Where we’re at

While it’s true that being appalled by Trump is terrific sport, we should be careful not to let it overshadow what’s going on policy-wise in the meantime. Trump’s appointees are quietly trying to implement an agenda that the right has been craving for years, but has been unable to deliver in the light of day.

There’s a limit to what they can do, thank goodness. Many of the regulations of the EPA, for example, have been encoded into law, and are beyond the reach of the executive branch alone. We can be grateful for the incompetence of the Republican congress.

They’re also hamstrung by Trump’s infantile rants, or rather by calls to condemn them. You’d think it would be a simple thing to respond to the atrocious statements coming out of the WH by just reiterating statements members of the Republican party have said many times before, but the problem is that they don’t want to risk alienating Trump for fear of halting the afore mentioned slow, stealthy march of the right-wing agenda by his minions.

They’re walking a delicate line. If they let him go too long, the risk becomes losing control of congress, but if they stand up to him too soon, they risk derailing the progress toward conservative policies they’ve been lusting after for years.

Many years ago, when I ran a crew of surveyors for a couple of penny-pinching bosses, the crew truck I was driving broke a front axle at 60+ mph on the highway. I managed to coax it to the shoulder, and called my boss. I told him what had happened, and that the right front wheel was barely hanging on by a tie rod. He said, “Could you nurse it home?”

The wheels are slowly, steadily coming off the Trump administration truck, one at a time. I have a feeling that congressional Republicans are just trying to nurse it home.  Disaster, from their point of view, is almost inevitable.  I’m mentally preparing myself for the pleasures of schadenfreude.

Lumps in the gravy

A café at the Alte Opernplatz

I just spent a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany. I had been stationed there some 50 years ago, and since I was passing through on my way to Riga, I jumped at the opportunity to see how much it had changed. The late 60s, after all, were not all that long after the end of WWII, and Frankfurt, like much of the rest of the country, had been bombed into rubble; the few buildings left standing in 1945 were left on purpose, the allies having singled them out for future headquarters. A lot had been rebuilt when I was there, but although the rubble had been pretty much cleaned up, a lot had not. Whole quarters were still clear of buildings, including the historic Römer, one of the most important sites in German history. A few blocks away, the old Opera house was standing, albeit unused and unsafe, with rows of chest high bullet holes along its walls. There were similar reminders of the war all over town. All of that has now been rebuilt to exacting specs, and the city was eerily unfamiliar within a context of remembered places and new construction.

But the most striking thing was the population. On certain streets it was nearly impossible to find a bratwurst among the curry and halal restaurants. What I found was a vibrant diverse community of people living peacefully together.

Well, that’s not all that odd for Frankfurt. When I was there 50 years ago, we used to joke that it was the northernmost Italian city in Europe, with strong Turkish and Indo/Pakistan contingents as well. Still, Germany?

It is, after all, practically the birthplace of the very idea of the ethnic nation state. Those Mediterranean peoples I remembered from all those years ago had been invited in as guest workers, and Germans were pretty ambivalent about their presence.

Things are very different now, thanks largely to the efforts of Angela Merkel to keep the borders open to refugees from the many devastated parts of the world. There is resistance, of course, and a resurgence of the right, as in many other places in the west, but, at least so far, its impact has been rhetorical for the most part.  I have heard Americans say that Merkel has ruined Germany, by which they mean she has ruined it for people like them, racist xenophobes.  I agree, and I hope it stays ruined for them. Germany, of all places, is something of a beacon of hope in a dismal political landscape.

Which brings me to America. What an embarrassment. We strut and crow about melting pots, but when the chips are down we fold and curl up in a little ball. Not all of us, of course. I am happy to say that more than half the country fully and proudly stands for and lives up to the noble sentiment inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately our cynicism has allowed the minority to elect a government headed by an appalling racist and a congressional majority too terrified of the loss of power to stand up to him. We of all people should be an example to the world of compassion, but we’re not.

I mean, Germany. Who would have ever thought it?

