An Open Letter to Sen. Leahy

One of my senators, Sen. Leahy, made a statement recently about not being “inclined to [join the Democratic] filibuster” of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. While he later walked back those comments after liberals from around the country organized a “flurry of constituent calls” to his office, I wanted to add my voice to that flurry of constituents. Here is the message I sent to my senator:

Dear Senator Leahy,

I am writing to express my support for the Democratic filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. As his decision in the infamous frozen trucker case made clear,  Judge Gorsuch rules with a clear bias in favor of the corporate interest. In a near future where many of the court battles will be fought between the interests of the individual and the interests of the corporations and the money-class, the lifetime appointment of a judge who prefers to rule for the millionaires and billionaires would strangle our country’s progress for at least a generation. I urge you to not only join your Democratic colleagues in filibustering Judge Gorsuch’s appointment, but to lead your party’s undecided members into joining the filibuster as well.

Thank you for your time, Kyle Callahan

Pay Attention Now

Over the next several weeks, days, and hours, you have to be paying attention. Some major things have happened, as you probably know.

First, the Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Ryan, took a drubbing on the American Health Care Act. President Trump is trying to blame the Speaker for it, and it appears the Speaker is going to take it up the ass. The President called, via Twitter and Fox News, for the Speaker to step down. He has officially sicked the Republican Congress on itself. He doesn’t know who will win — the “moderates” (as if there were any) or the more extreme right — and to be fair, he probably doesn’t care. If Ryan ends up remaining in the post, he’ll be so beat up internally that he’ll have to come to heel.

Second, the Democrats in Congress are feeling emboldened after their victory in the House on Friday. Now the Senators have a chance to get their moment. Can they successfully block Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court? The grassroots did their job back during the town meetings. The Representatives did their jobs in the wells of the House. Now can the Senators ride that wave of victory in the Senate? Senators Schumer, Franken, Leahy, and Feinstein are carrying the ball. Let’s see what they can do it.

And watch out for how the Republicans play it. If they use the “nuclear option,” they’ve effectively taken the ball and gone home, like a sad bunch of quitters.

Third, Sen. Sanders is going to propose a single-payer healthcare bill “within a couple of weeks.” People have been asking what Bernie’s role in the Democratic Party will be after his national reputation reached the stratosphere during the primary campaign. If you want to know the difference between the pre-Bernie Dems and the post-Bernie Dems, watch how loudly the rest of the Democrats support his bill. If they come out swinging for it, then maybe they actually learned their lesson. If they do not, then their chances of taking back the Senate in 2018 are zilch.

Fourth, Trump is announcing later today that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is going to run a new White House office dedicated to innovating the operations of government using contemporary business principles. As the Washington Post explains it, the office will be “a SWAT team of strategic consultants…staffed by former business executives and…designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington.” The office is being advised by, among others, Tim Cook from Apple and Bill Gates from Microsoft.

The message is that this is a non-ideological office run by the New York contingent of Trump’s senior advisors. Watch how the media treats this announcement. It should signal their preference for Kushner over Bannon, and if the news is received well, be prepared to read more stories about pro-business but less “ideological” bills in the House and Senate (such as the removal of Pres. Obama’s privacy regulations last week).

The President has lost on almost every major initiative so far. His immigration orders have been shut down by the courts; he couldn’t repeal and replace Obamacare; he almost lost on his cabinet (hopefully, the Senate Dems were saving their strength for the Supreme Court nomination), and his national security apparatus is in dire straits due to the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia.

But if the President can get a media win on the White House Office of American Innovation, maybe Bannon’s star will start to dim.

Fifth, speaking of Russia, we have to keep our eye on Congress this week when it comes to the investigation. The Democrats and Republicans in the House seem to be approaching the investigation on completely partisan lines, while the Senate Intelligence Committee has been more low key. The latter will have their first public hearing this week, and the questions the Senators ask should signal how seriously they’re taking it. If the two parties are contentious in their questioning, as the House Judicial Committee was during Gorsuch’s hearings, then don’t expect either of Congress’ Russian investigations to be on the up and up.

