Wednesday, January 10, 2018

THE FOURTH REICH AND THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

By the age of 12, I had a deep interest in, and budding knowledge of, history.  I had read some books on events in world and American history, and some newspapers which my father had kept as mementos about major events in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, including the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.  I may have been both precocious and prescient, for I recognized propensities in American history which were similar to those in Germany before and during the Third Reich.  Ever since, I have believed in the possibility of a fascist regime in America in my lifetime.  Knowing about anti-communist Palmer Raids, anti-Japanese internment camps, American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay Camp 7 torture center for terrorist suspects has done nothing to discredit that belief.

In several important ways, Germany then and America now resemble each other.  Many fears about German economic conditions were realistic because the enormous costs of the First World War and the punitive terms of peace brought a depression with hyperinflation to Germany.  In two secret drawers in a desk imported from Germany after the Second World War, my parents found packets of billion-mark Weimar notes, valuable when hidden and forgotten when worthless.  The truths about the costs of the war and the peace were well known, but the solutions were not.  Fascists on the right fought socialists and communists on the left, and ultimately prevailed because of their skill in targeting scapegoats as the causes of complex economic and political issues.

Even before Hitler assumed leadership, fascists appealed to widespread, though heretofore mostly latent, anti-Semitism, among Catholics in the agricultural south and east, and among Lutherans to the commercial/industrial north and west.  In his appeal to the “volk,” or the “people,” Hitler emphasized the anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, anti-modernism, and anti-cosmopolitanism virulent in the countryside and identified Jews as their prime representatives and chief proponents.  Reviled for these “isms,” Jews became scapegoats for Germany’s ills, real and perceived.  Hitler was obsessed by anti-Semitism, Germans indulged it, and together they distracted themselves from the country’s real problems; indeed, Hitler prioritized the destruction of Jews over the protection of the country when his aggressions faltered.

Hitler was able to prop up an unsustainable totalitarian regime by restructuring German’s institutions to support a tyranny.  The Weimar Republic was a weak and progressively weaker democracy as anti-democratic forces eroded the principles and values required for democracy.  Hitler disrupted assemblies of opponents, attacked leaders of non-fascist parties and organizations, and vilified the press.  When he came to power, he imprisoned opponents, controlled public assemblies and the press, converted the Reichstag into a rubber stamp for Nazi laws, corrupted or appointed judges to serve Nazi Party purposes, suborned the police, tamed the army and the Prussian aristocracy, and pursued policies of repression targeting not only Jews, but also minorities like the Romani and what we would call today the LGBTQ communities.

The tendencies of Trump’s presidency and a Republican Congress are following the same trajectory.  Trump may be today’s arch-villain, but Republicans have distilled similar propensities in America since its founding—a point deferred for a moment, to allow for a comparison of economies.  America is presently recovering from the Great Recession begun in 2007, but the recovery has been slow and uneven, more in rural than urban areas, more in small towns than in metropolises.  Worse, the economy now suffers from the inevitable consequences of internationalism on a far vaster scale than ever.  Modern communications and transportation make the international movement of ideas and information, and goods and services easy, inexpensive, and thus competitive almost everywhere.  These trends are unsettling to previously isolated or insulated businesses—agricultural, commercial, industrial, financial—and irreversible.  Yet the current theme is that other countries are exploiting American weakness.  More threatening are the power, pace, and pervasiveness of new technologies likely to produce almost unimaginable but already feared consequences for employment in the not far off future.  A few decades ago, a high-school diploma was sufficient for many jobs; more recently, a two- or four-year college degree was necessary.  Now, the employment of even those with advanced degrees is threatened by artificial intelligence and big data; levels of employment and wages in the next decade or so are not promising.  The middle class, already shrinking, is also weakening; the lower class, a population expanding rapidly, is sliding into poverty.  Declining economic conditions are matched by growing inequalities of personal wealth and political strength.

In a country increasingly fearful of its future, with many fearful of their own futures, in a world increasingly interconnected and complicated, many are unable to understand the problems, much less imagine solutions.  They feel betrayed by, or alienated from, the educated, the experts, the elites, the elected; they feel themselves disrespected, ignored, powerless, or disadvantaged by groups imagined to receive special treatment.  They release the resulting anger against scapegoats: messengers with bad or baffling news (i.e., the media); sophisticates of coastal urban areas and major research universities; insiders in federal and state governments, especially in Washington, D.C.; and “others”: non-white, non-Christian, or non-straight people like immigrants, racial minorities, Muslims, Jews, and the various LGBTQ communities.

