Those Who Don’t Know History are Doomed to Lose Money on “Jeopardy!”

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The evening game show Jeopardy! is a loose tradition in our family, encompassing three generations. My wife and I watch it faithfully, our son recently tested to compete, and my 93-year-old mom shocked me one night when, out of the blue, she called to breathlessly announce she’d gotten five answers correct. (God love her.)

Unlike most TV game shows, Jeopardy! is less about luck than skill and knowledge. On a recent show, there was a category about European history. One category answer was (WHAT IS) THE MAGINOT LINE?*

Only one of the three contestants got it right. He was Canadian. The other two were Americans.

Fear not, I won’t play the liberal parlor game of bashing Americans and extolling Canadians (as much as I like maple leaf country). Rather, I want to highlight that Americans today, as the Sam Cooke song goes, “Don’t know much about history.” And I will also add literature to history.

I use Jeopardy! as my proof positive because the contestants represent a healthy cross-section of educated people across America. Over many years of watching the show, I’ve noticed they do OK with subjects like science and math, and even better with technology, current affairs, and general trivia. And, like hungry canines, they gobble up modern TV and movies.

alex trebek

If Alex Trebek says “Oh no” for the Daily Double, it’s not only a wrong guess, but probably a dumb guess.

But questions concerning historical subjects prior to, say, the year 1990—and which haven’t been dramatized in a popular Hollywood movie—often result in ringing silence. This includes questions about Americans’ own history, to the embarrassment of Yanks like me.** Beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (a Canadian-American, and who recently startled fans by revealing he has pancreatic cancer) has also noted these difficulties with historical topics.

Jeopardy! contestants tend to lean toward eggheadedness. Therefore, if they struggle with history, one can only imagine how vacant Wheel of Fortune contestants might be.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough (The Johnstown Flood, Truman, John Adams, 1776) has also expressed dismay. A few years ago, after giving a talk at a prestigious university in the U.S., he was approached by a young co-ed who said “Mr. McCullough, until your talk, I never knew where the Thirteen Colonies were located!”

Since history is joined at the hip with geography, knowledge of this subject also seems to elude many Americans. I once volunteered for a local GED tutoring program. One of the other volunteers was a full-time, accredited high school teacher. One evening, I mentioned I’d just returned from running a marathon in Vermont, and she asked me where Vermont was.

(To her credit, though, she was a whizz at algebra and geometry. She also had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen shamrock.)

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David McCullough, dean of popular histories

Recent statistics show that the U.S. is ill-prepared to remain a global leader through the 21st century. A 2015 Pew Research Center study of 71 countries ranks America 38th in math, and 24th in science, based on worldwide scores of 15-year-old students. Americans’ reading and foreign language skills are also extremely low. Paradoxically, though, more Americans than ever are entering the workforce with a minimum bachelor’s degree.

This discrepancy between low educational scores and a plethora of university degrees tells me that, while high schools may be handing out diplomas like Tootsie Rolls, and colleges are spitting out graduates while adding decimal places to their tuition figures, there’s not much actual education going on. One-dimensional specialization, vocational training, and earning capability, perhaps. But not education. It doesn’t help that university history curriculums include fluff elective classes like “History of Rock and Roll 101.” (I speak from experience, having two kids who wasted our money on this cotton candy.)STEM-Logo

While I applaud leaders like ex-President Obama, who made science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education funding a priority, I’m concerned that other subjects are falling by the wayside. The inference, I think, is that the liberal arts—which include history as well as social and physical sciences, geography, philosophy, English, and creative arts—are “soft” subjects, and aren’t as important. In other words, they won’t insure America’s economic and military dominance. I guess the thinking is that we can accept slipping behind western Europe, and now even Taiwan, regarding education, health care, and environment, as long as we still have a powerful Wall Street and Pentagon.

I may lack certain education and research credentials, but my “man-on-the-street” observation tells me that de-emphasizing a well-rounded education is not only misguided, but also dangerous. I won’t go into the stick-figure political leaders Americans are now electing. I will say, however, that philosopher George Santayana was on the mark with his aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”map_glasses

Unless America returns to its desk from recess and determines that funding education is more crucial than funding an irresponsible notion like a “Space Force,” and schools return to emphasizing a full and healthy course diet—a diet that includes the dreaded vegetable known as History—we will continue to replicate our historical errors, and creep further into a global village version of Skid Row.

And with the handheld computer now a far more insidious distraction and time-waster than television ever was, even the most qualified and dedicated teacher faces an ominous fortification of apathy and indifference.

