Illegal Immigrant Children

The separation of children from their parents has quickly replaced the North Korea deal as the story of the day, even as Trump brushes aside as a technicality the question of when North Korea disarms. Reporters had not sufficiently updated themselves on the new story so that they could do little more than express outrage when the Secretary of Homeland Security appeared before them three days ago. Nor did they pick up on what she said, which was devastating. She said people accompanying children would only be arrested if they could not prove they were the parents of the children. Did it not occur to the reporters to ask how that was supposed to be accomplished? Even a birth certificate would not do because those usually do not have photographs as if the photograph of a two or three day old baby looks like the two or four year old being presented at the border. A previous official, who had served in the Obama Administration, said you could see who were parents by how they interacted with the children and that was good enough for him. So what did the Secretary mean by “proof”? Moreover, she added, people who wanted to present themselves for asylum ought to present themselves at ports of entry, which means everyone who crossed elsewhere would not have to be treated as asylum seekers and so could be arrested. She went on to say that crossing the border illegally was a crime according to federal law, and so people violating it can be arrested and their children separated from them. But it is a misdemeanor rather than a felony and so such draconian measures are not required.

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The North Korea Deal

Some Presidents and diplomats think that the panoply of summit meetings distract from the hard negotiations that take place there and so they arrange for extended stays at isolated spots so that participants can dig into details and come to compromises. Carter used Camp David, Clinton also used Camp David, and Roger Holbrooke used Dayton Air Force Base. Carter and Holbrooke were successful and Clinton was not. Churchill, for his part, regarded panoply as an essential part of what was to be undertaken. Famously, he arranged for the hymns at the Anglican Church service he held on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland in 1940 to issue their proclamation of the Four Freedoms to be the same hymns that FDR might have heard at Groton when he went to school there. The purpose was to build a sense of solidarity between the two nations by showing their intimate connections with one another. Churchill fills many pages of his memoir about World War II with the toasts presented at international meetings. That was not just to fill space or to use whatever in the archives was available but to provide his sense that the toasts, in some complicated way, spelled out what the toasters really thought about their allies and what they really thought the alliances could accomplish. Trump is different or, to modify Marx, anything serious shows up sooner or later as farce. Trump likes the panoply for its own sake because he thinks that is the substance of any agreement, and so he has a win-win situation in his Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un in that whether he walked away from it saying it had failed or, as he hoped, walked away from it proclaiming it a great victory, which he did, it would play well in America with his base and beyond, Democrats not knowing what to say to an agreement without substance, not that it mattered, in that Trump seemed confused about whether the final document did or did not refer to verification of nuclear disarmament, because he knew that denuclearization was not at the heart of the agreement, which was, rather, that the United States would normalize relations with North Korea, welcome it into the world community, never mind its nuclear weapons or its human rights abuses. And that was a very good deal indeed, no matter that critics are caught flat footed wondering what North Korea gave up in the immediate or near future in exchange for being welcomed into the world community and having some of its own security needs addressed, such as the elimination of joint US-ROK military exercises.

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Lies and Trust

Most of the things Trump does as President are not likely to outlast him. Tax bills go in one direction under Republican Administrations and then go in the other direction under Democratic Administrations. Environmental regulations can be rolled back even as some of the changes do not even get implemented because Scott Pruitt’s EPA staff is so inept. The Federal Judiciary will, however, be impacted for a generation, but who cares how the North Korea negotiations go? They won’t move the yardstick very far no matter what happens and the next Administration can start all over again. The Europeans know that they can just outlast this Administration and the long term, bipartisan policy towards Europe will be back in place. What has changed, however, are some basic perceptions about the political culture, and I want to talk about two of those, one which is very overt and discussed, and the other not so.

