Monday, November 12, 2018

Bring Out the Best, Part 1

I'm hereby launching a series of blog posts about civility. It seems to me that as a society, our civility has gone downhill in recent times. Of course, one sign of this is the behavior of our president, Donald Trump. But our civility has been in decline since before Mr. Trump ran for president.

Civility is actually a hard word to define. It's sort of like what one Supreme Court justice wrote several years ago about pornography, the subject of a case the Supreme Court was reviewing. Justice Potter Stewart held in an opinion about the case Jacobellis v. Ohio:

... that the Constitution protected all obscenity except "hard-core pornography". He wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it ...

I think we all likewise know civility — and also its opposite, incivility — whenever we see it or do it.

What civility "looks like"

We hear so much about expressions of hate today. When one is filled with hate one tends to be uncivil. And one often feels entirely justified in his or her hatefulness and incivility.

Our incivility is very often a reaction to somebody else's hatefulness and incivility. Incivility thus breeds incivility.

On the other hand, I find in my day-to-day experience that civility breeds civility. I try to smile and say hello to strangers I encounter — say, when I am at the coffee dispensers while I'm eating breakfast at Panera. I may make some non-threatening comment such as, "I see you like the dark roast coffee. So do I!"

That word, "non-threatening," is crucial. I think hatred, incivility, and all their countless synonyms have to do with our feeling threatened by someone in some way. When we feel another person may be a threat, it is very hard for us to smile at them and be nice and civil to them.

If we feel threatened, then — if only at some perhaps unconscious level of our mental apparatus — we will experience fear. Our hatred and incivility are apt to be the result of our fear.

We fear, of course, any apparent threat to our own personal lives and well-being. But we likewise react negatively to anyone or anything that we interpret as menacing our families and loved ones.

By extension from that fact, we tend to include within our personal circle — i.e., the people we don't feel threatened by — certain individuals who aren't our own family members but whose friendship we trust in and believe in. And by further extension, we tend to include within our personal circle of people we trust and believe in other people we don't actually know, as long as they seem to be "just like us."

All that is normal and natural.

The question is: When we encounter people who don't, on the surface, seem to be "just like us," how do we nevertheless find it within ourselves the ability to be civil to them?

In the area in which I live, including the court I live on, I encounter lots of people who don't look like me and in various ways don't act just like me. Often, this is due to racial/ethnic differences, but it can also be due to age differences, gender differences, etc. etc. etc.

I have found that the best way to deal with such social situations is with civility. I smile. I act in a friendly way toward everyone. And I find that my smiling civility, my niceness, and my friendliness are almost always returned in kind to me.

Civility, I think, is that approach to living which brings out the best in us. Incivility, on the other hand, brings out the beast in us.

That's enough for my first installment about civility. Stay tuned for later installments ....

Tuesday, November 06, 2018


It's Election Day today! Please, if you are a registered voter and have not done so already, go vote!

This front-page article in today's Washington Post says there are usually huge numbers of "nonvoters" in America's midterm elections. This year, those who don't show up to vote may be deciding America's future, for better or for worse.

If you are reading this, you may already know I'm in favor of liberal Democrats. You may not feel the same way. That's OK! I still urge you to go vote!

You may feel put off by the way politics is being conducted these days, with both sides treating opponents as if they were in league with the devil. I agree! All the poisonous hatefulness in politics today is truly ugly! And you know what? It's happening because every politician is anxious to draw maximum support from his or her "base." That's because anyone who is outside one of the two parties' political "bases" may not even vote at all. So why even try to appeal to him or her?

Pardon my French, but this kind of polarization sucks!

And if ugly political polarization is one of the reasons you don't feel inclined to vote, your not going to the polls on Election Day today is actually going to accentuate the ugly polarization!

Depending on where you live in the United States, your vote actually could make a big difference as to who wins certain races. This is so even though a great many nonvoters will tell you they believe their vote makes no difference at all!

This year there are 35 seats in the U.S. Senate up for grabs. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website says there's a one-in-five chance that the Democrats will win control of the Senate:

That is, there's a one-in-five chance that this year's election will wind up putting a total of at least 51 Democrats in the 100-member U.S. Senate next year. Right now, the Democrats (including the two Independent senators who "caucus" with them) have 49 seats, and the Republicans are in the majority at 51 seats.

