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Demagoguery

Not long after Donald Trump became President (I pause to choke back the bile), he hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office.

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No surprise there. Jackson, the seventh President, was a decidedly Trump-like guy. As history shows, he was as deplorable, personally and professionally, as Donald himself.

“Old Hickory” was a self-proclaimed People’s President. He railed against political elites and the establishment. He was vain, arrogant, egotistical, and perpetually angry.

Trump (“Old Bone Spur”) denigrates immigrants and minorities to keep his looney tunes supporters in a lather. Jackson, once a slave trader by profession, vilified Native Americans and confiscated their land to gain the support of European whites coming to America.

The fact is, most Americans of Jackson’s time were okay with systematically removing the tribes and taking their land. It was our “Manifest Destiny.” People admired Jackson for what became known as “rugged individualism.”

With the exception of Donald Trump (“Old Grab ‘Em”), no American President has been a total loser, with a record of all negatives and no positives (“Old Zero”). Jackson was as odious and contemptible as Trump, but still competent as a soldier and politician.

Further, unlike Trump, Jackson was a patriotic American. If Jackson were here today, he would be outraged over Trump’s traitorous collaboration with Russia and kowtowing to Putin. He probably would challenge Trump to a duel.

Jackson beats Trump easily in the competence department, but it is undeniable that a pall of hatefulness and cruelty hangs over his life and career.

(I was referring to Jackson, but okay, Trump too.)

The Slave Trade

Andrew Jackson was born in 1767 to a poor Scotch-Irish family on the border between North and South Carolina (both states claim him). As a young man, he became wealthy as a slave trader. He specialized in purchasing slaves in the upper South and selling them at a profit to the plantations of the lower South.

In 1804, Jackson purchased The Hermitage, a large Nashville cotton plantation that, of course, relied on slave labor. When he bought the property, he owned nine slaves. As he acquired more land, he procured more slaves. By 1829, he owned about 100. By the time he died, he owned 150.

Records show that Jackson beat his slaves regularly. He once had a woman whipped in public for “putting on airs.” Also on record are newspaper ads Jackson placed seeking the return of runaway slaves.

One ad offered an extra $10 for every 100 lashes administered to a 30-year-old runaway named Tom, should he be found. In other words, Jackson offered extra money to have the man killed.

The Native Problem

Jackson was equally harsh with Native Americans. As a major general during the War of 1812, he led a lengthy campaign in Alabama against rebellious Creeks (the Creek War, 1813-14).

The Creek Nation was divided. Many believed resisting the U.S. was futile, but hardliners known as “Red Sticks” allied themselves with the British and fought American expansion.

Jackson defeated the Red Stick faction in 1814 and, citing national security, proceeded to confiscate the land of all Creeks without exception, Red Stick or otherwise.

He became a national hero in 1815 when he led American forces to victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans.

In 1817, supposedly without orders from his superiors, Jackson led his forces in an invasion of Florida, which was under Spanish control. His pretext: the Seminoles were giving refuge to escaped slaves. He captured several Spanish forts and claimed the surrounding territory for the United States.

The Spanish government strongly objected, and many in Congress wanted Jackson to be censured. But the hubbub soon died down, and the U.S. acquired Florida in 1821.

In 1824, Jackson ran for President, but lost to John Quincy Adams. In 1828, he ran against incumbent Adams and won.

The Removal

1828 also was the year gold was discovered in Georgia, much of it on tribal land. That discovery sealed the fate of the tribes in the Southeast. Congress immediately drafted the Indian Removal Act, which Jackson signed in 1830.

Under the act, 46,000 people of the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole nations were removed from their homelands. Most were force-marched 1,000 miles to Oklahoma. At least 6,000 died of exposure, starvation, and disease.

After the removal, the United States turned over about 25 million acres of confiscated Native American land to white settlers. It was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

According to Jackson, the removal was fitting and proper. He said this in a speech to Congress in 1833:

That those tribes cannot exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement, which are essential to any favorable change in their condition.