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When a March is a Movement

A social movement is an attempt to change the hearts and minds of the population as a whole in the service of aiding the interests of one group within the population. The Civil Rights Movement was successful at doing so by taking the high moral ground. The clean cut young people who were marched off to jail or hosed by police were superior in their ideals and aspirations to the white policemen and sheriffs who were their tormentors. That changed the narrative about white-Black relations in the South from being the one that had for generations been used by those who supported segregation, which was that black people were an unruly lot given to low morals and drunkenness and liable to violate white womanhood and nowhere near ready to have voting rights or be otherwise integrated into white society. The new narrative was that it was the black protesters who were middle class and appealing to law rather than the kind of order that was established by Bull Connors. There were a number of devices that were used to carry out this purpose and those included a charismatic leader, a legislative agenda, a distinctive means of demonstrating their convictions (which was, in this case, both marches of a previously unprecedented scope and sit ins) and an ideology (which was, in this case, that black people were people and so not an inferior social caste). Let us apply this analysis to recent protests against gun violence that were set off by the Parkland, Florida shootings.

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Trump's Exit

The noose seems to be tightening and so it makes sense to review where we stand and how things might unfold. As MSNBC panelists would seem to imagine it, President Trump is so unhinged that he will be taken out of the White House under sedation and strapped onto a gurney when the Mueller Report makes clear the extent of his connections with the Russians. That would obviate the need for impeachment proceedings because grounds for invoking the Twenty Fifth Amendment on Presidential incapacity will be abundantly clear. The commentators base their views of Trump’s state of mind on what their White House sources tell them about how Trump blows up and that he changes his mind all the time and that there are fewer and fewer people around him who can tell him anything resembling the truth. The latest evidence of this is that he congratulated Putin on his phony electoral victory even though his national security staff had explicitly left a note for him all in caps not to do so. And only the high level national security staff would have been in a position to leak that story. So it seems reasonable to think that the White House is in chaos.

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The Budget Deal

Well, something really did happen on the way to the Mueller Report. Congress struck a budget deal that is a mini-version of the grand bargain Democrats are always all too willing to cut with Republicans, but this time it worked and is likely to have positive consequences and set the scene for other constructive legislative initiatives, though not at least until the congressional elections this November. The budget deal has been much criticized. People on the Right say that it does away with any shambles of the idea that Conservatives are interested in fiscal austerity, and people on the left suggest that the deal just shows what hypocrites are the deficit hawks, who now show themselves willing to bust the budget just so long as they have very recently taken care of the need to give tax cuts to their financial backers. Consider, instead, what the budget deal does accomplish in the way of re-introducing some rationality into the budget process.

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The Shutdown

Well, I thought that something important might have really happened on our way to the Mueller Report: the shutdown of the federal government because the Congress and the President couldn’t agree on a bill to fund the government. But Chuck Schumer decided he would prefer a shaky promise from Mitch McConnell to anything Trump might say, and so backed down. And it is not surprising that Schumer offered to build Trump’s wall in exchange for a deal on the Dreamers. Democrats are prone to think they can arrive at some grand bargain with Republicans if they put something they care about on the table. Remember that Obama wanted to create a grand bargain with Boehner which would have included entitlement reforms. Democrats are willing to sacrifice their interests to get the government functioning again, but Republicans are not, and the Republican wisdom, as that is verified by election results, is that the American people don’t care if the government functions (so long as nothing changes in their own lives). So a shutdown seemed like a dynamite blast to shake the government loose, and so people like me, who opposed the last government shutdown, were in favor of it. Do something.

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Trump's First Year

Now is the time when I am supposed to admit that I was wrong in the prediction I made this past spring that nothing much would happen in Washington until Mueller made his report. Well, there have been preliminary indictments, but no final report, the expected end of the investigation ever more remote, and the networks and cable channels all now saying, contrary to what they said two weeks ago, which was before the passage of the new tax law, that Trump’s first year has, in fact, been one of accomplishment rather than inaction in that he got through a tax bill which also cut back on the mandate that people pay a penalty if they do not buy health insurance, and that he has made numerous judicial appointments, including one to the Supreme Court, and that he has gotten his way with the agencies and is getting drilling for oil started in parts of Alaska where it had been barred. That is quite an achievement-- except that it is not so, especially in view of the fact that this President is such a nihilistic character that he wanted to bring down government in general, and in that light, or in even a more moderate light, he hasn’t accomplished all that much at all.

