What is a Citizen, Anyway?

I’ve recently realized there’s a large gap in my education: I don’t know how to be a citizen.

I know how to be a worker. Long hours spent in school forced to sit still and be quiet at a desk while taking orders from an authority figure prepared me for life in the 21st century economy. Years spent working for minimum wage — as a fast-food cook — or less than minimum wage — as a server — taught me crucial survival skills like Smiling at the Asshole and Let the Boss Be Right. Not to mention first-hand experience with the inherent conflict between workers and owners that lies at the heart of capitalism.

I know how to be a husband. Not always a good one, to be sure, but a husband all the same. Popular culture, family examples, and years of church gave me a plethora of role-models to choose from. There’s the drunken layabout coupled with teary-eyed professions of love (my dad’s preferred mode). There’s the stalwart family patriarch, holding everything — and everyone — in no matter what. There’s the queer model of radical equality, or the jealous hawk, or the laissez-faire bro. Lots of choices, an entire industry of self-help books, all geared around making sure I know how to play that role.

But what about being a citizen?

There was no class for that in my schooling. There’s no section of the bookstore on citizenship to read up on. No MasterClass. I can get courses on being a better cook or learning to play the cello or the exact right way to pose so my Instagram posts go viral. But nothing on how to be a better citizen. There, I’m on my own.

Is it enough to vote? I mean, I do vote, every chance I get. I scour election materials and try to sniff out which candidate is actually going to do some good. But I hear now that “just showing up on Election Day” is not enough, that we need to involved citizens.

Is it voting and protesting, then? I protested the Second Gulf War, Bush’s candidacy in 2004, and Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve marched for Women’s Day, and I’ll march for Black Lives Matter. But that too feels hollow, in a way. Not just because the Second Gulf War went ahead as (not really) planned, or that Bush got re-elected, or that Trump never got removed from office. Participating in those marches felt…good, cathartic, even. But also ephemeral. Nothing was really at risk, for me, in those marches. And nothing permanent came out of it. I came, I marched, I went back to work the next day. So when I hear terms like “performative ally-ship,” they hit very close to home, for me.

Is it being an activist? But — assuming no one can be an activist for every cause, so we should all pick one to pursue — if we all become activists, what distinguishes us from just another series of lobbies or interest groups?

So seriously, now: What does being a citizen (not just a consumer, not just worker) mean?

I suppose it used to mean, and may still mean, participating in civil society. But what’s that? There’s no Chamber of Commerce for me to join, because I work for an international company, not my own business. There’s no union, either, for the same reason. There’s no PTA, because I don’t have kids. The City Council meets behind semi-closed doors in the middle of the afternoon on a week-day, when absolutely no one that works for a living can attend.

I guess that leaves volunteer organizations. Habitat for Humanity. A food bank. The local chapter of a political party, even. Some kind of group with a concrete mission, some change they make in people’s lives, on a daily basis.

Is that it? And, maybe more importantly: Is that enough?

Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

President’s Day, 2021

Coming in the midst of Black History Month, I can think of no better way to honor this President’s Day than to read two essays. Both by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and both published in The Atlantic, but with completely opposed subjects.

The first essay, “My President Was Black” was published a little over four years ago, in January 2017. Obama had just left office, and Coates wrote a long, reflective essay on what the Obama Presidency had meant, both for him as a Black person, and for the country as a whole. He explored Obama’s unique raising, and how that had influenced his perspective on race relations in America. He talks about how Obama achieved so much as President, despite a coalition of racist opposition that formed from his very first day in the Oval Office. And he covers how Obama disappointed him, in the way he spent more time chastising Black people for “blaming White people” and not enough time openly calling out the structures of white supremacy.

Like all of Coates’ writing, it’s powerful, it’s though-provoking, and it’s worth your time.

The second essay, “The First White President”, was published just ten months after the first, in October of 2017. Even then, Coates could see clearly what many commentators could not, until after the Capitol Riot: that Donald Trump’s entire political philosophy, such as it is, can be summed up as white nationalism. That Trump would not have been President at all, were it not for the racism that undergirds all politics in the United States. Trump was the ultimate expression of that racism, of that contempt for non-Whites. His racist supporters elected him as if to say, “True, a Black man can be President, after a lifetime of struggle and study. But any incompetent White man can trip into it, if he hates Blacks enough.”