So pay attention now: Will the Republicans in the House go after Speaker Ryan? Will the Democrats in the Senate block Judge Gorsuch? Will they also aggressive promote Sanders’ single-payer bill? Will the media gush over Kushner’s new office? What will happen with the Russian investigation?

And don’t forget: keep your eyes on the other bills making their way through Congress. The politicians are only in DC for two more weeks before they take off for a long recess. Watch what they do before the run for the hills, because the Republicans will definitely engage in some rear-guard actions as they scurry for home.

Just two more weeks of vigilance before we can take a breath. Don’t let up now.

The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.

Losing the Soul

I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I haven’t finished it yet, but I came across an argument in it the other night and I want to make sure I understand it.

Harari argues that there are three elements that universalize all of human culture. The first is money; the second is empire; and the third is the belief in a superhuman order:

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs. them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.

He then devotes the next three chapters to the elucidation of these assertions, and I highly recommend that you read them, but that’s not the part of his argument I want to explore.

In the chapter on the universal belief in a superhuman order, Harari categorizes natural-law ideologies as forms of religion, putting humanism  in the same category as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He argues that humanism is the worship of humanity, much as Islam is the worship of God. According to Harari, humanists believe there is a “unique and sacred nature” to our humanity, and that this is the most important thing in the world, and that therefore, “the supreme good is the good of Homo Sapiens.”

He goes on to divide humanism into three main sects: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism, with each sect differing on its definition of humanity.

For liberals, “humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of humans is therefore sacrosanct.” For socialists, “humanity is collective rather than individualistic…[and therefore it] seeks equality between all humans.”

Both of these interpretations spring from faith in a kind of secular soul, with liberals defending the unique liberty of each soul and socialists defending the common essence shared by all souls.

But I want to explore Harari’s characterization of the third sect: evolutionary humanism. He writes that evolutionary humanism is “the only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism.” He then concludes this assertion by writing that evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives are the Nazis.”

What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.

What’s interesting is that Harari seems most persuasive when he’s discussing this particular dogma. He goes on to characterize the Nazis’ arguments and actions as an attempt “to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution.” He then shows that this mission was not outside of the mainstream in the early twentieth century, with white supremacy playing a significant and proudly proclaimed role in the governments of both the United States and Australia well into the 1960s and 70s.

“The Nazis,” Harari writes, “did not loathe humanity.” They just defined it differently from liberals and socialists. According to the Nazis, if the fates of the fittest examples of humanity were not defended and promoted, they “would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates.”

With the lessons of evolution guiding their way, the Nazis proclaimed that “the supreme law of nature is that all beings are locked in a remorseless struggle for survival,” which is why they educated their people to “steel [their] wills to live and fight according to these laws.”

Harari ends the chapter by making what I find to be a persuasive argument in favor of evolutionary humanism. If liberalism and communism require the sanctity of the human soul, and science continues to find no evidence of said soul, it seems clear that the only true laws are the ones we find in nature, the ones that show us more and more that what we think of as consciousness and free will can better be defined in terms of “hormones, genes, and synapses.” Homo Sapiens are no more immune to these laws than any other species evolving on Earth.

And if all of that is true, then, indeed, evolutionary humanism makes the most sense, and we must acknowledge that humans too are subjects to the laws of nature. This does not mean that we must all become Nazis. The science of genetics, which did not really exist when the Nazis formed their racist theories, debunks much of what they believed about the evolution of the species.

But that also doesn’t mean that people in the vanguard aren’t already using the science of genetics and the theory of evolution to improve the fitness of their offspring. People choose sperm donors based on their intelligence. They abort fetuses based on the clinical detection of a birth defect. They choose the sex of their baby to prevent the spread of a sex-linked genetic disorder. In addition, hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists are, at this very moment, developing lines of research that could lead to the creation of a species whose fitness for future environments may very well exceed our own.

In a world where all of this is true, evolutionary humanism does make the most sense, but agreeing to evolutionary humanism erases the human soul from existence and denies sanctity to pretty much everything.