As anti-Semitism was endemic in Germany, so racial prejudice is interwoven into American politics from its first days.  The link between governance and race in what was to become the United States was established before the Puritans arrived at Plymouth in 1620.  In 1619, Virginia elected its first General Assembly of Virginia and received its first shipments of African slaves (technically, at that moment, indentured servants).  In just over 150 years later, the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal” and governments rested on “the consent of the governed.”  Yet just over 10 more years later, the Constitution erased all recognition of equality and any concern for the consent of half a million black slaves, almost all in southern states, but permitted them to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of the census and thus state representation in Congress.  The disregard of founding principles entrenched slavery and meant that its eradication would prompt The Civil War.  That war and its three post-war amendments ended slavery but led to reaction in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws to maintain white supremacy in the South.  A 100 years later, various civil rights and voting rights acts implemented founding principles but have come under vigorous attack in recent decades.  Several Republican-controlled state governments are shrinking or attempting to shrink the franchise with legislation disproportionately affecting minorities, seniors, students, and the poor.  As if to encourage these racist state governments, especially in states of the former Confederacy, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that racism is no longer a factor in their elections which, on the basis of past history and present practice, required the protections of the Voting Rights Act.  The result is that many states are claiming voter fraud to restrict the franchise.  Meanwhile, many state and local police departments continue to operate as if they are agents of White Citizens Councils.  Today, major Trump administration’s domestic and foreign policies and practices, and major Republican congressional legislative efforts are reflexive racist responses to undo anything and everything, good or bad, done during the Obama’s presidency, as if to erase the fact of the election and re-election of America’s first black president.  Together, the White House and Congress are reducing or eliminating programs which help millions of American citizens because they see them as serving only non-whites, non-Christians, or non-straights.  Dominated by racism and dedicated to making a federal government too small to enhance equality and freedom, Republicans are distracted from addressing solutions to America’s real problems of economic fairness, educational excellence, environmental quality, health assurance, and equal justice for all.

Although racism is widespread in America, it is concentrated in and indispensible to the modern Republican Party, with commitments to small government (states rights) and large wealth (unregulated capitalism).  In 1964, impending civil rights legislation spurred Republican conservatives, mostly southern and western, to support Barry Goldwater, who vigorously opposed it with the same appeals to states rights which had rationalized southern succession leading to the Civil War, and to repudiate Nelson Rockefeller.  The nomination of the Arizona senator over the New York governor marked the demise of Republican liberals; today, even Republican moderates are a small and disappearing breed.  In 1968, in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, his Southern strategy appealed to the racism of southern whites, who abandoned the Democratic Party because its southern senators and representatives could no longer protect white privilege and prevent the legal end of segregation.  Although racism exists elsewhere in America, its concentration in the Republican Party has probably done more to divide the parties and destroy bipartisanship than any other factor.  Republicans exploit racism wherever possible to hold on to power—thus, their efforts to disenfranchise voters thought likely to vote Democratic or to gerrymander electoral districts in rural areas where Republican support is strongest.

So, when Trump uses code words and dog whistles to exploit, and Congressional Republicans elide, excuse, or expand, his racial, religious, and gender prejudices; his bigotry targeting immigrants; his attacks on opponents, the media, and the institutions of the legal system; his inclinations to physical violence, including torture; and his displays of contempt for expertise, his disregard of truth, and his scorn for law, decorum, decency, or other norms—we are entering the moral chaos and political anarchy in which fascist autocracy flourishes.  The obvious attempts of the President and Congressional Republicans to undermine, redirect, or end the investigation into Russian meddling in the last American presidential election is further evidence of the Republican Party’s betrayal of the county.  These elected and appointed Republican officials are abandoning their oath to uphold the Constitution, specifically, to protect the country from foreign as well as domestic enemies.  They no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt; they must be suspected of treasonous impulses until they can demonstrate their commitment in their official capacity to support American democracy.


At important moments in our history, Americans have roughly divided themselves into three groups.  During the American Revolution, the population of the colonies was roughly divided into thirds by their position on the war.  One third supported the crown; we called them Tories or traitors.  One third supported the colonies; we called them Americans or patriots.  One third cared not; we might call them Independents.  We are still divided into thirds: Republicans, who think of themselves as the “real Americans”; Democrats; and Independents.  The basis of these tripartite divisions remains much the same: allegiance to power versus allegiance to principle versus indecision or indifference, respectively.  The reasonable alignment of Tories and Republicans justifies a view of them as anti-democratic in their politics and treacherous in their loyalties.  (Is not Trump and are not Republicans now favorably disposed to Putin and Russia?)  This rabid minority of Americans, content and quiet while prosperous, is now disgruntled and vocal while fearful of their future and freed by a president and his party to indulge their bigotry.  Undermining or undoing democratic principles and values no longer to their liking because of a growing non-white populace, Republicans threaten to transform American democracy into a Fourth Reich—my childhood nightmare come true.

