Short pieces from the month collected into one post.
A lot of politics this month so be forewarned . 🙂
News Cycles and Information Overload
We retired Boomers remember the old days when following the news meant a half hour around dinnertime and a look at the papers. That notion will strike digital natives as hopelessly anachronistic. I agree that it was perhaps too little of a good thing — Walter Cronkite of an evening and a read through the local paper left a lot of interstices in the information repertoire that took a lot of work to fill in compared to today’s situation. These days things have gone entirely to the other extreme. To contradict Mae West: too much of a good thing is NOT wonderful.
Mind you, I’m glad that there are so many news sources available nowadays. The more the merrier because they can cover things from different angles with different methods. Vox, for example, has explanatory reporting as its forte. All to the good — heaven knows much of what transpires in the public arena needs explanation, so the more and the clearer the explanation, the better. When you look at one of the old-fashioned news broadcasts like NBC Nightly News the limitations of the traditional format quickly become obvious. Each topic receives mention and the barest bit of background, then it’s on to the next topic. Talking headlines is what in essence the news consumer ends up with. It’s not enough, never really was enough unless you couldn’t even get to the headlines yourself.
I currently have 33 news sources on my go-to list and the list is still growing. I use all those sources online, not in print, and every one of them has a way to sign up for an email feed or online notifications or some such thing, so if I took advantage of that option my phone would probably blow up. I haven’t signed up and most decidedly won’t do so because I don’t want to be inundated. My news consumption has become more selective because it can afford to narrow the scope given the enormous amount of reporting available. It needs to stay selective, otherwise I’d become glotz-eyed in the attempt to digest it all. Virginia Woolf spoke in A Room of One’s Own of a similar predicament while doing research in the British Library:
… Here had I come with a notebook and a pencil proposing that at the end of the morning I should have transferred the truth to my notebook. But I should need to be a herd of elephants, I thought, and a wilderness of spiders, desperately referring to the animals that are reputed longest lived and most multitudinously eyed, to cope with all this. I should need claws of steel and beak of brass even to penetrate the husk. How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper? I asked myself, and in despair began running my eye up and down the long list of titles. …
But there’s a caveat. In the process of defining the boundaries of that selectivity I realize there’s a fine line to walk. We’ve heard about information bubbles quite a bit and I think that’s exactly how a lot of people live now, inside a content bubble that forms a barrier against information that could condition what’s inside the bubble. That only becomes dangerous if what’s inside the bubble strays from the truth enough to become purely ideological — which is to say: propaganda. It’s inevitable that news sources have a particular ideological slant to them. They’re in the business of creating content for a particular audience and that determines how they report and in some cases what they report. But if they cut loose too far from the truth, there’s a problem. A big problem.
So I’m aware that in my selection of sources I need to be careful not to build a bubble. It’s a line you have to walk, there’s really no way around it because you can’t possibly digest all the news that comes from every quarter. So there’s really no option but to become an information sleuth, spying out the good bits where you find them, turning over stones to see if there are any ugglesome creatures living under them that send you recoiling in horror.
Were I subscribed to the feeds of all 33 news sources I use regularly I’d find myself in Woolf’s unenviable position. We can’t be doing with that, obviously. Selectivity is the only answer, a judicious selectivity that keeps oversight of the information in the control of the consumer and the content bubbles at bay. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it — and like going to the bathroom, it can’t be delegated.
Piero della Francesca Is a Dear Friend
The number of fantastic painters is so large that the idea of choosing a favorite becomes completely laughable. It also makes no sense on a comparative basis. How could you pit Giotto against Wassily Kandinsky? The very idea is absurd. I don’t think about having favorites but all the same, there are certain painters with whom I feel a greater sense of connection than I do with others. I call that connection “consonance” because the phenomenon first came into my experience through music. Certain composers speak to me in such a way that the experience of their music is qualitatively different from my experience of other equally laudable composers. You never know when such a personal consonance will happen. I certainly didn’t expect to find it with a Spanish composer of organ music from the 17th century who wrote in the strictest contrapuntal style imaginable. His strict counterpoint has, however, a charge of such intense emotion that at times it’s like hearing confession. I mean Francisco Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654), who for more than 40 years has provided one of the most substantive connections I’ve known with any composer’s music.