This follows from what Harari argues about money and empires as well. The universalizing aspect of money denies sanctity to other systems of value — if something can’t be converted to money, its value will always remain suspect. The universalizing aspect of empires, meanwhile, denies sanctity to cultural difference, bridging the gap between “us” and “them” through military, economic, and cultural conquest, followed by years of subjugation, and concluding in a syncretic assimilation that channels parts of the conquered culture back into the culture of the conqueror, until even their myths entangle and encompass each other and the truth of what they might have been slips forever into the darkness of their history.

In the story of Homo Sapiens as told by Harari, our distinct values are denied, our distinct cultures are denied, and finally our distinct souls are denied. Until all we are left with is…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one yet. As I said, I’m still reading the book.

They Can’t Get No…

I’m trying to figure out what a person needs to be satisfied. I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, because I know several people who are not satisfied in their lives and they’ve come to me for help, and two, because we have a problem in this world with our wealthy class seemingly not being able to feel that enough is ever enough, and I’d like to understand why.

Generally speaking, I’m a very happy man.

What contributes to my happiness? First and foremost, of course, is my family. My wife truly is my best friend, and while we annoy each other to no end and snipe at each other about household chores as much as any other married couple, we also love to have intellectually and emotionally stimulating conversations that help each of us grow together as human beings.

My four-year-old daughter, obviously, makes me happy.

I also have good relationships with my extended family. The fact that I live in a different state from them helps — as George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family living in another city.” I love all of them with all my heart, and I enjoy spending time with them whenever we get the chance, but I also enjoy not having to deal with the daily drama that would come from all of us being together for too long.

The second thing that contributes to my happiness is my job. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into the details, but from a general perspective, what makes the job so satisfying is that it is deeply and authentically meaningful to me. My company has a mission that speaks to my passions, and my input on the best way to achieve that mission is truly valued by my employer and my peers. Virtually any responsibility or task I want to take on is made available to me, allowing me to improve my skills and my understanding, and if things become too overwhelming, my colleagues are willing to let me adjust as necessary.

Could my wife and I make more money? Of course, but if we didn’t have our student loans and weren’t concerned about retirement or our daughter’s college tuition, we’d basically be making as much money as we’d need, so I don’t have much room to complain.

The third thing is my community. I live in a rural village of about 3,500 people. My wife works in the public middle school, so she knows virtually everyone, and we’ve lived in town going on 15 years, so essentially every face is a familiar face. It’s also a community where our friends are consciously thinking about and acting out the very concept of community — i.e., most of them are academics (even if not in an official sense) whose fields of interest somehow relate to the idea of creating a vibrant local ecology, human or otherwise — which means they try their best to stay connected to one another, to spend quality time with one another, and to support and inspire one another.

Family, career, and community. That’s what makes me such a satisfied person. My friends who are unsatisfied often find one of them is lacking. The challenge comes when the pursuit of satisfaction in one of those areas risks your satisfaction in the others. For example, if you don’t find meaning in your job but your family loves your community, do you take the risk of accepting a more fulfilling job someplace else?

When it comes to the 1%, however, I’m completely at a loss.

There’s a book I haven’t read yet (but is now on my “to read” list) called The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic ThinkersWhile researching for this post, I found an interesting selection from it, which reads:

The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times; and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As an ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.

Apparently (according the author anyway), until the rise of the market economy in the 18th century, the vast majority of human beings did not even consider the possibility that through discipline and hard work they could improve their material lives, which would make sense given the feudal nature of the economy and a pervasive religious dogma that valued striving for success in the afterlife rather than success in the here and now.

It’s not until the market economy comes along that people start to get the sense that they can actually improve their lot in life, provided they can put in the time and effort to do so.

I’m not going to talk here about the flaws in this particular theory, neither the part that says people didn’t strive to improve their lives prior to the market economy nor with the part that suggests that all it takes to become wealthy is a healthy dose of Protestant work ethic.

What I will do is talk about the natural desire of homo sapiens to protect what they think is theirs and to pursue what they think could be, both of which prioritize the future over the present. In the future, we want to keep what we already have. And in the future, we want to get what, by all rights, can be gotten.

But when do we stop looking over our shoulder to see what might be coming for us and stop looking at the horizon to see what we might be approaching, and instead look our lives up and down to see if everything we already have is actually all we’ll ever need?