______________

* The Maginot Line was a line of French fortifications constructed after World War I and intended to thwart a possible future invasion by Germany. As we now know, it didn’t work. But at least the French tried.

** To avert charges of hypocrisy, Mister Know-it-all here had two good history teachers who probably discussed the Maginot Line many years ago. But Mister Know-it-all forgot about it, and his Jeopardy! clicker remained inactive. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Kozub. But, like the French, I try.

maginot line

A Sort-Of Victory for Colin Kaepernick

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On Friday it was announced that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid settled out of court with the National Football League (NFL) for an undisclosed amount of money.

Kaepernick and Reid had sued the NFL for blackballing them—colluding to keep them unemployed—because in 2016 they kneeled for the U.S. national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”) before NFL football games, to protest police brutality against blacks. Their actions inspired a wave of other protests throughout the league.

Reid eventually signed with the Carolina Panthers, but the more visible Kaepernick is still unemployed in football.

***

On the one hand, the settlement is a capitulation: Kaepernick is settling for a lesser heap of cash than he would get if the case had been ruled in his favor. Also, the NFL avoids an admittance of guilt, and the embarrassment of details (revealing emails, harmful testimonies) that would otherwise go public.

Scott Cunningham_Getty Images

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

On the other hand, “Kap” achieved something rare: he was able to administer a black eye to a multi-billion dollar corporation (unlike fellow NFL QB Tom Brady with Deflategate), and he’ll continue to be an icon and standard bearer of social consciousness in sports. Like boxer Muhammed Ali and Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, his stature will only grow in coming years (assuming he steers clear of #MeToo).

Kaepernick has already garnered a multi-year endorsement from Nike, which will only get sweeter. It’s also still possible that a team owner might grow a backbone and sign him to a contract (the Panthers owner, perhaps?).

Beyond this are the damning depositions by league owners Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys) and Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins), who claimed that a certain pubescent, pontificating president’s meddling forced a cowed NFL into making a rule change: players are now required to stand for the anthem. (longitudes: are clenched fists and bowed heads still permitted, or will prohibition of these gestures also now be added to contracts?)

The president, well-known in reality television circles for his enthusiastic embrace of firing employees, not only went on record urging the firing of players who protest during the anthem, but went so far as threatening a change in “tax law” to penalize teams who don’t crack down. Legal experts are now analyzing possible “government infringement upon players’ First Amendment rights.”

While Herr Donald needs little assistance in damning his own legacy, the NFL’s image has only further eroded with its blackballing and government-dictated rule changes.  It comes after a successful $1 billion suit by former players over concussion-related injuries that the league had, for years, denied…monies which are, reputedly, still unpaid.

Kap, longitudes is with you. Happy President’s Day.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

United States of Entertainment

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Just an update to my previous article on 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s petition to the Supreme Court (see Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown): Our less-than-Supreme Court has decided it will not hear her case. This means that companies like FX Networks are permitted to transform living people in an untruthful manner in their pursuit of profit, under First Amendment freedom protection. Essentially, Miss de Havilland’s fight for her freedom from character slander is trumped by the right of the people to be entertained, and the right of corporations to profit off that entertainment.

I wonder what James Madison is thinking.

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(Tony Auth, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Melting Pots and Swamps

President Obama sits down for beer with Harvard scholar Gates, police Sergeant Crowley and Vice President Biden in Rose Garden

A few weeks ago, I was bouncing around WordPress, which is my social medium of choice these days…my internet coffee klatch. I plopped “old movies” into the search box. I like old movies, even the black-and-white ones that have newspaper headlines spinning toward you, and where women are “dames” and the actors use cigarettes as fashion accessories.

Several article titles came up, and one in particular caught my eye: reviews of the 1937 and 1954 film versions of the acclaimed A Star is Born (also filmed in 1976, and again this year).

“Cool! Gotta read this,” I thought.

I’d seen the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason. It’s about a young singer-actress whose star is rising, and whose actor-husband is descending into alcoholism, career suicide, and eventual real suicide. It’s a wrenching story, as well as an awesome musical.

And the WordPress article was also great. This reviewer didn’t just fling around the adjectives “awesome” and “great” …like I did above. She had a robust vocabulary, which is saying something in these days of tweets, texts, emails, and emoticons. She also went into revealing detail about infrequently discussed film topics, like the importance of supporting actors and the use of Technicolor.

