Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Breath of Fresh Air

Politicians frequently spin.  But they don’t often dance.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) does both.    It drives the Republicans crazy.  And now even the Democrats are turning against her.

I’m with them on the spinning thing.  When politicians speak, I want them to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  I realize I won’t hear the whole truth.  But please, can we at least hear nothing but the truth?   AOC does herself no favors when she uses false analogies to understate the expenses of Medicare-for-All.  And when she makes a mistake, she should own it, rather than adding that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

Honestly, being factually correct IS a way to be morally right.  And being loose with facts is, sad to say, the opposite moral.

But damn it, I still love AOC.  I like her unbridled enthusiasm, her striking boldness, her authentic progressivism, her media savvy, and her willingness to take on the Democratic establishment.    In fact, I like that last characteristic the best of all.

In case you haven’t noticed, AOC is ruffling more than a few feathers with her Democratic colleagues.  She is committing the capital crime of -- gasp – supporting primary challengers to Democratic party incumbents.  She is looking for people who are deeply concerned about climate change, racial justice, and economic equity, and she is willing to fight for those candidates whenever they are running against conservatives, even if those conservatives are Democratic incumbents.  (Note to my readers:  a “conservative” is a proponent of the status quo, and these days, as many conservatives are Democrats as Republicans.)  Unfortunately, to the powers-that-be in Congress, taking on a party incumbent is practically a form of treason.  “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “We just don’t need sniping in our Democratic Caucus.”  And then we have the reported comments of an unidentified Democratic Congressperson who is considered a fellow progressive: “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?  There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.”

Indeed there is.  Activists, you see, reflect a wide range of political views.  They think for themselves.   They don’t feel straightjacketed by party discipline.  They may even make people like me proud to be Democrats.  But lawmakers?    Not so much.

Consider the primary campaign for President in 2016.   We had two candidates who basically split the members and the activists of the Democratic Party down the middle.  Personally, I’d say that roughly half of the Democrats I know were for Bernie, and half for Hillary.  Nationally, Bernie won roughly 3/7th of all Democratic Primary votes.  Pretty close, right?  But now consider the lawmakers and other power-brokers.  Bernie won the endorsement of only a single U.S. Senator (Jeff Merkley).  He also won the endorsement of only a single individual who had ever served as a Cabinet Member (Robert Reich).  In the House, you can count the number of Bernie’s endorsements on both hands.   As for sitting Governors, Bernie didn’t get a single endorsement.  When it came to the powers-that-be, Hillary cleaned his clock.

How did that all work out, America?

Believe me, AOC was watching.  She supported Bernie at the time, notwithstanding former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s comment (in reference to the Sanders/Clinton competition) that “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”  AOC would have also seen what happened when the Democratic Party controlled the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate (at one point, having 60 members of that body).  It failed to pass any meaningful gun control measure.  It failed to implement substantial progressive reforms to the tax system.  It failed to implement transformative climate change legislation.  And while it did succeed in implementing the same health care program that Mitt Romney once brought to Massachusetts (which, from a progressive standpoint, is a positive step toward universal health care), it failed to implement the public option, let alone Medicare-for-all – and now even our Romney Care is in jeopardy. 

In short, once we move beyond the ancien regime, with its Great Societies and its New Deals, the Democratic Party hasn’t done much to satisfy the needs of the working class, and not since Richard Nixon have we seen a massive governmental boost to help the environment.  AOC isn’t satisfied with those results.  Can you blame her?

At 29, AOC still has a lot to learn about Washington.  Most critically, she needs to guard her credibility like a hawk and recognize that a commitment to “truth” is every bit as important as a commitment to justice and compassion.   Empathic Rationalism demands that our politicians refrain from B.S., no matter what broader principles they are trying to serve.  But when it comes to fighting for high marginal tax rates, Green New Deals, or politicians whose greatest loyalties are to the needy, I am 100 percent behind her.  We’ve seen what happens when the old guard runs the party.  It’s time for AOC and others like her to assume the mantle. 

So keep dancing, AOC.  I’ve got your back.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

What Price Beauty

On Christmas morning, when millions upon millions of Americans were opening their presents, my wife and I were taking a road trip down Highway 95.   It can be one of the most congested, nightmarish freeways in America.  But on Christmas morning, it was practically a private drive.  Good weather, good music, no other cars – Christmas indeed.

Our destination on that day was Charleston, South Carolina.  I had once spent an entire summer at the other Charleston – the capital of West Virginia – but had never before visited the Carolina coast.  Neither had my wife.  For years we’ve heard about how beautiful it was.  Finally, we bit the bullet and saw it for ourselves.  I was blown away – by the beauty, the history, and the timeless lessons it can teach about the human condition.  Sadly, however, I left the area feeling worse about humankind rather than better.

Aesthetically, I adored Charleston and its surrounding area.  Ogling mansions has always been a hobby of mine, and I’ve never seen such an impressive array of mansions as I saw in Charleston.  The care and artistry that went into the building of those structures puts to shame any contemporary home I’ve set eyes on.  And though I’ve certainly seen a number of beautiful old homes in my life (Versailles comes immediately to mind), the sheer quantity of those structures in the historical district of Charleston blows away anything I’ve seen before.  Some would call these buildings gaudy, and surely they were built with the goal of showing off wealth.  But to me, they were gorgeous museum pieces – I felt that we were walking in a living, breathing outdoor museum and every mansion was just another work of priceless art.  I was in love.

Like any other visitor to Charleston, I had expected a considerable amount of architectural beauty.  I had also expected to hear about Charleston’s checkered past – a past grounded in slavery and Jim Crow laws.  The thing is though, what I wasn’t prepared for is the EXTENT of that architectural beauty, or just how many profound lessons Charleston’s history has to teach us about our contemporary world.

