Sunday, July 30, 2017

Denying the Undeniable

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The most stunning thing about the Icefields Parkway is how far off the road one has to walk to see any ice.

It's a spectacular drive up Canada's spine. Heading north from Lake Louise, the highway climbs steadily up to a World Heritage Site, the Athabasca Glacier, an icefield that empties into three oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic). As recently as the 1980s, summer drivers would've needed sunglasses for much of the route, as the glacier would've come right up to the road, and much of it is still closed in the winter. That's not the case anymore: as we saw on our way north two days ago, the glacier has retreated drastically. In fact, since 1892, when the first measurements were taken, the Athabasca has receded almost a mile. Reaching the ice now involves driving a half mile off the road, then climbing a steep trail. Along the way, one passes markers that show the former extent of the ice.

Interpretive signs on the trail make no bones about why visitors are looking at gravel rather than ice as they climb: climate change is causing the glacier to shrink at a frightening rate, endangering the fragile alpen ecosystem. The cause is unmistakable: human beings and their dependence on fossil fuels.

As I read these signs, which did not tell me anything I didn't already know, the most striking thing about them to me was that they even existed. They weren't put up by activists, after all, but by Canada's national park service. This told me that teaching about climate change and its human cause is official policy of the Canadian government. There's no silliness about the science being controversial: this creeping catastrophe is real, it's our fault, and here's a national park dedicated to teaching visitors the truth.

There were many things that caused my jaw to drop during that drive--it's the most spectacular road trip I've ever taken--but the biggest surprise was the simple existence of those interpretive signs. I've gotten so inured to the steady stream of climate denial from Washington that it was a breath of mountain-fresh air to see such solemn, sensible messages coming from Ottawa. There's no silliness about taking a snowball into the legislative chamber as proof that climate change is made up. It's plain to see: where once there was ice, now there is rubble.

Seeing it led me to speculate that the National Park Service of my own country may find itself constrained from speaking the same truth, and to wish I could hop down to Glacier National Park to see if the signs at Logan Pass tell anything like a similar story. I haven't been to Glacier since 1993, but I've read that many of the park's namesake icefields have shrunken to the point of nonexistence. Just to see what the NPS is saying, I went to Glacier's website, where I found carefully worded statements about the reality of climate change, acknowledging that it is wholly natural for temperatures to rise and fall, but that the extreme increases being experienced now have to be attributed to human-caused increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. I was pleased to find the science was still there in those official statements, but I couldn't help wondering how long it would take the White House to strip them away.

I'd like to think there's no denying that this is happening to our world: each successive summer sets new temperature records, planes are grounded in Phoenix, heatwaves send Portlanders on a quest for the air conditioning they never used to need, and yes, now one has to drive and walk nearly a mile to see a glacier that used to come right up to the highway even in late July. Unfortunately, we now have a President who denies reality on a daily basis, making ridiculous claims about vote tallies, inauguration attendance, legislative accomplishments, crime statistics, climate change, and, most recently, the effects his signature health care abomination would have on the country's general welfare were it to pass--not to mention the ability of his Senatorial minions to get it the 50 votes it needs.

Donald Trump lives in his own reality, a money-buffered reality that never has to care about the collateral damage brought on by his destructive policies. He's the living, breathing embodiment of the old joke, "Ready, Fire, Aim!" He sees one of his favorite celebrity windbags promulgating a policy on Fox News, pulls his phone out of his pocket, and Tweets it into a decree. Since taking office, the ethos of his regime has been that of Julius Caesar's ghost: to "cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war." His Cabinet appointments have, for the most part, engaged in the work of dismantling the agencies they head up, resetting decades of progress back to the days when robber barons dictated national policy. His foreign policy has eschewed the delicacy with which even hawkish administrations dealt with hostile nations, blundering a trail of ruffled feathers and broken relationships across the globe. His White House is in chaos, a shifting tapestry of back-biting, leaks, and threats. Both he and his closest loyalists dish out constant threats, most of them empty, against any who do not fall in line.

It's easy to be swept up in the maelstrom, being blown from one scandal to the next, shocked and offended by the statements, terrified by the possibility that this nonsense will become reality. And some of it may, and already has: immigrants to America, even those with proper documentation, have come under greatly increased scrutiny, government sanctioned harassment, and a far higher incidence of deportation. And the US has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement.

But stop for a moment and look at what hasn't happened: despite one-party government, Congress could not pass the ACA repeal. Across America, local governments, state governments, and even corporations have announced that, no matter what Trump's climate policies may be, they're not altering their plans for emission reduction and alternative energy sources; and all the other nations in the Paris agreement are not only staying in, but are likely to exceed its goals. Trump is finding that, no matter how rich you are, no matter how important your office may be, telling a frog to jump won't make it do that.

Don't get me wrong: Trump Nation is a scary place to live. Thinking about the Athabasca, I have to say that "glacial pace" has new meaning for me, and there's nothing comfort about saying that's the rate at which climate change is happening. Glaciers are shrinking fast, summers are getting hotter, sea levels are rising, and the President is denying all of it. His idiocy may be nakedly obvious to the rest of the world, but in his own eyes, he's dressed in the finest of raiment.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Too Bad, So Sad

Shattered dreams.

I'm so sorry, guys. I know how it feels.

I know because I've been there. I've built my life around a single goal, allowed it to influence every decision, worked so hard for it that all other priorities fell away. For me, that goal was to be ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. It took me ten years to achieve it, then just five for it to fall away. It was my second divorce that really drove the message home: it was unhealthy for both me and everyone I loved for me to continue clinging to that goal, and so I left ministry, initially on a leave of absence, but finally, two years later, as teaching began to open up for me, for good. Giving up on that dream was as painful as either divorce, and for similar reasons: it wasn't just what I wanted; it was, to a very large degree, who I was.\

So I understand what Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump must be feeling right now. All three of them staked their political legacies on a single goal: repeal the Affordable Care Act, and with it, the very idea that health care could be an entitlement. They had different reasons for wanting this. For Donald Trump, it was pandering to that part of his base that was the former Tea Party, a reactionary conglomeration of ill-informed grass roots Republicans who didn't understand that the Medicare they enjoyed was a far more socialist program than the market-oriented ACA, or that the expansion of Medicaid many more of them were now enjoying was also part of the ACA. For most of them, all it took to hate the ACA was to call it Obamacare. Trump really had no understanding of how the whole thing worked (some of his statements during the campaign make it an open question whether he realized Medicare and Medicaid were two different things, and he confessed once in office that he had never known health care could be so complicated), but he knew how to fire up a crowd: Build the wall! Repeal Obamacare! Lock her up! Whether he personally believed in any of those slogans was beside the point: they got him applause, so he embraced them.

