors—Russia and China—so that they understand the time for dawdling is over. Mr. Trump wants both these nations to use their economic and political influence to prompt policy changes in Pyongyang. There are both strategic and historical ties that bind Russia and China to North Korea and have lessened their willingness to pressure their client state up to this point, but neither wants bombs to fall. Each realizes that American military power—and the American political and economic influence that would follow from any use of force—would be a catastrophe for their long-term regional interests. Moreover, given that China shares a very long border with North Korea (and Russia a much smaller one), each nation realizes that war with the United States would produce an overwhelming flood of refugees that neither wants to face.

Finally, Mr. Trump is speaking to the North Korean military and intelligence commands, which control the institutions that keep Kim Jong-Un in power. If they believe that the reckless actions of their leader run the risk of bringing down disaster and destroying them, there will be changes—don’t have the least doubt. It might be something as overt and clumsy as a coup, but I would bet against this unless it is the very last resort. Having built up their leader to god-like stature through propaganda directed at their citizens, I believe it is more likely—should the forcible removal of Kim Jong-Un ultimately prove necessary—that he will (tragically) expire from a sudden illness, his dying words a poetic paean to his beloved people and a command to obey the will of his “designated successor”.

It might be worth remembering that, as much as we might like it to be otherwise, negotiation and compromise have their limits. Sometimes the raw exercise of power is necessary to secure peace. It may not be humane or artful, but sometimes punching your antagonist in the nose is your most effective recourse. Just as all Americans do, I hope that war with North Korea can be avoided. However, should this be the last and only option available, we need to remember that the decision to pull the trigger was forced upon us by the stupidity and duplicity of others—which has sadly often been the case throughout our history.

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The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which had prevented most deportations of those brought here as children by parents who entered the country illegally, ignited a firestorm of condemnation this past week. One would certainly have to be hard hearted to not sympathize with the plight of those who are “American” in every way except their citizenship, and most Americans seem to be in favor of federal legislation that will offer a path to citizenship for those who meet certain criteria. The very fact of the DACA program, penciled into existence as an executive order by President Obama in 2012 after Congress failed—yet again—to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, speaks to both the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any resolution to this issue.

The most obvious complexity surrounding those children, adolescents, and (now) adults who were temporarily protected from deportation by DACA is that many in Congress fear granting special status or even outright citizenship to them is essentially a reward to the parents who smuggled them into the United States—and may encourage other foreigners to do exactly the same to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.

I am old enough to remember the “one-time-only” amnesty during the 1980’s Reagan administration that was supposed to fix this problem—once and for all. The crux of the problem is that rewarding people for any bad behavior will—even if you wag your finger forebodingly—only encourage more of the same. Providing an express route to citizenship for those who were protected by DACA will likely serve as an irresistible temptation for yet more undocumented parents to smuggle their equally undocumented children over the borders in the years ahead—count on it.

Any legal solution is guaranteed to anger advocates on either side of this issue. If we grant a loophole in established immigration law, parents with children will continue to have a huge incentive to sneak into the country. If we establish an arbitrary cut off—for example, if we provide permanent residency or citizenship only for those who arrived before DACA was first established—we can expect protests from both those who arrived afterward and were led to believe they would be protected from deportation indefinitely and those states that are most impacted by illegal immigration and expected President Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end the DACA program soon after he was elected. If we move to immediately enforce the law and simply deport all those who are residing here illegally now that their DACA protections are gone, it would obviously be wrong to ask those individuals to suffer due to the lack of permanent fix to a supposedly compassionate temporary policy that has now left them without both home and country.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, we must remember that DACA was not a law—it was an administrative bandage put into place by President Obama that was of questionable legality and completely ignored actual Federal law. One of the reasons President Trump has ended the DACA program now is that his administration was about to be sued by states that wanted it ended immediately—and very likely would have prevailed in court. The six month delay in enforcement that he has insisted upon will at least provide a window for Congress to finally craft a permanent legal solution to this issue that will combine compassion and common sense.

Cue the contradictions.

As is the case with most thorny issues, this one is made yet more difficult by both politics and money. Those on both sides of the debate on this matter are often compromised by self-interests that lie just beneath the surfaces of their sanctimonious rhetoric. If this were merely a matter of providing a reasonable solution that balances practicality and the eternal American promise of fair play, it would likely have been resolved long ago.

Up until recently, organized labor and their supporters in the Democratic Party were totally adverse to the idea of an illegal immigrant amnesty because it was presumed the net effect would be to take away jobs from Americans and depress wages. However, now that Democrats are anxious to firm up the electoral firewall that so spectacularly failed Hillary Clinton last year, support for immigration—both legal and illegal—has become a litmus test for the Party and it members, who presume this issue will work to their advantage with a fast-growing Hispanic population and animate their core of liberal voters. Not surprisingly, Republicans are allergic to creating more potential Democratic voters in states like California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida that are both heavy on electoral votes and packed with individuals affected by a DACA repeal. Whatever else is said by politicians on both sides of this issue, any solution to the problems posed by DACA and its repeal is affected by cold calculations regarding electoral loss and gain.