Monday, December 25, 2017

NATIONAL DISGRACE: OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM

You might think, from all the presidential bilge and political umbrage on the Right, that the National Anthem was a statement of those quintessentially American values defiled by professional athletes kneeling or holding hands or making some other gesture to recall violence against black men and women.

I did not think so, but I took the trouble to read the entirety of out National Anthem, something difficult to sing and seldom sung in its entirety.  It is a paean sung to a flag flying in battle.  It asks a dumb because dated question whether we can see it.  The answer is “no”; none of us can because the flag flew and the battle was fought over two centuries ago.  It describes the setting.  It describes the battle, of attempted conquest by a foe on the one side, of determined self-defense of home and nation on the other.  It assumes a God in whom America can trust to prevail. And it concludes each stanza with the refrain about the banner waving “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Pathetic it is that the best we can do for a national anthem is an unsingable song of simplistic sense: military valor in defense of the country.  Now national defense is an absolute pre-requisite of everything else, but it is also a “needless-to-say” pre-requisite of every country.  What is missing is anything of value to celebrate which is distinctively American.

We could try to elevate the status of “America the Beautiful” but for the fact that for the majority of Americans who live in cities, America is not beautiful.  I have no problem with waving wind turbine blades instead of “amber waves of grain” spread out over “purple mountain majesties” or with oil derricks pumping in the “fruited plain.”  I have a problem with highway billboards, excessive and redundant traffic signs, cheap and shabby franchises sited at every crossroad or in every one-horse town, tacky residential areas, derelict buildings in areas of urban blight, and rows and rows of houses in monotonous developments of no particular character.  Ugly, tasteless, and culture-free—all of it.  Still, “America the Beautiful” has its virtues, but some are contrary to the values of many Americans.  Consider only the four lines “America! America! / God shed his grace on thee / Till selfish gain no longer stain / The banner of the free!”  I can forgive the mention of the flag, but many will not forgive what they will interpret as an attack upon capitalism, not our excessive acquisitiveness to exalt the ego—in a word, selfishness.


I offer this suggestion.  Some songwriter might attempt an anthem, even with an easy-to-march-to beat, which reflects our statements of national values which the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution articulate.  A paean to freedom, and equality and justice under law, would be a distinctive national anthem in which we could take pride in its celebration of what has traditionally made America the city on the hill and the inspiration of its citizens.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

ADDRESSING BIGOTRY: STORIES WITH MORALS

      I am not one of those who believe that all whites are racists, all males are sexist, all Christians are anti-Semites, or all native-born Americans of European descent are xenophobes.  Indeed, it would be difficult for me to be prejudiced by race, gender, religion, or national origin.  For, although I am white, male, Jewish, and Ohioan, my original and married families have been collectively inclusive: three races, three gender orientations, seven religious denominations, and two nationalities.  In addition, my friendships over nearly eight decades have been equally inclusive.

This background makes me especially prone to see prejudice without looking for it.  In my lifetime, I have perceived that most people have one or more prejudices, whether they know it or not, or feel them strongly or not.  Few express them in word or deed, and fewer express them strongly.  When it comes to bigotry, racism is the hot topic today, but anti-Semitism is always in the background, a sort of radiation, with occasional flare-ups.  Once, when I asked a columnist whether he was Jewish, he mildly answered “no” after reflexively flinching at the question. 

A more dramatic episode in my 45-plus-year teaching experience was a student’s use of profanity in my classroom.  In the second offering of my well-received course on first-century religion, “Jewish Challenge, Christian Response,” a member of the board of a college-affiliated education program for seniors introduced herself in a long testimonial to her openness to people of all faiths.  But she resorted to profanity to express her anger at the contrasts which I drew between Jewish and Christian interpretations of the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Her outburst made everyone uncomfortable although many, it turned out, shared her prejudice.  I spoke with her afterwards—she was unapologetic, indeed, silent, at bigots often are when confronted—and with the class at the next meeting.  But many dropped out as they realized that the course was not the put-down of Judaism which they had expected.  When she complained about me to her board, it took no action against me; however, its two Jewish members expressed dismay that it took no action against her.  For the town, with a reputation for liberalism, harbors many religious and racial, but few gender, bigots.