In the realm of painting such things occur as well for reasons I’m at pains to explain logically. I can only dredge up that old chestnut of Descartes, “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point.” Meaning: the heart has its reasons of which reason is ignorant. The reaction that signals the event of consonance is not solely emotional, however. Let me be absolutely clear on that point. It goes much deeper than that. When I engage a work of Piero della Francesca I do far more than just say to myself, “How pretty.” Let’s have a look at one:
This is the meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba from the fresco cycle on the True Cross in the Cappella Maggiore of San Francesco in Arezzo. I feel the consonance rise within me as I look at it. What is the experience exactly? As one might expect, the experience is the result of multiple responses of different nature fusing together. There’s the wonderment at the fine craft of the painter that gives the figures such weight in volume but also envelops them in a shimmering fabric of color and texture. There’s the symmetrical composition that so pleases the two halves of the brain at the same time. There’s the color palette, so beautifully varied with points of contrast and repose distributed across the pictorial space. All these things are there and have great importance, nobody will gainsay that.
There’s more, however. It’s not just the dignity and solemnity of the figures, though that is impressive. There’s also what I can only call an inclination of spirit expressed in the figures quite apart from their finery and their pictorial solidity. Somehow through the use of the brush on the wall Piero has infused the images with a discernible quality of beingness of which he is the only identifiable source. The result is that when I see the painting I feel I’m in the presence of the painter, who has revealed his innermost and — most importantly — his best self. Through the contact with that beingness I am myself uplifted, as one is uplifted by spending time in the company of a person of quality one regards with affection. I find Piero’s work ennobling, although I realize that such a word these days falls on ears that can’t easily interpret its meaning. But so it is for me. Piero’s art not only affords a consummate aesthetic pleasure, it also gives my beingness a lift.
That’s exactly what a dear friend does. So the only explanation I really need to give is: Piero is a dear friend. Enough said.
Discourse Neutrality in the News Media
The things we say to ourselves and the things we say in public sometimes differ so enormously that the chasm between them can gape wide. I’m acutely aware of that when I’m busy ingesting news. There’s an interesting article by Roger Sollenberger in Paste magazine from last December entitled, “The 17 Worst New York Times Headlines of 2018″ (here) that makes the point well:
The state of our nation and the state of our president have all but passed the point of rescue, but the press, in misguided pursuit of objectivity and led by the New York Times, still “bothsides” its coverage. Make no mistake: This too is bias, and though it’s not nearly as corrosive to democracy as the Trump administration, it distorts and accelerates that corrosion—all in the name of neutrality, no less.
Little has changed in 2018. The Gray Lady—a Times sobriquet originally meant to invoke respect—has over the last few years revealed herself as a crotchety old biddy, clinging like a trailer-park Trumper to antiquated values that don’t reflect the world as it is, and really never did in the first place.
The job of reporters (not opinion writers or analysts) is to present objective, fact-based journalism and not favor one candidate or point of view over another. But the U.S. press—and the Times in particular—has allowed personal biases not just to slip in to their headlines and reporting, but to govern their philosophy. They have treated the objectively terrible Donald Trump—who says and does objectively terrible things toxic to the very democracy that makes the free press possible—with the clinical detachment of scientists observing a lab specimen. What do primatologists do, though, when a chimp attacks them?
At some point in the production of any piece, reporters and editorial staff must make subjective decisions. They have a duty to reflect the truth as best they see it, not to stack the deck, and to respect the votes and platforms of people on both sides of this divide. Often, Times editors admit when they get it wrong, and as this Twitter account documents so well, they’ll revise headlines and abstracts. But the problem today is deeper than revising individual pieces: Journalists must revise their entire code, and recalibrate the metrics for what constitutes “the truth.” This isn’t because they’re getting it wrong more frequently, it’s because we’re being lied to more frequently. As cognitive scientist and propaganda expert George Lakoff recently pointed out (not in the New York Times) “Trump needs the media, and the media help him by repeating what he says.” In other words, we’re being lied to, but we don’t need to live that lie. And the first step is to not repeat it.
I recently read an op-ed by Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post (here) that suggested it was time to declare broadcast space a “Kellyanne Free Zone” — meaning that Kellyanne Conway should no longer be invited onto news programs to do her spin acrobatics. After seeing Chris Cuomo of MSNBC tangle with her in the last appearance she made on his show, I couldn’t agree more that it’s time to excommunicate her save from Fox News where she fits in just fine. Talking to the woman is like trying to have a conversation with the automated answering service you get when you call a big company, except with Kellyanne there’s only one option on the menu. There’s no news value in what she says, so why have her on a news show?