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The Al Franken Resignation

As I say, nothing much will happen in Washington until Mueller winds up his investigation, probably with a report to Congress saying that Trump is beholden to the Russians because of all the money he owes to them or has laundered for them, but until then the cable networks and other news outlets are in a frenzy about sexual harassment, the most significant victim of that frenzy so far being Al Franken, who was forced to resign from the Senate, which did not grant him the expedited ethics hearing that I presume he wanted, but came to judgment on the basis of accusations by six women, at least three of whom remain anonymous. Put aside the hypocrisy of the women Senators who said they were shocked to find themselves forced to insist on his resignation in spite of the fact that he was a friend of theirs. That is not the way a friend behaves, sticking in the knife along with everyone else, rather than trying to find a plausible explanation for bad behavior. They were never his friends, just political colleagues never overmuch concerned with personal loyalty. Let us turn instead to the nature of this frenzy, which is a form of McCarthyism, this time from the left rather than from the right.

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The Right to Secession

The Founding Fathers put into the United States Constitution at least two remedies should it happen that the splendid mechanism they had devised should show imperfections either in systems or in practice. First off, they provided for a process of amendment whereby, with great difficulty, Congress or the states could alter the Constitution, the process not being hasty lest it be engaged in for mischievous reasons. Second of all, they provided for impeachment, whereby even the President could be removed from office, his powers so great that he might be suspected of wanting to overstep them, and there had to be a way of doing that without resorting to his execution, an expedient which the British had used in their own past and whose lesson was not lost on the Founding Fathers: find a way to peacefully get rid of the one who presides over the nation. The Founding Fathers did not expect this power to be used lightly, for then it would have turned the new nation into something of a parliamentary democracy, the President subject to the political inclinations of his legislature. To the contrary, the spirit of the Founding Fathers was to make as many things as possible about their system objective rather than political, and so the term of service of the President was set as a fixed number of years, just as the allocation of seats in the Congress to the various states was on the basis of a census of the people of the United States so as to prevent the existence of “rotten boroughs”, which are districts without many persons living there, which happened in the British system because it was by act of Parliament that an area had a seat in Parliament or had one withdrawn.

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The Two Party System

Political sages declare on cable television these days that what we need now is a spirit of compromise to resolve the gridlock in which our political system finds itself. That means one or another bargain in which the Liberals and Conservatives get together by trading off some of what each side wants so that some progressive legislation gets passed. They are proposing on a smaller scale the Grand Bargain which Obama for a number of years tried to construct with the Republican opposition. Although the talking heads don’t usually spell out what that means today, I suppose an example of such a compromise would be Liberals willing to accept lower tax rates for corporations and for the rich in return for, let us say, the forgiveness of student loans or a higher minimum wage. On the face of it, such a compromise won’t fly. It would offend both sides, Liberals and Conservatives each devoted as they are to their own agendas, these two essentially in conflict. Liberals don’t want to give more money to rich people and Republicans don’t want to give money to people who are middle class or even poorer than that. More important, however, is the fact that the compromise of interests is not the way American politics works. Rather, historically, it has been the case that sometimes one party and sometimes the other, for long periods of time, has a progressive agenda while the other party is made up of time-servers and blowhards who are obstructionists. It isn’t that there are two agendas that are contending with one another and so one can adopt something good from each side. Rather, one side makes sense and the other side is indefensible except to those who do not want to see any change at all. Let’s dwell on that and see where we stand now in that light.