In other words, what drives a billionaire like Donald Trump to do yet another “big deal” that will net him millions of dollars? What drives bankers to screw over millions of homeowners just to put more money in their already overly filled pockets? What drives a company like ExxonMobil — which (even with a recent 50% drop in profits) still generates more profits than virtually every other company in human history — what drives them to choose their financial bottom line over and above their social and environmental ones? What drives a Russian oligarch who already has billions of dollars to rob his fellow citizens of whatever wealth they can generate? What motivates a sitting member of Congress (most of whom are millionaires) to sell out his or her constituents to the highest bidder?

One of the world’s richest richest men, Carlos Slim, told Larry King that his motivation was not to make money, but to fulfill his vocation for numbers. He said, “When you have a vocation for numbers, you have many activities, and you will develop yourself professionally…I like investments, creation of investments and economic activities that come with investments.” The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, said that, “You’ve got to enjoy what you do every day, and for me that’s working with very smart people, it’s working with new problems.” The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote recently that what motivates him and his team is “developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Are we to understand that the wealthy continue to generate wealth because they’re passionate about something whose byproduct is wealth? That might be true for some.

But how does that explain an already wealthy political leader who knowingly does harm through his or her actions just to put more money in his or her pocket? How does that explain billionaires such as the Koch brothers actively working to destroy the environment for the sake of their bottom line? How does that explain a billionaire in Texas lobbying for six years for the right to store nuclear waste on top of a number of aquifers?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to understand people like that.

Expect Resistance

In the last week or so, there’s been a story going on in Vermont that, I’m told, has stirred a bit of national debate. Vermont Public Radio even dedicated over an hour of virtually uninterrupted discussion to it yesterday (including a re-run of the show in the evening), which was when I was told that its become a national story.

Last week, Middlebury College’s American Enterprise club (which is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute) invited a political scientist named Dr. Charles Murray to speak at the college. They reasoned that, with all of the conversations about how President Trump was elected because of the grievances of the country’s white males, it would be interesting to bring to campus the author of a recently published book about class divisions within that white demographic. However, the author of said book has been accused of “using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight against racism and intolerance in all its forms and a recognized leader when it comes to keeping data on both local and national hate mongers. Due to the author’s designation (not to mention the published words that led to said designation), a sizable number of students and professors at Middlebury College challenged whether he should even be invited to campus, let alone given a stage and a microphone from which to disseminate his ideas.

It sounds as if reasonable efforts were made by the college to address the grievances of the protestors. The Political Science department that sponsored the invitation fully intended to prepare their students to understand the controversies surrounding Dr. Murray and to help them develop the skills to challenge the man’s ideas in public. It seems they even disseminated pamphlets on every chair in the auditorium to help the students speak their mind during the event, and when the President of the College introduced him, she stated that she “profoundly disagreed” with the man.

The Political Science department also prepared one of their colleagues to serve as a moderator during the talk, giving her specific instructions to challenge the speaker to his face.

Staff members throughout the college discussed the controversy in their classrooms in the week leading up the event and redesigned their syllabuses to give their students time before and after the visit to process their ideas and their feelings surrounding Dr. Murray’s talk.

On the day of the event, the protestors planned and staged an organize response. Just as Dr. Murray began to speak, students throughout the auditorium stood up in unison, turned their backs, and began to chant, and not in a “Hey hey, ho ho, Dr. Murray’s got to go”  kind of way (though some kind of similar chant did occur later), but rather, in a monotonous, considered, and dead-eyed kind of way, the product of what must have been at least half a dozen planning sessions in the days and hours leading up the event, including at least one or two full on rehearsals (please note that I’m making assumptions here).

Dr. Murray eventually left the stage. He and the moderator tried to continue the discussion in another room, sharing it with the audience via livestream, but the protestors began to act a little more chaotic at that point. It seems they may not have imagined that the event’s planners would develop a tactical response to their coordinated protest, and so, as will happen with a crowd, a lot of people had a lot of different ideas on what to do next .