Mitch McConnell's drive to repeal the ACA was entirely political in its motivation: his small, fragile majority in the Senate had been put there in large part by the same Tea Party who had narrowly handed Trump an electoral college victory. Not to deliver on that signature promise, now that the GOP had not only all of Congress but also the White House, would be to admit legislative ineptitude. McConnell was known as a master of Senate rules and backroom deals. He had to deliver on this promise, or see many of his colleagues being primaried by unelectable extremists. That would put an end to the power he enjoyed as majority leader, very likely handing the Senate back to the Democrats. 

And Paul Ryan--well, he may very well be the only member of this Republican Troika who actually believes in what he's advocating. Paul Ryan is as close to a philosophical purist on health care as can be found in Washington. As a college student, he openly dreamed about doing away with Medicaid and privatizing Medicare. Both programs offended his Ayn Rand-informed belief in radical individualism. Americans should be free to choose whether or not to pay for their own health care--and if they chose not to, and became gravely ill, to face the consequences of that choice and die. The fact that health care for the terminally ill costs more than many of them will earn in a lifetime didn't enter into this equation at all, because, by this philosophy, being poor is itself a choice.

Since the passage of the ACA in 2010, most of the heavy lifting on the issue has come from the House, which, since flipping back to Republican control in that year's election, has voted more than fifty times to repeal it. For four years, those votes were turned back by the Senate. Then it, too, fell to the GOP, and for the next two years, it took a Presidential veto to save the program. With Trump's election, Republicans finally had in their grasp something they had been advocating for since Congress had begun working on the ACA in 2009: its complete repeal and replacement.

And there was the sticking point: for eight years, Republicans had been all about first rejection, then repeal, but had never expended any effort on proposing an alternative. Besides the frequent votes on repeal, they had fought the ACA in the courts, only to have it repeatedly reaffirmed there, with only slight modifications. But never had they come up with anything approaching a feasible replacement for an approach to universal care that had actually originated in the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

As complicated as American health care is, there are, in fact, simple solutions to the twin problems of coverage and cost. The more palatable is called single payer, a system that consolidates all health insurance into a single government entity, which then negotiates with drug companies and health providers to arrive at affordable prices. More extreme would be to completely socialize the industry, creating a national health service in which all medical professionals are government employees. The first approach would cut into the profits enjoyed by health corporations and doctors; the second would put all of them on a modest public salary. Either option would mean phasing out the health insurance industry, a massive private bureaucracy with far more employees than could be absorbed by the federal agency that would replace it. As someone who has experienced both national health (during my two years in England) and a privatized version of single payer (as a Kaiser Permanente member), I think most Americans would adjust quickly to such a change, and learn to love both the simplicity and economy of either system. But since both, of necessity, involve handing over private industries to federal entities, neither is acceptable to Republicans.

In fact, the ACA has always been an overlay to our current, ridiculously complicated profit-oriented system, and there simply are no more conservative approaches that would cover more people at lower cost. Ryan first, and now McConnell, kept coming up against this harsh truth: they already had the most Republican approach to covering most Americans in place, and there was no way to make it more Republican without stripping millions of Americans of their health benefits. To address the wishes of their most rabid supporters, they would have to alienate many more of their constituents, who were never going to blame Democrats for what would obviously be a Republican crime against humanity.

And so it crumbled. There was no way to amend the Senate replacement that could appeal to both moderates and conservatives. Seeing he could not bring his Frankensurance to the floor, McConnell proposed a full repeal of the ACA, with a from-scratch replacement legislation to follow. That, too, bit the dust, as his own senators realized instantly that such an approach would be even less acceptable to voters--not to mention prolonging the replacement agony for years to come.

Trump is still rumbling about "allowing Obamacare to fail," which, of course, means actively sabotaging the subsidies and exchanges through which it makes insurance affordable for middle class Americans not already covered by their employers. He's also attempting to pass the buck on both the failure of the repeal initiative and whatever happens to the ACA. It won't work: as Republicans have demonstrated for the last eight years with their constant assault on Barack Obama, this President owns everything that happens during his regime, whether or not he had anything to do with it. In fact, his disengagement from the entire repeal process, along with the empty platitudes he dished out about how whatever Congress came up with would be great, may help many Republicans to join the millions of Democrats who have been holding him accountable since even before he took office.

So yes, it hurts, and it's going to go on hurting for a very long time. Ryan, McConnell, and Trump will not soon live down their utter failure to cobble together acceptable health care legislation, and its rancid flavor is likely to bleed into their other pro-business, anti-proletarian policy initiatives. Should either chamber flip in 2018 or 2020, I expect its leader to be glad to hand the gavel to his Democratic successor, then walk away, shaking his head, wondering whatever possessed him to think that being a majority leader would be a good thing. As for Trump: this train wreck is just getting started.

The good news, guys, is that finally giving up on a dream, no matter how much it possessed you, is ultimately beneficial to your overall well-being. I am much happier in my new life as a teacher and musician than I ever was as a pastor. Perhaps this experience will lead you, Mitch McConnell, to consider retirement. Just imagine how lovely it could be not to have to wrangle 52 distinctly individualistic senators into agreeing on a piece of legislation that will cause the entire nation to hate your party and drive you from power. And Paul Ryan: wouldn't you be happier purveying those Randian ideas as a professor? Those undergrads would have to listen to what you say, because it will most likely be on the final.

As for President Trump: come on, already. Give it up. The only people giving you what you want are a handful of deplorable autocrats. You were far more popular firing people on a crappy reality show. Return to "The Apprentice" in the same way Arnold went back to being the Terminator, and I'd be willing to bet you'd have even better ratings than you did pre-White House.