Established in the midst of another and superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.

“Alarmed at the Prospect”

Jackson was popular among the common folk, but many of his political contemporaries were concerned about his extremism. During the 1824 election, Thomas Jefferson expressed his misgivings in a letter to Daniel Webster:

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.

His passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

During his term as President, Jackson opposed efforts to outlaw slavery in the western territories. He also banned the distribution in the southern states of printed material opposing slavery. He said the abolitionists spreading the material were monsters who should “atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.”

100 Duels

A biographer quoted Jackson as saying, “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me.” As evidence of that, Jackson challenged more than 100 men to a duel.

In Jackson’s time, most duels were a show of bravado and bluster that resulted in no bloodshed, although deaths and wounds certainly occurred. But Jackson did kill one man, Charles Dickinson, a rival plantation owner with whom he had feuded for years.

Allowing Dickinson to shoot first, Jackson suffered a serious chest wound. But he stayed on his feet, took careful aim, and returned fire. Dickinson was mortally wounded.

The Death of Rachel Jackson

If being in a constant state of rage was Jackson’s default condition, the death of his wife Rachel in 1828 certainly amplified it.

The elections of 1824 and 1828 were especially nasty on both sides. Adams supporters liberally publicized Jackson’s unsavory record as a slave trader. The Adams campaign accused Jackson of cannibalizing enemy corpses, called his mother a common prostitute, and claimed his father was a mulatto.

Further, Rachel was attacked as a bigamist based on questions about the legality of her divorce from her first husband. An introverted person, she struggled to hold up under the stress of the campaigns.

Shortly after Jackson was elected President, but before he took office, Rachel began having sharp, recurring pains in her arm and shoulder. They were symptoms of a heart attack that killed her a few days later.

Reportedly, when the undertaker came to prepare Rachel for burial, aides had to pull the grief-stricken Jackson from her body.

Jackson blamed his political opponents for hastening Rachel’s death. At her funeral at The Hermitage on Christmas Eve, he told the mourners, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers. I never can.”

Rachel Jackson

Rachel in 1823.

Lack of Reverence

Some years earlier, Jackson had given Rachel a parrot named Poll. Poll was an African Grey Parrot, an intelligent bird noted for its ability to learn words and mimic sounds. They lack vocal chords, but create sounds by controlling the air they exhale.

After Rachel died, Poll became Jackson’s pet and companion. Poll was said to have an extensive vocabulary.

Jackson served two terms as President and retired to The Hermitage in 1837. He remained influential in national politics, but his health steadily declined. He died in 1845 of heart failure and other ailments.

Poll attended his master’s funeral, but only briefly. Reverend William Norment, the clergyman who presided at the funeral, later wrote:

Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.

Norment said the parrot “let loose perfect gusts of cuss words” that left people “horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.”

I wonder whether Poll learned his pottymouth ways from Rachel or Andrew.

African Grey Parrot

A male African Grey Parrot.

Understandably, the word “demagogue” came to mind as I was writing this post. The website Vocabulary.com defines the word thusly:

Demagogue — A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular passions and prejudices.

The website’s definition of the word “demagoguery” is masterful.

Demagoguery is a manipulative approach — often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians — that appeals to the worst nature of people. Demagoguery isn’t based on reason, issues, and doing the right thing; it’s based on stirring up fear and hatred to control people. For example, a politician who stirs up a fear of immigrants to distract from other issues is using demagoguery. Demagoguery is one of the most negative aspects of politics, but it’s also one that’s all too common.

Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump: two demagogues at the top of their game.

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The expression “May you live in interesting times” supposedly is an old Chinese curse. It’s considered a polite way of wishing someone ill, owing to the fact that interesting times usually involve strife and unpleasantness.

For America, “interesting times” accurately describes the entire decade of the 1960s. And in my case, it started with a bang.

In January 1961, when I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, a major brouhaha erupted in Athens when UGA was ordered by a federal judge to enroll its first black students. I wrote about that in some detail here.