She also stated that the 1954 film used “blackface.” Blackface is a popular topic now, ever since the firing of TV personality Megyn Kelly. For younger readers, or those who might live in Indiana, blackface was the practice of white entertainers painting their faces black and pretending to be African-American. The 1920s Jazz Age entertainer Al Jolson was the most well-known practitioner. By the latter 20th century, the practice had fallen out of favor, and is today considered insensitive, with many calling it racist.

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Al Jolson

Anyway, the WordPress reviewer accused the film of having—and I quote verbatim—an “appalling display of racism.” Pretty severe accusation. I’d seen the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and I didn’t remember anything approaching racism. So, I clicked the hyperlink she conveniently provided, which took me to a YouTube clip of Dorothy (Judy Garland) dancing to and singing George Gershwin’s classic “Swanee,” which Jolson had made famous. Although Garland had a chorus of African-American dancers behind her, she was not wearing blackface. Neither was anyone else in the clip…at least, that my strained, macular-degenerative eyes could make out. I didn’t see anything that might remotely be construed as being racist.

I thought, How can a scene with a singer-actress (Garland), portraying a singer-actress (Vicki Lester), who performs a legendary 1950s rendition of a popular song, written in 1919, that was loosely based on a song from the 1850s, be considered an “appalling display of racism”? Is it because the song was once done by a white cat wearing blackface? Isn’t that a sociological and chronological leap? Would Rosa Parks have considered Garland’s innocent dance number racist?

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Judy Garland, singing and dancing in “A Star is Born”

Controversy is catnip. So, I submitted a reader comment at the bottom of the article. First, I praised the reviewer for her perceptive and well-written piece. Then, I politely took issue with her claim that inclusion of “Swanee” in the movie was racist, and that the movie included blackface. I went into some junk about Al Jolson, which was probably too much information. But I think I stayed close to topic, and was respectful. In other words, I wasn’t my usual arrogant prick.

I’m guessing that the writer, who looked fairly young, felt compelled to join the “shaming” chorus that inevitably accompanies our confused country’s frequent identity crises. Although, it’s possible I’m wrong on all this. Maybe I’m a throwback dance number myself, and displaying my own racial insensitivity. Could be I’m a flip-flopper. After all, I’m one who despises the football team nickname “Redskins” (at one time a derogatory term for Native Americans) and supports warehousing of certain inanimate Confederates. But I was anxious to at least hear her viewpoint.

However…she didn’t publish my comment. I was bummed.

Which brings me to this essay’s title. While there are a lot of negatives to instant communication and social media—silliness, egotism, stupidity, rudeness, hostility, encouragement of sloth, real “fake news,” fake “fake news,” bad English, five-letter words beginning with ‘T’—there are a few positives. One of them is strangers of different backgrounds—our vaunted “melting pot”—being able to share an ecosystem of different ideas, which is a characteristic of democracies. Diversity doesn’t just imply race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality, it also means diversity of thoughts and opinions. But if one party decides there will be lotsa give, but no take, then the melting pot becomes a putrid swamp. Nobody changes, nobody grows.

I’m used to this roaring silence from my elected representatives. But not from a real person.

I would have loved to hash it out with this writer…to participate in a sort of internet “beer summit,” and eventually arrive at a safe haven of consensus after running up the bar tab with ex-President Obama. Perhaps she’d have revealed to me my “whiteness” or “maleness.” Maybe she could have explained to this vintage man what she meant by her being an unapologetic “SJW.” (Does anyone know what an SJW is? I’m assuming it’s an acronym describing her marital status, race, and gender. Like I said, I’m a vintage man, and acronyms trouble me.)

Maybe I could have explained my liberal proclivities, to assure her that, despite our disagreement on this subject, I’m still not one of them. A few pejoratives directed at the hemorrhoid currently in the White House would surely have had us clinking our beer glasses (to Obama’s and sub-bartender Joe Biden’s delight).

Maybe I could have politely explained my theory of pulling back too far on the bowstring, which causes the archer to not only miss the bullseye, but overshoot the entire target. Which can create an ugly backlash like what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, or at the polls in November 2016.

Alas, I didn’t get the opportunity. No beer summit with Obama and Biden. So much for the free exchange of ideas I anticipated.

Speaking of free exchange of ideas, does anyone care to, um, add ripples to my putrid swamp with a comment? As tough-guy actor Robert Conrad used to say in those battery commercials: “C’mon. I dare ya.”

Beer_summit_cheers

Peace, brother.

Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

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Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

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Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

Friends of Shoreham Fort

Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.

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Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.

***

While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

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Photo by Mel Zimmer

 

 

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—More Unraveling

how democracies die

Longtime readers of this blog probably know that I lean leftward politically. So maybe I should offer a disclaimer now: my intention here isn’t to “stab” Republicans and conservatives. (I’m a middle-aged white male, so most of my peers and friends—those few that I have—are Republicans.  If that means anything.)

But I’m offering a synopsis of a book.  Also, I’ve never subscribed to today’s fashionable tendency toward “equalization” in all things, especially regarding political parties.  Political parties exist because their members differ on the issues, and they often differ radically. And while they share certain behaviors, in many ways they also behave differently.  And I don’t think this can be disputed.

History has shown numerous examples of political parties around the globe that cease to exist because they overextended themselves.

How Democracies Die illustrates how and why the Republican Party has shifted so far to the political fringe, much more so than the Democratic Party, and I touched on this in my last post. In this post, I’ll briefly list more examples of why authors Levitsky and Ziblatt feel both parties have abandoned their roles as democratic gatekeepers, yet conservative Republicans have far exceeded Democrats in an “unraveling” of democracy in the United States.

2000 Presidential Election: a U.S. presidential election was determined, not by voters, but by a court, when the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 conservative opinion) to cease a recount of votes in a too-close-to-call election in the state of Florida.  The end of the vote recount resulted in a narrow Electoral College victory by Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore (Gore won the popular vote).

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Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh (photo Huffington Post)

Tom DeLay and Karl Rove: while Bush promised to be a bipartisan president, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reportedly told him “’We don’t work with Democrats. There’ll be none of that uniter-divider stuff.’” Bush’s political consultant, another Texan named Karl Rove, pushed Bush to govern “hard to the right.”

Senate Democrats: Democrats responded to the Bush presidency’s hard-right governing by “routinely filibustering Bush proposals they opposed” and rejecting or ignoring Bush’s judicial nominations. The 110th Congress filibustered “an all-time high of 139—nearly double that of even the Clinton years.” Later, during the Obama presidency, Senate Democrats responded to Republicans’ obstructionism of a Dem president by voting for a so-called “nuclear option” that eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Obama himself engaged in norm-breaking with unilateral executive actions in the face of “an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.”

House Republicans: “If Democrats eschewed forbearance to obstruct the president (Bush), Republicans did so in order to protect him.” The Republican House of Representatives essentially abandoned the practice of “regular order” which allowed minority parties to amend legislation, and began introducing bills under “closed rules.” The authors point out that the GOP-ruled House “conducted 140 hours of sworn testimony investigating whether President Clinton had abused the White House Christmas card list,” yet didn’t once subpoena the Bush White House, even during the controversial Iraq War.

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Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (photo AP News)

State redistricting: the longstanding norm of state redistricting every ten years to maintain equal populations was shattered by Texas Republicans (led by DeLay) when, in 2003, they gerrymandered in order to isolate black and Latino voters and ensure Democratic defeat. It worked. “Six Texas congressional seats changed hands from Democrats to Republicans in 2004, helping to preserve Republican control of the House.” Racial gerrymandering by Republicans continues today, most notably in the state of North Carolina, which contains what one NC pastor called “apartheid voting districts.” It worked there, too. In 2012, although more Democrats than Republicans cast votes statewide, nine of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats were won by Republicans.

Conservative media: during the Clinton years, “the emergence of Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities—what political commentator (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum calls the ‘conservative entertainment complex’—radicalized conservative voters, to the benefit of ideologically extreme candidates.” While the authors give Bush credit for not questioning his Democratic rivals’ patriotism during anti-Muslim hysteria following 911, they point out this was not the case with conservative commentators. “Commentators began at times to link Democrats to Al Qaeda—as Rush Limbaugh did in 2006, when he accused Senator Patrick Leahy of ‘taking up arms for Al Qaeda’ after Leahy probed Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito on the Bush administration’s use of torture.”

Conservative writer Ann Coulter joined the hue and cry with books featuring simplistic and melodramatic titles that portrayed Democrats and liberals as an existential threat: Slander, Treason, and Guilty. Not satisfied with these histrionics, she employed religion to emphasize her point: Godless and Demonic.

The authors say this “right-wing media ecosystem” reached a watershed with Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. He was cast, by Fox News and others, as “Marxist, anti-American, and secretly Muslim” and linked with terrorists like Chicago professor and ex-Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, because Ayers had hosted a gathering for Obama in 1995. Fox News filled its programming with “at least sixty-one different episodes during (Obama’s) 2008 campaign” discussing the Ayers story.

