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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Sarandon has been great progressive for years, so it surprises she hesitates to support best hope progressives have

Susan Sarandon bases her well-publicized reluctance to support Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee on the fact that Hillary has taken so much money from corporate interests. Of course, that didn’t stop her from supporting Barack Obama twice.

Sarandon’s thought process exemplifies one of the many excuses that progressives and liberals have given as their reason they won’t vote for Hillary Clinton. Here’s my complete list:

  • They blame her for things her husband did when he was president or for her husband’s inappropriate behavior.
  • They do not allow her the opportunity to change her mind on issues based on new information or personal growth, e.g., stiff sentencing laws and the war in Iraq.
  • They judge her too hawkish on foreign policy without applying similar standards to Bernie Sanders.
  • They believe the right-wing nonsense about Clinton corruption and Benghazi that has been discredited multiple times.
  • They make her live by a double standard: It’s okay for other cabinet officials to use her-his personal email for government business and it’s alright for others to get obnoxious amounts of money for speeches, but it’s wrong when Hillary does it.
  • They apply a single issue to her, but not to other candidates, such as the acquaintance of mine who said he couldn’t vote for Hillary because of her stand in favor of capital punishment, but voted twice for Barack Obama, who also favors the death penalty.
  • They call her part of the corrupt establishment, no different at heart from the Republicans when it comes to taking money from large corporations. This argument was used against Al Gore by Nader supporters in 2000 and led to the election of George W. Bush and his numerous disasters.

If these thought processes sound like excuses, there’s a good reason for it. They are. Much of what masquerades as Clinton criticism hides an antipathy for Hillary Clinton that I can’t quite understand.

I have no problem with progressives or liberals who are currently supporting Bernie Sanders. He is an attractive candidate with lots of good ideas. That people would prefer Sanders to Clinton is a perfectly reasonable position that I respect and encourage.

What isn’t reasonable are the one-third of Sanders supporters who proclaim they won’t vote for Hillary. Even less reasonable are the 10% of Sander’s loyalists who say they would rather vote for the unstable, racist misogynist Donald Trump.

It befuddles me why so many Democrats hate Hillary. A Southern Democrat who once ran for Congress recently told me that it’s because she made the unforgivable mistake of marrying “poor white trash.” I’m more inclined to believe that it’s easier for a progressive to find something fundamentally wrong with Hillary than it is to admit that he-she is not quite ready to have a woman serve as president. Whatever the reason, if we held every candidate to the high standards to which many hold Hillary Clinton, we would only be able to elect candidates who are related to a deity or received divine law on a mountaintop. I guess lifelong contemplation under a Bodhi tree might also qualify.

The simple argument for voting for Hillary is that she isn’t any of the Republicans. Remember all the Republican candidates—Trump, Cruz, Kasich and those waiting in the wings—want to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. All want to lower taxes drastically on the wealthy. All are against any minimum wage. All have militaristic foreign policies. All want to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. All would like to limit women’s access to abortion and birth control. All will select right-wingers for the Supreme Court. All want to loosen gun safety laws even more than they already have been in recent years. Of the two front-runners, one is mentally ill and has fascist tendencies and the other serves the ultra-religious right.

The subtler and more uplifting reason to vote for Hillary is that she is a true progressive on domestic issues, albeit one who is willing to compromise, and can therefore help progressives cash in on a golden opportunity. At the very least, Republicans are either going to field a very weak candidate—Trump or Cruz—with practically nonexistent coattails with which to drag along the rest of the ticket. An even more dire situation for the Republicans will be if either Trump or another Republican launches a third-party campaign. In either case, the Democrats are poised to take both the House and Senate. Both Sanders and Clinton list leftward of Obama. Both have served more time in government than Obama had before assuming the presidency and won’t make the rookie mistakes that Obama did that led to the sequester, the reluctance to assert executive privilege in regulations and the continuation of certain tax cuts for the wealthy.

The big difference between the two is that Sanders will want to get us mired in the political quicksand that would be the renewed argument in favor of single payer healthcare insurance, whereas Clinton will accept the jerry-rigged system we have and focus on other parts of the progressive agenda.

