Obama continues mainstream post-WW II foreign policy by allowing arms sales to Viet Nam

President Obama has issued a number of executive orders over the past two years that have overridden the obstructionist Congress to give Americans what they voted for: a left-looking centrist administration. Among other things, he has negotiated an historic treaty with Iran that stops nuclear proliferation, tried to end the stalemate over creating a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, issued new regulations that help address climate change, and extended overtime pay to millions of Americans.

But in foreign policy and national defense, it’s the same old same old that we’ve had since World War II. President Obama, someone who claims he’s seeking peace, is lifting sanctions on the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam. How could selling arms to yet another country help the cause of world peace?

The standard answer to that question for the past 70+ years has been that arming a nation serves as a deterrence to other nations. As applied to Vietnam, the argument goes something like so: China will be less willing to push its weight around the South China Sea and will draw Vietnam closer to the United States, both militarily and economically. The big issue in the mainstream media is not whether we should be selling arms, but if we extracted enough in return in terms of prodding Vietnam to increase press freedom and political expression.

On closer inspection, this argument makes no sense. How can arming a totalitarian government that allows no press freedom and little dissent make the region or the world more secure? And how does Vietnam fit into a strategy of military containment of the Chinese? What would such a strategy look like? Or are we building up the fire power for the next regional conflagration, between Vietnam and China or a Chinese ally serving as proxy?

The United States is the leading supplier of arms to the rest of the world and has been for many decades. We account for almost 53% of the $40.4 billion in total world trade in arms. In second place, with a mere 19.3% of world arms trade, is Russia. Our guns help keep the flames of conflict alive in many regional war zones. If Obama were interested in a real turn in American foreign policy, he would stop all sales of American arms to other countries. The objection that other countries would step into the vacuum and develop arms businesses of their own doesn’t hold water, because if their governments could afford to subsidize weapons industries the way the U.S. government does, they would have done so long ago.

Making and selling military grade weapons are a big business for a handful of American manufacturers who have had their claws into Congress and both political parties since World War I. Often the organization making military grade equipment is affiliated with a company that sells guns to U.S. consumers. By ending the arms embargo to Vietnam, President Obama is making the world safe—safe for American military businesses that is!

One could cynically interpret the Iran nuclear agreement as about opening Iranian markets to a wide range of U.S. goods and services. It could serve as the foundation for the two countries to move closer together, which always results in America supplying the former enemy turned friend with arms.

Even as the Obama Administration makes deals to benefit American arms manufacturers, it has also proposed spending a trillion dollars to create a new generation of smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons. The administration’s costly plan would rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the warheads, and the missiles, planes and submarines that carry them. The Congressional Budget Office estimates these plans will cost $348 billion over the next 10 years, but the National Defense Panel, appointed by Congress, found that the price tag could reach $1 trillion.

I thought Obama wanted to end the use of all nuclear weapons. What easier, or less expensive way, to do so than to let our aging nuclear arsenal grow obsolete and not replace it? The sad and simple truth is that only a madman would use a nuclear weapon, because of the damage that it inflicts not just on the site that is bombed but on the rest of the world through raised levels of radiation leading to more cancers and other diseases. Some predict that the next generation of nuclear weapons will release less radiation, but the operative word here is “less,” which is not “none” or “less than five years’ worth of dental x-rays.” Remember, too, our military will be less reluctant to use weapons they think are “safer.”

What the President doesn’t seem to understand is that you end nuclear weapons by getting rid of them, not by developing new ones. And you end war not by supplying arms to other countries, but by stopping arms sales and encouraging negotiations.

The scary thing is that Obama and Hillary Clinton are relative doves when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Led by presumptive nominee Donald Trump, all the Republicans are talking about increasing military budgets. All say they would be faster to send soldiers into foreign lands and slower to remove them once in. Obama merely wants to sell arms and develop new nuclear weapons to subsidize our military industries. The Republicans, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, were willing to start a war to help a broad range of military contractors, including suppliers of mercenary forces. Now Trump even said he would keep the option of a first-strike use of nuclear weapons on the table.

I understand the focus that progressives have placed on economic issues this election cycle, especially in support of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. But even as we continue to move Hillary Clinton and mainstream Democrats further left on economic and social issues, we can’t forget that under both Democrats and Republicans, we have long had an anti-democratic, immoral and ineffective foreign policy that helps no one but large international corporations and military contractors.

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Trump reveals American contradiction: Democracy needs informed citizens; consumerism demands self-centered dolts

That a failed developer turned reality TV star and brand marketer could win enough votes in Republican primaries to become the presumptive GOP nominee confirms the essential contradiction of a consumerist capitalist society organized as a representative democracy.  Democracy requires well-informed, well-read, well-adjusted and well-educated citizens, whereas consumer capitalism demands consumers who are dumb and uninquisitive, with a short attention span, a high degree of gullibility and a constant undefined dissatisfaction, assuaged only by purchasing some thing or service.

The pinnacle of consumer capitalism is celebrity culture. Consumer capitalism glorifies the celebrity, because the celebrity has been detached from accomplishment or merit and merely represents what one does with the riches, which in America is to spend large sums of money on garish luxury items and experiences. Celebrity culture created Donald Trump, the language he uses and the cultural ideals he embodies.

We remember Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for playing ball, and not for spending the money they made—although Mantle did get some bad publicity for witnessing a few night club fights. But Kim Kardashian is famous only for being famous. When we think of her, we think of what she does as a consumer, not as a productive member of society. What we see her do always involves spending large sums of money. The celebrity sets the standard for consumption in a consumeristic society.  It doesn’t matter whether the society has done nothing like Kardashian or has failed, like the failed real estate developer Donald Trump.