Another dramatic episode in a learning setting occurred in a weekly discussion group mainly of retired ministers and members of a reputedly liberal church—one Muslim and I attended—when two of the church-goers erupted with anger when I mentioned the not very controversial idea that Judaism had something which Christianity had not, namely, laws constituting a kind of code of conduct.  They directly challenged me about the need for laws or so many laws.  My response was a simple one: were they, as Christians, to decide what Jews could believe or obey?  No one—notably, not one minister—spoke up.  In view of the silence, I resigned from this group with an email giving my reasons.  A minister replied that I should understand that the outbursts reflected ignorance, not anti-Semitism.  He tacitly denied that bigotry motivated the belligerent outbursts against Judaism when ignorance would have prompted polite questions.  Yet this minister is a genial man who presents himself to the public as a committed foe of bigotry.

In the time of Trump, those who have one prejudice or another—or several all at once—have acquired a sense of empowerment, with its attendant release from the restraints of decorum, decency, and respect for individuals different from oneself.  Apparently, the pendulum has swung from “political correctness,” an over-zealous and misdirected effort to eradicate biased language and imagery, to the casual, crude, offensive, even violent display of bigotry.   So it is that another instance came into my life up front and personal.

My stockbroker, with whom I had enjoyed good professional and, with him and his family, good social relations, knew that my trustee and executor was born a Pakistani and bred a Muslim, is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and is married to my ex-step-daughter, an Episcopalian priest.  I knew this stockbroker to be one of those many friendly, but casually bigoted people common in most of our lives.  Despite our relationship, I did not ignore his bigotry; on every occasion, I remonstrated with him about his prejudicial attitudes and views.  Perhaps I should have known from his silent responses and changed subjects that the day would come when he would not speak in general, but in particular.

That day did come; out of nowhere, in a recent conversation, he asked me whether my son-in-law stands for the national anthem.  As one who takes his time to react to insult, weigh its import, and decide on a response, I answered truthfully that I did not know because I had never attended a sporting event with him.  The answer avoided the insult and bought me time.  But it did not take me much time to weigh his good services, his and his family’s friendship, and his general good nature against his insult to my son-in-law’s patriotism because of his race, religion, or national origin—or some combination thereof.  And it did not take me long to decide to terminate our relationships.  I hired another stockbroker and notified him of my decision, my reasons for it, and my request to have no further communication with him.  Although I know that bigots do not like rebuke or rejection, his response, a nasty personal note, surprised me.  Only then did I decide to involve his manager, did so, and was told that the company will investigate the matter.  Maybe it will, more likely it will not, but I have done what I can to confront bigotry up close and both professional and personal.

Three of my four stories feature anti-Semitism, for good reasons, not least that I have faced it.  Taken together, they prompt three questions.  One, why do prejudiced people maintain their prejudices?  Two, how do those who think themselves unprejudiced know whether they are or not?  Three, what should the unprejudiced do in response to the expression of prejudice?  I pass over the first two questions; they are difficult to answer, and the answers are necessarily detailed.


The third assumes the natural inclination of most people to avoid unpleasantness about bigotry, especially with family, friends, neighbors, or colleagues, not to mention strangers.  My approach is to deal with bigotry in a civil manner, one as cordial as possible; I address each instance of bigotry without trying to make it a “federal case,” I (try to) employ dialogue to deal with the bigoted expression, and, if nothing avails, I withdraw from association with the bigot.  Whatever one’s approach, bigotry must be addressed, words must be spoken, lines must be drawn, or bigots will construe silence or inaction as tacit consent, and thus make those who do not speak up or take action complicit in the bigotry which they purport to disown in themselves or reject in others.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE FEAR OF FACTS AND THE FLIGHT FROM FREEDOM

NOTE: I wrote this draft blog two years ago (15-11-04); I present it now with a few minor word changes and editorial corrections.  Its analysis precedes Trump’s candidacy and presidency—a fact which indicates that the problem is inherent in the Republican Party and did not originate with ascendency of Donald Trump to the highest political office in the country.  Perhaps the only factors missing from this analysis is the effort to “pack the courts” with activist political conservatives and the embedded barbarism which Trump manifests and Republicans have normalized.