Her antipode is Donny Deutsch, a panelist seen on MSNBC. His approach to reportage can perhaps best be summed up by the phrase, “cut the crap.” He comes from the same brash milieu as Trump and knows the real story about him quite apart from the heavily curated version presented to the general populace before the election in 2016. If the truth about Trump from New York City of the 1980’s and 1990’s had been put forward during the campaign, the Republican Party would never have considered his candidacy. I recently watched Deutsch in an MSNBC panel discussion on Nicolle Wallace’s “Deadline: White House” stun the entire panel into silence by explaining that everybody in the business world of New York City has known for years that Trump is a bottom feeder and that the Trump Organization is as shady as the day is long. Nicolle Wallace sat in stunned silence for a moment then said, “Wow. Thanks for that.” Then she quickly moved on to engage another panelist who talked in measured tones using neutral discourse (of course).
News media are supposed to be fair and factual and that’s the way it should be. But things have spun so far out of control rhetorically that we now have one major network, Fox News, playing the role of State TV as aggressively as though it were VGTRK (Vserossiyskaya Gosudarstvennaya Televizionnaya i Radioveshchatelnaya Kompaniya) in Russia. So the playing field of the “fair and factual” is skewed beyond any reasonable comparison with the public discourse landscape of the past. The President himself continues to follow the program of his former strategist Steve Bannon, whose tactic when encountering any resistance to the message purveyed is to “flood the zone with shit.” It’s very hard to find “fair and factual” in that kind of environment. We even have a new buzzphrase for the phenomenon of skewing perception of the facts: the Overton window. We don’t talk about honesty or dishonesty any longer, we talk about “moving the Overton window” or “moving the goalposts” as if facts and truth had become in the past few years wholly relevant phenomena rather than the absolutes they once were. It would be far easier and more protective of public discourse just to call a spade a spade. “Alternative facts” are bullshit. “Goalposts” are manipulative deceptions. Is that so hard to say?
So I see Sollenberger’s point. I find myself becoming weary of the rhetorical smoothing-over in the media when the combined force of Trump, his blithering spokespeople and his media propaganda machine never hesitates to present falsehood, obfuscation, exaggeration and hyperbole with naked aggression. The mainstream media continues with the strategy “When they go low, we go high.” I suppose it’s better than letting things degenerate into rhetorical mud-wrestling, but at this point the measured approach seems too namby-pamby to protect the commons in which public discourse must necessarily take place. The commons is being polluted to such a degree that “fair and factual” struggles to keep its head above the effluvia continually flooding the zone with shit.
So a big thumbs up to voices like Sollenberger’s and Deutsch’s who just blat out the facts with the subtext, “cut the crap.” They’re one of the only means left of clearing a path for “fair and factual” to keep it from being completely submerged in the Superfund site that public discourse has become these days.
A Girl Just Can’t Go Anywhere These Days: Europe in a Mess
While thinking about where I might like to travel in 2019 I quickly bumped into the reality of how much the world has changed in the last few years. Not in a good way, either. Instead of the world being one’s oyster, it’s now a place where you have to be careful where you go lest you end up with something on your vacation plan you really don’t want to include — like a mass demonstration or a terrorist attack. I let my ideas flow freely and came up with all kinds of interesting destinations — after all, the world is a fascinating place and there’s tons to see. But dealing with some places in order to see their treasures turns out to be, um, complicated. What I found myself doing as the next step in the travel planning process was to mark out those places where it might be better to stay away for one reason or another. Usually the reason is political, of course.
The UK? Who knows what Brexit consequences await innocent tourists attempting to go innocuously about their business. The last thing I want on a trip to Merry Old is to be caught up in fisticuffs to get what’s left on the shelves of a supermarket. So scratch the UK off the list for the time being, I don’t need to throw myself into a hornet’s nest, thanks very much.
France? I don’t have a yellow vest but I do have an pronounced distaste for mass violence, so Paris is beyond the pale for the time being. Even a place like Strasbourg turns out to be dicey, where you just pays your money and takes your chances. Whiling away a few days in some village with a population of less than 10,000 near one of the national borders so you can if need be make a quick getaway is certainly one option, but I can be stuck out in the middle of nowhere without leaving home, so why bother?