Instead of judging Trump by his many failed businesses and multiple bankruptcies, the average American—trained by the mass media to accept anecdote overs statistics—evaluates what they see on a show that they only vaguely understand is scripted. Trump’s qualifications twist an old joke, “I’m not a successful businessman, but I play one on TV.”  For many Americans, especially those without the benefit of a college education, Trump really is a successful businessman, as qualified to run for president as Wendell Willkie was.

Celebrity culture not only produced Donald Trump, it also warped mass media coverage of elections to the point that the rhetoric of a reality star resonated with major parts of the electorate. It wasn’t his odious comments that many followers have found most appealing, but the means with which he delivered his poisonous messages: Direct, without caveats or conditions. Conversational. In blunt language. Vulgar insults of others. Trump centers every issue and statement on himself, which TV viewers learn from reality TV is the central trait of all great people.  He uses the rhetoric of celebrity culture, something that prior performers such as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono and Al Franken never did. Quite the contrary, former performers and celebrities turned politicians assiduously used the rhetoric of politics to convince us they belonged. But that was before the mass media infused election coverage completely with celebrity concerns such as who made a verbal error, who insulted whom, who is ahead in the polls, who is raising more money, who is more likeable and other issues of celebrity, not government.

Then there is the issue of aspirations. Trump is not a true conservative, but he appeals to groups tutored by conservatives for the past thirty years to distrust liberals and blame their problems on the “other”—minorities and immigrants—and big government. The angry, disenfranchised-feeling white males relate not just to Trump’s vile, racist opinions, but also identify with his Laddie Boy Rat Pack lifestyle, which reality TV and three generations of beer and car commercials have held up as the traditional right of the white male, a right being lost along with good paying jobs to the multi-cultural and feminist agendas.

The increasing dominance of the mass media by celebrity news and programming glorifying celebrity culture created most of the conditions for the emergence of a failed businessman with fascist leanings and a possibly pathological narcissism as a major party candidate. But it was an important decision of the Reagan Administration 30 years ago that created a key element of the Trump phenomenon: the train of Big Lies, one after another, often generated on the spot and kept alive long after being disproven.  In Reagan’s second term his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required the holders of television or radio broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner the FCC deemed honest, equitable, and balanced. By ending the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan enabled radio and television stations to broadcast partisan ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity without having to air opposing views. Right-wing billionaires bought up stations, created networks and created the many voices who made and still make the same false statements about unions being bad, taxes being too high, crime being up and the nation being overrun by immoral and unreligious outsiders (recently to include the President himself!).  The Republicans supported, and benefitted from, the many lies of the right-wing news media. They deserve what they have in Donald Trump.

Those who look at American popular culture and its emphasis on turning all human interactions into opportunities for commercial transaction and conspicuous consumption may conclude that America, too, deserves Donald Trump.

 

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New overtime reg is another small step the Obama Administration is taking towards greater wealth equity

It was to be expected that conservative politicians and business organizations would complain about the U.S. Labor Department’s new overtime regulation, which mandates that anyone making under $47,476 a year automatically qualifies for time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked over 40 per week.  For example, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan criticized the new rule that enables 4.2 million more Americans to receive overtime pay, saying the regulation “hurts the very people it alleges to help.” Business organizations such as the American Bankers Association, the National Retail Federation, the Society of Human Resource Management and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have all bemoaned the new regulation, focusing exclusively on the problems it will cause for small business and the employees receiving the overtime wage boost. The mainstream news media, of course, has quoted many small business owners complaining about the new reg.

One main argument against paying people extra money when they work more than the normal week sounds just like what business interests say about raising the minimum wage: that it will lead to employers hiring fewer people. This old saw is complete BS, as I have demonstrated before. Virtually all businesses only hire the minimum number of people needed to do the job, as they always seek to maximize profit. The result of increasing the number of people to whom companies must pay time-and-a-half will certainly be to raise the cost of labor, unless employers try to avoid the additional expense by hiring additional people at the regular rate to work the hours that they will no longer give to existing employees. The choice then is that current employees make more money or the company hires more employees. That sounds like a win-win for labor.

Here is some more nonsense the news media has published about the impact of making employers pay time-and-half to lower-paid employees who work more than 40 hours a week:

  • Employees won’t want to keep track of exact hours: Many, if not an overwhelming majority, of employees already keep precise track of their hours with time cards and time sheets.
  • People work harder for a salary: Whether or not this gratuitous insult of the working stiff is true matters not in discussing the validity of applying this blanket statement to the issue of overtime pay. Any good employer develops quantifiable measurements of job performance. If someone starts to fall below the performance standards of the job, a supervisor will talk to the employee, no matter what the reason. It’s easy and legal to fire an employee who continues to perform below standard when the only reason is because he or she is trying to work the system to get time-and-a-half.
  • It will make it harder to give employees flexibility in hours: A ridiculous claim! As long as employees keep accurate track of hours, who cares if they came in at 5:00 am so they could leave for their daughter’s chess tournament at 3:00 pm or if they worked the hours at home or at the office or took off Thursday and worked Saturday of the same week.
  • Employers will turn full-time employees into part-timers. Employers who want to save money by only hiring part-timers don’t need the incentive of time-and-a-half to do so. As discussed above, while employers may hire more people to work straight time, cutting hours back below 40 (as opposed to exactly 40) won’t reduce the cost of the new regulation.

The rationales for paying people extra money for overtime are simple:

  1. The extra time puts a burden on meeting other, i.e., family, responsibilities and enjoying an outside life.
  2. It’s harder on the mind and body to work long hours, and employees should therefore get additional compensation.

I have asked employees to work very few overtime hours over the 27 years I have owned an advertising and public relations agency, because I believe that work performance degrades after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week and I also believe that people are better employees when they have a full and active personal life than when they dedicate themselves solely to the job. There have been times when the temporary demands of the job have forced people to work extra hours. We have often given comp time to those working overtime, something that the new regulation does not allow for employees making less than $47,476. Thus, my costs will go up a little bit, which means my profit margin will decline slightly. I’m not too worried about it, and I’m happy to pay time-and-a-half instead of straight time (which you pay whether directly or through comp time) for the occasional overtime hour of lower-paid employees. I know I’m still making additional profit from the overtime, since the same office, administrative and healthcare costs are being spread over more hours. Those (immoral) companies that have built extra profitability into the system by making employees regularly work overtime for nothing or straight time may have a greater challenge.