To prefer Sanders to Hillary Clinton at this point shows idealism and an admirable political purism. But not to get behind Hillary when she becomes the Democratic nominee merely manifests a political death wish. The differences between the two candidates are minor, while the gap between them and the most liberal of the current crop of Republicans—the madman Donald Trump—is as wide as wide can be.

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No pecking order problem in Xarelto commercial: the aging white male is on top

The Republicans keep sexualizing the fight for pecking order dominance in tasteless yet traditional ways. First came the vulgar insinuations regarding genital size, with its unspoken subtext that you had to have something to measure to qualify for president, or at least for the Republican nomination to America’s highest office.

More recently we have witnessed the dustup about the wives of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, in which both candidates reveal their deep-seated sexism. Somebody’s campaign suggested that the fact Trump’s wife had posed for nude photos somehow disqualified Trump from the presidency. Donald then compared his wife favorably to Ted’s, based solely on the Laddie Boy-Rat Pack definition of female attractiveness. Ted’s answer was to further commodify women in his counter comparison by defining his wife solely in terms of homemaker virtues. Sex toy or housewife? That’s pretty much the choice Donald and Ted are giving women.

This injection of sexuality into the fight for top dog is unseemly because it is so irrelevant to the tasks and responsibilities related to serving as president. Sexuality is, however, an important component of celebrity. Both the news media and the Republicans seem determined to wage the nomination battle based primarily on the criteria by which we judge celebrities.

The Republican race for top dog reminds me of the imaginary world created by a current television commercial in which there is no doubt who is at the alpha male, and in fact, no doubt as to the precise pecking order.  The civility, mutual admiration and joviality of this commercial contrasts sharply with the crass and tasteless accusations and assertions by the various Republican presidential hopefuls.

The commercial, for the anti-clotting drug Xarelto, depicts the Republican utopia—four prosperous and well-dressed guys playing golf on a beautiful course on a sunny day.  Except that these aren’t business owners or trust fund babies, they are three athletes and a comedian—all among the most celebrated in their highly competitive fields. The golf foursome includes golfing legend Arnold Palmer, basketball all-star Chris Bosh, stock car racer Brian Vickers and comedian Kevin Nealon.

Despite the fact that these are all extremely competitive guys used to fighting for everything they get (except for perhaps Nealon, who comes from wealth and is not in a field in which merit derives from winning something measurable), there is not even a hint of competition in the ad. In fact, the ad enforces a strict pecking order that each of the four men embraces openly and happily. The hierarchy has the comedian as low man on the totem pole, while the aging white male, Arnold Palmer, is the top dog, followed by Bosh the greatest athlete among the bunch and then Vickers.

In a single minute, the commercial packs a large number of visual and verbal cues that tell us that Arnie is the leader and hero and that this small society has a rigid hierarchy:

  • At the end of the commercial, the four sit together in a golf cart in pecking order, Palmer closest to us, followed by Bosh, Vickers and Nealon.
  • Bosh passes a helmet behind his back to Vickers. Nealon says “Nice pass” in open admiration.
  • Two practical jokes are played on Nealon, the non-athlete, one by Vickers, the least athletic of the athletes. It’s a jovial version of what happens on many teams—the weakest starter is frequently the “bad ass” to the non-starters, who represent the greatest threat to his/her status. Note that it is the non-athlete, who probably has the greatest verbal skills, to serve as the buffoon.
  • Palmer appears to be giving Bosh advice, and when Bosh hits a good shot, Palmer compliments the basketball player, who beams like a little kid whom the coach has just complimented.
  • As they drive in carts from one hole to the next, Palmer and Bosh drive in the head cart, followed by Vickers and Nealon.
  • At the narrative denouement of the commercial, all eyes are on Palmer in open, almost cloying admiration, as he makes a putt.

The good will and friendly joking between the four men makes for a light-hearted commercial, but the hierarchy by which this micro-society rules itself manifests itself in every shot. We can describe this pecking order in three ways: 1) By money made; 2) By quality of the athlete; 3) By importance of the sport to American culture.