Italy? Matteo Salvini & Co. are doing a bang-up job of discouraging tourists with headlines like “UN condemns Italy’s ‘unashamed racism and xenophobia’ in human rights statement” in the Independent last November (article here). If I want that sort of thing I can stay home — there are plenty of white supremacists ready for a rumble one state away — so there’s no need to travel halfway around the world. Besides, Steve Bannon is pals with Salvini and anywhere where Steve Bannon is you can safely assume I will not be. Period, end of story.
Germany? Well … the Alternative für Deutschland business is worrisome, to say the least, and Angela is on her way out so things are feeling a bit skittish in that regard, too. The last thing I want is to find myself embroiled in is a riot staged by people who would have been only too happy back in the day to sign up for the Waffen-SS. I think I’ll give that a miss. Austria is somewhat better these days despite seriously populist inclinations, at least the news reports don’t leave one’s hair standing on end. But it’s right next door to Hungary, which is now quite solidly beyond the pale. So much for the notion of pastries in the Cafe Central while listening to Strauss. That will just have to wait for better times.
Hungary and Poland are now both no-go zones thanks to the far right and its taste for the heady combination of authoritarianism and violence. I wouldn’t dream of setting foot in either country at this point. Images on the TV of street marches in Poland and news of the mayor of Gdansk being stabbed to death at a public event make Poland seem a dubious tourist destination at this juncture. Orbán in Hungary is so ugglesome a creature I’d be fuming the whole time and have to watch myself so I don’t shoot my mouth off and get myself in trouble. The rot has creeped across the borders into the Czech Republic as well, as President Zeman’s inauguration address shows, since it’s remarkably like one of Trump’s rally harangues. All three countries have been sued by the EU for not accepting asylum seekers according to EU quotas — Poland and Hungary have accepted none at all, the Czech Republic only 12 of the 8,000 that were to be distributed across those three eastern EU members (article here). Anything east of the Czech Republic is completely out of the question. Ukraine, Russia … goodness sake. My momma didn’t raise no dummies.
The long and the short of it is that Europe is a mess at the moment. And it’s not the only place in that predicament, not by a long shot. Gone are the days when it seemed that the world really was your oyster and you could go pretty much where you liked without doing political research and projecting what bad things might happen after you cross the border. The more I read the more a staycation sounds like the best idea. It’s a pity, but there it is.
All this is especially irksome because I had my sights set on Europe this year. But the timing’s all wrong. Particularly worrisome is the situation around EU elections in May. An article by Paul Mason from last month in The New Statesman entitled “Will the Far Right Triumph in Europe in 2019?” (here) sets forth a grim scenario that gives me a sinking feeling in my stomach. Here’s how it starts off:
Only one thing is certain about the 2019 elections to the European Parliament: the outcome will be neither free nor fair.
It doesn’t matter how scrupulously the ballots are counted in Stockholm or how equally the time is allocated to parties on Dutch TV. As long as Hungary participates, the parliament elected on 26 May will contain MEPs who owe their seats to the lies, coercion and corruption practised by the government of Viktor Orbán.
The Hungarian prime minister indirectly controls 500 media outlets and influences almost all TV coverage of politics. When there are mass demonstrations against him in Budapest, Hungarian state TV instead shows demonstrations against migrants by Belgian fascists. Orbán has used taxpayers’ money to stage referendums against the non-existent “Soros plan” to flood Europe with refugees, to plaster Budapest with anti-Semitic billboards, and to gain 91 of 106 directly elected seats in Hungary’s parliament.
Oh dear. 🙁 That bodes ill, indeed. I’m glad that Fox News is the State TV channel of choice for only a minority of Americans, otherwise we might be in a similar fix. It’s astonishing to see the same tendencies of populist/nationalist politics play out in the United States, but once one understands their origin the wonderment diminishes. Steve Bannon of Breitbart fame was instrumental in engineering the U.S. manifestation of the phenomenon during the Trump campaign and in the early Trump administration until the boot was applied to his backside. Now he’s floating around Europe trying to galvanize far-right nationalist movements into his own poisonous coalition. But he’s a day late and a dollar short — the Europeans were already out of the station by the time Bannon arrived and they’re doing just fine without his help, thank you very much. From Mr. Mason’s article again:
But the Hungarian case is just part of a wider crisis for Europe’s liberal centrist political elites. Analysis of national opinion polls show the far right is set to surge during the May elections. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is polling at 21 per cent; Italy’s Lega Nord is on 30 per cent. Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the right-wing populist group in the European Parliament to which both parties are affiliated is expected to win 51 seats, while Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), a Eurosceptic outfit containing Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and an assortment of former Front National and Ukip MEPs, is predicted to win 50.