I’m disturbed by the number of legal scams that the Wall Street Journal and other media are reporting that employers have already devised to avoid paying time-and-a-half or any overtime pay. Some companies say they will reduce the base rate of employees who routinely work overtime, meaning that for the employees to maintain their current income they will always have to work the extra hours. Other employers or industry representatives say they will raise the salaries of employees to over the threshold above which they don’t have to pay overtime and reduce bonuses to compensate. Let’s hope the Department of Labor adjusts their regulations accordingly and goes after these scofflaws.

Let’s face it. One of the two major reasons that the wealthy—meaning business owners, executives and highly-paid specialists—have taken virtually all of the additional wealth and income over the past 36 years is that salaries for all but the very top wage-earners have stagnated until quite recently. The other reason, BTW, is that the government has taxed the wealthy less and provided fewer services to the poor and middle class. Like increasing the minimum wage, mandating overtime pay for more employees and setting it at one-and-a-half times base hourly wages goes a little way to restoring wealth equity.

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Clinton’s foreign policy will be to form and deepen alliances to seek resolution of world problems

The mainstream and left-wing media has slapped the label “hawk” on Hillary Clinton, but if we are to believe the words of her senior policy advisor, Jake Sullivan, a more accurate description would be call her a “coalition-builder.” It’s clear from the comments Sullivan made in front of an audience of about 250 people at the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York this week that, whether engaged in peaceful or war-like activities in other parts of the world, Clinton will only act after deliberations with other nations and within the context of an organized coalition.

A Google News search yielded seven media stories about Sullivan’s remarks at the Asia Society, including the Society’s own blog, all of which focused exclusively on Sullivan’s short comments on Donald Trump’s lack of qualifications and dangerous statements. This comment took about one minute of the more than an hour Sullivan devoted to presenting how Clinton will approach foreign affairs.

The more important message—and story—is the Clinton approach to dealing with a wide range of problems, from Syria to global warming, which is to build a coalition of all parties, look for common ground and act collectively. Implied but not stated by Sullivan, who is Vice President Biden’s national security advisor and a senior advisor to the Iran nuclear negotiations, is that collective action assumes collective responsibility and financing.

Her approach to the knot of problems in the Middle East demonstrates how Clinton hopes to implement this vision of cooperation. Sullivan says that Clinton sees three main challenges in the Middle East:

  1. The destabilization of regimes, often brought about by terrorists and violent extremists.
  2. The rise of militant right-wing Islamists.
  3. The long-term hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.

Clinton will be willing to ensure that Iran will not destabilize Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, but in return the United States will expect the Saudis and other Gulf rulers to:

  • Contribute to the fight against ISIS
  • Stop funding terrorism
  • Begin internal political and social reforms in their countries.

Sullivan calls Clinton “clear-eyed” about Iran, by which he means that she still considers the regime hostile to U.S. interests, but she sees the benefit of working with the Iranians, especially in Syria. Clinton does not believe the Syrian problem can be solved without a new government and that any solution to the Syrian problem must have the agreement of both Russia and the United States to succeed.  My understanding of a “hawk” is someone who knee-jerks to calling in the military like John McCain. Clinton’s first step to solving the Syrian crisis is decidedly unhawkish: to negotiate “safe areas” within the country for refugees.

Sullivan kept stressing that the United States cannot be a unilateral player, but must always act in concert with other countries, whatever the region or issue. She will put a particular reemphasis on working more closely with China, seeing no reason why China and the United States can’t be friendly competitors. Clinton sees five important areas where the interests of China and the United States coincide:

  1. Climate change
  2. Terrorism
  3. The stability of Afghanistan, which borders China (and five other countries!)
  4. What Sullivan labeled “G-20” issues of trade and international economics.
  5. North Korea

Clinton wants the United States and China to cooperate to force North Korea to renounce development of its nuclear capability. Sullivan pointed out at the Asia Society that every major economy was engaged in sanctions against Iran, which produced the nuclear deal. He cautioned that the relationship between China and the United States has not reached the point at which the two nations would act in concert on North Korea.

On issue after issue, Sullivan described Clinton as taking a studied, cautious approach that focused on alliance-building and not saber-rattling. The sense I got from Sullivan is that Clinton is not afraid to use force, but will depend first on peaceful resolution of international issues that protects the United States’ interests but recognizes the interests of other countries.

Whether left-wingers like the Clinton foreign policy depends on whether we look at the glass as half empty of half full. Thus, I would prefer it if the first thing Sullivan said was that Clinton would unilaterally shut down the United States’ nuclear capability and stop selling and facilitating the sale of military-grade weapons to all foreign countries. She did not and will not. That’s the empty part of the glass.

But in the context of 70 years of America imperialistically pushing its weight around, undermining democratic regimes such as in Chile and Iran and pursuing useless wars like Viet Nam and Iraq, Clinton’s approach, which echoes that of President Obama and her husband, looks promising and dovish. I don’t believe the nonsense that Obama’s mishandling of foreign affairs led to the rise of ISIS and the splintering of Syria. George W. Bush’s ill-conceived Iraq War definitely caused ISIS; it also contributed to the destabilization of Syria and to the growth or terrorism by giving proof to the Islamic extremists who consider the United States the real rogue, devil state. Nothing Bernie Sanders has said has convinced me that he will be any more left-wing in his foreign policy than Clinton.