Yet, by any of these measures, except perhaps importance of the sport, the creators of the ad appear to break ranks by putting Arnold Palmer first.

But it makes perfect sense for everyone to be looking up to Palmer as the leader if we consider the Xarelto commercial as an idealized version of the traditional image of the Republican Party—rich and connected people who in their own minds got to the top by being better than others, with the richest, oldest white guy at the summit. No testosterone explosion. No bullying (except the mild twitting of the comic). No over-the-top statements.  Everyone knows his place, and it’s always a good place to be. It’s the kind of world the Republicans would love to install, although most would like the role of Palmer to go to someone other than “The Donald” or “Lyin’ Ted”.

Just like Republican utopia, the world of the Xarelto commercial is missing a lot of things. For example, we don’t learn about the awful side effects that have led to a large number of lawsuits against the makers of Xarelto. That kind of reminds me of the bad side effects of lowering taxes on the wealthy, making it harder to unionize and reducing environmental, health and safety regulations that Republicans never mention. The Xarelto world also exists without greens keepers, caddies, waiters and other members of the working class.

Finally, the Xarelto world also lacks women. I imagine they’re either getting a bikini wax or baking pies.

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One word to describe voters: not liberal, not conservative, not angry, but “apathetic”

The real question about this year’s electorate is how large a part of it truly seeks a confrontational authoritarian as our next president?  How many people practice racism, condone violence and approve of torture? How large is the population with fascist tendencies?

In other words, what part of the American public has voted for Donald Trump?

Judging from the numbers in a recent Economist article titled “How non-voters blew it,” Trump has gathered relatively few supporters. In no state to hold a primary until now has more than 25% of Republican voters actually gone to the polls and cast a ballot. Even though Republican primary turnout is at its highest since Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1980, only about 17% of eligible Republicans have voted in the primaries so far. Trump has averaged about 38% of the vote, which translates into a little less than 6.5% of all registered Republicans. But Republicans represent only about 28% of all voters, probably a little more in the states already holding primaries. If we extrapolate these numbers across the country, we find that a mere 1.8% of all eligible voters support Donald Trump.

The one word to describe American voters in 2016, is the same one word we can use to describe them virtually every year. That word isn’t “angry” or “frustrated,” not “conservative” or “liberal.” The one word to describe American voters is “apathetic.”

Ted Cruz and John Kasich have gotten an even lower percentage of the total votes than the Donald. Hillary Clinton hasn’t gotten many more votes than Trump, as voter participation in Democratic primaries is down.  If we’re using votes to measure whether any candidate is engaging the public, the answer is that none of the candidates are winning in any state or across the country, not even Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. With such low voter turnouts, we can’t proclaim anyone who has won a primary a real “winner.”

The real winners in this election season so far are not even “none of the above,” since that outcome would require people to enter voting booths and actually write those words down.

No, the real winners are the fascists like Donald Trump and the oligarchs, who represent about one tenth of one percent of the country, like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Just as in the Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the oligarchs and the fascists share many traits in common—power hungry, obsessional about control, well-funded, prone to lies and misrepresentations, ruthless.

I used to tell the kids on the Little League teams I managed that the only way to guarantee never losing is never to play. But in American politics, the people are losing by not playing. Only when the electorate stays home can fascists like Donald Trump win at the polls. Only when the electorate remains uninvolved can oligarchs manage the voting patterns of legislatures. Only when the electorate prefers ignorance can oligarchs and fascists get away with filling airwaves and bandwidth with their lies.

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Two roads for Bernie: 1) Fight to convention; 2) Use funds to support statewide progressives

It’s pretty clear that Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Bernie Sanders has fought a good, clean fight and in the process has moved the entire Democratic Party leftward. He has also made Hillary a better candidate, forcing her to sharpen her ideas. But Sanders is losing most of the primaries, despite outspending Hillary two to one in some states. The losses in Ohio and Illinois were devastating blows to his campaign. He won’t make up the difference by winning the super-delegates, who overwhelmingly prefer Hillary.

