Saturday, January 14, 2017

Inaugural Times: Wisdom, Weather and Some Warnings

Most of the pageantry involved in the inauguration of a US president has nothing to do with the Constitution. All it actually says is that president is supposed to take the oath of office. Even the idea of swearing on a bible is just a custom, and the oath doesn’t include “so help me, God.” 
      George Washington decided to invoke God at the last minute. One president, Franklin Pierce, actually refused to swear on the “Good Book.” 
      So, technically Donald Trump could be sworn in on The Art of the Deal.
     The inaugural speech is also just a custom. It started when Washington thought it might be a wise idea to say a few words. He wasn’t speaking to “the people,” by the way, he was talking to Congress. But giving a speech stuck as an idea, and eventually the show was taken outside – where for the next century most of the audience couldn’t hear a word the president was saying.
     At least the world will get to hear and read Trump's address. If only everyone had been allowed to vote.
     One president died as a result of giving an address. It was 1841, and William Henry Harrison, who was 68, wanted to prove he was fit and gave his speech on a bitterly cold day without wearing an overcoat. The speech took more than two hours – the longest on record – and Harrison caught a cold. A month later he died of pneumonia.
     Aside from Lincoln, Kennedy, and Garfield, most inaugural speeches haven’t been very memorable. At times they’ve been downers. In 1857, for example, James Buchanan attacked abolitionists for making a big deal about slavery. Ulysses Grant complained about being slandered. Warren Harding and others were simply boring.
     There have been some memorable lines. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt. Kennedy, with an assist from several others, came up with “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
     And let's not forget George H.W. Bush, who compared freedom to a kite. Not a very high bar.
     According to scholars who have analyzed the speeches, the form has evolved. In the old days, presidents talked quite a lot about the Constitution. Now we have more “rhetorical” presidencies, meaning that the chief executive bypasses the constitution – and congress – and appeals directly to the people. The problem, which was recognized by the founding fathers, is that this can lead to demagoguery – appeals to passion rather than reason. And since Nixon we’ve had several inaugurations with leaders who offer mainly platitudes, emotional appeals, partisan and anti-intellectual attacks and human interest stories rather than evidence, facts and rational arguments.
     Since Nixon we’ve also had professional speechwriters, and an emphasis on getting as much applause as possible. Meanwhile, the reading level has dropped. The early speeches were written at the college level. Now they require only eighth grade comprehension. 
     We don’t hear much about the presidency of James Garfield, who was elected in 1880. One of the reasons was that he was shot after only four months in office, and died about two months later. But before he was inaugurated, he read over all the previous addresses to decide what to say. He found Lincoln’s speech to be the best. Who could beat this closing:
      “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
    Partway through his own research, Garfield considered not giving a speech at all. But he pressed on, and boiled down the task to the following: first a brief introduction, followed by a summary of topics recently settled, then a section on what ought to be the focus of public attention, and finally, an appeal to stand by him in the independent and vigorous execution of the law. The speeches haven’t really changed much since then. Normally, they serve to reunite people after the election, express some shared values, present some new policies, and promise that the president will stick to the job description. 
     To put it mildly, Trump is expected to break with that formula.
     In the end, Garfield’s speech didn’t match Lincoln’s. But it was eloquent and remains relevant today. He started with history, noting that before the US was formed the world didn’t believe “that the supreme authority of government could be safely entrusted to the guardianship of the people themselves.” Moving through the first century of US history, he concluded that after the Civil War people had finally “determined to leave behind them all those bitter controversies concerning things which have been irrevocably settled, and the further discussion of which can only stir up strife and delay the onward march.” 
     It was a case of wishful thinking. “The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship," he continued, "is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the constitution.” But the Black vote was still be suppressed, especially in the south. So he warned, “To violate the freedom and sanctity of the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persisted in, will destroy the government itself.”
     A prescient warning as it turns out. With the installation of President Trump, the US faces serious threats to the freedom and sanctity of the right to vote, and other dangers that could ultimately destroy this system of government – secrecy, abuse of power, impunity, abandonment of the rule of law.
     Garfield also made another point worth repeating: No religious organization, he noted, can be “permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government.”  He was talking about the Mormon Church, which was exerting considerable influence out west at the time. But there are contemporary implications.
    His concluding words about the end of slavery perhaps still resonate best. “We do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of the past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided on their opinions concerning our controversies,” he predicted. “We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation. Is it not possible for us now to make a truce with time by anticipating and accepting its inevitable verdict?" 
     Apparently not yet.
     “Enterprises of the highest importance to our moral and material well-being unite us and offer ample employment of our best powers," said Garfield. "Let all our people leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move forward, and in their strength of liberty and the restored Union, win the grander victories of peace.”