A lesser brouhaha, one that barely made the national news, occurred in Athens not long after that. I’m referring to a series of protest marches to desegregate a popular local restaurant.

The restaurant was the Varsity, a beloved fast-food joint that had been an Athens institution since 1932. Owing to the time and place, it was open to whites only. A bit of background to set the stage.

In 1928, businessman Frank Gordy opened the original Varsity drive-in near the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. The business was an immediate success. The day he opened, Gordy had 300 customers. By the end of the 1930s — a Depression economy, mind you — Gordy was a millionaire.

It’s the burgers, the chili dogs, and the fries, people. Varsity food is fast food, not health food by any stretch, but it tastes great. And, incredibly, it tastes exactly the same today as it did when I had my first meal there in 1960.

Varsity-1

In 1932, Gordy opened a Varsity in Athens. It was located downtown, across the street from the UGA campus.

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It remained there until 1962, when a larger building with loads of parking was built on Atlanta Highway. That location is still in operation today.

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The closing of the beloved downtown Varsity was traumatic, and it took a while for Athenians to warm to the new location. But they did, and the Varsity has remained popular with students and townies through the years.

The desegregation of the University in 1961 prompted the black community to address the irksome fact that the Varsity did not allow black customers in the restaurant. Ironically, most of the employees were black.

In my student days, it never registered with me that the Varsity was white only. Yes, the place was a sea of white faces, but Athens was a college town in the 1960s, perpetually awash in white faces.

I was a liberal Democrat then as now, and I agreed that admitting black students to the University was the right thing to do. But in other ways, I was just an oblivious white kid.

Not until years later did I learn that the downtown Varsity only served African-Americans through a walk-up window on the sidewalk.

The new Varsity on Atlanta Highway didn’t even have a walk-up window.

In 1963, taking a cue from the successful lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina, Athens civil rights activists began marching on the Varsity in protest. Sometimes the marches were peaceful, sometimes they weren’t.

Protesters regularly were arrested and hauled away, but the city usually released them immediately. Prisoners in jail have to be fed, clothed, and looked after. That costs money.

Reportedly, the largest and most contentious march happened in the spring of 1964. And, yes, I was there to see the fireworks.

At the time, I was a senior, set to graduate in June. Everyone knew about the protest marches, and we had heard talk that the Varsity management was weakening, fearing that the negative publicity would affect business. That would never do.

That spring evening, a friend said he heard that the KKK had arrived at the Varsity to protest the protesters. Immediately, we went to see for ourselves.

We arrived just after dark. The black marchers had gathered under the trees on the south side of the building. Between the protesters and the south entrance stood 15 or 20 Klansmen in white robes and pointy hats. Only a few wore hoods that covered their faces.

Earlier, heated words were exchanged and a few bricks were thrown, but the police had made no arrests. Everyone — protesters, Klansmen, cops, and onlookers — stood around more or less quietly, waiting for what came next. The mood was calm, but tense.

I guess it was tense enough to make me thirsty, because I excused my way through the line of Klansmen and went inside to get a drink from the water fountain. No problem, I’m white.

As I passed them, one Klansman pulled back his robe to reveal a holstered pistol on his hip, as if to say: look here, boy, I got me a gun.

I was genuinely embarrassed for the guy. Personally, I think being a Klansman identifies you as a mental midget and a detriment to society. Being a Klansman who flaunts a weapon to a passing teenager further identifies you as an obnoxious jerk.

Somehow, the situation that night remained calm. The protesters occasionally chanted, and the KKK guys watched in silence. Then the protesters walked in single file back to a nearby church, where the march began. Then the Klansmen left, then the police, then the onlookers. The Varsity was back to normal.

A month or so later, I graduated from UGA and left Athens to begin a new adventure in the Air Force in exotic New Mexico. The Athens Varsity was rarely in my thoughts.

But, indeed, not long after I departed, the restaurant saw the error of its ways and opened its doors to all paying customers, regardless of skin tone.

Nowadays, when I stop there for a chili dog fix, I observe that most of the employees are either black or Hispanic, and of the customers, a few black faces might be peppered among the white.