The authoritarian right will emerge as a pan-European force in the run-up to May. Its agitation has already forced eight European governments to reject the UN’s global compact on migration last month and will, this year, redraw the political map of Europe. …
Social democratic parties, meanwhile, are facing a mixture of electoral decline and challenge from both the greens and the left. Only Portugal, where the Socialist Party holds 37 per cent of seats and leads a coalition government with the far left, has bucked the trend. Sweden’s social democrats, down to 28 per cent of the vote in last year’s election, cling precariously to power in a caretaker government. Elsewhere, the typical fate of the classic social democrat parties, for example in Austria and Denmark, is to hover around 25 per cent. In both Germany and Italy, where strong social democracy was a lynchpin of the postwar anti-fascist settlement, support for social democrats has slumped below 20 per cent.
Well, Portugal it is, then. I’ve wanted for years to see the cathedral at Alcobaça, and let us not forget the Manueline delights of the Convento do Cristo in Tomar, which must also find a place on the to-do list. Top billing on the list, however, goes to the Mosteiro da Batalha, one of the jewels in the crown of European ecclesiastical architecture. Seeing that alone will take days. I want to burn the images of the Capelas Imperfeitas into my mind so deeply that when I close my eyes they stand in full clarity before my inner vision.
So off to Portugal it is. Let’s all keep those fingers crossed that the rot of nationalist/populist politics stops at the Portuguese borders so that at least one country in Europe remains a no-brainer as a travel destination for those of us who prefer tourism to remain unsullied by authoritarian coups. Are you listening over there in Spain in the Vox party? Don’t mess up my vacation plans, you creeps!
The Founding Fathers Need New Wigs
When you read enough history it becomes clear that constitutions are made to be messed with. In recent history we have the fine examples of China, Russia and Venezuela. Xi Jinping is now President for life through changes made to the Chinese constitution that abolished — conveniently for Xi — the term limit for his office. Russia is now considering amendments to its constitution to secure Putin’s position according to a recent article in Bloomberg (here). Venezuela’s Castro-like President Maduro would like to scrap the whole thing and start over — if he lives that long.
“The Founding Fathers” is a phrase we hear often these days together with “the rule of law.” Maybe that’s because we have a Bad Daddy in the White House and a majority of cabinet appointees ends up heading for the hills in order not to land in jail. The Consitution is a short document. The U.S. Code, however, contains 22 million words at present count. In all the legal wrangling coming out of Washington, D.C. I hear references to the U.S. Code made much more frequently than to specific clauses of the Constitution. You don’t need to be a lawyer to see that the Constitution, for all its many merits, doesn’t give a lot of detail about how actually to conduct the rule of law. Without the U.S. Code we’d be sunk in that regard.
It’s not unreasonable that a document written in 1787 should be considered possibly in need of an update. In an article in The Huffington Post from 2014 (here) Scott Galanty Miller suggests it’s time for a makeover:
Things change. Is it so unreasonable to think that, when they wrote the Constitution, the founding fathers had no foresight into gay marriage and iPods and 9/11 and cars and lunatics shooting people in shopping malls and that the American Idol contestants would be so awful this year?
Nor did the founding fathers have the foresight to know that, in 2014, states would vary so differently in population. What would Benjamin Franklin have to say about the absurdity that Alaska, with less than a million inhabitants, has the same Senate power as California, a state with over 38 million people — and even more if you include the nights when Charlie Sheen is seeing double? I suspect he would say, “I’m dead. Figure it out on your own. And what happened to Glee? That show has really gone downhill.”
Even more worrisome to me is the phenomenon of democratic backsliding. We have multiple examples of that phenomenon in today’s world — Hungary being one of the most glaring, but the same tendencies are now evident throughout Europe and in the United States, as well. The phenomenon is an area of special study for Aziz Huq who published a good article on it in Vox in 2017 (here). Among the many good points he makes these seem especially important:
James Madison thought the divergent “ambitions” of the legislative and executive branches would cause those institutions to balance one another. But he failed to anticipate the rise of parties, and how they would reshape incentives. Congress members today may have little reason to investigate or otherwise rein in an aggressive president of their own party, as we are now witnessing. That Republicans are not eager to investigate President Trump’s financial dealings, or his contacts with Russia, is entirely predictable, from an institutional standpoint.
