The Mueller Report, Finally

I have been chewing over the Mueller report for four days now and I still have trouble coming to terms with it. Journalists have been saying how pleased they are that it confirms so many of their findings. But that is part of the problem. It looks like it could have been written without the resources of a special prosecutor's office just by reviewing all the information that was available on the public record. But the Mueller report was supposed to link the dots not merely review them. To do so, it was supposed to use its subpoena powers to grab hold of Trump’s tax returns and the records of Deutsche Bank to see whether there had been a basis for blackmailing the man who would become president. The Report stays mum on whether it investigated those leads. If it had, it might have cleared the President of suspicion but instead it just leaves us with our suspicions intact: that there were too many contacts with the Russians for there not to have been something fishy going on. Not having resolved that leaves the public in limbo, not knowing more than it did before, however much the Report is declared either to exonerate or not exonerate the President. The Report was to develop the facts and leave conclusions to the Congress which could decide whether any of the offenses were impeachable, never mind whether they were criminal or not, which is a far less important question, even if the Special Prosecutor law makes that the aim of the inquiry. We want to know what the Russians were doing with and without Trump and the New York Times is a more lucid guide to that than is the Mueller Report which is boring reading, piling one fact on another but not having much narrative drive. Some commentators have taken comfort from the fact that the Report shows the White House to be a sleazy place under this President. He is out to aggrandize only himself and seems to be a woefully poor executive, unable to put his meaner or more malevolent schemes into operation. But we already knew that and those shortcomings do not constitute an impeachable offense. Moreover, Trump does do some of the things he cares about. He makes life miserable for people crossing the southern border looking for asylum and many of his supporters like him for doing that. So he did deliver on that promise even though he hasn’t been able to deport the eleven million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, something I feared he would try to do when he took office. He just can’t get a handle on his own bureaucracy.

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The Joe Biden Issue

The Joe Biden issue doesn’t seem to go away, stoked by both Trump and cable news, which can’t deal with the serious issue of whether the current President is fit for office. Zelinka Maxwell says on MSNBC that she wants a nuanced discussion of changing views of what is unwelcome touching, which is the term now used for the most modest intrusion on the personal space of females. She says there is a difference between kissing babies and kissing the back of the head of an adult woman. But what seems so  obvious to her does not seem so obvious to me, and the men on her panel were not willing to engage the issue, to in fact engage in a nuanced discussion. Like kissing babies, planting a kiss on the head of a woman one is obviously trying to give emotional support, there being a lot of people around who can see that it is not a sexual overture, is innocuous, and hardly worthy of discussion, people in my generation doing it all the time as a way to create solidarity with colleagues. Why should one not think that most women would not regard this as non-threatening, only those in the media jumping on the bandwagon to score points for their side in the ever roiling sex wars of our times?

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The Politically Correct

Let us treat being “politically correct” not just as a rhetorical term thrown out by Donald Trump as a way to malign those who object to his racism and misogyny, or as a term used to describe those on the political left or members of minority groups who wish people to be ashamed of their opinions and who take offense at the expression of opinions with which they do not agree. Rather, let us use it as a serious term of moral and political philosophy which refers to how people negotiate to get heard what they want to say. That way, the term has some perennial rather than purely faddish reference and explains something about political dynamics as those are and always have been.

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Coalition Democracy

There is a lesson  that should be learned by American politics from what happened during the Arab Spring. It will be remembered that the people who went out into the Square to bring down the Mubarak government were what we would call liberals or modernizers. They were students and techies and women. They were backed by the Army, which got them the first and only fair election in Egyptian history. But look what happened then. They could not come together around a single candidate to represent their interests, neither one of the young people, like the IBM executive who got the international media spotlight for a few days, nor Barudi, the distinguished international civil servant who had lived outside the country for many years, nor some indigenous political figure. The result was that the Arab Brotherhood, not expecting to gain power, won the election and its head, much praised by the international community as a potential enlightened figure, and given credit for having put down some unrest among the Bedouin living in the Sinai, nonetheless proved too sympathetic to Islamist forces and so was dispatched by the army who got their own leader elected president without much resistance by the international community, which had given up much hope that the Arab Spring was a democratic reform movement. And now to America.