The end result was that after the interview was finished, the college tried to escort Dr. Murray, the faculty moderator, and some others to an awaiting car, but the protestors wouldn’t let them pass, and push literally came to shove before Dr. Murray and the others could get into the car and drive away. In the scrum, the moderator was injured enough to go to the hospital and come out with a neck brace. And Dr. Murray, who is an elderly man, told the Boston Globe that he feared for his life.

It became a national story for the same reason Milo Yiannopoulos became a story when Berkley protesters prevented him from speaking on campus: the students of a highly reputable liberal college forcefully prevented a conservative voice from finding a safe space on their campus. It’s a story rife with irony, due to liberal stances regarding the sanctity of education and the sanctity of free speech.

If you believe that education is, first and foremost, about the development of a student’s critical thinking skills (as most liberals ultimately do), then why shield them from the real world’s marketplace of ideas, which includes millions of ideas that they will find offensive?

If you believe(as most liberals seem to) that words and ideas are the only things that should change the world (rather than, say, guns and money), then why respond violently when faced with words and ideas that offend you?

Both sides of the issue had strong points. I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech, which means I completely believe Dr. Murray  had the right to speak, but it also means that I believe the protestors had the right to respond with whatever words they saw fit. In addition, Middlebury College has the right to invite whomever it wants to its campus, and the students of Middlebury College have the right to disagree with the college’s decisions.

With that being said, one of the guests made an interesting point. He is a sociology professor who was invited onto the radio show to defend the protestors. When the show’s moderator asked him some question that implied that every viewpoint deserves equal access, the professor remarked that the college already doesn’t provide equal access to all viewpoints because not everyone has the same amount of money to invite speakers to campus, and hence some voices are never heard simply because of differences in economic class.

This is the same as the argument behind campaign finance reform. If money = speech, then those who have more money have more speech; and if in a democracy, speech = the right to vote, then more money means more votes.

I don’t know a ton about the inner budgeting processes of private Vermont colleges, but what I’ve seen makes me think that the Political Science department at Middlebury College probably receives better funding than its Sociology department, if only because political science majors probably make more money than their sociology counterparts (which goes for those of both types who later go on to teach at a college). [But again, I’m making a lot of assumptions here].

According to the representatives on the radio, one of the things the protestors would have preferred about the event was for someone else to be standing on the stage who had equal footing with Dr. Murray, someone who was there with every endorsement of the college to challenge Dr. Murray’s ideas and teach the students some of his or her own — to stage the evening not as a moderated lecture, followed by questions (challenging or not), but as a debate between equals, and challenging all the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and what went down went down.

But what intrigues me about it is that — at least in the way its become a national story — it’s all about the concept of a safe space.

Conservatives claim that liberal colleges no longer provide a safe space for the expression of conservative ideas; liberals, meanwhile, claim that conservative speech offends them, and they ought to have the right to protect and defend themselves from any more violence (spoken or otherwise) coming at them from conservative quarters.

In other words: Conservatives want colleges to be a safe space, while liberals want the individual mind to be a safe space.

I agree with both of them. The trouble is that, for many liberals, college is where the mind first meets the road. They’re no longer protected by their parents or guardians, and they have to negotiate whatever comes at them on their own. That’s the whole point of thing.

But they’re also kids, and they’re gonna screw up once in a while, and sometimes when they do, someone’s going to get hurt and come out of the hospital wearing a neck brace. That’s what happens when kids screw up.

What’s important is what happens next. How do the adults around them model  what they could have done instead?

It sounds to me like both the protestors (staff and students) and the event planners (staff and students) handled the pre-game perfectly. They discussed the controversy with each other in a rational manner, and when they saw they would never persuade the other to do exactly what they wanted, they made plans for a potential conflict. The protestors considered the situation and decided a combination of “simultaneous dialogue” (i.e., using their numbers to speak over Dr. Murray) and general protests would be best. The event planners anticipated the protestors’ moves (to some extent) and reacted accordingly, hiring outside security and preparing alternative ways for Dr. Murray’s speech to continue (retiring to a quieter room and broadcasting his words to the audience via livestream).

This is where character and leadership comes in. The Middlebury protestors, like the Berkley protestors before them, are trying to convince the media that “outside agitators” started the violence. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I suspect in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I’m sure at least one Middlebury student partook in the violence, as I’m sure at least one person who is not a student at Middlebury partook in the violence.

