Saturday, July 24, 2010

ARE WE DUMB ENOUGH TO DIMINISH DEMOCRACY?

Yes. Mid-term election campaigns confront America with threats of serious, perhaps permanent, damage to its democracy because of cultural biases, educational deficiencies, and political demagoguery.

Too many Americans have not figured out how they can be both equal and excellent. They have morphed a doctrine of political equality into a doctrine of personal equality, which encourages the average and discourages the aspiring. They insist on mediocrity and insinuate that those having learned manners and morals, and earned an education are elitists. They celebrate sincere expression more than sensible communication, avoid judgment rather than avail themselves of it, and prefer know-nothings with simple messages to know-it-alls with complex ones.

This triumph of mediocrity over merit results from the dumbing-down of American education since the Vietnam War. Since then, America’s schools—public, private, parochial—have successfully produced two consecutive generations knowing less than the previous one. We are working on the third one. The result is a new record; in the history of humankind, America is the only society not devastated by war, famine, or disease to have achieved this distinction.

The evidence that many adult Americans cannot read with comprehension, write or speak with cogency or correctness, compute with accuracy, or think carefully and clearly is everywhere. Commonly indicated by a “whatever” and a shrug are an indifference to, or denial of, facts or inferences. The results—dumbness, detachment from reality, naiveté, and narcissism—are dangerous to democracy. Incapable of making informed decisions in their best interests, the afflicted are prey to demagogues who exploit their ignorance and manipulate their trust with simple solutions to complex problems.

Inconsequential falsehoods are illustrative. At Cal State, Stanislaus, Sarah Palin aligned herself with Ronald Reagan in rousing, upbeat remarks: “This is Reagan country, and perhaps it was destiny that the man who went to California’s Eureka College would become so woven within and interlinked to the Golden State.” Uplifting but fact-free. Reagan graduated from Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, state of his birth; he did not move to California until five years after graduation; and Eureka, California, does not have a college. But, hey, who gives a wink?

Not her followers. Perhaps they assumed that Palin spoke truthfully about a hero of hers. When they learned otherwise, did they care that she knew nothing about her hero and simply used their affection for him to win acceptance for herself? Probably not: true believers do not care about truth. So, on serious issues, they do not care that she lied about “death panels” in the health care bill or, after urging that we “drill, baby, drill” for offshore oil, lied, after the BP spill, that she had not.

Palin is not unique; she has local equivalents in ignorance of, indifference to, or manipulation of, truth. In “What the U.S. Constitution is really about” (24 June), David Montes relies on his readers’ ignorance of, indifference to, or gullibility about, the basic facts about American history and government.

Montes’s column echoes the far-right-wing mantra that “the Constitution was intended to protect the people from the government. It was designed to protect our right to bear arms, our freedom of the press, to protect our religious expression, to protect our property.” Neither statement approximates the truth. He refers, not to the Constitution, but to the Bill of Rights. Defending these falsehoods, he added others, that “The Bill of Rights was added before it [Constitution] was ratified by the people so it's [Bill of Rights] always been considered an aspect of originalism.” The truth is otherwise: nine states ratifying the Constitution made it effective on 4 March 1789; the Bill of Rights was not proposed until 25 September 1789 or ratified until 1791.

As originalists must, Montes palters with the truth to conceal the conflict between originalist dogma and later, favored amendments. After invoking a Constitution bent to serve his politics, he absurdly claims that “Before we can honestly debate policy we have to honestly conclude which policies are actually constitutional.” Honestly, we can debate any policy if only to amend the Constitution. Honestly, no one can debate with those like Montes who use misrepresentations of the Constitution to rule out debate about policies not to their liking. Honestly, they know the Constitution goes against them.

Palin, Montes, and others of their mendacious ilk have a political strategy of deception and dishonesty to serve partisan purposes. Their pretense is protecting the Constitution to protect Americans from “tyrannical government” (do federal laws which they dislike make it “tyrannical”?). But their practice promises to debilitate democracy and diminish freedoms, for those relying on such means to get power will rely on them to keep it. Campaigns tactics smearing opponents and spreading disinformation mean to rile or mislead some to vote against their real interests, and to demoralize or disgust others to discourage them from voting. They and those ignorant, gullible, angry, or resentful are clear and present dangers to democracy and freedom.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

THE SHIRLEY SHERROD STORY: DOES ANYONE BELIEVE IN TRUTH OR RIGHT?