Or you could stubbornly hang on until Congress, which no longer has anything to lose and everything to gain by finally rejecting you, begins impeachment proceedings. Your choice.

Monday, July 17, 2017

He Just Doesn't Care

Why doesn't he care?

From the moment he began campaigning for President, Donald Trump's polls have been abysmal. As a people, Americans really don't care for his lying, bragging, pandering, insulting, bald-faced demagoguery. A significant majority of us see through find the man offensive, and believe he's dragging the nation down to ruin. Since taking office, his approval numbers have declined to a point where no President in the last 70 years has been so disliked so soon after winning election.

American politicians live by the poll or die by the poll. Senators, Congresspersons, Governors, state legislators, mayors, city councillors, school board members--whatever power any of them has is utterly dependent on being popular enough to win the next election. In many cases, they can count on their base--the rabidly partisan contingent who would vote for a yellow dog rather than a candidate from the other party--to put them over the top. This is especially true of the House of Representatives, its Republican majority firmly established thanks to sophisticated gerrymandering, but it also applies to politicians from dependably red or blue states. Even so, these politicians have to acknowledge the existence in their constituencies of minority voices, as well as the possibility of offending the sensibilities of the base in a personal, rather than political, way. A governor admitting to abusing his office to commit adultery, a representative selling political favors, a mayor caught purchasing drugs--even reliable base voters will turn against such behaviors.

That's why politicians listen to polls. They don't always follow them--Mitch McConnell's stubborn insistence on getting his health care bill to a vote is a case in point--but their decisions are constantly informed by them. Even the most gerrymandered of representatives must still pay lip service to serving all of the residents of the district, while at the same time working to convince those minority constituents to come over to the right side of the issues. This constant dance of following the majority and coaxing the minority has been going on since the invention of democracy.

Enter Donald Trump.

Here's a politician whose every move is a rebuke to the art of politics. It's not that he doesn't play the game: if anything, he wholeheartedly embraces its most disreputable strategies, lying, cheating, pandering, swindling, treating the White House like a country club for the wealthily clueless. The amazing thing about Trump is that he just doesn't care, at all, about the huge numbers of voters who disapprove of his actions and policies, or of how those policies will affect the minority who still approve.

Consider health care: the Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws, managed to eke out of America's byzantine health system coverage for tens of millions of Americans who had previously been unable to see a doctor for any reason. It was a huge step toward providing citizens of the world's most advanced democracy with a benefit enjoyed universally across much of the rest of the developed world. It was also, thanks in large part to red district politicians, incredibly unpopular to the Republican base, making it impossible for any GOP candidate for the Presidency to win election without in some way promising to repeal it. Trump jumped on that bandwagon, emptily promising that he would, as President, create a system of market-based affordable universal coverage. Once in office, he distanced himself from the actual work of crafting such a system, leaving it to Congress to come up with legislation that would, instead, eject tens of millions from the coverage they had come to expect, while significantly increasing costs for those who remained covered. The tens of millions of middle- and lower-income red state Americans who made up most of Trump's base would be hit the hardest by these changes. Even allowing for the cynical postponement of the Medicaid reductions until after 2020, leaving them for some future Congress to overturn, it's hard to believe there won't be some in Trumpland who walk away from him in disgust at such a blatantly broken promise.

Or consider Trump's promise of "draining the swamp." There is no question that Washington, DC, can at times feel fetid with corruption, as disgraced, retiring, or simply losing politicians quickly transition to lobbying their former colleagues in behalf of industries and foreign powers. Rather than lance this wound by tightening ethics rules, Trump larded up his Cabinet with tycoons of the very industries it is supposed to regulate. That's not draining the swamp; it's diverting effluent into it. Over time, Trump's base can't help noticing that the White House has turned into a McMansion.

And of course, apart from his base, he's lost any independent voters who were ever on his side.

So how can he not care? How can he disregard with impunity the opinions of the vast majority of Americans?

One might think he's simply resigned himself to being a one-term (if that) President; and yet, his reelection campaign was organized within weeks of the beginning of his regime, and he's already holding rallies in support of that campaign.

Well then, how about the frequent suggestion of both commentators and comedians that there's something wrong with him, that he's suffering from some form of dementia? That could, I suppose, explain the early-morning tweet storms, where he blasts out insults and lies that would be the end of any other politician's career; and yet, these digital expectorations seem somehow to rally what remains of his base. They may ultimately be part of his undoing (you can be sure special investigator Mueller is parsing every word), but he seems to know what he's doing.

And that's the scary part of what I suspect is the real reason Trump doesn't care: since announcing his bid for the White House, Trump has found, again and again, that he can act in ways no other politician would and not suffer any consequences. If anything, the very fact that he is not vetting his words and deeds with advisors, not thinking before he speaks or tweets, not consulting with even the few members of his regime who are respected statesmen, seems to evoke a "Hell, yeah!" reaction from Trumpland. The most die-hard parts of his base seem willing to go along with him no matter how badly his actions impact them: just so long as he continues to be the bad boy in Washington, thumbing his nose at the smarter, wiser, more experienced people who understand how complicated things are, and how subtle governance needs to be to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight, they are on board with him. That may even be true of some of those who, in the polls, disapprove of his actions: in the world of pro wrestling, fans of which significantly overlap Trump supporters in the Venn diagram of America, the villains are often the most popular characters in the ring.

What makes this not just scary, but downright terrifying, is what I suspect is the underlying reason Trump cares so little for polls. In his contempt for the judicial system, his frustration with the complexities of making policy, his rejection of informed and experienced advice, his impatience with the fine details of governing, and his eager embrace of Middle Eastern emirs and Eastern European autocrats, his war against the media, Trump has spoken, written, and acted not as an elected President, but as one who seized power. No, I don't think he's a political genius, conspiratorially playing multi-dimensional chess with the electoral college: he shows no aptitude at all for working with Congress, and his blustering presence on Twitter, not to mention his nepotistic appointment of his inept sons and son-in-law to positions of power, could well bring down the entire administration in a matter of months. The horrifying question is this: if he is indicted for obstruction of justice, if Congress moves to impeach him, will he treat such matters with as little regard as the polling results he ignores and discounts? Will he care that Congress is Constitutionally removing him from office? Or will he call on his rabid base to rise up?