All the Republicans—including Donald Trump—proclaim that they will be quick to use force to address international disputes.  Trump talks about being a better negotiator than the representatives of other countries, a kind of naïve American exceptionalism masquerading as global bullying. It remains to be seen whether Trump keeps spouting isolationist rhetoric when it comes to trade and immigration, or retreats to Republican orthodoxy. On the most significant long-term global issue—climate change—Clinton is light-years ahead of the GOP, which still has its official policy the denial of global warming.  Compared to the unstable Trump and the war-mongering Republic foreign policy establishment, Clinton’s foreign policy is definitely superior, with more positives than negatives.  She remains within the mainstream of the last 70 years, but will move that mainstream further left, as Barack Obama has done. Yes, the idealist in me is disappointed, but the realist understands that electing Clinton (or Sanders) is critical to making the United States safer while implementing a more moral and less bellicose foreign policy.

The moderator at the Asia Society presentation was the very witty and knowledgeable Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and current president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.  He pointed out that Asia Society had offered a forum to discuss foreign issues to every announced candidate for president and only Hillary Clinton had agreed.  Let’s hope that Donald Trump presents before the Asia Society membership (and Sanders, too, if he does it before the convention). More significantly, let’s hope that more of the news media cover the presentation and that coverage focuses on the strategies the candidates propose and not the name-calling to which the news media seems to want to reduce all campaign stories.

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Trump’s business techniques would cause a stock & bond market crash and depression

One of the many things that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand is that sometimes merely saying something can be hurtful.  The classic case is Trump’s outrageous lie months ago that he knew a child who had gotten autism because of a vaccination. It was a bold-faced lie, the telling of which in and of itself hurt other people, to wit, those children whose parents later used it as part of their case for denying them vaccinations.

Trump just said something else that should disqualify him as president. He said that he would finance his program on debt, and if the country couldn’t pay, he would negotiate new terms with lenders. If Trump were to make such a statement as president, the dollar would sink in value and interest rates would skyrocket. Lenders would be reluctant to loan money to the United States. Other countries would look for another currency to serve as the base of the global economy. The likely result would be a decline in the stock and bond markets, followed by a deep recession. Such a scenario would cause pain and suffering to millions of people.

All because countries and business all over the world have lost faith in the U.S. dollar. All because the president of the United States in a fit of rage, pique or frustration lost control of his emotions and threatened not to pay off our debts in full on a timely basis.

I know that a large number of business operators, and in particular developers, send companies into bankruptcy as a way of life. They always walk away with some money, but the investors are left with losses. That’s the way Donald Trump has always operated, sending three real estate organizations into bankruptcy. We often see the litany of his failed businesses—Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Mortgage, Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine, to many of which he merely provided his name. He walked away with licensing fees and the business failed, leaving employees and investors holding the bag. The New York Times analysis of how Trump destroyed the U.S. Football League by insisting that it compete head-on with the National Football League instead of fielding teams in the NFL off-season is an eye-opener. In failing, Trump University has attracted a number of lawsuits, and the evidence vetted in the news media suggests that Trump himself broke the law in overpromising what students would experience in classes. Other news reports have alluded to the low respect with which long-timers in the casino industry view Trump; they consider him a buffoon. It is true that Trump has found success on reality TV and as a brand licenser, but the foundation of both these accomplishments is the false premise that he is a good business person. Months ago, Forbes did an analysis that demonstrated that if Trump had passively invested the fortune he inherited from his father, his net worth would be twice what it is.

But even if it were good business advice to spend a lot of money, knowing that if things don’t work out you can always go into bankruptcy, it just doesn’t work for a country, and certainly not for a country whose economic well-being depends in large part to being the currency of choice around the globe.

When a company goes into bankruptcy, it will hurt creditors, and often hurts vendors, employees and customers as well. But it doesn’t have to hurt the chief executive officer and other executives. We know many instances of a CEO raiding and raping it, and then sending a company into bankruptcy. But what does a president get when a country defaults on its debt, at least in a democratic country with strong laws against political corruption?  We know what happens in kleptocracies such as Russia and the Ukraine. If we assume Trump is a rational human being, building an authoritarian kleptocracy makes perfect sense as an explanation for Trump’s comment about renegotiating with creditors if the United States couldn’t pay its debt. Of course some would say that there is little difference between what happens in Russia and the kind of crony capitalism Bush II practiced in the Middle East and tried to practice after Hurricane Katrina.

That Trump might enter into negotiations to revise bond terms is scary. The fact that he is willing to say it may be even scarier, because it suggests, once again, that the Donald will say anything and break any deal.

Trump has revised his stand on a number of issues, acts that many who voted for him may consider betrayals. He now is okay with transgendered people using the restroom of the sex with which they identify. He talked hard about tax cuts and put out a plan that gave massive tax cuts to the wealthy, but now he says taxes may rise for the wealthy and businesses. He was adamantly against raising the minimum wage in several debates. Now he says he wants to raise the minimum wage. I agree with his current stands on all these issues, but it must be pissing off all the Republicans who think otherwise and voted for him or now are boxed into supporting his candidacy. But these right-wingers should fear not. Donald Trump is like the weather in spring: He will probably change his mind again on any and all of these issues.

Trump is trumpeting his own duplicity and lack of a moral center as a major selling point. Everything is open for negotiation and everything is on the table, even a first-strike use of nuclear weapons. The horror at his pride at not having political ethics is exceeded only by the horror evoked by thinking about what dropping a nuclear weapon would do to its immediate victims and the Earth’s atmosphere.

Part of Trump’s inconsistency results from the off-the-cuff nature of his campaign and his speeches. He makes it up as he goes along, and then either spends copious words justifying what was a misstatement or changes his mind, sometimes in the next sentence. The fact that he doesn’t mind lying about the facts makes it easy for him to substantiate any statement he makes and therefore say anything that he wants to—at any given moment, for as long or as short a time as makes him feel good.

When we mix Trump’s political and ethical flexibility and his propensity to lie with his fomenting of violence, advocacy of hate politics and love of authoritarian solutions, we get fascism run by an erratic narcissist. It looks like and sounds like the democratic nation of Germany when Adolf Hitler took it over. It’s a good thing that unlike Hitler, Trump does not have the support of his own party.