So expert forecaster Nate Silver is predicting that there is a one-in-five chance that the Democrats will pick up a net gain of at least two Senate seats, and thereby win control of the Senate.

Mr. Silver believes there are two Senate races that are toss-ups — the one in Missouri and the one in Nevada:

In Missouri, incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, is pitted against Republican Josh Hawley in a super-tight race. In Nevada, incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller is pitted against Democratic challenger Jacky Rosen in another race that is super-tight.

Mr. Silver believes those two states are among the states that are most likely to decide which party controls the Senate next year:

Each of those two states — Nevada and Missouri — has over a 10-percent chance of being the "tipping point" which determines which party controls the U.S. Senate. In Nevada alone, the "voter power index" is the third largest of all the states', meaning there is a high "relative likelihood" that any particular individual voter in Nevada will determine the majority party in the Senate!

(And notice that the "voter power index" in top-ranked North Dakota is an ultra-high 26.3, meaning that North Dakotans' decisions whether or not to go to the polls today may have a huge impact on our country's future.)

If Nevada and Missouri both go for their Democratic Senate hopefuls, and if the Democrats hold onto their current leads in 25 other states, there would wind up being exactly 50 Democrats (including two Independents) in the Senate next year. There would be exactly 50 Republicans. The Senate would be evenly split. Vice President Pence, a Republican, would break any tie votes that occur.

To repeat: there is a pretty fair chance that the Senate could wind up being divided 50-50 next year, which means that any Senate vote that strictly follows party lines would have the tie broken by Vice President Pence.

So I'm saying that everything hangs in the balance today, Election Day 2018. Our political system is so close to being exactly evenly divided that America's so-called "nonvoters" who decide to actually go vote today may decide our country's future. So go vote!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Identity Politics

Identity Politics,

I suppose I'm lucky in that I don't have any notable "identity." By that I mean than none of my demographic attributes constitute paplable fodder for so-called "identity politics." I am

  • White
  • Male
  • Heterosexual
  • Of an ethnic background that is a mix of English, Scots, and Scots-Irish
  • A native English speaker
  • A native-born American citizen
  • Middle or even upper-middle in socioeconomic class
  • A graduate of a good university, Georgetown
  • Suburban

It's true that I am also

  • Over 70 years of age, and so I might conceivably someday find myself a victim of ageism (though I've never run into any such thing in my own actual life)
  • Catholic (as a convert from Protestantism), though I've never been discriminated against because of my faith (or lack thereof)
  • Medically disabled, though not obviously so to other people; I've never encountered any sort of discrimination because of health problems

So my voting and political leanings are not informed by any personal resentment against any sort of discrimination against what I seem to represent in the eyes of others. Political pundits have been opining for decades, however, that many American voters are persuaded by identity politics. Generally speaking, this has been the central organizing principle of the voting coalition that in recent decades has put Democrats into office instead of Republicans.

But in 2016, or so the story goes, that stopped working for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Though she outpolled Donald Trump among such groups as African Americans, Latinos, and highly educated white women, President Trump dominated among white working-class voters, especially men. Clinton could not draw enough votes among her target identity groups to overcome Trump's electoral advantages in key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Now we are about to have an off-year election in which, pundits are saying, there could be a "blue wave" that will help the Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as sell as in state governorships and other state and local elections. An unusually large number of Democratic office seekers this year are women, and women voters (especially those with college degrees) are one of the key identity groups that Democrats think they need major support from if they are to produce a "blue wave" in 2018.


Carlos Lozada,
Washington Post
But book reviewer Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post has just reviewed a whole slew of books that display various attitudes, often conflicting ones, about identity politics. "Show me your identification.
Identity politics may divide us. But ultimately we can’t unite without it," Lozada's essay, is tremendously worth reading.

I admit, though, that after I read it, I found myself quite dubious about the basic legitimacy of identity politics. And yet ... the main takeaway from the Lozada article is just the opposite: that identity politics can ultimately rescue us from the political polarization we see today — and that identity politics itself has contributed mightily to during the last several decades.

I will leave it to you readers of this blog post to think about the various attitudes toward identity politics which Lozada mentions in his article. What you take away from Lozada's discussion is apt to differ from his own expressed attitudes, as well as from the one I am myself about to express.