It needn't come from Congress, either: if he's still in office November 3, 2020, and, as should happen unless his voter suppression efforts are successful, he loses decisively, will he accept the result? Last fall, he suggested he might reject any election that did not go in his favor, and with his fantasy of millions of illegal votes giving the popular majority to Hillary Clinton (even though he won the electoral college), he has in fact rejected the results of that vote. What if he loses the electoral college as well as the popular vote, and yet still spins out his tales of voter fraud and, once again, calls for an uprising by his heavily-armed, Second Amendment loving base?

I'm afraid that may be the best answer to the question of why Donald Trump doesn't care what we think: because he doesn't have to. If we'd had a fair election in November, Hillary Clinton's substantial majority would have made her President. But it wasn't a fair election: Russian hackers had joined forces with Trumpian innuendo to convince just enough voters that the two-faced bastard was somehow less of a lying manipulator than she was, granting him the electoral college majority to hand the White House, again, to a Republican without a popular majority behind him. Since he didn't need a true majority to win that time, why should he need one for next time?

There's a word for a corrupted process that puts an autocratic leader who does not represent a majority of the electorate into the highest office in the land. That word is not election. It's coup.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Too Special

"I do one thing. I do it very well. Then I move on." --Charles Emerson Winchester III, M*A*S*H

It was Winchester at his most infuriatingly correct and absolutely wrong. There he was, a crack surgeon drafted into a front line mobile surgery, taking the time to be certain the work he was doing to save the life of a wounded soldier was done right and, in the process, ensuring the young man's survival, but in the process endangering the lives of several others stuck in the waiting area. Around him, his colleagues were taking all the shortcuts required of meatball surgeons whose goal was quantity over quality. They had learned through experience that there was no time to spare, that meticulousness cost lives, and that the sooner they could get the next patient on the table, the less likely they were to lose him. They weren't working in Boston's finest hospital, after all: their surgery was a tent. 

Winchester came late to MASH, joining the cast at a time when, it could be argued, the show was past its prime. And yet, in many ways, his character resonated with me as the others did not. He was an aesthete, a love of the fine arts; an intellectual; a highly mannered person who was frequently irritated by the hijinks of his tentmates; and something of a snob. I saw myself in all these qualities, but the one that especially grabbed me was his focus on doing things right. That's where I see myself most in him: I prefer to complete the task at hand before I move on to the next, and it's not complete until it's as good as I can make it.

This doesn't mean I can't multitask--or, as I prefer to think of it, switch focus. When I'm preparing a meal, I can move from dish to dish with aplomb. Tidying up a messy room, I alternate sorting, storing, and cleaning. And teaching general music, I have to be able to keep the lesson moving even as I tend to individual struggles my students are having.

But don't get me wrong: I haven't always been a pro at switching like this. In fact, in my ministerial days, I failed badly at it, especially when it came to tasks I didn't enjoy.

Winchester is not really a people person. He's happiest when he can be immersed in his music, a good book, or surgery. His bedside manner leaves much to be desired, and he can be quite abrasive to those who live and work with him. These are also qualities I share, though I work hard at keeping the abrasiveness in check. Put together with his task focus, his difficulty socializing makes me think he's somewhere on the autism spectrum--as I may be. Winchester has the advantage of being in a profession where meticulous focus is rewarded and human interaction takes a back seat.

I have not been so wise in my choice of professions. Pastors have to relate to people, and do it every day. That's even truer of teachers. Please don't be mistaken: I enjoy interacting with people, and relationships matter immensely to me. But it's never come easily for me. I can be awkward in a conversation, have a hard time reading social cues, and suffer from an anxiety of using the telephone that makes it the one task I habitually put off, sometimes until it's too late to make a call I really need to. I've lost jobs because supervisors and co-workers found me hard to relate to. It's the biggest reason I left the ministry.

Like Winchester, there were pastoral tasks I performed extremely well. I can say without boasting that I was an exceptional preacher. I viewed preaching as performance art, and prepared for it in much the way that Marc Maron fashions his stand-up sets, honing ideas each time I presented them, focusing in on those that worked well, delivering the final product as an extended improvisation that, nevertheless, was meticulously shaped. Similarly, I had a real knack for organizing worship services, crafting liturgies that were coherent, unified, and built to a spiritual and emotional climax. I had a deep understanding of the role of music in worship. And I could teach a Bible study, Sunday School class, or lay speaking course insightfully and inspirationally.

All of which is to say, I had the most visible hour or two of my work week down. The rest of it, sad to say, rarely got off the ground.

I understood that visiting was important, and in my first years of ministry, did it intentionally. And it actually wasn't all that hard for me, particularly if I was seeing someone in crisis. What was hard was picking up the phone to make an appointment to see someone. That's where I really failed as a pastor: I would rather do almost anything than make the phone call to set the time for me to come by for a visit.

More years on the job didn't make this easier, either. In fact, by the end of my fifteen year career in ministry, I was nearly paralyzed anytime I had to pick up the phone to set up an appointment with a parishioner. Seventeen years later, I still struggle with making phone calls, though I'm finally getting better at it. It helps that the parents I call almost always thank me for letting them know their children are having behavioral issues, and are quick to offer their assistance. Even so, I'd much rather communicate with them by email--but I'm also aware that the more direct, personal interaction of a phone call can make a real difference with most parents, and so I force myself to make the call, instead.

The rest of the things I do as a teacher, I'm fine with, thanks in large part to my embrace of the Orff approach which, I've come to realize, is fundamentally about getting over myself: allowing myself to be silly, to sing in falsetto, to not always know what the outcome of an activity will be, to experiment, take chances, play games, have fun, and above all, to let teaching be my primary performance venue. That has meant doing some things I never used to be comfortable with--movement, dance, singing--and to that, I've got to add making those phone calls to parents--but it's all part of the job. Being a generalist means doing lots of things, even if they don't all come naturally.

Winchester had to learn the same lesson: to set aside his preferred approach and engage in meatball surgery, prioritizing quantity over quality.