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America now has clear choice: the competent, experienced Hillary Clinton or a failed developer turned reality show celebrity

The American people now have a clear choice for their next president. Do we select someone who is knowledgeable and informed about every issue or someone who knows nothing about many important domestic and foreign issues?

Do we want someone whose campaign is built around facts and the issues or someone whose campaign is built around insults and boasts?

Someone whom PolitiFact considered the most truthful of all the candidates or someone who lies in every speech and even vilely stooped to telling the odious lie that he knew a child who got autism from a vaccination?

Someone who has remained calm and restrained in the face of 25 years’ worth of false accusations or someone prone to fly off the handle and make outrageous statements?

Someone who has always stressed inclusiveness and spent decades working on behalf of minorities or someone who has fomented hate against immigrants and minorities?

Someone who has admitted when subsequent events or facts proved her wrong or someone who digs in and refuses to admit he’s been wrong or even made an inaccurate statement?

Someone who has spent decades working for the rights of women, or someone who constantly denigrates women and evaluates them solely on their sexual charms?

Someone who showed her commitment to traditional marriage by working things out with a philandering husband or someone who twice had public affairs while still married?

Do we want someone from the upper middle class who represents the American ideal of meritocracy by working hard and succeeding in every position she has had or someone who was born into wealth and by some accounts did worse in his business dealings than he would have passively investing the hundreds of millions he inherited? Someone who has always been a success or someone who sent three companies into bankruptcy, making money while investors lost millions?

Do we want someone whom virtually every foreign leader knows and respects or someone foreign governments fear as an irrational hothead and despise because of his insulting statements about Muslims and Hispanics?

As these comparisons of the character and experience of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump demonstrated, even people who believe that Hillary Clinton is too left wing or too right wing have plenty of reasons to vote for her.

Donald Trump is at best a narcissistic blowhard and at worst a deranged, self-centered lunatic. In either case, he is masterful at public relations and self-promotion, prone to lying, and inconsistent about his position on the issues—except for his odious stands on immigrants and his insistence with every other Republican candidate that we need to lower taxes even more on the wealthy. That many leaders in the Republican Party are beginning to embrace him instead of talking about running a third-party candidate only further solidifies the notion that they believe that the president doesn’t matter much, as long as he (or she, giving the GOP the benefit of the doubt) supports tax breaks for the wealthy and hates unions. After all, they have rallied behind an actor and liar before, although Ronald Reagan had at least been an ultra rightest for years and also had experience serving as head of a union and governor of a large state. Republicans who are lining up behind Trump believe that doing so they have the best chance of keeping control of the House and Senate and maintaining their dominance of state government. That belief may prove to be as wacky as Trump’s notion that one could round up 11 million people and ship them out of the country.

The Republicans share blame with the right wing media for getting the public used to believing lies and fantastical notions. The mass media also deserves criticism for creating the grounds for Donald Trump, as they have steadily turned elections into celebrity contests and reality shows by their focus on personalities, the race itself and miscues, and their inability or unwillingness to expose candidates and elected officials who lie about such matters as tax policy, the effectiveness of government programs, global warming, abortion, gun safety, unions and foreign policy. The Republicans also fomented the anger of those hurt worst by their policies and deflected that anger to minorities and our African-American president. It is those voters who are flocking to Donald Trump—along with the hardcore nativists and racists who have always made up about 10-15% of the population. Now the GOP is stuck with a demagogic, self-centered con man with barely controllable urges and a strong authoritarian streak.

But making certain that Donald Trump does not seize power is only the second best reason to vote for Hillary Clinton.

The best reason is that she is a competent and caring liberal who knows how to get things done. Given a majority in the Senate and the House—a very possible outcome if we get a large voter turnout in November—I believe that she will build on Barack Obama’s start in bringing the country back from the excesses of Reaganism. More about that in a few days.

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Primaries are more democratic than caucuses; neither should allow independents to participate

Someone took an online poll that finds that more than half of all Americans think that the primary system is rigged.

If the primaries are rigged, the fix favors rural counties and rural states, which tend to be more conservative. In that, our nominating process resembles our bicameral system—one house for direct representation from a relatively small population zone and one house for representation from a larger geographic region. Geographic regions with smaller populations (rural) have the same representation as those with larger populations (urban). Bicameral representation is built into the Constitution.

The biggest complaint about primaries is that independents in some states aren’t allowed to vote in the primaries of the various political parties. And why should they? If you want to vote, join the party. It doesn’t even cost any money. All you have to do is note your party allegiance when you register or reregister to vote. In many states, you can designate your political party online.

I think the states in which voters can cross over or independents can vote in either party are unfair, and have the potential for rigging, because independent voters who don’t give a hoot about the Party can change the final outcome. Each major party has had consistent positions for decades, although individual party members can differ as much as Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb do. Independents tend to warp the vote. That certainly happened this year in the states that allow independents to vote in primaries and crossover voting. In the case of the Republicans, the warping has been harmful, because it gave additional votes to a candidate who is far more liberal on social issues and far less globalist on trade issues than anyone else in the current GOP. By contrast, the independents who poured into Democratic primaries to vote for Bernie Sanders have helped the Democratic Party to emphasize and rededicate itself to what has been its progressive core since FDR.

The question as to the fairness of the various ways to apportion delegates is complicated. Our electoral system suggests that states should award delegates on a winner take all basis, but apportioning them according to the percentage of the vote won seems fairer. The more important issue, I believe, is that every state apportion delegates the same way. I like the idea of giving from a third to half the delegates to the statewide winner and awarding the other delegates according to Congressional districts because it preserves the bicameral nature of our government (some by population, some by geography) and remains essentially democratic.