Other constitutions give minority parties rights to demand information and make inquiries, but the US Constitution does not.
Where other nations have independent election officials, too many of our election rules depend on the good faith of the party in power. As the omnipresence of gerrymandering shows, good faith may not be enough. After the 2010 redistricting in Wisconsin, the GOP was able to win 60 of 99 seats in the state legislature, despite winning less than half of the statewide vote. (A case challenging Wisconsin’s gerrymandering will be heard by the Supreme Court.)
The Founding Fathers made no provision for one party taking over all three branches of government and letting both the Constitution and the U.S. Code run aground on corruption worthy of a banana republic. The Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the good faith of the entire enterprise and made no provision for the protection of the country from what amounts to an internal political coup by one party operating on a governance model unmistakeably authoritarian in nature. Oops. Is it time for a new stylist and a bit of a makeover? A new shade of spray tan, perhaps?
The executive branch is the worst offender. The concentration of power in the executive branch has been going on for a long time. George W. Bush did yeoman’s work in that department. Obama found himself reaching for the executive order template form more often than should have been the case because he was hamstrung by Congress. And around and around we go, to the effect that the political process ends up being overwhelmingly about political fisticuffs rather than about legislation and governance. It’s no wonder that confidence in Congress as an institution is at an all-time low. You now send people to Washington more to do political wrangling reminiscent of a bar-room brawl rather than to work swiftly and effectively to meet the challenges the country faces as a collective. You end up with Mitch McConnell going limp during a government shutdown like a spoiled three year-old throwing himself on the floor in a mall. There’s the answer to #WheresMitch.
In our representative democracy none of us feels terribly represented any longer. There are ways that circumstance could change. Get rid of the Electoral College or use the States to override it as Robert Reich explains in one of his fine tutorials (here). Reduce terms for senators to three years instead of six. Put in a mechanism that allows for quick popular recall of a member of Congress — a means for the electorate quickly to fire and replace a senator or representative while sitting. Get the judiciary out from under the executive branch, an arrangement that has massive potential for democratic backsliding and for obstruction of justice. Decouple judiciary nominations from party politics entirely so that partisanship plays no part in appointments to the courts or to the Department of Justice. I can think of tons of things that would make the system better able to resist the kind of shenanigans we’ve observed in Washington, D.C. for long years now. Changes need to be made and if the Founding Fathers were with us today watching what goes on they’d have pens and White Out in their hands in no time flat, I’m sure.
Noah Feldman published an article on bloomberg.com last month entitled “The Constitution Is Alive, No Matter What Trump Does” (available here). The header line is: “The 230-year-old document fits America’s modern democracy because it has evolved to do so.” It’s a great paeon to the Constitution and attempts to show through one example involving Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. how the constitutional framework supposedly has inherent in it some supernuminal intelligence that can enlighten us as we face things the Founding Fathers never even thought of:
Here is the essence of Holmes’s judicial philosophy — and a repudiation of originalism. Constitutional questions have to be decided according to the “whole experience” of national and constitutional evolution. To do otherwise is to ignore the evolution that has enabled the Constitution to endure.
So O’Rourke and other progressives shouldn’t worry about being stuck with the dead hand of the past. We aren’t stuck. Our Constitution lives. Its principles change and evolve. That flexibility is the key to its longevity — and ours.
I’m as fond of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers as the next guy, but the logic here is flawed and the proof of that pudding is the U.S. Code. Without the latter the Constitution would be nothing more than a skeleton, all the flesh on the bones is in the Code. One might also ask the question about how well the Constitution would fare if interpreted by a Supreme Court justice who believes that modern social conditions require the executive branch to have firm ascendance over the legislative branches. Oh wait LOL, we have a couple of those types on the bench already, silly me. 🙂
We find ourselves squabbling mightily these days about a Department of Justice memo — neither constitutional nor legislative in origin — setting down a policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. What does the Constitution or the U.S. Code have to say about that? Nothing. Who decides whether that DOJ memo is the equivalent of a constitutional or legislative mandate? Good question. It’s not the Constitution or the Code, that much is clear.