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Can Free Speech Be Excessive?

The classicist David Konstan wrote an article entitled “Parrhesia”, which is the concept of free speech as that was practiced in Athens when that was a Fifth Century B. C. democracy.  That meant a person, as a citizen, could speak candidly, as if he were among friends, when he spoke his mind, though that did not mean he should engage in flattery, on the one hand, or insolence, on the other. As that idea is elaborated in the Fourth Century B.C., when Greece has become a series of states, some more despotic than others, that means one must curb one’s thoughts unless being outspoken is taken to mean that you have said things that ought not to be said, and so the person who pushes this limit is being courageous even if foolhardy because such people will be censored for their outbursts. Konstan sums up his point this way: “The term is located at that inevitable ideological juncture where debate rages and where what some believe must be brought into the open is just what offends others.” I think that this distinction between candid speech and obnoxious speech is very applicable to the current controversy in the House of Representatives about whether Ilhan Omar went too far when she used anti-Semitic tropes in referring to AIPAC money and the divided loyalty of Jews. She believed it and said it. Did that go too far? Nancy Pelosi thought so but a considerable number of Democrats did not. I want to address that question.

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This Political Moment

The United States is at a very weird moment and that is not because the President of the United States is weird, what with all his lies, rants, meanness and ignorance, a collection of vile qualities we have never before seen in a President, some of his predecessors, like Nixon, suffering from one or another fatal flaw, but not from such a collection as this one which makes Trump unfit to don the cape of tragic hero, as was true of Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy for his risk taking, Nixon for his conniving. Trump is merely contemptible and many of his followers see him that way, as a figure useful for upsetting the applecart rather than one who is very good at keeping it on a straight course.

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Radical Politics

Two weeks ago, I might have thought I would have to say I was wrong about what I had said two weeks earlier, which is that there was not much difference between the various candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, that they were all New Deal Democrats, and so we would make a choice on the basis of personality, which is a good or a bad thing depending on whether you think that people of real character will shine through, the alternative being that we will chose a charlatan or simply someone who has a tic or an expression that we find charming. What had gone wrong was that so many of the Progressive Democrats seemed committed to outlandish “Socialist” proposals and so there was a real division between the progressives such as Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, on the one hand, and the mainstream Democrats, such as Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown, the others not yet having chosen sides. What a difference a few weeks make.

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The Structural Underpinnings of Free Speech

Free speech is the experience of knowing that you can say anything you please without fear of governmental or other institutional authorities. You have free speech when you sound off in a high school class about politics because you know that school is a protected space where a variety of opinions are allowed even if some people may disapprove of what you say or even criticize you for those opinions but must, nonetheless and however grudgingly, admit your right to hold them. Free speech does not mean you are free to insult people, because that violates basic rules of courtesy, but it does mean that contrarian opinions or even fresh and unfamiliar points of view get a hearing, the only control being the informal ones that have to do with customs which can be so rigorous, as in a religious community, that saying unholy things can lead to ostracism or perhaps merely severe rebukes, these enough to make such a community not to be one that allows free speech. Free speech, as an experience, then, has about it the sense of liberation, individuality and democracy. Free speech is also a term that refers to the institutions which, like that high school, protect and further the activity of free speech, and this post is concerned with what are those institutions that led to the establishment of free speech as a characteristic feature of democratic regimes.