An old joke has it that the Lone Ranger and Tonto pursue a band of Indian horse thieves into a canyon.  They notice that other Indians are pursuing them and that still other Indians are on the tops of the canyon walls.  The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “looks like we’re surrounded, Tonto.”  Tonto responds, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

So it is in modern America.  “The base” of the Republican Party is showing the fear and anger of a shrinking majority losing its dominance to growing numbers of people different from them—the “other”—and redefining what America is—taking it in the “wrong direction.”  The base are middle-aged or older, lower-middle class, little or poorly educated, modestly skilled, mostly rural, white, and fundamentalist Christians.  Such males are particularly vulnerable; those between the ages of 35 and 55, with no more than a high-school education and in despair because of troubles with jobs, families, and women, are the only group whose mortality rate has increased for over a decade, from drug overdose, alcoholism, and suicide.  The base are suffering a loss of self-esteem and status, and are fearful for their future and angry at those who have lived differently, studied harder, and done better.

Who are the “other”?  Educated and capable women entering into and taking increasingly important roles in most fields; the alternatively oriented in matters of gender; the religiously diverse, the religiously indifferent, or the aggressively secular; non-European immigrants; and people of color.  What is the “wrong direction”?  Equal pay for equal work, a non-poverty minimum wage, social assistance programs, universal health care, reproductive rights, and regulations protecting safety, health, and the environment.  Even more: stagnant wages, job insecurity or loss from advanced technologies and international trade, powerlessness vis-a-vis large corporations and government agencies, and relocation and rootlessness.

  To maintain its appeal to its base, the Republican Party is playing to its fears and anger about the many steps in the “wrong direction.”  The right direction is the course chartered by “outside” candidates—the less experienced and more ignorant, the better—in the belief that amateurs are better than expert or professional politicians at getting the right job done.  The attraction of this approach to campaigning is its flattery of those who are being left behind or left out; this approach congratulates them that they, too, could do as well as or better than the “inside-the-beltway” politicians whom they blame for demographic shifts, cultural changes, and economic dynamics working against them.  The success of this appeal indicates the desperation of the base of anything which will inflate their self-esteem.

So the GOP tries to resist both the changes or the accelerating pace of the changes.  The strategies of resistance include the denial or distortion of reality, of actual facts, because the facts on most issues are not “their” facts and are against them.  Modern reality tilts against them. 

The main defense of the fearful is religion, which promises stability and safety against change and the risks which come with it.  Disproportionately, fundamentalists fear the changes occurring in apparent defiance of God’s design; opposition to change uses religion to mask fear, anger, and hatred of those who promote those changes.  Thus, theories of cosmology and evolution, though established as facts, the fearful reject as contrary to faith and the comfort which faith can give.  Climate change and abortion they reject as implying or implementing man’s power to assume powers over creation of the world and of life which power they believe belong only to God.  Same-sex marriage they see as a defiance of God’s word, who declared homosexuality an “abomination.”  (Were there any doubt about this particular concern being an expression of cultural change more than a rejection of religious morality, these same fundamentalists would hold themselves accountable for their 70-percent rate of adultery, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, which they want publicly displayed, though apparently not obeyed.)  Their big fear is that the modern world which “the other” embrace or represent is marginalizing God and all that gives meaning, security, and comfort to their lives.

These animating feelings energize the effort to subordinate the democracy of all the people, including more and more of “the other,” and to protect that “old time religion” and the political, white, male supremacist order which goes with it.  The obvious result subordinating democracy to disempower “the other” is legislation in Republican-controlled states to restrict the franchise by impeding voting by women, minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the young.  Again, fears, not facts, rule: the Republicans use undefined and unsupported claims of voter fraud to justify these abuses of democracy.

No less ominous than Republican rejection of truth is the need to refuse to negotiate and compromise with those of different opinions.  What this refusal means is that the Republicans disrespect the First Amendment and its purpose to promote democratic decision-making.  What it means to Republicans: go ahead and talk all you want to, I am going to ignore you.


Nor is it a stretch to see those fear-based, fact-free, fundamentalist-oriented political forces mainly in one large, but shrinking, political party trying to overturn democracy.  Even today, with its structures shaky but still intact, politicians serving the base do not serve the country; do not listen to the majority; and do not respect the customary means of arriving at majority positions on political issues.  Politicians serving a base angry at those who compromise mean only one thing: if they gain political power, they will resist compromise, will listen to no one with different views, will rule without the “consent of the governed” and necessarily increasingly coercively, by fraud or force.  They will impose their views even on a majority of the population which disagrees with them, and will do whatever it takes to retain power in the face of dissent—a Reichstag fire?  By submitting to the extremists in the Freedom Caucus, the Republican Party is becoming more authoritarian, more dangerous to democratic rights and values, and more repressive of diversity and dissent.