But in truth, the Varsity never became a big thing for black people in Athens. Maybe they don’t like the food.

No matter. What counts is they have the choice.

Varsity-5

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I’m a history nut. To me, history is interesting, informative, compelling, and fun. It’s a gas to come across fascinating nuggets from the past that either add to my understanding of events or introduce me to something new.

Recently, I read that the shortest war in recorded history is the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. Which, of course, I had never heard of.

I was intrigued and promptly Googled it. What I learned was wonderfully entertaining — and a reminder of why I am a history nut in the first place.

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In the late 1800s, the nations of Europe finalized their conquest and colonization of the African continent. By 1900, most of Africa was under the colonial rule of either Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, or Italy. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent.

It happened because the European countries wanted Africa’s raw materials and were capable militarily of taking them. It also helped that the nations of Europe were highly competitive, and acquiring new territories was a feather in the cap — an opportunity to one-up the other countries.

Further, the new colonies in Africa gave the Europeans a way to address some of the nagging social problems created by the Industrial Revolution: displacement from rural areas, overcrowding in the cities, poverty, homelessness, unemployment. These issues could be alleviated to some degree by sending problematic people to the African colonies as settlers.

The manner in which the Europeans administered the colonies varied. The British preferred indirect rule, whereby they installed locals who would do as the Brits instructed. The French, Germans, and Belgians preferred direct rule, assigning their own countrymen, either military or civilian, as colonial administrators.

The Africans themselves remained in various stages of revolt, of course, which required a sizable European military presence. Meanwhile, the Europeans also clashed among themselves in every way short of armed conflict. They formed temporary alliances, imposed tariffs on each other, and jockeyed to gain control over waterways and trade routes.

Eventually, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened a conference in Berlin that laid down a series of rules and guidelines and brought a degree of order to the continent. Among the colonial powers, that is, not the natives.

Against that backdrop, the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 erupted.

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For centuries, the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa was a center of the Arab slave trade, enriching a long line of sultans.

But times change, and by the 1870s, the British were able to persuade the Sultan of Zanzibar to end the slave trade for economic reasons; they convinced him that legitimate trade in rubber and ivory was more lucrative.

In 1890, Britain and Germany signed an agreement that gave Germany control of the mainland nation of Tanzania and made the island of Zanzibar a British protectorate. The British soon installed a pro-British Arab, Hamad bin Thuwaini, as Sultan of Zanzibar. Hamad ruled for three years, more or less uneventfully.

Then, on August 25, 1896, Hamad died suddenly in the royal palace in Zanzibar City. The cause was never determined officially, but most believed he was poisoned by his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash.

Lending credence to that belief: within hours of Hamad’s death, Khalid moved into the palace and declared himself Sultan. Khalid, FYI, was pro-German.

The British Consul, Sir Basil Cave, immediately ordered Khalid to vacate the palace. Khalid refused and quickly assembled a defense force of about 3,000 Zanzibaris. They consisted of the palace guard, a few hundred servants and slaves, and a large number of civilians conscripted from Zanzibar City.

The defenders were equipped with assorted small arms, several machine guns, and a few artillery pieces. They were not remotely a match for the British military forces in the region.

By the evening of August 25, three British warships had arrived in the harbor. Hundreds of troops had gone ashore to protect the British Consulate and keep the civilian population in check. The guns of the warships were trained on the royal palace.

Sir Basil asked London by telegram, “Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?

The reply: “You are authorised to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.”

On the morning of August 26, Sir Basil issued a final ultimatum: if Khalid was not out of the palace by August 27 at 9:00 AM, the British ships would commence firing.

Khalid’s response: “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.

Sir Basil replied that he had no desire to fire upon the palace, “but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so.” That was the last communication between them.

The next morning, the 9:00 AM deadline passed, and the British warships began bombarding the palace with high-explosive shells.

The royal palace stood at the harbor’s edge and consisted of three main buildings: the palace itself, the harem (the part of a Muslim home where females reside), and the “House of Wonders,” a lavish reception hall. The buildings were constructed largely of wood.