It’s also important to remember that amendments to the Constitution require an incredible brouhaha that leaves one wondering just who’s hand is really on the wheel after one reads this eyebrow-raising explanation about the Office of the Federal Register (here):
After Congress proposes an amendment, the Archivist of the United States, who heads the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is charged with responsibility for administering the ratification process under the provisions of 1 U.S.C. 106b. The Archivist has delegated many of the ministerial duties associated with this function to the Director of the Federal Register. Neither Article V of the Constitution nor section 106b describe the ratification process in detail. The Archivist and the Director of the Federal Register follow procedures and customs established by the Secretary of State, who performed these duties until 1950, and the Administrator of General Services, who served in this capacity until NARA assumed responsibility as an independent agency in 1985. [emphasis added]
NARA — the National Archives and Records Administration — was formed by Congress in 1985 as an independent agency ostensibly outside the purview of any single branch of government. How impervious is it to influence by those branches? We can get an idea from this tidbit from NARA’s Wikipedia page:
In March 2006, it was revealed by the Archivist of the United States in a public hearing that a memorandum of understanding between NARA and various government agencies existed to “reclassify”, i.e., withdraw from public access, certain documents in the name of national security, and to do so in a manner such that researchers would not be likely to discover the process (the U.S. reclassification program). An audit indicated that more than one third withdrawn since 1999 did not contain sensitive information. The program was originally scheduled to end in 2007.
In 2010, Executive Order 13526 created the National Declassification Center to coordinate declassification practices across agencies, provide secure document services to other agencies, and review records in NARA custody for declassification.
What did the Constitution have to say about that business? Nothing. The U.S. Code? Nothing. Oops. The issue was addressed by an executive order from the president acting unilaterally from the executive branch. What’s the constitutional basis for executive orders issued by the president having to do with security classification? Good question. It depends on who you ask LOL. And around and around we go …
In the case of divided government as we now have, what’s the likelihood of getting a constitutional amendment through Congress with a 2/3 majority in both houses? To borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw: not bloody likely. So it’s no wonder constitutional amendments are very rare. The early ones are the equivalent of the U.S. Code before such a thing got off the ground, which didn’t happen until 1926. Yes, Bridget, that’s right: 1926. Think about it.
But these are idle thoughts from the sidelines. I wonder how many of us in the electorate look at the hair-raising reality TV issuing forth from Washington, D.C. and feel wistful as I do that Madison never imagined things coming to this state of affairs. Where are those Founding Fathers when you need them?
It’s Time for the Gals To Govern
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with old white guys in positions of power. Enough already. Whenever I see the faces of Trump, McConnell or Graham on the screen I just want to scream. Not only are they all unsightly, they all act in a manner that would find them quickly excluded from any sensible person’s circle of acquaintance. Let them be shunted off to talk with their brokers and play golf in some compound where watch is set to ensure that they never again have access to political power.
The face of the 116th Congress is more like it. During the swearing-in ceremony in the House it looked like a women’s conference on the Democratic side of the House and like a very tired Kiwanis meeting on the other side. We have gals shooting their mouths off about all sorts of things now (#WheresMitch LOL) and saying bad words in the heat of the moment. Frankly I find it a breath of fresh air. As Nancy Pelosi said last month after a meeting with The Old White Guy in the White House, “I have five children and nine grandchildren and I know a temper tantum when I see one.” If only, if ONLY she could have sent him to the time-out chair. What a blessing that would be for us all.
It’s just a matter of statistics, really. When you consider the number of bad female politicans in high positions the number is drastically lower in comparison to guy creeps who’ve had power. True, there have been some nasty pieces of work — for example Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835-1908), who’s not a figure one would wish on any country. Bloody Mary is another cringeworthy example. So yes, there are some women who have cut figures equally as bad as those cut by the men of history, but their number is small compared to the interminable procession of male rulers who’ve made human history the litany of horrors it is.
So let’s give the gals a chance at the steering wheel, shall we? What have we got to lose? They don’t have to do much to improve on the track record of the guys, so I’m all for turning things over to them and seeing what they can cook up. At this stage of the game we can’t possibly do any worse than we’d do by keeping the guys at the helm. It’s only too clear that they’ll just continue to mess things up royally. Time for the gals to take over. You go, girlfriends!
Jeez, Enough Napoleons (and Monkeys) Already!