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Grant's Presidency

The character of Presidents is often judged by the adversities they have overcome-- or, conversely, not have had to overcome. Lincoln overcame depression, TR overcame the loss of his first wife, FDR overcame polio (though he didn’t, even if he managed to live with it until his early death from a heart condition caused in part by how much stress he put on his heart because his legs were useless). JFK overcame Addison’s Disease and Lyndon Johnson never overcame his awe and dependence on the leftover JFK Harvard crowd that filled his Cabinet. Ron Chernow’s new biography, “Grant”, gives us a chance to reevaluate the way we judge Presidents. He thinks about the career trajectory of U. S. Grant as more important than the drinking which did indeed lead to his early departure from a military career but which otherwise did not interfere with his talents.  Let us use this alternative approach for a comparison of some American Presidents.

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Impeachment, the Law & Language

There are sociological and linguistic insights into the nature of law. Sociologists tend to find the meaning of the law in its functions. Max Weber offers a sociological understanding of law when he says that laws cannot vary too much from the customs of a society. If they do, the people will rebel against it while revolutionary regimes, on the other hand, impose legal codes that are out to do away with extant customs and replace them with a reign of reason. For his part, Georg Simmel says that law is a technique for conflict resolution. It gives a third party power to make a decision between contending parties and these decisions and the legal code behind them are designed to do away or mitigate the antagonism between the parties. That is why there are fines and ways for negligent companies to correct their behavior. On the other hand, for the most part, lawyers look to the linguistic characteristics of law. That means they look to the ways in which the nature of language makes the fact of law possible and justifies what lawyers do when they interpret the law. Consider some of these linguistic characteristics of law and how they apply to the question of impeachment.

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General Kelly's Cast of Mind

My prediction in the Spring that nothing much would happen in this country politically until Robert Mueller makes his report seems to be holding up. Trump’s bluster about North Korea seems to have become toned down, perhaps because some private accommodation between the two sides has been arranged, or perhaps because a President with a limited attention span shifted his fulminations to other topics. Trump has kicked the Iran Deal over to Congress, which is unlikely to reimpose sanctions, which is just what Trump has also done with Obamacare, where some version of the Murray-Alexander deal is likely to emerge to keep Obamacare in place through the end of Trump’s term. And the prospects for tax reform, properly understood as tax relief for the rich, are not very good, the Congressional year about to come to an end. And, anyway, tax changes in one direction can be reversed in the next Administration in the other direction. That is what always happens, and that goes as well for the way federal agencies cut back or expand their power over everything from emission controls to abortion. So, instead, we are treated to a whole set of side issues that allow both Trump supporters and the Liberal media to exercise outrage at how broken is our political system because the other side is engaged in divisive political rhetoric. That seems fine to me because it means Trump is preoccupied with nonsense, seems incapable of responding to anything but nonsense, and that keeps him out of doing real mischief.

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Ken Burns' Vietnam II: Student Unrest

Ken Burns, in the episode of his series on the Vietnam War that is about the Tet Offensive, briefly refers to the student demonstrations at Columbia University and around the world. I was there at Columbia at the time, as a graduate student and a young instructor, and so I can fill in some of what happened so long ago.

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Ken Burns' Vietnam

I have reluctantly sat through, so far, more than half of the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War. “Reluctantly”, I say, because that war is not something I very much wanted to relive, having been aware of that war from start to finish as a student and graduate student and then a young professor of sociology who had participated in demonstrations, signed petitions, and gave lectures saying how purposeless was the war and all the suffering it imposed, trying as best I could to give aid and comfort to those who left the United States to go to Canada so as to avoid the draft. When some years later, during the Reagan Era, I mentioned to a class that I had been opposed to the war and demonstrated against it, something I thought of as very conventional behavior, many of my students were flabbergasted that this amiable and still young professor could have turned against his country. For them, the war was over, just unsatisfactory in the way it was settled. But It seemed to us anti-war people who had stood on the sidelines, having ourselves somehow legally avoided the draft, I through a series of student deferments and then because of age, that, while it was going on, the war was never going to end, and so there was a great sense of despair about the war, nothing like what I took to be the satisfaction felt by those who had made it through World War II, and this is the sense of despair that Ken Burns captures very well, that on top of the fact that he got the facts right, at least as I remember them. So let’s probe the wound.