We have a President now who would rather not be a generalist. There's a part of the job he obviously loves: being in front of crowds, soaking up their adulation, being treated like royalty, sitting on top of the world and looking down on it as his domain. He likes public ceremonies, hates meetings; prefers photo ops to one-on-ones; would much rather dictate than collaborate; and is happy outsourcing any part of the job that he finds too difficult or boring. Just look at the sheer volume of photographs of him holding up executive orders he was happy to sign without necessarily having read them first. If he could, he'd be the King, carrying out the public pomp while the Prime Minister engaged in all the boring detail work that's really about running the country.

And yes, I know ceremony is an important part of the Presidency, that the founders intentionally resisted separating this function as so many other developing democracies had. There were specialists born into those jobs, trained from birth in the manners and comportment expected of a monarch. But the United States of America was going to be a different kind of nation, a nation that elected its leaders for limited terms, then replaced them when it saw fit; and expected those leaders to be far more than ceremonial figureheads. The President who gives speeches for large crowds is the same President who brokers deals in the Oval Office. The President who shakes the hands of the other world leaders at the opening ceremony sits through the boring technical meetings held during the summit. Presidents don't just address Congress, they meet with members of Congress. Presidents don't just cut the ribbon to dedicate a public works project, they're in the weeds in the years leading up to it.

And Donald Trump? He does one thing, he does it brassily, and then he moves onto another version of the same thing. He gets in front of the people, basks in their adulation (or, if it's not forthcoming, blasts them on Twitter for not acknowledging his majesty), then goes on to the next rally or gala.

This is going to be increasingly problematic for him and for us. He's neglecting essential parts of the job, including the nomination of other officials to whom he can outsource those tasks. So it's not just that he doesn't want to do the boring parts: thanks to his laziness, there's nobody else who can do them, either.

Like Winchester on his first day in surgery, he's going to find that the bodies are stacking up in the waiting room. And as with Winchester, if Trump doesn't learn soon how to stop being so specialized, people are going to start dying. The country can't go on operating without a fully functional generalist in charge. He doesn't have to be good at every task. He just has to do them.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Fiddle Dee Dee

Consequences, Schmonsequences. They'll think about it tomorrow.

Fiddle-dee-dee! War, war, war; this war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream. Besides... there isn't going to be any war.--Scarlett O'Hara

It's almost as if they think tomorrow will never come.

On climate change, health care, tax reform, civil rights, renewable energy, immigration, issue upon issue that directly affects their constituents, Republican legislators in both the House and Senate have acted, since taking office, as if they care nothing for the continued existence of the nation, the planet, or even their jobs. Of course, with the exception of getting far-right justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court (and only by virtue of first unprecedentedly freezing out President Obama's perfectly moderate nominee for a year, then altering Senate rules to avoid a Democratic filibuster), the first (and, hopefully, only) Congress of the Trump Era has accomplished nothing; but it's not for lack of trying. And once the health care debacle is either accomplished or shelved, they'll be moving on to the next item on the agenda they've been working toward for far longer than the six months since Trump took office.

Everything on that agenda has the potential to seriously harm not just humanity in general, but very specifically the voters who put them in office. Take the health care legislation passed by the House, and its only slightly less cruel Senate version: tens of millions of people either having their coverage cut off, diluted to the point of irrelevance, or becoming so expensive they're priced out of the market, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths per year, many if not most of them in the districts and states that elected the legislators clamoring for these bills. That's just one half of the equation that should, by itself, frighten those legislators. The other half is where the money from those enormous cuts in health care will go: into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, freed up from the wealth taxes that were funding the Medicaid expansion and individual market subsidies. How can any Congressperson or Senator not reel at the prospect of explaining to a grieving constituent why larding up some tycoon's already obscene fortune was more important than paying for the therapy that would have saved her baby's life? How can the Republican Congress not foresee the campaign ads that will proliferate in the days ahead, depicting the stark contrast between where the money is now going and the many victims of that shift?

Of course, compared to the state of the climate, and what's going to happen in coming decades to the southern and southwestern states that elect most of the Republicans in Congress, health care is a drop in the bucket. Smaller airplanes have been grounded by heat in Phoenix. A few extra summer degrees in the humid states will increase death rates for the elderly, the most reliable part of the Republican voter base. And as waters rise, the Gulf Coast will begin to recede. Florida will cease to exist altogether. That's assuming, of course, that temperature increases can be held to just two degrees--a goal President Trump has laughed off. What happens to that Republican Congressional majority when so many Republican voters find their homes literally underwater, themselves dying of heat stroke, and with (again) no medical attention thanks to Trumpcare?

It's as if, rather than working for the interests of their constituents, all those Republicans on Capitol Hill are having a frat party, with bad policy their liquor of choice. Responsibility, concern for consequences--such things matter only to the losers on the other side of the aisle. Tomorrow? Why worry about that? We're having so much fun right now!

Maybe that's the explanation: these legislators are teenagers on a binge, denied power for so long (first by a Democratic majority, then by a stodgily responsible Democratic President) that they have no idea how to exercise it properly. They're legislating with their ids, clueless about how their actions will affect the people they're supposed to be representing.

I think there may be another, more sinister explanation, though: Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan weren't sure they'd even be leaders of their respective chambers, let alone that they'd have a President willing to sign their legislation. Hillary Clinton wasn't supposed to lose, and Trump's unpopularity, coupled with historically low approval ratings for the previous Congress, were supposed to give Democrats a majority in one, if not both, houses. Having more, rather than less, power was not in their plans.

Couple that with the growing realization that this President is rapidly losing any of the independent votes that put him in office, while committing daily sacrilege against the institutions of the nation he swore to protect, and it becomes painfully clear just how tenuous that power is. November 6, 2018 is bearing down on the GOP like an express train nearing a crossing, and they're finding themselves stalled on the tracks. They really have just the next few months to get anything in part of their agenda across Trump's desk. Perhaps they realize that, should any of their agenda make it into law long enough for voters to see through the thin veneer of spin and mendacity, the consequences to their majority will be lethal. But then again, chances are good they wouldn't keep that majority, anyway. Midterm elections typically go against parties in power, and that's even when they follow a new President's honeymoon year. 2018 will come on the heels of a year of Trumpian bluster and incompetence that is unrivalled in American history. Assuming Trump is still in office, voters wanting to punish him for ruining the country will take out their frustration on Congress.