The monetary component of the problems regarding DACA—and most other immigration issues—is that many major employers in localities and states across the nation are heavily dependent on foreign workers. Tech companies in California and elsewhere—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others—are anxious to keep open their pipeline to computer programming and software design talent from abroad, and they are terrified of any effort to restrict immigration or ramp up enforcement of existing laws because it might impact their ability to move new products and services to market and decrease their amazing profitability. On the flip side, industries that need a steady stream of compliant and near-invisible employees to perform dirty and often dangerous jobs—seafood and meat processors, hotels, restaurants, and un-automated factories being the most visible examples—worry that the loss of illegal immigrant labor will lead to wage pressures that will erode their sometimes marginal profitability. Our high-flown rhetoric is often contradicted by our base economic needs.

The political and economic factors that warp any discussion about immigration—legal or otherwise—have always been with us, and passing laws that are both practicable and humane will always involve compromises that will leave few happy and many dissatisfied. However, compromise we must. For either side in this debate to continue to press for pointless ideological purity is to condemn us all to partisan and damaging arguments that could leave us no further along to reaching a resolution that will allow those who grew up feeling like “Americans” to become Americans in fact—under a Federal law that will, we hope, be both fair and Constitutional.

We Need To Remember We Are All Americans

 

Here in America we have managed to create a vibrant and enduring government of interlocking local, state, and federal systems that over the centuries have provided an unprecedented degree of prosperity and security and helped our nation and citizens navigate both crises and changes. Our never-ending fussing, feuding, and fighting over the shape, scope, and expense of government has helped to create a nation that is the envy of the world, but our successes have not come without pain, heartache—and even bloody civil war.

However, our relationship with our government seems to have become dramatically strained—and estranged—over the past few decades, and many now wonder how we will emerge from our current conflicts unscathed and whole. In order to get to the root of the all-encompassing sense of dissatisfaction and unease that plagues our country today, the question that we must address seems to be a very basic one: Can our government hope to obtain the consent of the governed when our citizens now embrace such widely varying—and perhaps fundamentally irreconcilable—ideals? Are secessionist movements in states such as California signs of healthy debate or worrisome symptoms of political, social, and cultural fragmentation that could eventually rend our nation?

America has always been a country rife with contradictions. We are a nation peopled by immigrants and their descendants, yet we have always imposed limitations on immigration. We are a nation whose founding documents extol freedom and liberty, yet we permitted indentured servitude and legalized outright slavery when we finally gained our independence from England. We claim to support democracy around the world, yet we often have found it convenient to tolerate tyrants. We believe ourselves to be the most peaceful of people, yet we have spilled—and continue to spill—much blood abroad.

Perhaps a necessary part of being an American is to more often—and more insistently—remind ourselves that we are inherently flawed because we are human. To expect perfection is to perhaps forget our earthly limitations. As hard as we have tried to live up to the noblest ideals of our nation, we have not always been successful, but one could reasonably and persuasively argue that no nation in history has ever worked longer and harder to surmount its weaknesses and mistakes. As a result, we are generally able to both acknowledge our errors and celebrate our achievements. It is, in fact, often the case that each are simply two sides of the same American coin, and the more sensible among us recognize this maddening conundrum.

There is, unfortunately, a tendency today among many to see only one side of this coin. Some see reasonable restrictions on immigration—and the enforcement of existing laws—as outright hatred and nothing but. Others see a tragic past of slavery but cannot acknowledge the equally tragic civil war that both ended it and forged a new national identity. More than a few condemn us for failing to topple every dictator, yet they conveniently forget the barriers that sometimes make this impossible. Too many excoriate our country for making wars, but they refuse to credit the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces that ensure the freedom to complain about our government and its policies—and have provided this same privilege for many millions more around the world. Perhaps those who focus so intently upon the contradictions within our history should also take a look at the contradictions within their own hot emotional reactions and cold academic analyses. To casually and cruelly deride those who insist upon the importance of our nationhood as an expression of pride and place is to disrespect those who choose to wave the flag. Worse yet, this sort of blind hatred of our country fails to recognize the power of our national identity to bind us together as a people—and incorrectly conflates patriotism with fascism.

No matter how one feels about President Trump’s policies or personality, it must be acknowledged that a particular section of his Inaugural Address, which was widely panned by many smug media commentators, was absolutely correct: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” I realize that patriotism is today greeted by some with the same incredulity and confusion that an 11 year old feels when encountering a rotary dial phone, but focusing more on our shared purpose rather than obsessing over our inevitable differences might provide a way out of the echo chamber of identity politics that now confounds us. If all parties in a negotiation can act like Americans who have America’s best interests at heart, we may still be able to pull together and solve our many problems. However, should we continue to approach one another like competing armies intent on obliterating an enemy, we can expect—and likely deserve—nothing more than the anger and gridlock that stymies even the most judicious efforts at dialogue and reform.