Caucuses favor candidates who can establish on the-ground campaigns that appeal directly to voters. The problem is that so few of the voters participate in caucuses, even in a good year. It surprises me that the very people who have been exploiting the limited democracy of caucuses, Sanders supporters, use increasing democracy as the primary reason to open primaries to independents. They seem to forget that caucuses are only open to party members. I have never liked caucuses because they are less democratic than primaries, and can easily be manipulated by a party faction, as Cruz has been able to do this election cycle.

The other controversial issue related to the nominating process is the existence of super delegates. Those who complain about super delegates say that they were never elected, nor have voters/caucus goers designated whom the super delegates should support. Now that’s inherently undemocratic.

But let’s take a look at the issue from the point of view of the party. Who defines the party and controls the party? Who raises money for the party? Who represents the party in our various elected bodies all over the country? It’s the super delegates. Many super delegates are elected officials. Don’t you think that every Democratic Senator should get a vote as a delegate at the Democratic convention?

At the beginning of the party system in the United States, there were no primaries. A small elite of rich folk and politicos got together and decided who should run. Then came conventions, caucuses and primaries, each an attempt to further democratize the process of selecting candidates. Thus, those who say super delegates make the convention less democratic are looking at what happens the wrong way. In point of fact, primaries make the conventions more democratic.

It is not every year that the super delegates coalesce around one candidate as quickly as the Democrats have done this year, but it’s not every year that a candidate has as impressive a resume or as extensive a political network as Hillary Clinton. Many of the super delegates have said that they are willing to change their minds if Sanders would win the popular vote. Of course that hasn’t happened, as Hillary has racked up more votes than all the Republican candidates combined and millions of more votes than Bernie.

Low voter turnout is a primary reason a narcissistic demagogue is closing in on the Republican nomination. Note that if the Republicans had more super delegates, it would be easier to stop Donald Trump. They serve as a balance against the momentary irrational actions of voters, in a similar way that selecting Senators by state and letting them serve six years serves as a balance to the more volatile House of Representatives. In the 1950s and 1960s, most progressives complained that the conservative Senate—representing a prior era—was holding the country back; for the past few years, we’re been relieved that the more liberal Senate—still representing a prior era—is around to prevent the right-wing house from sending the country into a deep depression.  In a certain sense, the super delegates perform the same function.  It’s another manifestation of the bicameral nature of American governance.

In the case of this year’s Democrats, the super delegates are not seeking to thwart a potentially disastrous candidate, but rather to support the one they think will be more successful pursuing the Party’s agenda, and who at the same time has received more votes despite spending less money than the other major candidate.

If I were king for a day, we would go to an all-primary system with clusters of six states taking turns going first, second and third over a 10-week primary season that starts in April. I would award one half of all delegates to statewide winners and another third by congressional district. One sixth of all state delegates would be super delegates, many of those designated by elected title, e.g., U.S. Senator, mayor of the largest city.

Back to reality, where we have a complicated, cobbled-together nominating process, but one that is transparent and to a large degree reflects the essential bicameral nature of the American political system. The rules in each state are readily available in plain English and often in other languages. It’s incumbent on the candidate and her-his staff to learn those rules. Instead of complaining about the rules, play the game. Only by winning will you have a chance to change the rules, and the only way to win is to play the rules.

Of course, this advice only applies to those lucky enough to have access to millions of dollars in campaign funds. To make the system more democratic, we would do better not to sweat the nominating process but instead to limit the funds that can be expended by candidates to open up the system to less well-heeled candidates.

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People at our Seder were too busy enjoying the moment to take photos & that’s a good thing

A very strange thing happened at our family Seder, which included 14 people ranging in age from 12 to 94.

No one took a photograph.

It’s not that the group is anti-technology. The five under 30 are all very social media savvy and four of the Baby Boomers routinely post photos of events on Facebook. My wife Kathy and I had discussed taking photos and posting them for other family members earlier in the day.

What happened?

We were enjoying the moment of being together so much that we forgot to make a record of the event.

Maybe we’ll regret it one day, but right now I feel pretty good about not only living fully in the moment, but also inhabiting the moment with other people about whom I care. This particular group of people comprises a complicated network of special relationships, some intergenerational, between cousins, uncles/aunts and nephews/nieces, parents and children. Moreover, many circumstances lent poignancy to the evening.

Take into account the overwhelming emotional wave that Jews ride when celebrating Passover—our holiday of freedom—and you can imagine how the moment of being together could captivate us to such a point that no one remembered to pull out the smartphone or electronic camera and snap a few.

The concept of memory is a complicated one. No matter how impressive one’s powers of visual, emotional, tactile and sensational memory may be, our memory distorts events. The further away an event is in time, the more likely we are to think of it in terms of words and images, and not what actually happened. Taking a photograph may help to freeze the memory—simplify it to nothing but the photo and/or a few random word images. The memory acquires gloss and is homogenized.

The upside is that the simplification helps us remember, and makes us creatures with enduring consciousness, not just consciousness of now. On the other hand it distorts. St. Augustine hinted at this distortion when he wrote that there are only three types of time: ”the past in the present,” “the present in the present” and “the future in the present.” Proust wrote and now Karl Ove Knausgård is writing thousands of pages trying to recapture the past in a fictional form using nothing but words. Robert Caro has spent thousands of words describing just the external life of Lyndon Baines Johnson and he hasn’t even started writing about Viet Nam yet! On a less sophisticated level is the person who documents every meal and event with 10-12 photographs that she/he immediately posts on Facebook and Twitter.

The creation of the artificial constructs we aggregate and call memory can impinge on the actual event. Think of how the bridal party leaving the reception just when it’s beginning for two hours to take photographs disjoints contemporary weddings. Most of us have seen people at museums who go around snapping shots of every work of art and never seem to look at anything directly. Snapping photos of food or asking people to stop talking for a minute to pose intrude on the experience. It’s as if the recording of the memory becomes more important than the experience itself. We get to the point that the photo validates the event. Without the photo, nothing “real” has occurred.