Within minutes, Khalid’s machine guns and artillery were eliminated. The damage to the palace by the exploding shells was devastating. Fire quickly spread, and the buildings began to collapse.

Also within minutes, Khalid and a small entourage fled the palace via a rear entrance, leaving the rest of the defenders behind.

When the shelling ended at 9:40 AM, about 500 defenders were dead or wounded. The war had lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, depending on who did the timing.

Britain promptly installed Ali Hamud, another pro-British Zanzibari, as sultan.

As for Khalid, he fled to the German Consulate and was given sanctuary. The British demanded his extradition, but the Germans refused and eventually smuggled him out of Zanzibar and into Tanzania.

Khalid lived under German protection in Tanzania until 1916, when the Brits managed to capture him. He served a term in exile on St. Helena, then was allowed to return to Tanzania. He died there in 1927.

Khalid was the Sultan of Zanzibar for a whopping two days.

Hamad

Hamad bin Thuwaini

Deutsch-Ostafrika, Sultan

Khalid bin Barghash

Cave B

Sir Basil Cave

Palace

The Royal Palace before the war.

Harem

The ruins of the harem building after the bombardment.

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“Recorded history” is our way of documenting what we consider the important stuff. But the record we keep is only a tiny fraction of literal history.

In the 50,000 years humans have existed, roughly 108 billion of us have been born. That’s 108 billion lifetimes worth of constant interactions within countless societies. In a real sense, 99 percent of history passes quietly, undocumented, known only to the participants.

Hamad, Khalid, and Sir Basil became historical figures. But we know nothing about the lives of the British sailors and soldiers who were ordered to Zanzibar City in August 1896. Nor of the lives of the 3,000 hapless souls who huddled inside the royal palace as British shells rained down.

 

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Last month, all nine Republican on the House Intelligence Committee signed a letter calling on Democrat Adam Schiff, the new chairman, to resign. They said Schiff made false claims that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, so he ought to quit.

Never mind that we don’t yet know what Mueller uncovered about Trump and the Russians. The letter is just another example of the innate behavior of present-day Republicans. It’s distasteful, inappropriate and low-minded. It scrambles the facts in the classic manner of GOP nastiness. See for yourself.

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Schiff’s response to the Republicans, apparently spontaneous, is a thing of beauty. Here is the transcript.

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My colleagues might think it’s okay that the Russians offered dirt on the Democratic candidate for president as part of what’s described as the Russian government’s effort to help the Trump campaign. You might think that’s okay.

My colleagues might think it’s okay that, when that was offered to the son of the president, who had a pivotal role in the campaign, that the president’s son did not call the FBI, he did not adamantly refuse that foreign help. No, instead, that son said he would ‘love’ the help with the Russians.

You might think it was okay that he took that meeting. You might think it’s okay that Paul Manafort, the campaign chair, someone with great experience running campaigns, also took that meeting. You might think it’s okay that the president’s son-in-law also took that meeting. You might think it’s okay that they concealed it from the public. You might think it’s okay that their only disappointment after that meeting was that the dirt they received on Hillary Clinton wasn’t better. You might think it’s okay. I don’t.

You might think it’s okay that, when it was discovered a year later that they had lied about that meeting and said it was about adoptions, you might think it’s okay that the president is reported to have helped dictate that lie. You might think it’s okay. I don’t.

You might think it’s okay that the campaign chairman of a presidential campaign would offer information about that campaign to a Russian oligarch in exchange for money or debt forgiveness. You might think that’s okay. I don’t.

You might think it’s okay that that campaign chairman offered polling data, campaign polling data, to someone linked to Russian intelligence. I don’t think that’s okay.

You might think it’s okay if that the president himself called on Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, if they were listening. You might think it’s okay that, later that day, the Russians in fact attempted to hack a server affiliated with that campaign. I don’t think that’s okay.