The one I would like to express here has to do with enmity. To me, keying on group identity in politics is keying on the enmity that group members can be expected to have toward those "on the other side." If I were black, for instance, I might feel enmity toward (a) all whites, or (b) just those whites who "hate" me because of my color.

If I were gay, I might feel a visceral enmity toward homophobes.

As a male of the species, I admit to sometimes entertaining misogynistic thoughts, as if feminists were an enemy.

If I were poor, I might see the top "one percent" as enemies.

Pundits talk about the rise of "tribalism" today. When we engage in identity politics, I'd say we are engaging in tribalism. Up with the tribes we personally identify as being members of, down with the enemies of those tribes!


But Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew 5:43-48:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It was those verses that dominated my own reaction to Lozada's article and to the attitudes toward identity politics he muses upon. Why did Jesus say "love your enemies," I wondered, instead of just making a blanket adjuration to "love everybody"? I think his choice of words represents the perhaps sad fact that we are all, including myself, prone to identifying our supposed "enemies" and then striving to wipe them out in some literal or metaphorical way. We want to "see them dead" — if not necessarily physically, then in terms of other, more abstract demises that we first envision and then strive to impose on them.

In short, we are all basically tribal creatures. This fact is somewhat offset by the fact that we are notably civilized, and many of us inherit our culture from a religious tradition which includes what Jesus so radically taught at Matthew 5:43-48.


At this point in my own personal musings about identity politics as I read the Lozada article, I simply had to give up trying to mesh the whole approach to identity politics with the "love your enemies" idea that Jesus taught. I realized that my own religious faith is too faint, my own personal wisdom too weak, to really and truly be able to fully live by such words as these, uttered by Martin Luther King:

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.


We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

So I admit it: my own political orientation in favor of Democrats over Republicans and Trump haters over Trump supporters is tinged with, yes, enmity and tribalism. If my faith in my supposed religion — Catholic Christianity — were stronger, I'm sure I would at this point have to ask everyone to pray for my soul, and for their own souls as well.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Give 'Em Ten!

Brett Kavanaugh being sworn
in as a Supreme Court Justice
We Democrats just lost our bid to keep Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's controversial nominee for an open Supreme Court seat, from gaining approval by an ultra-narrow Senate vote of 50-48. Trump might get at least one more chance to choose a member of the Supreme Court, especially if he gets re-elected in 2020. From a Democratic perspective, that would be a huge disaster.

In about a month, on Tuesday, November 6, Americans will go to the polls to elect members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as state governors and legislators. I see the U.S. Senate races as the most crucial. If Democrats can gain a Senate majority, what happened with the Kavanaugh nomination can't recur, since all U.S. Supreme Court nominees must gain the votes of a majority of U.S. Senators or their nominations are defeated.

Right now, there are 51 Republican members of the U.S. Senate. The Democrats (including two Independents who caucus with them) number 49. If the Democrats can pick up just two more seats, they will hold a Senate majority.


Real Clear Politics is a website that tries to project election winners based on current polling. Take a look at this Real Clear Politics (RCP) Senate map. As of today, Monday, October 8, it shows that seven of this year's Senate races are presently considered tossups:

  • AZ: Open (R)
  • FL: Nelson (D)
  • IN: Donnelly (D)
  • MO: McCaskill (D)
  • MT: Tester (D)
  • NV: Heller (R)
  • TN: Open (R)

Four of the tossup races have Democratic incumbents: Nelson of Florida; Donnelly of Indiana; McCaskill of Missouri; and Tester of Montana. Two now have GOP incumbents who occupy "open" seats with no incumbent running in 2018: Arizona and Tennessee. And one of the tossups has a Republican incumbent who is running again: Heller of Nevada.

If Democrats Nelson, Donnelly, McCaskill, and Tester all win re-election, and if two of the three tossup states that now are "open" or have a GOP incumbent switch to electing a Democrat, the likelihood is that there would be 49 Republicans in the new Senate and 51 Democrats or Independents who vote Democratic. In other words, we Democrats are now just two seats away from controlling a majority of the seats in the U.S. Senate.

Yesterday I decided to put my money where my mouth is. I donated $10 to each of the Democrats running for the Senate in the seven RCP tossup states.

To be quite precise, I also donated $10 to the Democratic opponent of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz: a man whose name is Beto O'Rourke. As of yesterday, the Cruz-O'Rourke race was considered a tossup, though today it's listed as leaning toward Cruz. Furthermore, I donated $10 to Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat whose race in North Dakota was until very recently categorized as a tossup.