Regardless, the protestors claim this because they want to believe that they have character, that Middlebury students wouldn’t resort to violence when they find themselves as part of mob. Again, this may or may not be true.

But it provides the college with an opportunity to have the students practice the art of remaining an individual when standing in the middle of a mob, and then the art of leading that mob to achieve positive ends in a positive way. What should a Middlebury student have done when the protest grew beyond its planning committee’s control?

With the Internet and social media, mobs move too fast for anyone to control them. That’s how you get the Arab Spring. That’s how you get Ferguson.

I think liberals everywhere would agree that the Arab Spring and Ferguson definitely needed to happen. And that more of them need to and will happen in the future.

But how can tomorrow’s liberal leaders thrive in such an incredibly dynamic environment, where for every organized march on Washington, there’s three dozen half-organized, mob-overrun affairs?

The next generation must be able to navigate the grassroots world they’re moving into, a world where even the President of the United States bypasses traditional channels of communication in favor of Twitter. It may be true that, unless you’ve got millions of dollars (not necessarily your own), you can’t stand at a podium and have a microphone all to yourself; but its also true that for a few dozen bucks a month, you can stand with your smart phone and have a microphone the size of the Internet.

But in that world, how does someone lead when everyone is talking at once?

That’s what our youth activists need to learn, and that’s what our colleges need to teach them (interestingly, the sociology professor who was invited to defend the protestors on the radio dedicates at least part of his research to “exploring how anarchists organize online”).

Should Dr. Murray have been invited to speak on Middlebury’s campus? Should the protestors have been able to outshout him? Those questions are beside the point.

The question is: what should they have done next? The event planners planned to face resistance. In the future, youth activists should plan to face it too.

Trying to Make Sense of the Russian Thing

There’s something knocking me out about this story that Rachel Maddow blew open on Monday. If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the video, let me recap it for you.

Deutsche Bank was fined $425m last month by the Federal government for helping Russian oligarchs (and members of Putin’s family) launder $10b out of Russia. They did it through branches in Moscow, New York, and Cyprus.

Now, the current chairman of the Bank of Cyprus is the previous chairman of Deutsche Bank, a man who left his job under a cloud of allegations.  After he left Deutsche, he was made chairman of the Bank of Cyprus by its major shareholders, one of whom is a close personal friend of Putin’s.

Another major shareholder is known as the King of Fertilizer and is among the richest men in Russia. As Maddow makes clear, this man’s divorce (the most expensive divorce in history, by the way) caused him to hide aspects of his vast fortune from his soon-to-be ex-wife. One of the ways he did this was to purchase incredibly expensive real estate, including an incredibly gaudy mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. Its seller? Donald Trump. Trump sold it to the Russian oligarch for $100m, the most ever paid for a private estate in the U.S. at the time. Trump had purchased the mansion at auction just two years prior for $40m. Trump did not move into the mansion, and it stayed empty for two years. Then he sold it at a $60m profit to the Russian King of Fertilizer.

This Russian billionaire, as Maddow says, “does not have much of an American profile, but he does have one important American connection.” Remember, he is among the largest shareholders of the Bank of Cyprus. The two vice-chairmen of that bank, the ones who put the former chairman of Deutsche Bank in charge, are the close personal friend of Putin I mentioned above and an American named Wilbur Ross, who the single largest shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus.

Let’s make this clear for a moment. Wilbur Ross is the single largest shareholder of a bank whose other major shareholders include close personal friends and former KGB associates of Putin’s and a chairman who came from a bank that our Federal government just fined for more than half a billion dollars for helping Russian billionaires smuggle money out of Russia. Joining Ross and Putin’s friends and former KGB associates at the Bank of Cyprus is the Russian King of Fertilizer, “who did this inexplicable deal that Donald Trump miraculously stumbled into, that netted [Trump] $60m for doing basically nothing.”

Wilbur Ross is a major connection between President Trump and a whole slew of Russian oligarchs, including former members of the KGB and close, personal friends of Putin’s.