You might think that it’s okay that the president’s son-in-law sought to establish a secret back-channel of communication with Russians through a Russian diplomatic facility. I don’t think that’s okay.

You might think it’s okay that an associate of the president made direct contact with the GRU (ed. note: Russian Intelligence) through Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks, that is considered a hostile intelligence agency. You might think it’s okay that a senior campaign official was instructed to reach that associate and find out what that hostile intelligence agency had to say in terms of dirt on his opponent.

You might think it’s okay that the national security adviser-designate secretly conferred with a Russian ambassador about undermining U.S. sanctions, and you might think it’s okay he lied about it to the FBI.

You might say that’s all okay. You might say that’s just what you need to do to win. But I don’t think it’s okay. I think it’s immoral, I think it’s unethical, I think it’s unpatriotic and, yes, I think it’s corrupt and evidence of collusion.

Now, I have always said that whether this amounts to proof of conspiracy was another matter. Whether the special counsel could prove beyond a reasonable doubt the proof of that crime was up to the special counsel, and that I would accept his decision, and I do. He is a good and honorable man, and he is a good prosecutor.

But I do not think that conduct, criminal or not, is okay. And the day we do think that’s okay is the day we will look back and say, that is the day America lost its way.

And I’ll tell you one more thing that is apropos of the hearing today. I don’t think it’s okay that during a presidential campaign, Mr. Trump sought the Kremlin’s help to consummate a real estate deal in Moscow that would make him a fortune. According to the special counsel, hundreds of millions of dollars.

I don’t think it’s okay that he concealed it from the public. I don’t think it’s okay he advocated a new and more favorable policy towards the Russians, even as he was seeking the Russian’s help, the Kremlin’s help, to make money.

I don’t think it’s okay that his attorney lied to our committee. There is a different word for that than collusion and it’s called compromise. And that’s the subject of our hearing today.

Mic drop

———

Schiff seems to be a decent and honorable guy. Unless he has me completely fooled, and I don’t think he does, he has integrity and compassion, wants to play fair, wants to do the right thing.

There was a time when you could say the same about some Republicans.

 

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The Mueller Report is all over the news these days, mostly in the form of speculation and spin, seeing as how Trump’s Justice Department has managed to keep it secret so far.

The Full Mueller will surface eventually, and the facts will be known. But really, the verdict on Trump came in years ago.

Donald Trump is an all-around awful human being. If you opened his head, crawly things would spill out and skitter away to find the nearest dark place.

He is crude, obnoxious, and vindictive. He is a bully, a blowhard, and a crook. He tells lies for sport. He has no qualifications for the job and no plans to acquire them. His business ties with Russian gangsters go back decades.

I could accept an offensive jerk as president, but not a no-talent gasbag who is in bed with the Russians. He is unfit for office for a thousand reasons and should have been ejected long ago.

Depressingly, plenty of people think otherwise. They seem to believe that our government and political institutions are so screwed up, so rigged to benefit either (a) the rich and powerful or (b) deadbeats and welfare queens, that we need someone like Trump to tear down the system so we can start fresh — in some ill-defined way that came to them in a fever dream.

Well, it’s true that the system is screwed-up and rigged. But if you think Trump is the solution, you’re addled.

The way to get rid of the parasites and, dare I say it, make America great again, is to start using our institutions as they were intended to be used. To play fair. Work together. Use our shared resources to help each other.

Things got off the rails because, over time, the rich and well-connected, including big corporations, have learned to game the system to their own advantage and the detriment of everyone else.

For example, Amazon.com, Inc. made profits of $11 billion in 2018. The company not only paid zero federal income tax, but also qualified for a tax rebate of $129 million. That’s gaming the system like a boss.

It’s undeniable that America has become more and more under the control of modern-day robber barons. Their ascendance in the U.S. has been more subtle than the rise of the Russian oligarchs after the USSR imploded, but the similarities are very real.

Meanwhile, the Republicans connive and cheat to hold down Democratic voter turnout through gerrymandering and voter suppression.

And Fox News and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine keep the conservative herd in a lather by invoking inner demons and insecurities, including fear of black and brown people.