How did I accomplish my donations? Simple. Each race listed on the Real Clear Politics page has a clickable link. Click on it, and you'll see a page devoted to the Senate race in that particular state. Each candidate has a photo on the page under which there's a link to his or her campaign site. For example, in the Montana Senate race, Democrat Jon Tester's campaign site is here.

Each campaign site contains a prominently displayed link with a title such as "Contribute" or "Donate." That's what you click on. You'll then see a page that allows you to specify a credit card and an amount. As you make your contribution, keep firmly in mind that you do not have to sign up to join any particular political organization, and you do not need make your contribution more than just a one-time gift.

Political contributions of this type are not tax-deductible, by the way. But I'm hoping you'll agree with me that they are an excellent way to help make the country more small-d democratic ... and also a fine way to help make it more Big-D Democratic!

If you hope for a Democratic "blue wave" election in 2018, as do I, I encourage you to do as I just did: pick out whichever Senate candidates whose races you consider the most crucial this year, and in each case "give 'em $10"!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Remembering President Truman

President Truman
It's hard for me to remember the first U.S. president of my lifetime, Harry S. Truman, who occupied the Oval Office from April 12, 1945, to January 20, 1953. In January 1953, I was only six years old.

Truman came to be president because he was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice president. FDR died suddenly not long after, in January 1945, being inaugurated for his fourth (!) term in office. After having been elected for a first term in 1932, Roosevelt had shepherded America through the Great Depression and then ushered us into World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which he called "a date that will live in infamy" in his December 8 speech to Congress and the nation.

Our main allies during the long, devastating war against Nazi Germany, under Adolf Hitler, and Imperial Japan, under Emperor Hirohito, were two: Great Britain and Soviet Russia. Britain's leader was its redoubtable prime minister, Winston Churchill. The U.S.S.R. was under the thumb of a communist dictator, Marshal Josef Stalin. Also on the side of the Germans and Japanese, in what was termed the Axis Powers, was Italy under the dictatorship of "Il Duce," Benito Mussolini. Early in the war, Paris had fallen to German guns, after which General George de Gaulle became the leader of the "Free French" in exile. In China, meanwhile, General Chiang Kai-shek had long been his country's dictator when his capital city, Nanking, fell to Japanese massacre in December 1937.

Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Mussolini, de Gaulle, Hirohito, Chiang Kai-shek: all were names to be conjured with by journalists and historians of the times. Truman: not so much.

Yet President Truman turned out to be as staunch and significant as any of those men during his crucial first four months in office, from April through July 1945. So says A.J. Baime, author of The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World. Until becoming the surprise selection of FDR as his new vice president in 1944, Truman had been the junior senator from Missouri. His name and face were virtually unknown to the American public. In fact, before the 1944 campaign, Truman had met Roosevelt only casually, once or twice in the Oval Office. Roosevelt told his advisers while they were conferring over the choice of a running mate, that he, Roosevelt, scarcely remembered Truman.

Roosevelt was already so deathly ill by January 1945 that he was forced to take his last oath of office in the Rose Garden of the White House, instead of at the U.S. Capitol. Truman, who had taken his vice presidential oath there and then as well, knew he was but a heartbeat away from the presidency, and it scared the dickens out of him. He seriously doubted he was made of the right stuff to be president.

But he could do what needed to be done, as Baime attests. The blurb about the book at says:

The first four months of Truman’s administration saw the founding of the United Nations, the fall of Berlin, victory at Okinawa, firebombings of Tokyo, the first atomic explosion, the Nazi surrender, the liberation of concentration camps, the mass starvation of Europe, the Potsdam Conference, the controversial decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Imperial Japan, and finally, the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold War. No other president had ever faced so much in such a short period of time.

Truman, a Democrat, would narrowly win re-election in 1948 in a race whose early results incorrectly had him losing to Republican Thomas Dewey:

After serving four more years in the White House, Truman chose not to run for another term. He was content to retire with his wife Bess to their old home in Missouri, as the World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower took the reins as the new Republican president. At the time he retired, Truman was considered one of the most unpopular chief executives in history, with a job approval rating of only 22% in the Gallup Poll of February 1952. Yet, according to Wikipedia,

U.S. public feeling towards Truman grew steadily warmer with the passing years; as early as 1962, a poll of 75 historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ranked Truman among the "near great" presidents. The period following his death [in 1972] consolidated a partial rehabilitation of his legacy among both historians and members of the public.