Friday, January 6, 2017

Another Realignment in the People's Republic

How Burlington's Progressives Lost Control of City Hall

It was Burlington's first mayoral race since the repeal of instant run-off voting. But there was no need for a second round. Miro Weinberger won handily in March 2012 with more than 5,800 votes. The turnout was above 10,000, up from 2009, when incumbent Progressive Bob Kiss won a second term in a close, controversial race with Kurt Wright that led to the end of IRV.
Miro Weinberger and Tim Ashe at the Epic Caucus; 
Below, Mayor Bob Kiss and Kurt Wright 
     Under-estimated from the start, Weinberger delivered on a campaign plan to make inroads in the more conservative North End, but also polled above expectations in poor neighborhoods. In Ward 3, where Gordon Paquette – the last Democratic mayor — won his earliest victories, also the neighborhood from which Terry Bouricius introduced “third party” politics to the City Council in 1981, Weinberger was the top vote-getter with 65 percent.
     When Mayor Bernie Sanders ran for re-election the first time in 1983, he won 52 percent of the vote and spent about $30,000. Weinberger’s victory was bigger, but it also cost him four times as much.
     In 1987, Sanders defeated Democrat Paul Lafayette in five out of six wards. Then the new, local Progressive Party was close to having a majority. In 2012, however, after electing three mayors over 31 years and being the largest faction on the City Council, it chose not to field a candidate for mayor, dissociated itself from the incumbent it had put in office, and recruited only two candidates. The party chose not to endorse Weinberger, Wright or independent Wanda Hines. But Progressive Councilor Vince Brennan did back Wright, who also won the support of Independent Sharon Bushor and Sandra Baird, a former Democratic legislator and Progressive critic.
     During the run-up to the Democratic Party caucus, state Sen. Tim Ashe, once a Progressive city councilor, looked like a more polished player with the necessary cross-party appeal. Others thought that Bram Kranichfeld, the 31-year-old council newcomer from Ward 2, had some crucial backing from party stalwarts. Both of them, along with state Rep. Jason Lorber, were defeated in the course of an epic Democratic caucus that had to be reconvened in December after Weinberger and Ashe tied in the third round.
     At Weinberger’s campaign announcement the previous September, held next door to City Hall in a former firehouse managed by Burlington City Arts, the first-time candidate charged that Mayor Kiss had put the city in “an exceptionally poor negotiating position.” Reluctance to discuss the details of Burlington Telecom finances had “left a mood of anger and anxiety about our future,” he charged. The 41-year-old housing developer also criticized the administration’s failure to secure funding before starting on a $14 million airport parking lot expansion.
     He looked like the underdog to Republican Kurt Wright throughout most of the general election. Although Weinberger raised more than twice the money and had the Democratic establishment in his corner, Wright appeared to have an inherent edge. He had waged two previous mayoral battles, had a working knowledge of city policies and operations gained over 20 years as a councilor and state lawmaker, and was creating a nonpartisan coalition that looked a little like the one that had worked well for Bernie Sanders. None of it was enough.
     Afterward, Progressive Party Vice Chair Elijah Bergman argued that the Democrat’s victory wouldn’t have happened without Progressive support. If so, the assistance for Weinberger was capped by the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, issued one week before the vote.
     On the same Town Meeting Day, across the state more than 60 communities, including most of Vermont's largest, passed resolutions recommending a constitutional amendment to make sure that corporations do not continue to have First Amendment rights as people. In Burlington, the call passed with almost 80 percent. A separate advisory resolution inspired by the Occupy protests also did well. In a tradition that dates back to the 1980s, voters urged the state and federal governments to adopt revenue and investment policies that reduce the growing disparity of wealth and ask the largest corporations to pay a fair share of taxes.
     Max Tracy won easily as a Progressive in Ward 2, an area situated between the university and the waterfront in the Old North End. This was also where Hines had her best turnout, 15 percent. But the groundswell she predicted didn't materialize. In North and South End wards she attracted between 2 percent and 4 percent. The overall results also represented a setback for the GOP, which lost both a council seat and the immediate presence of Wright, the party’s most visible leader. Hines turned out to be a weaker candidate than expected, while Wright reached an apparent ceiling on his appeal.
     Three decades of executive power had ended for the progressive movement. But Weinberger promised not to “clean house” and offered to provide continuity. In a sign of the political fusion to come, his initial budget advisory team featured former Progressive official Carina Driscoll (Sanders' step-daughter), longtime business leader Pat Robins, former independent candidate Dan Smith (son of Republican Peter Smith, whom Sanders defeated to enter Congress), and Doug Hoffer, once a CEDO staffer in the Progressive era and soon-to-become Progressive/Democrat State Auditor.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rendezvous with Uncertainty: On Post-Modern Politics