Beyond that, the Republican party may not be long for this world. There are at least three significant factions pulling it apart: the traditionally business-oriented establishment; the hard-line no-tax rebels of the Tea Party; and the white working class nationalists who elected Trump. The fractiousness of the Democratic party is conventional wisdom, as it has tended to value diversity over unity. Republicans, on the other hand, used to be the party of the united front: they typically set aside their differences to bulldoze the opposition, regardless of the legislation their leaders promoted. That is ceasing to be the case. John Boehner was no saint of bipartisanship, but he was forced into retirement for the few gestures he made toward working with Democrats during his time as Speaker. It's conceivable that this brief time of superficially unified power may be the GOP's last hurrah. Four years from now, there might be three Republican parties battling over who best embodies true conservatism.

So far Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, there may genuinely be no tomorrow--or if not literally that, then no next year. If they're going to enact any of the agenda they've spent their entire political careers dreaming about, it has to be now, no matter what the cost to their constituents, their nation, and the world.

Or as Scarlett O'Hara said in the opening scene of Gone With the Wind, "Fiddle dee dee! This talk's...spoiling all the fun..."

Of course, what followed was the destruction of all she cared about, as will probably happen with the Republican party. Perhaps, like Scarlett, Republican leaders will also find themselves reduced to scrabbling for one last carrot in the remains of the plantation from which they once exercised more power than they could handle. Perhaps, like her, their hearts will be broken as, finally realizing just how morally bankrupt they are (again, like her), the voters abandon them once and for all with a "Frankly, Paul and Mitch, I don't give a damn!" And perhaps, even then, they'll put off worrying about it until tomorrow; because after all, as Scarlett says at the very end, "Tomorrow is another day."

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Surviving Trump

Then-candidate Trump gestures to a crowd during a rally last September.

What did you do during the war?

My generation grew up asking that question of our parents and grandparents, and all of them had answers. Many of our fathers served in the armed forces. Some of our mothers were also part of the military. But you didn't have to be a soldier, a sailor, a pilot, or one of the many behind-the-lines support personnel to have stories about the war. Everyone was impacted in some way: much of the American economy pivoted to support the American role in the war, with major industries retooling to produce tanks instead of cars, guns instead of appliances. Those who stayed behind learned to get by with what they had, nursing older cars along at lower speeds to conserve rationed gasoline; or simply to do without.

I can't begin to imagine what it was like to try and live a normal life during this time. It's not that I haven't had to live with things hanging over my head: divorces, custody proceedings, unemployment, health issues, hospitalizations, enough stress to make the Dalai Lama chew his fingernails to the nub. But all these crises have been short-term, the longest of them lasting about a year. The generation of Americans who were adults during World War II were just coming out of a global depression when Hitler began invading neighboring countries. By the time the war had run its course and the troops had come home, it had been almost twenty years since the country had felt anything resembling security.

And yet, somehow, life continued normally for most Americans. Children went to school, doctors saw patients, lawyers argued cases, farmers tended their crops, preachers delivered sermons, detectives investigated crimes, almost as if there wasn't a genocidal war consuming Europe and Asia. To me, this is what makes the "greatest generation" so great: that somehow, they kept their nation, their culture, their identity intact so that, when the soldiers finally came home, they could more or less pick up where they'd left off.

It's inconceivable that the war wasn't constantly on their minds. Many of them had spouses, sons, daughters, or siblings overseas, close to or on the front lines, and millions more were employed in some aspect of the war effort. On top of that, there was the unavoidable knowledge that powerful empires had sworn to destroy not just our allies, but our homeland. Those who lived on the coasts probably scanned the horizon several times a day, looking for enemy planes or the outline of a battleship come to shell their town. That these threats never materialized is a testimony to the Americas' geographical advantage: it was just too expensive for the Axis to expand the war to our shores. And yet, the participation of so many of our young adults in the conflict brought it so much closer. Even if our cities were not being bombarded, even if German and Japanese troops weren't occupying our territory, millions of us were over there, in harm's way. Their loved ones must have lived in constant fear of the official military car pulling up in the driveway, the solemn uniformed officers knocking at the door, bringing news of another young life cut short by an enemy bullet. 

To have endured such a thing, to have kept calm and carried on, is to have been a nation of heroes. The youngest surviving veterans of the war are in their 90s; their parents are long gone. This grieves me, because I find myself craving the wisdom of the people who kept the country running, who kept on working and loving and living just as they would had their children not been thousands of miles away facing machine guns, mortars, bombs, shells, and torpedoes. How did they do it? How did they keep from breaking?

I pose this question because I am feeling, for the first time in my life, and perhaps for the first time since the 1860s, that the United States of America is at risk of collapsing. The Presidency of Donald Trump is more dangerous to this nation's continued existence than any threat since we fought the Axis powers in World War II. And yes, I know I'm leaving out the Cold War in its entirety, as well as 9/11. The continued occupancy of the White House by this man is destabilizing American relations with all of our allies, and stirring up trouble with less friendly countries we've long managed to hold at arm's length. His diabolical efforts to reverse every forward-thinking policy put in place by his predecessor could leave millions without health care, accelerate climate change, and set off wars in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula.

I'm feeling this more deeply right now than I have since the election. The reason is simple: from November through the second week of June, I was teaching. From the time I arrived at school until I headed home, every moment was consumed either with my students or planning what I would do when they arrived for their next class. Teaching is an all-consuming occupation: when I got home, I had little energy left for worry about what the President was going to do to my country.