Americans have over the past couple of centuries enshrined the concept of government as a creation of the common consent of the governed. Although the leaders we select may occasionally be creatures of entrenched political and economic interests who see representative government as nothing more than a ready mechanism for power, profit, and plunder—or are simply outright fools not worthy of our trust—we have learned that elections are by far the best method available to select whom we want to govern. We need to remember that the ballot box is an expression of our national priorities, not a place for our petty vendettas to play out. Perhaps we are today too oddly jaded, too overly sophisticated, and too bizarrely suspicious of one another to do anything other than celebrate our treasured individuality. If this is so, we likely deserve the dismal future of governmental failure peeking out over the horizon because we can’t see beyond the tips of our own precious noses—and remember that we are all Americans.

I hope we can stop treating our neighbors across our nation as strangers and enemies. The incredible efforts of those struggling to deal with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey should be a lesson to us all. Moreover, we should recognize that, for all its problems both past and present, our government—federal, state, and local—is doing incredible work to help the victims of this storm regroup and recover. We can—and must—build upon this fine example of sacrifice, hard work, and cooperation to deal with the many other problems facing our nation. To continue to throw rocks at one another because our values or priorities may differ is to wallow if what separates us rather than focus on the responsibilities we all have to our country and to one another.

Big Money Politics Helps Produce Political Extremism

People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.

However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.

Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:

“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”

Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:

“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”

If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:

“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!” 

See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.

Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.

A Few Words About Events In Charlottesville

Given the superheated national dialogue regarding the conflict, violence, injuries, and deaths surrounding the “Unite The Right” rally that turned a lovely college town in Virginia into a battleground, I approach this topic with some trepidation. I worry that offering my thoughts will turn me into a target for trolls. I am frustrated that being a white male turns my opinions on many topics into an opportunity for someone to chastise me for my white privilege—which is a fairly annoying way to tell me that my viewpoints are not worth considering. I am concerned that somebody whom I have never met and who knows nothing about my life, my experiences, or my values will “dox” me, enable harassment at my home and workplace, and brand me as a bigot and hater around the world thanks to the global reach of social media—leaving me with absolutely no hope of redeeming myself through reasoned discussion.

Deep breath….

  1. The white supremacists marching and shouting in Charlottesville—all 500 of them, according the Associated Press—need to engage in some serious soul-searching. If these kinds of twisted and hateful thoughts are your life’s preoccupation, you’ve got some major personal issues to resolve.
  2. The bonehead who drove his car into a crowd deserves nothing but our contempt.
  3. The young woman who was killed is a tragic victim. My condolences go out to her family and friends.
  4. The deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash is a senseless, unnecessary accident that diminishes us all.
  5. Any attempt to use these terrible events for political advantage should be resisted. This will do absolutely nothing but harden hearts and close minds.
  6. As impossible as it may be for some to believe, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable, caring, and respectful people who find it immensely frustrating that the idiotic actions of the very few are consuming the attention of the many. It is also worth asking whether the intense interest of the mass media in this kind of moronic behavior further encourages and legitimizes it.
  7. Larger lessons about the attitudes of our nation cannot be gleaned from the actions of a tiny group of losers. Just as I derived no useful understanding about America or Americans from the sniper murders of five Dallas police officers last year, I see the confrontation in Charlottesville as nothing more than an example of the sad power of crazy, stupid, and angry people to hurt the innocent.
  8. I agree with a quote widely attributed to M.K. Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” As tempting—and perhaps personally satisfying—as it might be for the “Antifa” (Anti-Fascist) counter-demonstrators to punch, kick, and shove those espousing hatred, it is an urge that must be resisted. Of course, those lining up to fight back against idiocy might find this terribly unfair, but if you want to occupy the moral high ground, you have to demonstrate more restraint and maturity than the average six year old child.

The big picture moral of the story here seems straightforward enough. We need to keep in mind that those who are lost, angry, and embittered can cause great harm to others. Community mental health services might help some get their lives back on track, but most cuckoos are destined to remain cuckoos no matter what we may try to do to help them. Sad to say, therapy and medication have limited power to change hearts and minds warped by hatred.

In the final analysis we best serve ourselves and the interests of our nation by being alert to problems, open to thoughtful discussion, and firm in our resolve to never let fringe groups dominate our public spaces or private thoughts. Giving too much attention and credence to the rantings of extremists of any sort gives them much more power over our lives than they deserve. We should obviously not ignore virulent racists for the simple reason that we should never ignore any problem in our communities, but we need to avoid generalizing the bizarre and hurtful behavior of a few individuals to our entire country and its people because by so doing we only create problems where they might not exist, turning all interactions into ones fraught with suspicion or fear—and that would be a victory for those whose lives are consumed by hatred.