And Wilbur Ross was confirmed Monday night as our new Commerce Secretary.

One more note: At the same time as this “inexplicable deal” for $60m fell into Donald Trump’s lap, he was in debt to Deutsche Bank for $40m.

Again — follow this: Donald Trump owes Deutsche Bank $40m, which means Deutsche Bank needs $40m. Where are they going to get that money from? From Trump. But where is Trump going to get that money? If only they both knew someone who could give Trump $40m, someone who was looking to hide a lot of money somewhere and who could do it without Trump having to do anything for it.

But honestly, can anyone get $40m without having to do anything? And can anyone get $40m from a Russian oligarch without having to do anything, Russian oligarchs being essentially the world’s scariest loan sharks?

Now connect this to what we learned from that infamous dossier back in January, the non-salacious elements of which — “that the Russians had been ‘cultivating, supporting, and assisting’ Trump for years” — seem to be checking out. The New Yorker claims that, “Some officials believe that one reason the Russians compiled information on Trump…was that he was meeting with Russian oligarchs who might be stashing money abroad.”

Okay, that’s all incredible, right? It’s the exact link people have been looking for  between Trump and the Russians; Wilbur Ross, our new Commerce Secretary and an old friend of Trump’s, is the nexus.

But what Maddow’s story seems to imply is that this is all about money. Trump finds himself in massive debt to a Russian oligarch — a debt that has been laundered as a real-estate transaction, but debt nonetheless. From there though, it seems a bit of a jump to say that, partly in order to pay back that debt, Donald Trump got himself elected President of the United States, from whose perch he could repay that debt a thousand times over (which actually, now that I think about it, is probably the kind of interest that a Russian oligarch would charge, right?).

But why? What’s the point from the oligarch’s perspective? What does Russia actually expect to get for its money? Is it just more money?

Three days ago, Glenn Greenwald published a story on his websiteThe Intercept. The story is a deep read of the New Yorker article I linked to above, whose author, by the way, was the first guest Maddow spoke to after her segment.

Greenwald is an incredible journalist. He is the person Edward Snow contacted when he wanted to be assured of reaching an ethical and independent journalist, and the work he accomplished with Snowden resulted in him being given a George Polk Award for National Security Reporting.

In his recent article, Greenwald highlights “five uncomfortable truths about U.S. and Russia.”

First, Hillary Clinton promoted a much more aggressive stance toward Russia than Obama did, and “Russian experts…feared that Clinton…was so eager for escalated U.S. military action in Syria…that a military conflict with Russia was a real possibility.”

This is not simply to say that Hillary was more willing to fight Russia than Obama was. It’s also to say that “the leading accommodationist of Putin was named Barack Obama.” Clinton agreed with virtually all of the Republican candidates that the United States should be more aggressive towards Russia, to the point that Clinton was willing to put our Air Force into direct conflict with Russian airplanes, via the establishment of a No-Fly Zone in Syria.

Second, the relationship between Russia and the United States is at its lowest point in my lifetime. I was raised in the era of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and I came of age during Yeltsin’s free for all. Putin has been in power for close to twenty years, and while it hasn’t been a great relationship, it’s never been as bad as it is today.

What I love about Greenwald is that he refuses to accept “the singular message of the U.S. Patriotic Media,” and so in his article, he embeds a long monologue from Noam Chomsky, who explains that, from Russia’s perspective, it’s the West who has been acting aggressively since the end of the Cold War, expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, despite Presidents Reagan & Bush having told Gorbachev that it wouldn’t do so. Remember,  Russia had spent much of the twentieth century defending itself from German invasions, so it’s probably not keen on having NATO (of which Germany is now a member) butting right up against it.

Remember the Ukraine? This is a country that NATO was actively trying to recruit into its orbit. It’s also a country that is geopolitically important to Russia. Not only does the Ukraine offer Moscow a pipeline to the southern seas, but it also serves as a physical buffer between Russia and the West. If the Russians allowed Ukraine to join NATO, they’d lose a major chunk of their own great wall.