But school's out now, and that means I've got all too much time to scan headlines, read stories, and, more and more, let the fear seep into my consciousness from the deep recesses of my brain. I see the horrible things he says about people he doesn't like, the lies he tells and has his minions promulgate, the ways he styles himself as a Shah rather than a President, the foolish gobbledygook he spews whenever he talks about some policy he's put in place without having the foggiest notion how things really work. I see the expressions of those around him at public events, their disbelief that the President of the United States is saying these things, doing these things, and expecting the world to smile and nod at how smart and noble he is. I read about how many of our allies are leaving us behind as they move forward with environmental policies and trade pacts that, just months ago, had been drafted under American leadership. Whenever I pick up my phone, there is more for me to shake my head at: the EPA trying to scale back emissions regulations, the Justice Department devoting its energies to deporting nonviolent immigrants, HHS trying to phase out Medicaid. And now North Korea: seeing that sabre-rattling is not working, that they're going ahead with nuclear missile tests despite all the fuming and threatening things this President says, I have to wonder if they're convinced they (like Trump) can get away with murder. Until they can't, and Trump decides to declare a way without consulting Congress, because his whisperers say he can, anytime he wants to. He's the President, after all. He can unilaterally start wars in two hemispheres anytime the impulse drives him to do it.

I don't want these things on my mind. I want very much to be able to enjoy my vacation: to exercise, to tend the roses, to visit my new grandchild, to take my family to Banff, to watch superhero movies, to begin planning for the new school year, to witness in awe the first total solar eclipse to appear in this hemisphere since 1979, without having Trump constantly looking over my shoulder. And yet he's there, all the time, threatening just by his presence to blow everything up.

How did my grandparents do it? How did they keep everything normal for so long, with so much happening all the time? How were they not paralyzed with dread? How did they manage not to spend every waking moment with their heads under pillows, weeping?

I know a lot of it is in the choosing. So far, I'm simply choosing to live as if this were still a normal country. But for how long can I do this? When does the dread of what he might do next began to influence my planner? When does his smirking face move from the rearview mirror to the windshield?

And if we make it through this time unscathed; if, miraculously, the nation and world survive the Trump Era intact; then what? Twice in the last century, the Constitution was amended to protect the office of the President from contingencies not imagined by the founders. In response to Franklin Roosevelt being elected to four terms, and finally dying in office, the 22nd Amendment instituted a two term limit, the better to avoid an imperial Presidency. After the assassination of John Kennedy, the 25th Amendment established procedures for removing a President who had become incapacitated while in office (a situation which had actually already taken place toward the end of the Wilson administration, and could have happened again with Kennedy, had he survived the bullet wound to his head). That amendment may yet be the undoing of Donald Trump, who demonstrates daily that he is unfit for the office he holds. Once he's gone, though, I hope the nation will seriously consider another Presidential amendment, one that establishes some kind of pre-screening procedure for anyone who would aspire to the office. At present, there are really just four requirements for the Presidency: to be at least 35 years old, to have been born an American citizen, to have lived in the United States for the last 14 years, and to have received a majority of votes from the electoral college. We don't require that the President be of sound mind and body, have a minimum level of education, have a sterling work record, or even pass a basic background check. There are far more requirements I had to pass through to be a public school music teacher than Donald Trump had to become President.

Of course, before we can even think about preventing another Trump Era, we have to survive this one. And to survive this one, we've got to be able to cope with its very existence from day to day.

Keep calm. Carry on. And twenty years from now, when your children and grandchildren ask you what you did during the great Trump Crisis of 2017, you'll be able to tell them, just as my parents and grandparents could tell me, if they weren't too humble to admit it: we saved America.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Interdependence Day

Vandalism on the car and home of recent emigrees to Portland.

I was grooving to a blues band when Amy showed me her phone. She had clicked on a Facebook link that took her to an Oregonian story about a young couple whose home and car had been vandalized, possibly by an impatient motorist who, after having to briefly wait behind their car as one dropped the other off at their home, shouted at them to "go home to fucking California." It was a beautiful day on the waterfront, and the music was all good--ten great bands, no two of them alike, all at the top of their game--matched with an enthusiastic, joyous crowd; and yet, seeing the picture, and putting it in the context of this time of great political turmoil, I couldn't help but be brought down. In fact, if this were a vlog instead of a blog, I'd sing you some blues, something like this:
I just looked at the paper, and what I saw brought me down.That's right I just looked at the paper, and it really brought me down.Somewhere in Portland, somebody's house and car got tagged by an angry clown.
Now please, don't get me wrong here: I understand where the native Oregonian xenophobia comes from. My family first began visiting Oregon during the Tom McCall years, when that curmudgeonly governor famously put a sign on the border with California that proudly declaimed "Welcome to Oregon; enjoy your VISIT." Oregon is a state of great natural beauty peppered with funky cities that are full of cultural idiosyncrasies. All of that wonder and charm was, in my youth and young adulthood, enhanced by the fact that there just weren't that many people around to crowd my family out. There was always room at a state park for our trailer, always a parking space near wherever we needed to be, always plenty of this state to go around. Housing costs were low, rush hour was nonexistent, and Oregonians were warm, friendly, and polite.

And then word got out, and the exodus began.

Oregon of the 1970s saw it coming, and it wasn't just Governor McCall who tried to put a lid on it. There was a whole movement within the state dedicated to keeping the strangers out. It's possible that movement contributed to the state's economic woes: during his 1982 reelection campaign, Gov. Vic Atiyeh famously blew up the "enjoy your VISIT" sign, hoping to spur growth through a more welcoming attitude toward our neighbor to the south. And it worked: Portland, in particular, began to grow exponentially. It's become hard to find affordable housing in this city, and there are highways that are continuously congested for most of the day. The migration has brought with it a diversification of Portland's population: my suburban neighborhood has a high number of Indian households. Other parts of town draw Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and Somali immigrants.

And everywhere, there are Californians. (Including me: I was born in San Jose.)

As much as the state and city have encouraged this influx, and as much as it has benefited our overall economy, there are Oregonians who, for one reason or another, wish they'd all go back where they came from. I don't know it for a fact, but I suspect many of these people are, if not Trump voters, at least sympathetic to Trumpism. They'd rather Oregonian stayed the way it was when they were growing up: roomier, quieter, whiter.

As I said, these people have been around since before I arrived here. In fact, while the objects of their prejudice may look different from those being vilified by the Portland branch of their cult, they're everywhere in this country, in far higher numbers than many of us had realized: there were enough of them, concentrated in enough places, to elect Donald Trump President. And if polling is any indication, there are a substantial majority of them who are holding fast to their belief in him, no matter how drastically he continues to disqualify himself for the job they gave him--because, I expect, they know he will go on slamming doors in the faces of immigrants, right up to the day when he is escorted out of the White House by Capitol Police, only to be pardoned ten minutes later by new President Mike Pence.