McConnell (Reuters)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (photo Reuters)

Levitsky and Ziblatt say that the most disturbing aspect of this “right-wing media ecosystem” isn’t so much the extremism of the media itself, but its enormous popularity amongst right-leaning voters, and that its influence has, more now than ever before, seeped into the words and actions of powerful and influential Republican politicians:

Newt Gingrich: Obama is “the first anti-American president.”

Tom DeLay: “…unless Obama proves me wrong, he’s a Marxist.”

Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King: Obama is “anti-American” and will lead America into “totalitarian dictatorship.”

Sarah Palin: Obama has been “palling around with terrorists.”  (Words that elicit, from her fawning crowds, cries of “Treason!,” “Terrorist!,” and even “Kill him!”)

Rudy Giuliani: “I do not believe that the president (Obama) loves America.”

Ted Cruz: Obama is a “threat to the rule of law.”

Donald Trump: “I have people who have been studying (Obama’s not being born in America).”

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has admitted that “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.”

The combination of slanted conservative media coverage (read: propaganda) and reckless statements by conservative political leaders has been shown to profoundly effect voters:

According to a 2011 Fox News poll, 37 percent of Republicans believed that President Obama was not born in the United States, and 63 percent said they had some doubts about his origins. Forty-three percent of Republicans reported believing he was a Muslim in a CNN/ORC poll, and a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Republicans believed President Obama favored the interests of Muslims over those of other religions.

Even during a time of national crisis, such as the 2008 recession, Republican leaders refused to exercise bipartisanship. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, immediately following Obama’s election, the “single most important thing we want to achieve (in the Senate) is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

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Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (with President Obama)

And after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, 2016, the GOP-ruled Senate refused to hold nomination hearings for Obama’s replacement choice, Merrick Garland—a moderate with more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history—claiming it was too close to the November presidential election. It was an unprecedented act, yet another partisan maneuver to give Republicans an edge, this time to maintain a 5-4 conservative majority on the Court.  And it worked. Republican Donald Trump was elected, he nominated conservative Neil Gorsuch, and Gorsuch was confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.

***

Recall that, at one time in America, the two major parties were able to restrict extremists, such as Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and John Birch Society leaders, to the fringes of the political landscape. Political gatekeeping, mutual toleration, institutional forbearance, and a respect for norms and unwritten rules were the order of the day. Political leaders exhibited moderation, restraint, and civility (in varying degrees).

By the election of 2016, however, “open attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy (and later, Hillary Clinton’s) were carried out by leading national politicians.” Also recall that such questioning of the legitimacy of one’s opponent is one hallmark of democracies that have crumbled elsewhere in the world. This disturbing trend has allied itself with an almost total abdication of institutional forbearance, as exemplified by the Senate’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination.

Enter Donald Trump.

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—The Unraveling

how democracies die

Young people today might have difficulty with this: at one time in America, the two main political parties shared similarities, and actually showed civility to one another.

As the late, great Lou Reed once sang, “Those were different times.”

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, describe an America in which many conservatives actually voted Democratic, and many liberals actually voted Republican. The conservative South voted solidly Democrat, a tradition that dated to Reconstruction. And the urban Northeast was populated by fiscal conservatives, many of whom were fairly liberal on social issues. (My dad was one of them.) And—hard to believe, now—but white evangelical Protestants actually leaned Democratic.

This era encompassed 100 years of American history. But there was a dirty caveat to this calm bipartisanship: African-Americans were excluded from the democratic process.

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which brought black citizens into that process, a sea change occurred in American politics. Previously, heterogeneity characterized both parties. Whereas they divided on the issues of taxes, federal spending, government regulation, and unions, they did agree on race. But with these two Congressional acts, the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights, while the Republican Party became the party of a white status quo.

“In the decades that followed, southern white migration to the Republican Party quickened. The racial appeals of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and, later on, Ronald Reagan’s coded messages about race communicated to voters that the GOP was the home for white racial conservatives.”

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Newt Gingrich in 1979 (AP Photo)

And while this was occurring, blacks (and, later, other minority groups) not surprisingly supported the party that emphasized human rights.