IN THE SO-CALLED MODERN ERA, things basically made sense. Despite frequent setbacks, technical dangers and brutal dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, in the idea of changing the world that was also changing us. But now we live in a post-modern world. And although that need not be a pejorative label, it does tend to emphasize uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.
    The term “post-modern” first came into use after World War II, referring to literature and art that took modern forms to their extremes. Since then, it has evolved into a general attitude toward society. Characterized by skepticism, it forces “authorities” and “their” institutions to defend themselves against charges that they are no longer relevant – or just ignorant. Does this sound familiar so far? On the plus side, that attitude helped bring down the Berlin Wall and sometimes puts experts and leaders in the hot seat. However, it also tends to challenge any strongly held belief.
     Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists tend to believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken too seriously. The characteristic approach is ironic, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is being expressed. One favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, either written or "air," reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and plays well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.
     Faced with machines that have made life more complicated and less secure, a vast amount of unsettling information, and an overwhelming variety of ephemeral “choices,” it is hardly surprising that people, especially the young, are no longer very impressed with much of anything. Their favorite media often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most commercial films continue to rely on the old linear formula – a hero overcoming obstacles to reach some obvious goal – few people actually believe in that scenario. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.
     At its extreme such an awareness can lead to disillusionment, nihilism, and a disabling narcissism that favors fads and raw power over ethics and any ideology. And these days narcissism no longer applies solely to “beautiful people” who can relate only to their own images. Narcissists can also be pseudo-intellectuals, calculating promoters, or self-absorbed rebels. Even more unsettling, they are ideally suited for success and power – callous climbers all too willing to sell themselves.
     In post-modern society, self-promotion is the ultimate form of work. It’s a state of affairs that, as we have just witnessed, can catapult a celebrity into power.
     In post-modern society the electronic media promote both chronic tension and cynical detachment. Most advertising implicitly suggests that appearances are what matter, while many of the programs reinforce an ironic distance, often winking that it’s just a put-on. And the news? An endless stream of largely trivial “facts.”
     What about truth? That’s the last thing we expect anymore.
     The technology of journalism has advanced more in the last decade than in the century before. Yet more and more, print, electronic and digital media fill time and space with self-serving advertorials and questionable news – increasingly fake –  often produced by hackers, PR firms and even governments. The race for circulation, clicks and audience shares has meanwhile placed a premium on titillation and superficiality, producing an ill-informed electorate.
     Journalistic professionalism and credibility are in free fall. Compounding the problem, corporate ownership and bottom line thinking mean that fewer responsible and trained journalists are available, especially to cover developments in foreign countries and remote locations. US television networks employ at least a third fewer correspondents than they did 25 years ago. Radio newsroom staffs shrank by 44 percent between 1994 and 2001, and foreign coverage by broadcast and cable networks has declined at least 70 percent since the 1980s.
     Newsroom staffs have also been slashed, unions have been forced to accept cuts, and the coverage has been dumbed down. More than 50,000 news industry employees, most of them newspaper journalists, lost their jobs in the first decade of the 21st Century. The result is that major stories go untold, and dire problems in many communities are ignored. It's sad to admit, but professionalism in reporting may be going the way of shortwave radios, fax machines, and the single-lens reflex camera.
     The inconvenient truth here is that there is no Constitutional guarantee that democracy will be fair, that people will be well or truthfully informed, or that the press will be competent.
     In fact, US society is currently experiencing a crisis of fact, leaving people with little to trust or believe. More and more they consume only information that reinforces their opinions. It's a vicious cycle, and many journalists aren’t helping. The first law of the profession today, as Alex Cockburn put it, is to "confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
     Thus far, the post-modern age has been characterized largely by fraud and scandal – questionable elections, corrupt leaders, fabricated accounting that devastates the savings of thousands, doped-up athletes, and plagiarized or phony news. Even scholars have been caught plagiarizing parts of their books. It became so common by 2007 that a peer-reviewed academic journal called Plagiary was launched. Its subtitle announced: Cross Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. One early investigation of whether student terms papers had been faked found that at least 30 percent of the papers submitted online had been plagiarized, at least in part.