The mass media reinforces this predilection to place memory over experience. Just think of how many advertisements for cruises, amusement parks, airlines, state tourist boards, sports teams and holiday gifts, food and decorations have as their basic message “make a memory” (as opposed to “experience something special”).

On the other hand…from the late ‘40s through the mid-‘60s an uncle who married into the other side of my family took silent super eight films of all family events. I remember my mother and father and all my aunts and uncles joking about him. His camera antics made him a buffoon in the eyes of much of the family. But what a difference a few decades make! Those few who survive cherish the electronic transcriptions of the filmed images, now set to sentimental piano music. It is haunting to see your deceased parents dancing and watch your father’s lips mumble counted steps, like you remember him doing.

Thus it may be worth the small sacrifice of the present entailed in picture-taking to facilitate the future’s memory of the past.

The question, then, is: Do we live in the present or do we live in the past? And let’s not forget about the time we may live in the future, anticipating what will happen after graduation, on vacation or next time one sees a beloved, or saving money, or denying oneself something in the present for something in the future? Augustine suggested we live in all three states of being simultaneously, formed by the past and moving towards the future, but all of life experienced only as now.

Will one of us someday feel sorry no photo was taken at the Seder last Friday? I bet several of us have already noted it with some regret. But I hope none of us feels bad about it. The lack of photo attests to the heightened experience we enjoyed. Would all of life be so joyful perhaps we would have no need to remember?

I grappled with some of these issues a few years back in a poem, still unpublished, titled “The Best of Times.” In reading it, keep in mind that the characters and the scene are pure fabrications of my lame imagination and based on no specific persons. Hopefully you recognize the “reality” of one or more of them in people you know, and more importantly relate to the situation and the way it reverberates both backwards and forwards in our mind’s time, which is really the only time that each of us knows:

 

THE BEST OF TIMES

Black-bean spare ribs, tangy cabbage salad

celebrate a high school graduation.

Silent dread invades me as I think

that this will be the final family time

for one of us: aunt and uncle in their eighties,

another uncle soon retiring from a stressful job,

sickly sister, secret addict, cousins overweight:

there are just too many here today

and a single marching time, always forward

into dark unknowns for all of us, one by one,

and all the ones who come after,

and all the ones who come after that.

 

Though one by one we die alone,

tonight we gnaw on bones together,

banter cherished stories heard before

and we want to hear again,

stories in stories of whistling past shadows,

swinging at the short end of a long rope,

kinfolk no one’s met in whorling waters,

huddled over steamy bowls of hope,

the best of times reduced to anecdote

or ancient bas-relief, tableaux emerging

from a plaster that is life itself, being lived,

every moment, even as it hardens into past.

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Those in favor or torture should read Guantánamo Diary and imagine themselves in place of its author

According to a study by the Pew Research Center a few years back, only about 24% of all Americans think that the authorities should never engage in torture, no matter the circumstances. That means that three out of four people think that torture is sometimes allowable. Every Republican candidate has come out in favor of torture as part of their warmongering, except Ted Cruz who, while pretending to be adamantly against torture, defines these acts of brutality against fellow human beings in such a way as to permit an extraordinary number of procedures that virtually everyone else would consider to be torture.

Most legitimate research demonstrates that torture does not work in extracting information from enemy personnel, but as with climate change and the minimum wage, those who support torture have purchased their own research that purports to show that torture works.

But as Guantánamo Diary graphically and brutally shows, the issue of our essential morality trumps any concerns for national security that sadists and the uninformed might invoke as a cause for torture.  Guantánamo Diary is the memoir of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a highly educated Mauritanian who ended up being tortured for months on end at GITMO despite our intelligence services having not one iota of evidence that he ever engaged in terrorism or helped terrorist organizations.

At the age of 19, Slahi went to Afghanistan for a few months to help Islamic guerillas fight against the communist government that the United States also opposed at that time. He later lived and worked in Germany and Canada before returning to Mauritania. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States arranged for the Mauritanian government to detain Slahi and then render him to Jordan, where he was tortured, and then sent to GITMO for more torture. At Guantánamo Slahi was subjected to isolation, temperature extremes, beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation. One time, his American captors—representing you, me and every other citizen of the United States—blindfolded him and took him out to sea for a mock execution. As long as he denied accusations that he recruited suicide bombers for Al Qaida, his captors ratcheted up the pain.

After torturers used beatings and a forced diet of water to keep him awake for weeks, during which time he was interrogated and suffered other tortures on a daily basis, he finally confessed to crimes he did not commit and for which there was no shred of supporting evidence, circumstantial or otherwise. Prosecutors later refused to prosecute Slahi in 2003 because the government’s case depended solely on his false confessions, which were inadmissible under both U.S and international law because they had come under torture.  In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi released, but an appeals court overruled and Slahi is still held at GITMO, although no longer being tortured.

Slahi’s descriptions of what his captors did to him are not for the light of heart. His words bring to life the excruciating pain that torture produces in a more evocative, immediate way than any movie or TV depiction of torture I have seen. His descriptions are so grievously harrowing, perhaps because I knew what Slahi suffered was real and that the torture inflicted on Arnold or Bruce Willis in movies is fake. Page after page describes hour after hour of beatings, sexual degradation, marathon interrogations and exposure to extreme cold or heat. Because we experience these physical torments through the eyes of an individual who is both a fine writer and legitimately religious, we also suffer the mental anguish felt by someone who is innocent of all charges.

Before allowing publication, the U.S. government blanked out much of Guantánamo Diary. Eight full pages in a row are blanked out at the height of the GITMO torture regime. Looking at page after page of thick black lines running horizontally from one edge of the paper to the other filled me with panic and fear, as my imagination provided all the punches, kicks, slaps, nakedness, ice cubes, blaring music, Billy clubs and excrement that the redaction concealed.