This is significant, because “for the first time in nearly a century, partisanship and ideology converged.” (The bold type is mine.) Today, the two parties are divided not only by policy, but they also represent, as How Democracies Die aptly displays, “different communities, cultures, and values.” This polarization was exacerbated by religion, especially after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and Ronald Reagan’s outreach in the 1980s to the so-called “Moral Majority”: white Christians opposed to legalized abortion, gay marriage (later), and who advocated school prayer.

How Democracies Die says that this ideological separation occurs in other Western nations, such as Britain, Germany, and Sweden. However, these nations don’t have parties exhibiting the same hostility as in the U.S. Part of this may be due to America’s long history of only two major parties, so the “anger” is less diffused. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while both parties have shifted closer to the fringes, this polarization has been “asymmetric, moving the Republican Party more sharply to the right than it has moved Democrats to the left.” They cite a 1964 essay by historian Richard Hofstadter that discusses “status anxiety,” which occurs “when groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat. This leads to a style of politics that is ’overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.’” The authors conclude that Hofstadter’s essay is far more relevant today than when it was written.

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Bill Clinton

What is the “existential threat”? It is the changing demographic landscape in America. Blacks, Latinos, gays, non-Christians, and other once- disenfranchised groups (most of whom vote Democratic) are growing, and Christian Caucasians (most of whom vote Republican) see their numbers slipping.

The authors cite many events and trends since the Nixon administration’s “Enemies List” and illegal wiretaps—the latter condemned and punished via bipartisan gatekeeping—that indicate with clarity why political “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance” (recall that these are the unwritten rules, or the glue that binds democracies) have become obsolete. I’ll highlight a few of them:

Newt Gingrich: the former GOP Speaker of the House began his Congressional career in 1978 in Georgia with a “cutthroat vision of politics” that “questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism.” His team actually distributed memos to Republican candidates encouraging them to use pejorative descriptors to characterize their Democratic opponents, such as “pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, anti-flag, anti-family, and traitors.” Gingrich encouraged a no-compromise style of political hardball, and “was one of the first Republicans to exploit” severe polarization as a political tactic.

Filibuster abuse: before the 1970s, the annual number of filibuster attempts never exceeded seven, but “by 1993-94, the number had reached eighty,” under a GOP minority in Congress hostile to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Clinton hostility: “Senate Republicans…pushed aggressively for investigations into a series of dubious scandals, most notably a Clinton 1980s land deal in Arkansas (the so-called Whitewater investigation).” They followed this by appointing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate. When Gingrich became Speaker in a GOP landslide in 1994, the party “adopted a ‘no compromise’ approach—a signal of ideological purity to the party base—that brazenly rejected forbearance in pursuit of victory by ‘any means necessary.’” This bore fruit with a five-day government shutdown in 1995; a 21-day government shutdown in 1996; and reached its “apogee” with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in December 1998 for lying to a grand jury about extramarital sex. It was a strictly partisan maneuver by a Republican House to bring down Clinton.

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Tom DeLay (photo Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

“In an act without precedent in U.S. history, House Republicans had politicized the impeachment process, downgrading it…to ‘just another weapon in the partisan wars.’”

Tom DeLay: Gingrich left Congress in 1999, but his brutal style of no-compromise politics was inherited by a Texan, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay “shared Gingrich’s partisan ruthlessness,” packing lobbying firms “with Republican operatives” (the K Street Project) and starting a “pay-to-play system that rewarded lobbyists with legislation based on their support for GOP officeholders.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse DeLay of carrying “routine norm breaking into the twenty-first century.”  Longitudes accuses him of idiocy, based on statements like “God wrote the Constitution.”

(I’ll pick up with the 21st century next time…there’s sadly much more, starting with the explosion of propagandistic conservative media outlets that began during the Clinton years.)

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game

 

how democracies die

For those of you late to the game, I’ve been reviewing a recently released book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. The gist of this book is that democracies usually don’t die via military coups, but instead crumble from within, via legitimate elections and failures of “gatekeeping” measures, and that conscientiousness on the part of political parties is the best guarantor of maintaining democracy.

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Americans are justly proud of their Constitution, which frames our government, and stipulates a federal separation of powers, the rights and responsibilities of state governments, and which includes 27 important amendments (the first ten of which are known as the Bill of Rights). I’ve talked with a few people who feel America’s constitution (our written “rules of the game”—see previous post) is so strong, that our country is impervious to democratic breakdown.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America’s constitution is often vague and ambivalent and susceptible to radically different interpretations. Also, the U.S. Constitution has been used as a model, almost verbatim, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, yet those nations nonetheless plunged themselves into dictatorships (under Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Ferdinand Marcos, respectively). Germany’s Weimar Republic had a constitution “designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds,” yet it “collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.”