The Accidental President helps us understand both why Truman was so under-appreciated during his lifetime and why he he has become, in retrospect, one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

R.I.P. Aretha!

Aretha Franklin, who died about a week ago at the age of 76, was laid to rest yesterday. Her funeral was held at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, the city in which she had been raised.

Aretha revolutionized popular music back in the late 1960s with the unique sound of her soaring, soulful voice. Here's one of her signature songs, "Respect":

Her funeral service lasted over eight hours. The musical tributes alone took over two hours:

Aretha's first Top Ten record, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," came in 1967. She had been trying for a hit single for seven years, since 1960. Before she switched to secular music, she'd been a gospel singer. Her secular music never lost the gospel sound. The same could be said of another great singer of that time, Ray Charles.

Aretha was the Queen of Soul, a.k.a. "Lady Soul." The term "soul music" came to the fore in the mid-1960s, replacing (temporarily) the term "rhythm and blues." It was in Aretha's music that I, as a 20-year-old middle-class white guy, came to understand what "soul" meant.

In the context of today's rancid politics, Aretha's eight-hour funeral was a political statement. I invite you to think of it as such!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Whither Urbanity?

Moderator John Daly
Dorothy Kilgallen,
Fred Allen, Arlene Francis,
Bennett Cerf
I've been binge-watching an old television game show from the 1950s-1970s, "What's My Line." It's the cream of the crop of those old panel-type shows in which well-known celebrities try to guess something — in this case, the unusual line of work of a contestant (decorously called a "challenger.")

The master of ceremonies of the Sunday night program was John Daly, who on weeknights on another network (ABC, not CBS) was the anchorman of the nightly news. The panelists, seated left to right, were usually:

  • Dorothy Kilgallen, who wrote the "Voice of Broadway" column for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal-American
  • Fred Allen, whose mordant-yet-gentle wit had been the raison d'ĂȘtre of the popular "Allen's Alley" program, the top-rated radio show of 1946-47
  • Arlene Francis, a pioneer for women on television, who from 1954-57 was host and editor-in-chief of "Home," NBC's hour-long daytime magazine program
  • Bennett Cerf, whose Random House publishing firm published such writers as William Faulkner, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, James Michener, Truman Capote, Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, and many others.

Each challenger in turn was called by Mr. Daly to "come in and sign in, please." He or she did so on a small chalkboard, then walked by the panel shaking hands with each panelist in turn. If the challenger was female, Mr. Cerf and Mr. Allen would rise to shake hands, at which point you could easily see the men were wearing tuxedos. (The women panelists would dress as for a fancy cocktail party.) Once seated next to Mr. Daly, the challenger would field yes-or-no questions from the panelists concerning his or her occupation or profession. Each "no" answer would earn the challenger the vast sum of $5. If the total mounted to $50, the challenger would have stumped the panel, and the game was over. But the panel maintained a .750 batting average over the course of time, guessing the line of work correctly 3 out of 4 times.

The centerpiece of each episode was a "mystery guest." He, she, or sometimes they would appear on the stage only after Mr. Daly had instructed the panel to don blindfolds, since the guest or guests would be instantly recognizable to them (and was instantly recognized by the studio and at-home audience.)

Barbra Streisand as a "mystery guest"
on "What's My Line" in 1964

"What's My Line" was fun not just because the guess-the-occupation or -identity premise was interesting, but also because the moderator and panelists were so urbane, witty, and cosmopolitan. They were bastions of civility with a capital "C." They were unflappably polite, supremely polished, ever-decorous. Though there was a lot of good-natured ribbing, there was never any skewering, any snark, any snideness. It was okay back then for the male panelists to comment (in a gracious way) on how pretty certain of the women challengers were, and the female panelists would not hesitate to extol the handsomeness or ruggedness of certain of the male challengers — this, although all the panelists were well known to be happily married to people who were likewise in the upper crust of the New York social and entertainment world. (In fact, Arlene Francis's husband, actor Martin Gabel, was often a guest panelist on the show.)

It was a show from a more relaxed, happier time, I think — well before all the venom, vituperation, coarseness, and in-your-face sexuality we witness today in our social media and in our popular entertainments.