Why not to call a pox on both houses

It’s quiz time again, boys and girls!

Consider this:  You have a tree in your yard.  It’s fine and healthy, but a neighbor keeps getting drunk and running into it with his car.  Soon, you begin to worry that it might be causing lasting damage.  Do you

a)  Move your tree,
b) If he hits it again, move it again,
c) Throw up your hands, denouncing the sorry state of drivers, or
d) Try to get your neighbor off the road until he stops drinking.

It may or may not be true that all politicians are corrupt, but this observation does nothing to improve the situation we find ourselves in.  I read a blog post the other day that maintained that the real problem was that public servants should be selfless, and they’re not.  This brought to mind two observations: when I hear people criticize someone for being selfish, what they usually mean is they’re not paying enough attention to their needs; the other thing is that hardly anyone, let alone politicians, is selfless to an ideal degree.  Our elected representatives are going to have their own interests at heart; after all, don’t you?  The problem is how to structure things so that doesn’t conflict with the public interest.  Never mind that we don’t all agree with what that is.  After all, those 40 or so Tea Party congressmen were voted into office, and, by all accounts, their constituents tend to agree with their actions.

In any case, the irony is that these people are apparently acting out of principle — that is to say, out of a feeling that they are doing what the country desperately needs.  You can always reason with cynics, by convincing them what they’re doing is not in their best interests.  If someone is acting out of principle, however, forget it.

If you say the whole government is corrupt and irredeemable, you are really falling in line with the Tea Party.  If that’s what you want, say so.  If not, don’t muddy the waters and let the real perpetrators get away under the cover of cynicism.

Egypt’s lesson for America

The term of President Mohamed Mursi ended abruptly Wednesday, as the Egyptian army took control, arrested him, and declared his government over.  A coup, in plain words, toppling the country’s first democratically elected president from power.  We should be outraged.

Or should we?  Mursi’s missteps, succinctly recounted in this Reuters article, seemed to almost ensure his demise, but incompetence, even recalcitrance, alone doesn’t justify annulling a popular election.  What doomed his regime, and what, to me, provided reasonable cause for his removal, was his November 22 hijacking of the constitutional assembly process.  On that day, he assumed for himself emergency powers, by which any and all oversight of the assembly, previously packed with his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots, was crushed.  This included any discussion of the packing itself.

When the assembly predictably returned a constitution leaning heavily toward Islamist principles, the public rebelled, and took to the streets once again.  Mursi’s response: quell the demonstrations, force an early referendum, before the opposition had a chance to organize itself, and ram the new constitution through.  Every move after that was right and proper, according to the new constitution, but if the constitution itself is suspect, such legality is moot.

Mursi’s victory was on the slimmest of margins, and was largely the result of the disunity of the opposition.  As it was, he was forced into a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, who was arguably handicapped by having been Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarek.  Shafik still managed 48.3% of the vote.

This is the crux: having won by a small margin, Mursi proceeded to rule as if he had a crushing mandate, assuming emergency powers when conventional channels disfavored him, and thoroughly ignoring any of the concerns of the opposition, accusing them instead of subversion.  No compromise.

So, the burning question is, is democracy simple majoritarianism?  We hear a lot about majority rule with regard to democracy, but is that all there is to it?  In the United States, the constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, declares otherwise.  The very concept of rights quite bluntly limits the power of the majority to enforce its will, and protects minorities from its ill will, right down to the individual.  I use the term “minority” here in its strict sense, not the political sense of identifiable interest group.

But on a subtler level, the implication is that the interests of such minorities must be taken into consideration by the leaders elected by the majority, even when swept into office by groundswell.  Still more, when the margin of majority is as thin as spring ice.

Which brings us to the infamous gridlock of American politics.  It is grounded on the idea that, in a democracy, the winner takes all, that it is unnecessary, even irresponsible, to compromise with the losers.

We seem to have a lot of Mursis in American politics these days.  Let’s take Egypt’s fate as an object lesson, and avoid that treacherous path.