For the past month I’ve been telling friends that I hoped Hillary would win the nomination by one vote, because that would drive the Democratic Party as far left as possible at this point in history. Something resembling that outcome could only come if Bernie stays in the race, as he has stated is his intention to do. Many pundits and politicos believe that Obama was a stronger candidate in the fall of 2008 because Hillary didn’t leave the race until relatively late.

But I’m beginning to doubt the benefit of Bernie fighting to the convention, mainly because I think there is a much better use for the enormous campaign chest he has accumulated: supporting the most progressive Democrats running for Congress, Senate, governor and other statewide offices across the country.  I’m suggesting that Bernie bow out of the race now and earmark his surplus campaign funds to these local campaigns, which is his right under campaign financing laws.

The most likely Republican nominees, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, will both send major Republican financial backers running to the exits, which in this case means the local races. Some leading Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already broadly suggested that they would focus on Senate and Congressional races and pretty much ignore the national race if Trump is the Republican candidate. The Republican establishment is painfully aware that a Trump or Cruz disaster would assuredly lead to the loss of the Senate and may even threaten their gerrymandered dominance in the House of Representatives.

Let’s look at two of the various possible outcomes in November: If Hillary is elected with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, she will be able to move the progressive program forward, which means higher taxes on the wealthy, more investment in mass transit, roads, bridges, education and alternative energy and an improved social safety net. If she wins and the Republicans keep both houses, we will have four more years of legislative dysfunction.  Which will be better for the country?

The one enormous mistake the Democratic Party has made since the turn of the century was to underestimate the importance of the 2010 Congressional races.  By releasing his tens of millions of campaign funds to local candidates who pledge to a progressive, left-looking agenda, Bernie will help the Democratic Party avoid making that mistake again.

The other reason Bernie should throw in the towel is so he can have more time to remind his supporters that they should vote for Hillary and contribute to her campaign. There are indications that some portion of Bernie’s supporters will either sit out the election or vote for Trump because they believe the decades of lies about the Clintons spewed out by the right-wing propaganda machine. On a symbolic level, these are the same people who sat out 2010, voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and sat out 1968. Bernie can help make sure that these people understand that once again a lot is at stake.

Determining whether Trump or Cruz would be worse for the country reminds me of medieval debates about the number of angels fitting on the head of a pin. They are both so awful as to be unimaginable. Most people know how much electing either of these two mendacious autocrats would hurt the United States. That’s why Hillary will win the election.

It’s time then to start thinking about the type of legislative help and allies in the states our first woman president is going to need. For the better part of six months, progressives have been showing Bernie the love. It’s time for him to give that love back in the form of much needed dollars to elect progressive and left-leaning Democrats to Congress, the Senate and statewide offices all over the country.

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NRA and elected officials it buys or intimidates work for gun manufacturers, not gun owners

The other day I saw in person what we all know. Our elected representatives, especially Republicans, often only represent large corporate interests, even if those interests hurt most of the voters and their families.

The issue in question was gun control. I was at a family event in Portland, Oregon for a cousin’s son who lives in Republic, Washington, a town of about 1,000. At a brunch, I asked the men and teenage boys about gun control. They were all hunters and they all owned guns. They were all Republicans, as befits the name of their village.

Now most recent studies show that people who own guns have pretty much the same attitude about gun control as the rest of the country. For example, a Quinnipiac University poll a few years back found that 85% of all gun owners supported universal registration of firearms and only 13% opposed it, pretty close to the 88% in favor and 10% opposed to universal gun registration among the general population.

The seven or eight I spoke with all wanted universal registration. They had no problem with waiting periods. They supported a national registry of gun owners. They wanted all gun owners to have to take a gun safety course, and they didn’t have a problem with gun licenses. One teenaged boy said that anyone who couldn’t wait three days for a gun shouldn’t have one.

They all agreed that there was no need for people to own automatic and semiautomatic weapons. Wasn’t needed to hunt, wasn’t needed for protection.

I forgot to ask them about open carry laws, which is a shame, because those are some of the most extreme attempts to extend the rights of gun owner to the detriment of the community. I don’t want to put words into the mouths of this articulate group of individuals, but whether or not they liked open carry laws I am guessing that they do not object to gun bans on college campuses, hospitals, stadiums and other areas where large numbers of people gather. It’s only a guess. I’m also pretty sure that this group of conservative gun owners would support research into gun safety.