Consider, to begin, some basic facts. During the latter part of the colonial period, Charleston was far and away the most affluent city in the American colonies.  Not coincidentally, it was also the hub of those colonies’ slave trade.   Charleston was a city in which religion flourished – it became known for the quantity of its churches.  But as the contemporary visitor to Charleston is reminded upon visiting some of these places of worship, all these religious communities made their peace with slavery.  In fact, even among the religious groups now viewed as “progressive” (like Reform Judaism and Unitarian-Universalism), the white Charlestonians were as pro-slavery and as ruthless to their slaves as everyone else.

That’s not to say that all whites in anti-bellum Charleston had slaves.  But even those who didn’t benefited dramatically from the institution of slavery; the increased consumer demand generated by that institution enriched even those “humble” merchants who couldn’t afford to buy slaves of their own.  As for the less humble merchants, the planters who traded not only in rice and indigo but also in black people from Africa, they didn’t consider their African cargo to be “people.”  That enabled these merchants to rationalize a lifestyle in which they and their families could cultivate themselves with the finest of art, music, dance, literature, philosophy, science, architecture, religion, political theory, jurisprudence – ostensibly becoming our hemisphere’s greatest Renaissance Men -- while at the same time capturing, whipping, and at times even branding human beings as if they were beasts of burden. 

In fact, Charleston was so rich that the “owners” of the enslaved could develop the greatest rationalization tool of all: that they treated their “property” better than their counterparts on the cotton plantations further west.  In South Carolina, you see, it made economic sense to allow field hands to work limited portions of the plantation each day, and then allow some free time after their job was done.  The planters commonly even encouraged them to have families and pursue religion, both of which would motivate them to maintain their current lifestyles.  To be sure, by contemporary American standards, the enslaved suffered lives of unspeakably horrid abuses; nevertheless, the planters developed a system that was maximally designed to ensure obedience and economic productivity, building not simply on fear but also on a sense of appreciation that the enslaved had something to live for and something to look forward to once they pass away.    

After the war, life changed in Charleston for one and all, yet not nearly as dramatically as many might think.  Slavery soon gave way to Jim Crow -- and the same families who used to whip and brand their “property” continued to exploit these same individuals’ labor power through tenant farming.  Add in the institution of segregated schools, and you can see how the class system remained more or less intact, even though “freedom” had supposedly become universal.    

And now, here we are, in the 21st Century.  Most of the anti-bellum plantations are gone.  But the planters’ second homes in Charleston remain.  Indeed, they often continue to function as second homes for families who spend the rest of the year earning millions or tens of millions of dollars in cities that were never so dependent on the institution of slavery.  I saw people of color come in and out of these homes, yet once again, they were kept around to work, not to play.  The residents, it seems, are as white today as they were back in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Now, their property resides primarily in stocks and bonds – rather than in arms and legs – but their extreme wealth is as notable today as it ever was. 

Those are the facts that are difficult to ignore by any tourist.  It is up to each tourist to decide what to do with them.  For me, though, one set of lessons reign supreme.  They involve our capacity and inclination both to pursue great wealth for ourselves and our families and to rationalize our entitlement to that wealth if we are fortunate enough to satisfy our goals. 

Today, we look down our noses at the slave-owners of yesteryear who helped to build Charleston into the crown jewel of the Confederacy.  We decry their racism.  We deny their love for liberty.  But truly, how different is our society than theirs?  Are we not also growing by leaps and bounds in economic inequality?   Do we not have our own one percenters, whose wealth rests on the toil of overworked people?   If we compare the lives of the one percenters to those of their janitors, field hands, and other subordinates, do we not view the former as society’s “winners” and the latter as society’s “losers”?  Do we not continue to see human dignity as something that is enjoyed by some, but far from all, of our society?

Private planes, gated communities, prep schools, trust funds, bi-annual trips overseas, you name it – the successors to the old plantation owners continue to play in ways that their workers could only dream of.  And just as the plantation owners rationalized their right to enjoy all their play toys, so do the one percenters of today.  They attribute their wealth to their “intellectual property,” superior skills on the basketball court, or the God-given right of their parents to decide what to do with hard earned money.   Because the workers who clean their toilets or water their gardens are purportedly now “free” to pursue their own dreams of extreme wealth, rather than serving as someone else’s “property,” the one percenters don’t see themselves as violating anyone’s rights.  In fact, they believe that they are fully entitled to seize whatever the market economy gives them and to oppose any tax policies that are remotely seen as “leveling.”  

To me, however, nobody has the right to the degree of wealth enjoyed by the 18th century’s plantation owners or today’s one percent.  Such wealth is the product of living in a society that fails to recognize human interdependence, the true value of all human labor, and the universality of human dignity.  Make no mistake -- I support capitalism, recognize the value of private property, and appreciate why some degree of economic inequality is crucial in order to incentivize human productivity.  But when a society’s level of economic inequality blows up too much, the results can be a horror show.  Such a society makes a mockery of such concepts as freedom, justice, and above all else, religion.

It has become a truism that underneath its breathtaking beauty, anti-bellum Charleston was such a horror show.   Unfortunately, when I went to visit the scene of such a crime, I found everything to be way too familiar.  Do we really think that our species has learned the lessons from that episode of history?  Or are we simply revealing yet again our capacity for selfishness, greed and rationalization?  And if our sense of beauty is totally intertwined with our love for luxury goods and services, how are we ever going to break out of this trap?

These are a few things I’ve been thinking about since my vacation.  Now perhaps you can see why I generally prefer to spend my vacations reading and writing rather than traveling.  Traveling can be as sobering to the soul as it is awe-inspiring to the eyes.