I’ve always disliked hierarchies because they’re so wasteful of human potential and creativity. We live perforce in hierarchies as part of daily life and it took me until middle age to accept the dismal fact that most people are comfortable in that kind of structure. Over the past few years the thought occurred to me that perhaps we’re biologicially predisposed to that social arrangement because we’re primates. When the thought first occurred to me it clicked because all kinds of observational evidence immediately attached to it both from what I had read and — more importantly — from my own experience. In one of my workplaces after the departure of a director we formed a team management group to replace the directorship. It worked well within our own organization but we found ourselves at a serious disadvantage when it came to interfacing with other organizations, all of whom had directors, not management teams.
Inevitably the question came up, “Who’s in charge?” That’s monkey talk, that is. The question could as easily have been phrased, “Who’s your group’s alpha male?” There were a few projects I spearheaded that required me to represent my organization in consortial settings where the meetings were of directors (of course) and I was never taken seriously because I wasn’t a DIRECTOR so I really couldn’t be considered to be “in charge.” In other words, I wasn’t a Napoleon. I watched the directors carry on in those meetings and saw that the effectiveness and creativity of their participation was diminished by their being subsumed as individuals into their role as directors. Instead of opening discussion to the free flow of ideas, they acted from political motivations in all sorts of ways that distorted their interactions. I found the entire business disgusting and it hardened my hatred of hierarchical structures all the more. Many of the directors were women, by the way, so it’s not just guys who get the Napoleon Complex. There are plenty of Napoleonettes running around out there, too, more’s the pity.
Why must we have all these Napoleons? I finally bit the bullet and did some research on my idea of our need for The One Who Must Be Obeyed being somehow bound up with our evolutionary history as a hairless version of a great ape. And oh boy did I hit paydirt, far more than I ever expected I’d find. Here are the titles of the articles I found:
- “Chimp Society Resembles Cocktail Party in Remarkable Study on Grooming. If it all seems a bit Machiavellian, that’s because it kind of is.” (here)
- “Eight Striking Similarities between Humans and Chimpanzees ” (here)
- “The Human Side of Animal Behavior” (here)
- “Humans And Monkeys Share Machiavellian Intelligence” (here)
- “Why Trump?: the Dominant Male Ape” (here)
- “The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump” (here)
- “It’s an alpha male thing: what dominant chimpanzees and Donald Trump have in common” (here)
Looks like my idea wasn’t so crazy after all. The last article in the list is the one I read first and it left me gobsmacked. It’s by Dan P. McAdams, a professor at Northwestern University, and appears in The Guardian (article here):
The curious case of Donald Trump, however, now shows that human beings turn out to be a lot like chimps.
In the wild and in captivity, chimpanzee colonies organize themselves into tightly structured hierarchies. Power is vested in the biggest, strongest, and most outgoing males in the group, with the alpha male on top. The alpha leader dominates all others through tactics of threat, intimidation, bluffing, and outright aggression – and importantly, by forming short-term, pragmatic coalitions (let us call them “deals”) with other high-status males.
ABSTRACT: Drawing on the distinction between dominance and prestige as two evolutionarily grounded strategies for attaining status in human groups, this essay examines an underappreciated feature of Donald Trump’s appeal to the millions of American voters who elected him president in 2016—his uncanny ability to channel primal dominance. Like the alpha male of a chimpanzee colony, Trump leads (and inspires) through intimidation, bluster, and threat, and through the establishment of short-term, opportunistic relationships with other high-status agents. Whereas domain-specific expertise confers status in the prestige paradigm, dominant leaders derogate expertise in order to establish a direct, authoritarian connection to their constituency. Trump’s leadership style derives readily from his personality makeup, which entails a combustible temperament mixture of high extraversion and low agreeableness, a motivational agenda centered on extreme narcissism, and an internalized life story that tracks the exploits of an intrepid warrior who must forever fight to win in a Hobbesian world of carnage.
So, case closed. Verdict: we’re monkeys. All that fancy psychological analysis just goes to show what was obvious from the get-go: monkey business.
If you want to put a finer point on the matter, I suggest you have a look at “Rise of the Warrior Apes,” a film by Discovery UK about a chimpanzee population in Ngogo, Uganda — it’s available on YouTube here. It describes a ten-year war over territory waged by factions of the population, with enough grisly detail to qualify as a horror flick. I only watched a small portion of it because I found it too disturbing. Considering that both chimpanzees and humans descended from a common ancestor it’s no wonder we have all these Napoleons running around. Duuh. Enough already. Isn’t it high time we stopped acting like monkeys?