And the GOP base keeps voting for Republicans, who make saps out of the faithful by helping the rich get richer and the powerful become more entrenched.

There are plenty of Democrats in office who ought to be shown the door, but, in general, the Left gets it right. The Left hasn’t lost its mind, integrity, and sense of decency. Consider the formal Democratic Party priorities for 2019.

HR 1, the first bill passed by the new House, would institute campaign finance reform, add new restrictions on lobbying, and expand voting rights.

Democrats want to restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court shredded in 2013. Democrats want the federal government to build rural broadband systems.

They want to shore up the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug prices, pass some overdue restrictions on guns, and act decisively on climate change.

By the way, the Green New Deal, which the conservatives are straining so hard to vilify and belittle, is merely a label for taking climate change seriously. It isn’t a war on cows.

Whatever we do to go green will be insufficient, but if we can snap out of it in the 11th hour and decarbonize the economy to some degree, it might help the planet remain livable a bit longer.

The ideas on the list of Democratic priorities aren’t radical. They’re just common-sense efforts to face reality.

Contrast that to Trump and the Republicans, who say climate change is a hoax, who warn that malevolent forces are poised to storm the southern border, and who rarely favor anything that isn’t cruel, selfish, deceitful, or underhanded.

But that, I’m afraid, is innate right-wing behavior.

More on that subject in my next post.

Mueller et al

Don, Rod, Bob, and Smiling Bill.

 

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Wrecking Ball

On the day Donald Trump took office as President, I put an American flag decal on the rear window of my car, upside down.

It is, of course, a symbol of national distress, as well as of my outrage that a modern-day Benedict Arnold, who also happens to be an unqualified, immoral crook, occupies the White House.

To be clear, displaying the flag upside down can be deemed an act of desecration, depending on the circumstances. I don’t seriously expect to get busted. And I will remove the decal the day the Orange Vulgarian leaves office.

The decal has been in place for two years, and it’s a fact that I drive the car almost literally every day. Plenty of people surely have noticed that the flag is upside down. Yet, not a soul, whether family member, friend, or stranger, ever mentioned it.

Until now.

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Last Thursday, as I left the Target store in Gainesville, I noticed a white guy wearing a backpack standing behind my car, apparently looking at the rear window.

I didn’t think he had nefarious intentions. Nothing of value was on the seats. He wasn’t likely a car thief, because the parking lot was aswarm with people.

(Actually, in the minutes that followed, I left myself open to armed robbery, but that didn’t dawn on me until later.)

When I got closer, I pressed the key fob. The car chirped, the lights flashed, and the doors unlocked. The man turned toward me. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting.

I nodded to him and reached to open the car door.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “Can I ask you a question?”

Oh, hell, I thought. A panhandler. I don’t need this.

I stepped back to get a better look at him. He was 40-ish, short, slender, full beard, wearing a knit cap and a camo jacket. The backpack was fairly large and full, which suggested he was traveling on foot. Yet, he was neat and clean. Curious.

“What question is that?”

“I noticed your decal, the upside-down flag. I take it that’s a protest about something?” He lacked a Georgia accent.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “I put it there the day Trump became President. It will stay there until he’s no longer in office.”

“So, you’re not a Trump fan.”

“No. He’s a disgrace to the office.”

“I don’t like him, either,” the guy said. “He’s a con-man. He’s using the position to enrich himself and his family. Plus, he’s been doing business with the Russians for years. Putin controls him because he knows where the bodies are buried.”

Wow, I thought, how refreshing. Most people around here keep their mouths shut about Trump. Being hidebound conservatives, they voted for him and tolerate his behavior, but they are loath to admit it.

“You’ve been paying attention,” I said.

“Well, here’s what people don’t realize about Trump,” he said. “God made him President. And for a specific reason.”

Oh, hell, I thought. A nut job.

“Trump is God’s wrecking ball,” he said. “God is using Trump to break the stranglehold of the nonbelievers who control the federal government.”