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Cultural Mutation

Cultural mutation is a way to understand what is happening in a number of politically charged issues from race relations to foreign policy even though social scientists do not usually treat culture as something subject to spontaneous or creative change. Culture is usually regarded by anthropologists as the continuing way of life of a people, embracing customs, laws and beliefs, and so very stable and self-perpetuating and arising for unknown reasons, while sociologists emphasize the way culture reinforces the social structure that exists because it is transmitted by institutions that are answerable to the structure, as when television transmits what its advertisers will approve of, social media  a maverick in that there opinions percolate up from the people, and there is an understandable reaction by which government and other institutions of culture, such as the press, want to see the social media controlled so that they do not promulgate unpopular opinions. Culture is also taken to be a bridge or the medium through which change takes place in that culture diffuses innovations across a population, as when it spreads knowledge of vaccination, even though it is not responsible for original ideas. These theories are contrary to the perspective of humanists, which sees culture as the source of new ideas, whether in science, as when Darwin and Newton invent new perspectives because of their own ruminations while building on precedent thinkers, Darwin a mutation on Malthus and Lyell, while Newton was contemplating Copernicus and Galileo-- and vaccination was, after all, invented by a particular doctor in England on the basis of his observation of cows and the lack of smallpox among cow maids. Ingenuity and insight count. The humanist perspective can be applied to current events.

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Campaign Rhetoric

The conventional wisdom is that political parties try to correct the mistakes they have made the last time or two around. So the Democrats didn’t want to nominate another clearly Liberal and Northern candidate after Mondale and Dukakis were defeated and so turned to Bill Clinton, a Southern Centrist who might pick up some of the states that had gone to Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia. And so the Republicans, in 2020, will alter their primary structure so as not to let the nomination go to a crazy, by then having been saved by Robert Mueller from having to renominate Trump. Democrats, for their part, are going to look for a candidate with a little more personal oomph than they got from Hillary Clinton, who they blame for having lost the race, though we still do not know whether that was the result of of Comey or Russian interference. Remember that her margin over Trump went up after each of the three presidential debates. Those who tuned in knew who was and who wasn’t Presidential.

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The Upside of the Shutdown

Optimist that I am, let’s look at the upside of the government shutdown. Sure, eight hundred thousand government workers (not all Democrats) are without a paycheck, and there are the additional thousands who are lunch counter operators and dry cleaners who will never be compensated for their lost revenue. But the important point is that the border wall issue is one without content. Republicans fudge the difference between a border wall and border security because only political people think the wall is needed and Trump thinks so only because he became entranced with the term during the campaign. Trump is also the hands down worst deal maker of all time. He could have gotten twenty five billion for his wall last year in exchange for a bill guaranteeing the Dreamers a path to citizenship. He agreed to the deal when it was presented to him by the leading Democrats and Republicans but reneged on it after Stephen Miller got his ear and suggested the deal also include changes in general immigration laws so as to bar what they call chain immigration, which means uniting families, such as, for example, Melania’s family, brought over under those terms to the United States, as well as getting rid of a lottery for some immigrants. Miller also wants to cut the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States. So we are left with Trump now shutting down the government to get a fraction of what he could have gotten if he had really thought the border wall were a policy issue, which he now claims, rather than a campaign slogan.

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Champing at the Impeachment Bit

Historians try to cultivate past-mindedness. That means they are trying to recapture the sense and the dynamics of a past time without reference to or explanation by what comes afterwards. Don’t tell the story of the Civil War in the light of the Civil Rights Movement because that will make you forget that emancipation of the slaves became a central issue only when the Civil War was well underway. Political commentators and cable channel news anchors, on the other hand, cultivate present centeredness. They are on the lookout to see how the past is made relevant by the present and so they talk about what a past event predicts about the future. And so both cable and print people spent the three days of the George H. W. Bush funeral pointing out how statesmanlike and presidential he was in comparison to the current President, though that is to set a very low bar over which to hurdle. That and interviewing incoming members of the House, who have nothing much to say, is a way to fill the time until something serious comes out of the Mueller investigation, the cable and print people trying to squeeze what they can out of sentencing recommendations, about what the future will hold, because newscasters seem ever less interested in reporting what has happened and ever more interested in guessing at what will happen.