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

The authors argue that, while written rules of the game are important, along with referees to enforce them (e.g. judiciary), these work best in conjunction with unwritten rules, or basic norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that “we may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.”

And institutional forbearance means “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”

Think of democracy as a game that we want to continue playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them, to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow….In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.

The authors cite certain powers held by the executive and legislative branches that are vaguely addressed in the U.S. Constitution, or not at all, but both branches have adhered to certain unwritten rules regarding them. For example, the Constitution doesn’t limit the number of terms during which a president can preside. However, all U.S. presidents since George Washington, other than one, have limited themselves to two terms in office.

The Constitution also does not limit the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. However all presidents (again, other than one) have adhered to the unwritten rule of limiting the court to nine justices.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has the power to filibuster (which the framers designed to assist minority parties in the Senate), block presidential court and cabinet appointments (“advice and consent”), and impeach. But for most of the country’s history, Congress has exhibited institutional forbearance, courtesy, and “reciprocity” regarding these powers.

How Democracies Die highlights that, excluding the Civil War era, on only three occasions since 1776 have democratic norms (checks and balances) been seriously violated in America:

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U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt at court packing, his issuance of 3,000 executive orders, and his decision to seek a third term in office. (However, FDR never slipped into autocracy due to bipartisan resistance. Also—due to the dire situations of the Great Depression and WWII, most historians have given FDR a pass, similar to what occurred with Lincoln’s violation of habeas corpus during the Civil War.);
  2. McCarthyism and red-baiting in the 1950s;
  3. Richard M. Nixon’s authoritarianism and illegal activities in the 1970s, which resulted in a looming impeachment and his eventual resignation.

On all three occasions, guardrails held due to bipartisan cooperation. “Episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of ‘death spiral’ that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the authors state that, beginning with civil rights legislation in the 1960s, things began to slowly change in the United States. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, which have held our democracy together like cement on brick, have increasingly become passé.

And over the past few decades, our unwritten rules of the game have been violated at an alarming rate, creating a toxic atmosphere that has allowed a Donald Trump to attain the highest office in the land. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss this trend in a powerful chapter entitled “The Unraveling.”

I’ll tackle that chapter next time.

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Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

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“The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

In my last post, I discussed how authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, show how certain democracies have failed worldwide (e.g. those in Germany, Italy, and Venezuela).  Some countries, however, have successfully prevented democratic decay when threatened by authoritarianism.

Belgium is one. In the economically depressed 1930s, Belgium resisted an urge to swing toward fascism. Two far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, surged in Belgian polls. (The leader of the Rex Party later collaborated with the Nazis.) Belgian centrist parties appeared to be in retreat. The mainstream Catholic Party was partly sympathetic with the popular Rexists, and could have joined with them. Instead, it went in the opposite direction.

The Catholics weeded out pro-Rexist candidates.  They also employed Rexist-style propaganda techniques, and created an anti-Rexist “Catholic Youth Front.” Their most effective gatekeeping technique, however, was to ally with the Belgian Socialist Party and Liberal Party behind leader Paul van Zeeland, to create a robust coalition that sidelined the Rexists. (At least, until the Nazis invaded Belgium.)

Similar gatekeeping occurred in Finland, when an extreme-right Lapua Movement surfaced in 1929. Finland’s more moderate conservatives pulled together to snuff out this “brief burst of fascism.”

More recently, in 2016 in Austria, the main center-right party (Austrian People’s Party) had an opportunity, but refused to ally with the ideologically similar but anti-immigrant, radical-right Freedom Party of Austria, ultimately defeating it.

(Notice how these various right-wing extremists were all toppled, not by their ideological opposites – liberals and socialists – but by moderates and fellow conservatives who were ideologically similar.)

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Emblem of Finnish Lapua Movement

And America has its own laudable record of squelching extremists. Henry Ford, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace were all enormously popular with certain segments of America. But Ford, Coughlin, and Lindbergh were virulent anti-Semites, Wallace was a Southern racist and segregationist, and McCarthy was a rabid and reckless Red-baiter. (Long was assassinated, but some historians claim the “Kingfish,” who claimed he was the Constitution, had all the characteristics of a demagogue.) All of these men had political ambitions, and some succeeded at the state level. None, however, were able to progress beyond their current stations, chiefly due to a strong U.S. party system that prevented it.  (McCarthy was ultimately censured and disgraced. He began drinking heavily, became addicted to heroin, and died at age 48.)