In the monologue, Chomsky also notes that President Obama recently placed “a missile defense system” in Romania. He explains that strategic analysts on all sides believe that what’s called “missile defense” is really an offensive weapon. The U.S. placing missles in Romania is like the Russians placing missiles in Cuba: a highly aggressive action.

In short, things are not good between the U.S. and Russia, and not all of it is Russia’s fault.

Third, Greenwald points out that the American media refuses to ask the question of whether the U.S. tries “to manipulate Russian politics [in] the way Russia now stands accused of…”. He notes how openly proud American advisors were after helping Boris Yeltsin get elected President back in 1996, and he questions why more American journalists don’t follow this particular lead in their reporting. What is it that holds them back?

Fourth, Greenwald notes that “the U.S. government still has provided no evidence of its theories about Russian hacking.” Greenwald is not saying that this evidence does not exist, but given the stakes, he believes that the American public ought to be more skeptical of any claim that pushes two nuclear powers closer to armed conflict with one another.

He also notes that the information we’re receiving about virtually all of this is coming from anonymous officials in the “agenda-driven, disinformation-dispensing intelligence community,” the same community that was hijacked by Republican elites to make the U.S. invade Iraq more than a decade ago.

Fifth, “fixating on Russia continues to be used to distract from systemic failures of U.S. elites.”

This is where it gets damning for the Democrats.

First, by arguing that Trump’s rise to power in the United States is only due to his connections with Russian oligarchs, Democratic elites (made up of the mainstream corporate media, their friends in the financial sector, and the politicians they all pay for) call into question Trump’s right to call himself an American, just as Trump did to Obama.

But the elites aren’t doing it just to be ironic. By calling Trump’s loyalty into question, they call into question the loyalty and intelligence of all the people who voted for him, millions of whom who were moved to vote on the off-chance that President Crazy would bring some kind of — any kind of — radical change to the “neoliberal policies [that] destroyed [their] economic security and future…”

If the Democratic elites can discredit Trump’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of Russia (much like the Republicans tried to discredit Obama’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of ISIS), then they won’t have to address the systemic failures of their own economic policies.

So where does that leave us?

Maddow’s report connects at least one solid strand (or as she calls it, a thick rope) between President Trump and the oligarchs of Russia. But Greenwald’s analysis wants us to question why we should even care in the first place.

What’s really at stake here?

Is it something as simple as money? If the elites can distract us with a foreign scapegoat, then they can continue to distribute the wealth of our nations upward. If they can drive our two powers into a second Cold War, then all of them — especially the intelligence officials and weapons manufacturers — can continue to have jobs and continue to afford their houses and swimming pools. And if they can succeed at actually defeating Russia somehow, then they can secure its oil for use in the ever-coming age of global scarcity or in their ever-coming war with the underclass.

Russia, meanwhile, gets a U.S. President (however they got him) who will work to counteract the aggression plainly espoused by the anointed leader of the Democratic elites (and plainly disavowed by her upstart challenger on the left). If they can fight off the Western elite, then the Russian oligarchs can continue distributing the wealth of their nation into their bank accounts in Cyprus. But to do that, they need to make sure the United States lifts its sanctions and protects the secrecy of its dealings so that Western businesses (such as Exxon) can continue to funnel Western money into Russia. They also need to make sure that the United States has someone else on whom it can focus its natural aggression (aggression caused by its economic pain), someone such as ISIS, “the terrorists,” and/or Muslim and Hispanic immigrants.

What does Trump get out of it, though? He gets to have the biggest name in the entire world, have everyone on the entire planet constantly be talking about him , and get easy access to some of the finest looking women money can buy; oh, and he can also get paid while doing it.

But what’s blowing my mind after connecting all these dots is how much it doesn’t fucking matter. Oh, it matters in the sense that it could lead to the destruction of everything and everyone I love, whether through a nuclear war with Russia, the deconstruction of every environmental gain of the past forty years, or the loss of fundamental legal rights and protections. Of course it matters; of course it does.

But it doesn’t matter in the sense that both of those fucking jokers we could have elected in November were representatives of a class of human beings whose daily experiences are so different from the rest of us in the 99%.

Trump represents Russian oligarchs; Clinton represented American ones.

Either way, we were getting robbed.

Fuck, I miss Bernie.