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The Midterms: O Woe Is Me!

Voting is the closest that I, as a secularist, come to having a sacred liturgy. I vote so as to receive its blessings, which is to participate in electing some of my fellow citizens to office, but also to make me feel that I am not merely an observer but a part of the political process, my vote every bit as valuable as that of Andrew Cuomo or Donald Trump. So I shed a tear when the person at my polling place gave me a sticker saying “I Voted” that I attached to my jacket. Old codgers are excused for doing that.

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Kavanaugh Consequences

Waiting for Susan Collins to make the speech in which she announced her support for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was very dramatic because it made me think of the two different paths the nation might be headed down if she took one side or the other. If she opposed Kavanaugh, it would be a setback for Trump, though some commentators have said it would increase the turnout of conservatives for the midterms, while if she supported Kavanaugh, it would be a victory for the #metoo movement, which has taken central stage in national politics without the apparatus of being a movement, and might lead more and more women to take part in the midterms. Now, her vote determined, we face a rough few weeks of campaigning on, among other things, whether our sons or our daughters are more in danger. All this comes about because the Senate is so broken that it can’t even manage to get an objective investigation into whether a nominee has committed a criminal offense, the Democrats saying the FBI was curtailed by the White House, and the Republicans saying that the investigation was good enough. I don’t think either Chris Coons or Jeff Flake had this in mind just a week ago when they insisted that the FBI look into the matter. They expected a definitive finding. (Chris Coons was wrong when he said on “Meet The Press” today that the Senate confirmation process was a job interview and not a trial and so a credible accusation is enough to deny an appointment. But it is a trial, whether conducted in a faulty manner or not, because it reaches a conclusion of guilt or innocence. Either the reputation of the nominee is ruined by turning him down or his reputation is merely tarnished because he has been accused but approved anyway. We needed a definitive investigation.)

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The Kavanaugh-Ford Confrontation

I have been rereading big chunks of Jane Austen recently and a lot of what she observes is applicable to the present state of sexual politics, whether in Norristown, PA, where Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in jail for sexual transgressions, or in Washington D. C., where Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court is being held up by a consideration of what might have been sexual transgressions he committed as a youth. Jane Austen is familiar with the things that can transpire between men and women. In “Pride and Prejudice”, both Kitty, Elizabeth Bennett’s sister, and Darcy’s sister have been seduced by Mr. Wickham, and the best solution is to get Wickham to marry Kitty in exchange for paying off his gambling debts, and get the couple shipped off to a remote army base. But that does not mean that Jane Austen thinks that girls are adverse to being courted by men. Girls like boys; they are flattered by their attentions and compliments and can feel themselves to be in love with them on the basis of courtships that we would consider today very limited. And young women know their minds well enough to decide what will be a satisfactory match. Charlotte Lucas will settle for Mr. Collins, despite his deficiencies of character, and Jane Bennett will find a love match with Mr, Bingley that sets her up very nicely, while Elizabeth Bennett will come to love Darcy, the two of them having prickly personalities no one else in the neighborhood could put up with.

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Kavanaugh's Deviance

Judge Kavanaugh’s story is evolving every day and so it is useful to try to stand back and make some observations that may withstand whatever else happens this week much less how Dr. Ford comports herself on Thursday, should that hearing actually go forward. These observations may seem obvious but they are accurate and they do explain where we are now in the interconnection between politics and sex.

The first thing to observe is that accusations of sexual harassment are the Communism of our time. A career and a reputation can be ruined by such an accusation just as was the case when charges of having been a Communist lost people their jobs and reputations during the McCarthy period. Judge Kavanaugh will always have a cloud over his head even if he makes it to the United States Supreme Court, just as Clarence Thomas does, who is associated with the Anita Hill testimony more than he is with the judicial record he has piled up since he joined the Court. The violation of sexual decorum leads to outrage, even if we do not know how prevalent this is in American society even if Feminists claim that this is a long standing scourge that has malformed the lives of many women, and even if it is not clear how serious the allegation is, since both exposing oneself and attempted rape are this week thought to justify similar responses. The accused perpetrator becomes the outcast, the Other, separated by the rest of us by his (or her) mark of Cain.