Poor Shirley Sherrod. Two white men, both presumably educated, have abused this black woman in one way or another for their political purposes. Between these two, there is very little to choose. Only a once dirt-poor white North Carolina farm couple has risen to her defense as someone who helped them and whom they regard as a friend of the family. She and they alone have told the truth and done right.

Two facts must be rehearsed. The better known one is that Ms. Sherrod’s entire speech before the NAACP in 1986 is a narrative about her growth in wisdom about race. The lesser known one is that, just a year ago, an organization led by Ms. Sherrod and her husband won a $13 million lawsuit for government discrimination against black farmers, a case opposed and lost by the Obama administration.

Andrew Breitbart is no better than he should be, as they would phrase it in the eighteenth century, when referring to a member of the lower class. He is a political hack; for him, the manipulation of truth is an indispensable tool of partisan misrepresentation to serve his purposes. His explanation for using these film clips—he claims someone else, whom he cannot name, he claims, clipped them—is that he wanted to respond to the charges of racism leveled by the NAACP at the Tea Party movement. The ethics of this rejoinder—you, too—admits what he purports to deny. Even his “you, too” is a lie. And he subscribes to the two lies-make-a-truth school of ethics. His conduct points to something larger: the Tea Party, having no truth with which to defend itself from the charge of racism, resorts to lies instead. Such a strategy comes as no surprise to others who have witnessed its members’ and allies’ deception and dishonesty for political advantage at every turn.

Tom Vilsack is not as good as he should be. Vilsack, a white man from a conservative state, accepted at face value what he saw and heard, and perceived as discreditable about a black woman from a southern state. Vilsack raises the question of his racism in one of its standard motifs.

Speaking Tuesday, Vilsack offered two explanations, both entirely inadequate, for his peremptory decision. “Yesterday, I asked for and accepted Ms. Sherrod’s resignation for two reasons. First, for the past 18 months, we have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA and this controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices.” This reason does not explain how a controversy, especially one involving a white male superior and a black female subordinate, makes moving forward on civil rights issues more difficult. Continuing this statement, Vilsack added, “Second, state rural development directors make many decisions and are often called to use their discretion.” This reason identifies no indiscretion, although it insinuates, without specification, that Ms. Sherrod exercised it improperly.

Of course, reflecting racism or not, Vilsack reacted to and acted on incomplete information. He was a fool to accept a discrediting film clip at face value. Incomplete information was not inevitable; indeed, it was avoidable. Vilsack might have asked for a copy of the complete tape. And he was a knave to disregard ordinary decency and legal rights and safeguards. He might have acted according to the most basic principles of due process: presume innocence and talk with the accused.

So, when a white male superior takes such impetuous, ignorant, and illegitimate action against an accused black woman subordinate, it is hard to imagine Vilsack’s good faith in trying to correct past racial injustices. Indeed, his acts perpetuate that “sordid civil rights record.”

A day later, after a storm of protest, Vilsack shows himself to be ethically challenged. “The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question, making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia.” “Rightly or wrongly”? To him, it does not matter whether Ms. Sherrod’s remarks over 20 years ago (or at any time) were right or wrong; what matters is that they are controversial, that is, political.

As the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Vilsack shows himself to be a leader who betrays employees if they create controversy. It does not matter whether they are right or wrong. He shows himself to be both cowardly and corrupt in acting on rumor in the form of a film clip. The man is unfit to lead.

Given these facts, what are we to think of Obama and his White House, which may or may not have urged Vilsack to fire Ms. Sherrod? Though not involved, it has apologized, why? It apologized for what, exactly? It has taken action against whom, specifically? It has demonstrated its respect for a presumption of innocence and due process, how? It has shown its proclivity for political decisions without any effort to learn the truth or do right, why?

So far as I am concerned, time is up for Obama. However articulate, intelligent, and agreeable he may be, he has shown himself to be a moral weakling and coward. He has stood up for nothing. No stand against torture. No stand against spies snooping on citizens. No defense of administration employees attacked for their associates and backgrounds (how soon he forgets the attacks on his associates and background). No withdrawal from federal cases expanding presidential powers. No stand even in the one area in which he should have an inherent competence and acquired conviction: race. The man is unworthy of our respect and undeserving our vote. He has not transformed Washington, he has not transformed himself, but he has transformed me.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

DOUBLE STANDARD IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Recent and not-so-recent incidents in which U.S. troops killed Afghani civilians riding a bus and Blackwater personnel killed Iraqi civilians on a street have prompted heated outcries and heated charges that these events indicate a systematic pattern tantamount to war crimes. I address these emotional responses because they reflect and reinforce biased, mainly far-left, political positions on Middle East issues.