How do I end this conversation?

We had been standing there so long that the car re-locked itself. I pressed the fob again, twice, hoping the guy would take the hint and wrap it up.

“Trump will get the job done, God willing. After that, I hope he gets what’s coming to him. He really is an awful person.”

“Agreed.”

How do I end this conversation?

“The atheists took over really fast, in just a couple of decades,” he said earnestly. “They systematically infiltrated the federal government at every level. Very clever, very efficient. But their days are numbered.”

“‘God’s wrecking ball.’ I like it.”

He grinned. “When you realize Trump is doing God’s work, it changes how you see the situation.”

Yes, I agreed, that does put things in a new light.

“Well, I need to get going. God bless you, sir.”

“Safe travels,” I said.

The man turned and went on his way. As I reached to open the door, the car locked itself again.

Decal

 

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Brain Damage

Science, I love ya.

I am of the opinion, and have been for some time, that the mindset of people who are politically, socially, and/or religiously conservative is the product of some kind of mental abnormality. It’s a position I have expressed often on this blog, including posts here, here, and here.

I hold that view because right-wing thinking routinely ignores facts and logic. Conservatives are, by nature, remarkably closed-minded. Great numbers of them live their lives hating on and fearing various forces they perceive are out to get them, take from them, or diminish them. For psychological reasons, they seem to need an enemy they can blame for whatever upsets them.

Behavior like that isn’t normal or healthy. The negativity, the anger, the bunker mentality, the resistance to change — it’s always led me to suspect that something isn’t right up in the belfry.

Well, now there is new science that backs me up. Researchers at Northwestern University say they have identified a link between brain damage and religious fundamentalism.

According to their findings, damage to the prefrontal cortex — the “executive” region of the brain, which governs higher mental functions such as decision-making — can diminish “cognitive flexibility,” making the victim less open-minded, less accepting of new ideas, and correspondingly more extreme in religious beliefs.

Specifically, damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex has the reported effects.

prefrontal cortex

The Northwestern study compared two groups of Vietnam War veterans. One group had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, the other had not. The subjects were tested to assess the traits of cognitive flexibility and openness and to determine religious/political beliefs.

The subjects with trauma to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex scored lower on cognitive flexibility and openness and higher on conservatism and religious fundamentalism. The subjects who had suffered no trauma scored the opposite.

Why? Because of the difference between empirical thinking and religious thinking.

Empirical beliefs (science, learning by observation, etc.) are based on real facts in the real world. Empirical thinking also can accommodate change if new empirical evidence warrants.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are the opposite. Fundamentalism and conservatism are fixed and rigid. They discourage progressive thinking. They reject scientific explanations and new evidence. Anything that questions their beliefs and traditions is seen as a threat to group stability and may be opposed aggressively.

Cognitive flexibility, by the way, simply means flexible thinking. This trait allows the brain to switch lines of thought quickly, to consider new evidence, and to adjust beliefs and behavior accordingly. It’s a key survival skill in organisms large and small.

The Northwestern study noted that other factors can influence political and religious convictions, including social environment and innate personality traits. But they emphasized the need to understand the mechanics of how religion works in people because it is so influential in virtually every society.

To summarize:

(1) The trait of cognitive flexibility provides a mental edge in dealing rationally with the world and adapting to change.

(2) Researchers have found evidence that brain damage can reduce cognitive flexibility and lead to an increase in conservative/fundamentalist thinking.

Empirical thinking scores another point for empirical thinking.

Maybe damage to the prefrontal cortex, or faulty wiring in the brain from birth, helps explain the loony behavior of the Republicans in recent times. Maybe it helps explain the bizarre and creepy MAGA crowds that assemble for Trump rallies.

And maybe it sheds light on why an appalling number of people voted for Trump and still support him, despite the empirical evidence that he is a corrupt, amoral con man who is owned by Russian gangsters and should have been ejected from office long ago on grounds of collusion, negligence, malfeasance, and the commission of high crimes and misdemeanors.

But I digress.

fanboy

 

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