 

 

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Hillary's Character

After reading her book, “What Happened”, I like Hillary less well than I did before I read the book. I know she is letting her hair down, and someone may not be at their most attractive when they do that, but the character she reveals is not all that admirable, for all that she claims that her’s is. Maybe it is just that she is not a gifted writer and so not used to trying to craft insights into a situation rather than relate platitudes so as to sum up a feeling that is more complex than that or else provide an analysis somewhat more worthy than is a two page policy memo at the White House. She is not good at supplying a rumination on the meaning of it all, and that is true of most politicians when they turn to writing, barring such exceptional people as Churchill, who deserved his Nobel Prize for Literature, and Obama, who may not have deserved his Nobel Prize for Peace. Of course, I still would have voted for Clinton to be President. I think she would have been a steady hand at the wheel, right on most issues, though wrong on some, such as feminism and education, and her opponent was likely to become the worst President in American history (he hasn’t started a war yet, but he has been demeaning and besmirching the United States for nine months now), but I do not hold her solely or even largely accountable for her defeat, as some of her detractors do, they continuing to underestimate the ability of the very unqualified Donald Trump to lather up a crowd and get voters to act on the basis of their anger rather than their interests. I blame instead those people who voted for Trump, they fully knowing what he was like because he did not hide what he was. You got what you voted for. So I will take stock of Hillary, and I know she has heard far worse.

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Political Rudeness

Political rudeness occurs when people in the political arena (and that includes the press) do something that is embarrassing because it violates the customs of politics insofar as those customs are essential to carrying on democratic politics, and so is different from the rudeness that occurs in everyday life whereby people who are rude violate customs of etiquette, such as by making a pass at a friend’s wife, or not tipping the waiter, which allow ordinary social life to be stable and mutually satisfying. An example of political rudeness is Eisenhower showing up late at the White House to pick up Truman to go to the Eisenhower Inauguration. Truman properly interpreted that as an insult to the Presidency while Eisenhower simply saw it as an expression of his distaste for a person he thought to be a political hack, while seeing himself as a noble figure, forgetting that he had been ever so political when he refused to defend General of the Armies George Marshall, the man who made him, on the campaign trail just months before, when Joe McCarthy had called Marshall “a disgrace to his uniform”. Who was the person up to his eyebrows in politics?

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Trump's Tirades

So many people tell me that the country is in terrible shape. They point to Trump’s tirades, which are indeed pretty terrible, but which are also largely inconsequential. The economy is doing fine, though we have not figured out a way to deal with the declining wages of larger and larger parts of the work force, a situation which has spread all the way up to the salaried professionals, and we do not know how to do away with the educational gap between people of color and whites and Asians, the latest New York test scores showing that about sixty percent of Asians and whites score at grade level in reading and math while about twenty percent of African Americans and Hispanics score at grade level. But these are deep problems of social structure that must await a truly progressive administration to be addressed, while the problems that immediately confront this administration are going just fine. North Korea has quieted down and Rachel Maddow may be correct in thinking that the whole brouhaha was cooked up by trump to shift attention away from his own troubles, which is the Russia investigation and also the fact that Congress will not give him what he wants, which is his wall and an end to the Russia investigation. We have ceded Syria to the Russians while taking out ISIS by ourselves and with Kurd and Iraqi and Iranian help; Putin has got what he wanted of Ukraine and is unlikely to push farther, knowing that our tainted President is not in any position to do him favors. Even climate issues are going the Progressive way, whatever Trump’s view of the Paris accords, because California and various corporations are going ahead with forging their own policies on carbon emissions. Greening America is too good a business for it to stop happening. Yes, Trump claims he will bring back coal, but he won’t, just as he claims he will build a wall, which he won’t because even a Texas Republican congressman can see that a technical fence is more effective and much cheaper than a concrete one. The wall is just a slogan that appeals to Trump’s very limited imagination, and so let us turn to the issues that have occupied the media in the past few weeks to get them through the summer doldrums of Congress being out of session.

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