As mentioned earlier, America’s best gatekeepers are our political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, ironically, the oft-citicized “smoke-filled room” of party bosses serves to weed out extremists that otherwise might threaten democracy. They say there’s always a tension between “will of the people” (which Alexander Hamilton warned about, and which has resulted in figures like Long, Wallace, and Trump) and too much gatekeeping, such as elite party leaders.

But democratic gatekeepers aren’t limited to political parties; they also include political institutions and non-political figures. To illustrate this, the authors draw parallels between democracy and a soccer game. A fair soccer game involves referees, rules, and equal opponents. When any one of these gatekeepers is debilitated, the game can tilt.

Referees: Who are the referees in politics? The judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Without strong referees, the authors argue, “The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured.” He can buy off opponents (including those in the media), pack the courts, and threaten impeachment of justices.

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Anti-Semitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin (photo Detroit Free Press)

Opponents: Once referees are in tow, autocrats then turn to their opponents. However, the authors say that most contemporary autocrats don’t wipe out all dissent, such as Mussolini or Castro did, but merely sideline “key players” opposed to their government. These players include opposition politicians, business leaders, and cultural or religious figures who have good standing with the populace.

Rules: To entrench power, autocrats must also change the rules of the game, such as altering constitutions and electoral systems to tilt the playing field against opponents. Example: post-Reconstruction Southern states. To circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern white Democrats used anti-democratic poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting, which consolidated white power in the South for a hundred years.

“Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes.”

How Democracies Die points out that autocrats often take advantage of national crises, which allow them to break free from democratic institutions, often legally. Defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.

Example 1: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, was an outright subversion of democracy, and a black mark in an otherwise exemplary presidency.

Example 2: after 911, the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, “never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.” But Americans, including a bipartisan Congress, gave Bush a pass.

And then there are those leaders that invent crisis, like Adolf Hitler. No one knows for certain whether, as Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed, a communist Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Some historians believe the Nazis did it themselves. Nonetheless, it ushered in a thunderstorm of Nazi barbarism that didn’t end until a dozen years later.

(To be continued)

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Burning of the German Reichstag

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

how democracies die

Two posts ago I previewed a book I was reading called How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (see “Tolling Bells?”). I finished the book, and now want to share my thoughts.

I’ll offer one more preface, though. In my view, since the election of Donald Trump, the American electorate can be separated into three groups: those who will support Trump no matter what, based on one or more narrow ideologies that they view Trump as upholding; those who are disgusted with Trump’s personal and/or political behavior, yet who, in the words of writer Sinclair Lewis, believe “it can’t happen here”; and people like me, sickened by what they see, and who also believe democratic principles in America are eroding now, and have been for a while.

How Democracies Die has only reinforced my feelings about the road America is traveling down.

It’s a small book, but contains many ideas. Therefore, it’s probably best I break the book into digestible bits:

Fateful Alliances.  Most authoritarian leaders ascend not through violent coups, but through legitimate elections, and alliances with established political figures. The most well-known are, of course, Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler exploited a reeling German economy and infighting between the major German parties, and an alliance with conservatives who believed they could “contain” him. Mussolini used the power of theatricality, his party’s 35 parliamentary votes, divisions among the political elite, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by his own Blackshirts to gain premiership. Political order was restored, and the Italian stock market soared.  Mussolini became a rock star…but only briefly.

While Nazism and Fascism were the two most horrific examples of democratic breakdown, the authors discuss a more recent example. Military leader Hugo Chávez in Venezeula was assisted to power by democratic President Rafael Caldera, whose popularity was waning, and who saw an alliance with Chavez as a political lifeline. He considered the demagogic Chavez a passing fad. He was mistaken. In 1998, Chavez was elected by a majority of voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt ask “(W)hat kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often populist outsiders do.” They cite five of 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012 as being populist outsiders who ultimately weakened democratic institutions.

They also provide four indicators of authoritarian behavior:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

They argue that all democratic societies require “gatekeepers” to prevent authoritarians from gaining power, and the greatest gatekeepers are political parties and their leaders. Keeping extremists off party ballots, resisting alliances with extremist parties, resisting the urge to “normalize” extremists (as Caldera did with Chavez), and uniting with parties of opposing ideologies to block such extremists are all effective gatekeeping techniques.

They conclude “Fateful Alliances” with this:

For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.

(To be continued)