The basic argument of Guantánamo Diary is that “evil is as evil does.” Slahi’s experience in the U.S. torture gulag has caused him to consider the United States a force for evil, and not a bastion of freedom.  Reading the memoir filled me with the shame of someone who has committed mortal sins that she-he knows are wrong. I didn’t commit the sins, but I felt the guilt, because it was my country. It’s no wonder that our use of torture embarrassed the country in front of the world and sent a lot of young idealistic Muslims into the arms of ISIS.

Slahi’s story exemplifies why torture doesn’t work. People get so confused and so fearful of additional torment that they begin to lie and admit to acts they didn’t really commit. It also shows that it takes a certain brutal and barbaric turn of mind to engage in torture. It makes me wonder if Dick Cheney ever witnessed the infliction of waterboarding or beatings on an individual or if his sadism is only symbolic, consisting of words and images in his mind. Or did he—or his less intellectual president—believe the sanitized versions of torture we see in our violent entertainments? Senator John McCain did not, but then again he went through the real deal in Vietnam.

It is unfortunate that the Obama Administration decided to sweep our torture history under the rug, saying that no one would be prosecuted for planning or implementing the torture regime that took hold of GITMO, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and dozens of other U.S. military facilities across the globe. Of course, prosecution would have meant sending President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney and a few dozen other government officials to jail for breaking U.S. and international laws.

Word to Ted Cruz: Read Guantánamo Diary.

Word to Donald Trump: Read Guantánamo Diary.

Word to anyone who thinks we should have the right to inflict agonizing pan on others: Read Guantánamo Diary.

If after reading this poignant but depressing memoir, you still believe in torture, then consider yourself outside the human race.

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Mass media tries to portray Iraq war contractors as unsung heroes, not as beneficiaries of crony capitalism

We really don’t know what Matt Sherman exactly did as a federal government contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a long article about him in the Washington Post and a long interview on National Public Radio (NPR).

The Post tells us he advised four Iraqi interior ministers and later was part of a brigade that operated in Afghanistan. But the nitty-gritty is missing, and probably with reason. These media outlets want to focus on the man and his emotional state, both soldiering in a war zone and coming home without the fanfare, parades and social support network that members of the United States military often receive. The NPR interview by Rachel Martin focuses on “the sense of purpose” that Sherman felt in the war zone. But it avoids defining that sense of justice.  While both stories reference violence, because they focus on Sherman and his states of mind, they present a sanitized version of these conflicts.

The human interest angle also crowds out any discussion of why the U.S. Army felt the need to hire Sherman, who had previously worked for a large law firm. Since we get no sense of Sherman’s background or special skills, we are not in a position to evaluate whether one could expect to find his skill set among regular army personnel.

Both these two mainstream stories, appearing in the same week, avoid asking the two biggest questions about these disastrous wars: 1) Why did we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was the fighting worth it? 2) Was the unprecedented use of military contractors the most effective way to wage war?

By focusing on Sherman’s individual sense of mission, without every defining what that mission entailed, both the Post and NPR assume and want the public to assume that the mission was important, critical, noble and appropriate.  By treating Sherman as an individual, and not part of an army of contractors, most working for large corporations, both the Post and NPR take it for granted that our massive dependence on military contractors was good policy.

That military contractors played a larger role in fighting our recent wars than ever before is indisputable. For example, an estimated 100,000 military contractors worked directly for the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006, which marked a tenfold increase in the use of private contractors for military operations since Bush I fought the first Iraq war 13 years earlier. The last time a combatant nation in an American war outsourced so many military functions to non-soldiers was the Revolutionary War, when the losing side—the British—fortified their troops with foreign mercenaries, primarily from Germany.

We don’t call them mercenaries anymore, because that name evokes thoughts of people who are only in it for the money, and we’d rather believe that our current mercenaries have a sense of “mission” or “purpose.” But make no mistake about it. Virtually all civilians who signed military contracts—either as individual “experts” or as the executives of private corporations—made a lot more than they would have if they were in the army. Like all other private sources of public services, be it for prisons, education or data processing, the companies providing military services are working on a profit basis, whereas the Department of Defense is a non-profit venture that rewards its employees—soldiers—with stable employment and a true sense of mission to protect our country that is indoctrinated into soldiers almost on a daily basis. Moreover, news reports through the years document that private contractors were less likely to follow orders and procedures and more likely to use excessive violence than the regular army, which certainly laid the groundwork for civil war and the emergence of ISIS.

In analyzing the failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it’s pretty obvious that using more contractors than ever before was a failing strategy.

A failing strategy, to be sure, but the use of contractors may have been the very reason the war was fought. We know that the reasons the Bush II Administration gave all turned out to be false: There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and in fact, had his own gripes against Al Qaida. It is easy to prove that “democracy building” had nothing to do with the Bush Administration’s war rationale. For one thing, no one in the administration gave “democracy building” as a reason for the war until after the world discovered that Bush, Cheney and their factotums were lying about WMD and the Hussein-Al Qaida connection. More importantly, if democracy building was the reason for going to war, then the administration would have planned to build a democracy after the invasion, which the subsequent chaos and the admission of key officials demonstrate was not the case.

Why did we go to war in Iraq then? The only explanation that makes sense—at the time and in retrospect—was that it created an enormous business opportunity for military contractors, most of which had contributed to the Bush II campaign and one of the largest of which had as it chief executive officer Dick Cheney before Cheney resigned to run for vice president.

None of this sorry history appears in either of these feel-good stories. What we get instead is the superficial story of one man’s struggle to return from a war zone. Always uplifting and a bit wistful, but in this case, it’s a whitewash of two wars that destroyed two countries, killed hundreds of thousands and cost the United States trillions of dollars, all to line the pockets of Bush II cronies. But that’s how government is supposed to work under the crony capitalism practiced by the 21st century Republican Party—and plenty in the Democratic Party as well.

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