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Two Political Dramas

In my mind’s eye, I am watching tow television screens, one showing the response to the anonymous N Y Times editorial citing resistance to Trump within the inner circles of the White House, and the other screen showing the hearing on whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Some commentators have claimed that the two dramas are interconnected in that a President under such a cloud as is Trump should not press forward with such a weighty nomination. But Trump is still President. The issues involved in the two dramas are very different and so let us explore them separately. One is about an unprecedented breakdown in the organization of the White House and the other is about what it means to be a very, very conservative judge, which is hardly a new question.

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Has Trump Committed Treason?

Is there enough evidence out there to support the claim that Trump has already committed treason? That depends on whether you take a legal or a political approach to the question. If you take a legal approach, where it is necessary to provide evidence for the elements of a crime, such a determination is perhaps premature in that Mueller is developing the evidence that is relevant to the question. But if you take a political approach, which means to judge actions by their fruits rather than their motives, then we already know that the federal government cannot trust secret information to the President because he is likely to leak it to the Russians whether inadvertently or by design, something he has done in the past. He told the Russian ambassador of intelligence we had gotten from the Israelis and we have no idea what he said to Putin in Helsinki.

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Free Speech

The issues surrounding the doctrine of free speech are long standing even if the current debate, as it involves what to do with the Internet, and how foreign powers tried to influence the American election in 2016, raises some new wrinkles. Both Plato and, for most of its history, the Catholic Church, favored the view that the right of free speech was limited in that ignorance or untruth did not have the same standing as truth and could lead people into error. It was therefore necessary for authorities to limit what people could be exposed to. The Catholic Board of National Review gives its imprimatur to wholesome films that are tastefully done even if they deal with difficult material. That, I suppose, is about as good as censorship can get. Morning Joe supports this view because he believes that Alex Jones’ view that the Sandy Hill shootings were staged is too unbelievable to warrant public attention. By those lights, however, Donald Trump would have been barred from having his views on the airwaves because he furthered the Birther controversy which was also just ridiculous. That would have been a serious infringement on the right of voters to select any primary candidate they care to.  On the other side are the Founding Fathers, and various liberal theorists such as John Stuart Mill, who hold free speech as itself of the highest priority in that any limitations on it, short of libel, are likely to interfere in the political process and, even more important, in the feeling of individual liberty, which is always thwarted by the values of the community. So free speech is an unending battle between the forces backing freedom of conscience and those siding with tradition. How do these perennial doctrines fare in the present communications environment?

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Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialism is the political philosophy that believes that you can combine an elected government that fully protects civil liberties with the nationalization of the means of production so that you produce a society which provides for the welfare of all its citizens. Such a government was put in place by the Labor Party in Great Britain after the Second World War. Deeply committed to democratic practices, they nevertheless created government ownership of the coal and steel industries, the railroads, and medicine. These reforms were largely turned back by Margaret Thatcher, leaving only the National Health Service and a university system that had been remodeled into a meritocracy where the government paid tuition to whatever level institution a student was qualified to attend. So nationalization was not of the industries key to the economy but of those services which, over the course of the post-war years, were taken to be a matter of right rather than a luxury purchase, like a fine car, which the consumer might care to buy if the consumer could afford it. In the United States, fair wages and fair working conditions were not instituted by the government. The New Deal left that to collective bargaining, that generally jimcracked system of negotiation which worked because it was cheaper for employers to negotiate than face strikes. Collective bargaining was therefore successful for the American coal, steel, and automobile industries.

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