     Another troubling development has been “photo illustration,” frequently involving fabrication of images using digital tools. It sounds like harmless fun, but given the power of images it has the potential to warp public perception in the service of biased or inaccurate stories.
     And how do the young get their news? Actually, many don’t bother, and those who do want to know what's happening don’t use print, or even radio and TV. They prefer handheld devices to surf online sources – many actually operated by think tanks and special interest groups that have figured out how to appeal to a mass audience.
     The emergence of “citizen journalism” and “new media” has reinforced the notion that professionalism is no longer essential, and maybe even part of the problem. The post-modern idea is that everyone can be a journalist, promoting "conversations" among equals as citizen reporters aggregate, edit and sometimes create their own news. The more options we have, goes the idea, the less control traditional media have over what is relevant – and the better offer we will be.
    But this presumes that professionalism no longer matters, and standards aren’t important. "New media” acknowledge few rules, but reliable reporting isn’t really so simple. For example, recognizing the difference between news, opinion, commentary and rumor can be a challenge. Serious journalists also try to cultivate skills like how to conduct fair and constructive interviews, how to find relevant and complete – not merely convenient – information, how to see various aspects of an issue, and how to convey what they find out clearly, efficiently and accurately. Without such skills, the public is vulnerable to distortions, biased reports, and blatant falsehoods.
     For all its benefits, the “blogosphere” has accelerated social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. But this version is far more pervasive. As a result, truth and facts have become debatable and more difficult to define.
     Conflict drives the news cycle, with partisan sources and obsessive bloggers often shaping the narrative. This makes it more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing narratives and initiatives based on convenience or private interests.
     The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, and an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism and "straight talk" with hate speech.
     Yet it's not all bad news. Along with skepticism comes re-awakened concern about the human condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer so convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.
     In economics, the rigid approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line and mass production using interchangeable parts, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is slowly gaining traction.  
     As with most post-modern developments, however, there is a double edge. Re-engineering economics and work could lead to more worker-owned businesses, a renewed sense of community and environmental responsibility, and a groundswell against corporation domination. But it may simultaneously increase instability, turning even more people into contingent workers.
     Commenting on the implications, once presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy warned that post-modernism favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. It recognizes no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes.
    “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” McCarthy concluded, “as it may lead us to a state of ‘entropy,’ i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”
     It has already given the US its first post-modern president. And that in turn opens the door for a right-wing cultural counterrevolution. Speaking on his own TV network years ago, Pat Robertson made the goal perfectly clear: “to mobilize Christians, one precinct at a time, one community at a time, one state at a time, until once again we are the head and not the tail, and at the top rather than at the bottom of our political system.”
     In a country founded on the principle of church-state separation, this may sound unlikely. But we should not be surprised that opportunists have seized the current chance to distort public debate and promote themselves as national saviors. Demagogues and evangelists have been doing this for generations. Not much has changed since the time of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy except the targets. Today it’s everything associated with multiculturalism, progressive politics and social justice. Fueled by Fox News and conservative powerhouses like the Koch brothers, they have mass marketed an extreme and paranoid ideology while immersing viewers in a false reality. Specious arguments and patent falsehoods are presented as history, biblical truth or scientific fact. Too often mainstream media let the avalanche of misinformation slide.
     An elaborate right-wing echo chamber has helped to create a distorted picture of contemporary reality that appeals to millions who feel insecure and hungry for clear and simple answers. In contrast, progressives have tended to put their faith in exposure. When enough people understand the extreme and illogical views of the Right, says this argument, their candidates will be rejected. Until recently, that felt like a good bet.
     But too many Americans, alienated and uncertain about their futures and the safety of their families and friends, are vulnerable to the politics of paranoia and blame. Bombarded with disinformation they have placed their faith and the planet's future in the hands of a gold-plated huckster who offers them slogans as answers and the illusive hope of a return to "greatness."
     Not very post-modern, and a recipe for even deeper disilusionment.