My anecdotal evidence backs up the surveys and reinforces the case that the National Rifle Association (NRA) represents the interests of gun manufacturers and doesn’t care about either public safety or the wishes of gun owners. By following the NRA’s wish list for legislation, both the craven politicians who kowtow to the NRA for fear that it will run someone against them and the brazen ones who take its money and mouth its lies follow the wishes of gun makers.

It’s a frightfully irresponsible way to play politics, but the preferred modus operandi of virtually every Republican and a fair share of Democrats. On tax policy, job creation, environmental protection, health care, Planned Parenthood, a Supreme Court Justice to replace Scalia and global warming, our Republican elected officials at all levels do not listen to what surveys say their constituents want.

I’m not the first to say that this lack of responsiveness has led angry voters to Donald Trump. That they haven’t been repulsed by Trump’s incitements to violence, his crude, unpresidential comments, his many lies and his authoritarian tendencies befuddles. But that a large slice of Republican voters who don’t own businesses would be pissed off with all elected officials shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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Word to GOP candidates: you don’t need a penis to be President

At a certain point in last night’s debate between the remaining four Republican candidates I thought Donald Trump was going to whip out a ruler and then whip out something else and start measuring.

I imagine that Republican demi-god Ronald Reagan, stealing from an old Russian proverb, would respond to Trump’s claim that “I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee,” by saying, “Trust but verify.”

Doth the lady protest too much? (This time it’s Shakespeare providing the one-liner.)

Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich could have settled the question of male dominance the old Cub Scout way: Line up, unzip, aim and see who can piss farther.

All jokes aside, that the question of the size of anyone’s penis should be a topic of discussion at a presidential debate of a major political party demonstrates how debased the American election process has become. Rubio sank into a slime pit of vulgarity in his speech that brought up the topic and Trump sank further down by responding specifically to Rubio’s crude remark during a nationally televised debate.

Of course, the Fox News troika of inquisitors were more interested in finding out about how the candidates felt about the accusations of other candidates than they were in issues and experience. That played right into the hands of the Donald, who preferred to insult other candidates than to answer questions about his past business dealings, his contracts with foreign manufacturers and his fuzzy math. In a series of charts at the beginning of the debate, Chris Wallace revealed that Trump’s tax plan could never succeed.

Every candidate lied last night, at least once and sometimes multiple times. Kasich lied when he took credit for the balanced budgets of the 1990s, which were a result of the Bush I and Clinton tax increases. Cruz lied when he said he could get rid of the Internal Revenue Service. Rubio lied when he said that stricter gun laws don’t make people safer. Trump—he lied about everything that we can verify and remain within the boundaries of good taste.

Word to the Republicans: Not only does size not matter when it comes to running the country, you don’t even have to have a penis. Yes, Donald, Marco and Ted, even women can serve in the nation’s highest office.

The hidden message in the talk between “Little Boy” Rubio and The Hands of the Donald was the retrograde idea that a president must be a man.  Size serves as a stand-in for a wide range of related leadership qualities often seen as positive in men and negative in women: firm, resolute, action-oriented, aggressive, dominance-seeking. This subtle swipe at Hillary Clinton attempts to disqualify her on the basis of her sex.

That only a man can be a president is an obsolete idea that never had an iota of validity, but it is definitely part of the subtext of the current election.

Still unanswered is whether or not Rubio, Trump and the other GOP candidates believe the old wives tale that the size of hands predicts the size of the male member. We know that none of them can do math and we know that they have reading comprehension problems, at least as it relates to 18th century documents such as the Constitution. We also know they subscribe to a duffel bag of myths and folklore related to the free market, climate change, evolution, LGTBQ individuals and women’s health.

For those more interested in the real world and real issues, I recommend that you tune into the upcoming debates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Or better yet, listen to either perform at a town hall meeting, where they have time to detail their positions. Both Hillary and Bernie demonstrate the presidential qualities sadly lacking in the Republican clown car.

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