My cooler but I hope not callous response is that these incidents, though deplorable, are not indicative, much less determinative, of a pattern. My general response: although it sometimes fails, the U.S. tries to avoid civilian casualties and damage; the “other” side never, ever, tries.

First, no such pattern exists, because, if it did, we would know about it. Enough journalists serve in these countries to report systematic efforts to kill civilians, not isolated episodes of civilian casualties. These episodes, however regrettable, are random and rare. Inferring a pattern over-generalizes.

Second, U.S. policy and training, in base camps and in country, are to prevent or minimize civilian casualties. No one has to believe that the U.S. has such policy and training only because of high moral principles; one has only to believe that commanders from the Commander-in-Chief to every 2nd Lt. and NCO knows that killing civilians is just plain dumb, tactically and strategically. This policy and training deserves credit.

Third, although commanders issue orders to avoid civilian casualties and minimize damage, orders do not ensure compliance. They work most, not all, of the time. So commanders and orders are not everything and ever-effective. The U.S. is not so good as, say, Israel, in investigating episodes in which civilians are killed and in holding perpetrators accountable, but it tries to investigate and hold accountable those involved. Absent reason to suspect them, orders before and investigations after episodes in which civilians become casualties deserve credit; and accused troops, the presumption of innocence.

Although the U.S. record is not one of perfection, it is one which reflects efforts, as matters of policy, training, and command, to distinguish between civilian and military spheres, and to minimize civilian casualties in asymmetric warfare with guerilla forces.

Because the charges made against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are also made about Israel and Israeli forces, I consider the tactics of “the other side,” sub-national terrorists groups: Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

First, these groups make no attempt to distinguished between civilians and military personnel, or between civilian facilities and military ones—unless it is to attack civilians or civilian facilities. These groups have declared and act on policies, training, and commands to kill Americans and Jews regardless of their status. Thus, the World Trade Center or markets in Tel Aviv are civilian-only targets, and attacks on them intended to kill American and Jewish civilians.

Second, in their policies, training, or operations, these groups do not even make an attempt to distinguish between Arab or Muslim civilians and military personnel, or between civilian and military facilities. They conceal their personnel and military equipment and supplies in residential areas or educational, medical, or religious facilities; they deploy their personnel or discharge their weapons from such areas or facilities; and they use civilians and civilian facilities as shields against retaliatory attack.

These strategic and tactical deployments prove my point. Terrorist groups have developed these deployments in reliance on and in exploitation of this U.S. and Israeli distinction. They rely on it to provide some protection to their personnel, supplies, and operations. They exploit for political purposes the unintended or unavoidable civilian casualties or collateral damage of counter-terrorist operations which their terrorist deployments make likely. Their hypocrisy tacitly gives the U.S. and Israel credit for conduct morally superior to theirs.

These considerations have nothing to do with the many policies debatable and debated in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. They have nothing to do with the plight of the Palestinians, the creation of a Palestinian state, the drawing of boundaries, the locations of capitals, any reparations for lost homes and lands, the right of return, etc.

However, these considerations have everything to do with a double standard applied to military operations—Americans and Israelis bad; their opponents good—as if verdicts on military operations support judgments on political issues. In its customary form, the double standard denies American or Israeli troops extenuations for accidents or mishaps, but allows the other side excuses for deliberate civilian casualties. In discussions about the American-versus-Taliban-or-Al-Qaeda, or the Israeli-versus-Palestinian-or-Hezbollah-or-Hamas, conflict, this double standard is proof—conclusive proof, as I see it—of anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism, respectively.

Anyone has the right to interpret American and Israeli military superiority or economic hegemony as imperialism and to oppose it. Anyone has the right to identify with the downtrodden or oppressed and their causes. But no one has the right to dodge facts or defy fairness to advance positions reflecting a dubious political morality and a despicable religious prejudice. The issues are too important for such distortions.