In fact, throughout the Western world, xenophobia is the neurosis du jour. Across the United States and Europe, political movements that oppose immigration are growing in strength. They couch their racism in more palatable language, talking about the need for security against terrorists, protecting jobs and housing for native-born citizens, and defending freedoms against Islamic mores; but at heart, there's no real difference between them and the populist nativism of the late Victorian era. And we know where it ends: pogroms, purges, trails of tears, lynchings, ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts; we've been down this road so many times. Maybe it's just a part of being human. Two thousand years ago, these words were attributed to Jesus:
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death... (Matthew 10:21)
He was describing the apocalypse, which would feel like the end of the world, but was really just the growth pains of modern civilization. It was a time of great political turmoil in the Roman Empire, as each caesar proved more corrupt and ruthless than his predecessor. The empire endured for centuries after that time, until it was finally overrun by northern barbarians; but that's another story, far bigger than I have the time to write (or you the time to read, if I haven't already lost you).

Across America, we see divisions growing. As Jesus observed, some of those divisions split families. Friendships have ended over the results of last November's election. It's an open question whether this nation can survive in anything approximating its pre-Trumpian state. Of course, the divisions in Congress really date back to the 1990s, if not earlier; but I can't escape the feeling that partisanism in Washington has reached a new high. But the splits are not simply along party lines. There is a rural-urban chasm that is growing deeper. If electoral votes were truly distributed by population, Hillary Clinton would be our President. In fact, though, the formula for arriving at those votes is subtly skewed toward rural states, diluting the power of Northeastern and West Coast metropolitan centers, which tend to be significantly more Democratic than Republican. That divide closely parallels the partisan divide, but belies the reality that the parties themselves are beginning to pull apart along populist/establishmentarian lines: Tea Party Republicans seek to abolish government-sponsored health care altogether, while moderate Republicans reject ACA "reforms" that would end the  Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, populist Democrats advocate for single payer health care, a substantially higher minimum wage, and free college tuition, while their moderate establishment counterparts worry about alienating independents.

Which brings me, finally, to Independence Day--or, as I would rather call it, Interdependence Day.
Of the many symbols used to promote the American Revolution, the divided snake may have been the most potent. The founders understood that any one colony, by itself, could not hope to resist the immense British Empire. United into a single force, the thinking went, Americans might have a chance. In the end, unity won out, but at a high cost: the Constitution was packed with compromises that, while keeping the Southern states part of the new nation, also sowed the seeds of division that led to the Civil War, and which still bedevil us today. And yet, without those troublesome southern colonies with their peculiar institution, the nation would never have come to be, or continued to exist.

That's why "Independence Day" is a misnomer. The USA is not a confederation of fifty little republics paying lip service to a figurehead potentate. It's a paradox: a diverse people maintaining their uniqueness from each other while simultaneously uniting under a single centralized government. As much as I want to see Donald Trump perp-walked to a police cruiser, I do not want to arrive at that event through another revolution. I want it to happen because the diverse voices of the republic unite in condemnation of his corruption and disregard for the rule of law, forcing Congress to apply that very rule to him and remove him as the Constitution dictates. The more ridiculously he acts, the more likely that becomes, so I'm sanguine that this regime will come to an end before 2020.

What worries me, though, is that his followers may not respect the rule of law, and may take the many guns they have used their expanded second amendment privileges to purchase to stage an insurrection. They won't succeed--no matter how many guns they may have, the National Guard has more, and better, weapons--but the carnage will be devastating; and again, as Jesus said, family members will turn on each other. It will be a terrible time for the nation, a time from which we will not heal for generations.

And yet, yesterday's experience gives me hope. Portland's annual Waterfront Blues Festival brings in performers from across the nation and around the world, and they are as musically and ethnically diverse as you will see at any music festival. It's astounding to see how many genres have grown out of the simple sounds and rhythms of African-American slaves mitigating their suffering through song: gospel, R&B, bluegrass, Cajun, country western, jazz, rock and roll, funk, disco, hip hop, and so many more. Every performer I heard put a distinct spin on this music. Many played off each other, welcoming guests up on the stage with them, encouraging the audience to sing and dance along. At times on the big lawn, with its two alternating stages, one could hear the next band to perform warming up by playing along with the band currently in the spotlight. The crowd rolled with each change of music, shifting its attention from one stage to the other, a group of dedicated aficionados trekking between them to get as close to the musicians as they could.

American popular music was birthed in those cotton fields. More than any other aspect of our culture, our popular music reflects its roots: the musical lifeline of a horribly oppressed people, so powerful in its expression of sorrow and hope that it was adopted by the oppressors, filtered and altered by each subgroup to pick it up, transformed again and again, influences percolating back and forth between communities of color and the white majority (soon to become a plurality). In time, this music conquered not just the nation, but the world: jazz, the blues, rock and roll have transformed the popular music of every other culture.

Therein lies my hope. It should not surprise anyone that so many musicians find a way to work the word "peace" into their acts. There is no peace like that which grows between human beings sharing a musical experience. Put your hand on your hip, let your backbone slip, give yourself over to the beat, and in no time, you'll feel kinship with the singer, the drummer, the dancer, as you share in the united diversity of the blues.

Because, as with the music, the truth is far more complex than any partisan shenanigans might lead you to believe: if America is to be truly great, it must acknowledge the beauty and power of diversity. We've got to find ways to affirm the uniqueness of all the individuals around us, to embrace their differences from ourselves, to allow our own identities to be transformed by those differences, and then marvel at the beauty that emerges from that cross pollination. Without the blues, there is no American music, no great culture to celebrate, no dancing, no singing along, no ecstatic realization that people of all colors and creeds share a common humanity. Drawing diversity together gave birth to this nation and made it strong. That can happen again; and being a musician, I cannot help but think it can start with a guitar riff, a dance step, and a plagal cadence.

Which leads me to end this extended, rambling meditation with one more verse of the Xenophobia Blues, made up just for this essay:
Reading that paper had me feeling blueYes, reading that paper had me feeling blueBut sing and dance with me and I know we can see this through