Everything in that essay still rings true. It’s a potent reminder that Trump’s grounding in racism was always there to see, if we were willing to see it. That so many people were not willing, for so long, tells us exactly how deep white nationalism’s roots go in this country, and how much work we have left to do to pull it out.

Biden to be Sworn in as 46th President of United States

These past four years have been a waking nightmare. Every day, it’s been a barrage of lies, mismanagement, and neglect from a President with no previous governmental experience, no redeeming qualities, and no sense of duty.

2020 brought everything bad about the modern GOP right out into the open. They’re willing to let 400,000 Americans die rather than wear a piece of cloth on their face. They’re more interested in holding onto power than continuing our democracy. And they’re willing to commit sedition to get their way.

Biden and Harris will have a lot of work to do, just repairing the damage the GOP has done. But beyond that, they’ve got to contend with all the things they ignored, from the pandemic to foreign interference in our elections to the right-wing terrorists who attacked the Capitol.

And to be fair, some of the issues we need them to put a spotlight on are things we as a country have ignored for too long: racial justice, climate change, universal health care. The pandemic exposed how weak our institutions have really become, because we’ve left folks behind. That needs to stop, if we are to indeed build back better.

It’s a heavy task, but I have hope. Hope because the need for these things is out in the open, plain as the hospitals that have been overwhelmed, plain as videos of police beating up protestors and journalists, plain as the police shooting of a Black man in broad daylight as he was getting calmly into his car with his kids.

The Biden/Harris Administration isn’t an excuse for us to go back to sleep. To imagine ourselves waking up in a better country.

It’s a chance for us to get to work.

I’ll be watching the swearing-in ceremony today, live. You can view it here, on the Biden/Harris inaugural page, or on Youtube

I Miss Those Old-Fashioned Family Arguments

My family and I have disagreed on politics for a long time. I turned left even before going to college, rejecting the conservatism I was raised in.

Their conservative beliefs — shared by most people where I grew up, in West Texas — seemed hollow and hypocritical to me. They talked a big game about freedom, but sent me to the principal’s office for daring to wear a hat to school (only girls were allowed to wear hats in those hallowed halls, I was told). They talked up their faith, and turning the other cheek, but it was me that was supposed to turn that cheek, not them, as they let their sons bully me between classes. And they wrapped themselves in patriotism, but only for “real Americans,” like them, not liberals or Californians or anyone living back East…or me.

There was no place for me, in their America. Except at the bottom of the ladder, to be kicked and laughed at. Open season on nerds.

So I left Texas, and I left their beliefs behind. I didn’t give up on my family, though. I argued with them, often and vigorously. They were amused at my liberalism, I’m sure — there’s a smirk a right-wing person gets when they feel a leftie is talking out of their ass — but I was sincere.

And they argued back! We had good discussions, for many years. They pushed me to refine my thinking, and I used to think I was helping them, too, to see the other side of the argument. We didn’t have much in common, anymore, but we had good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred, debates. All in good faith, and with love.

But we don’t — we can’t — argue like that anymore.

Things started changing during Obama’s presidency. I didn’t notice it at the time, but looking back a pivotal moment was when my older sister, in all seriousness, sat down across from me after dinner one night for a chat.

“I need to ask you about something,” she said. “You’re pretty up on things, you know what’s going on.”

I shrugged. “Sure, what’s up?”

“I know the IRS is building camps out here, in the desert, to round up people with guns, and you know, conservatives. So what I do, when they come for me?”

…and I was speechless.

I mean, I said all the things I thought were right: The camps weren’t real, no one was coming for her or her guns (which she doesn’t own) or conservatives in general. That President Obama had no such plans, and would never do such a thing.

She listened, and she nodded. And I thought she believed me, and felt better.

But now…Now I’m not so sure. When my family’s constantly posting things about how the election was stolen and the Democrats are all Muslims that want to put Oklahoma under Shari’a Law and Black Lives Matter protestors burned down the entire city of Portland in a single day. I feel like that conversation was my first glimpse that something was wrong, that my family was slipping from conservative to right-wing, and losing their grip on reality.

Could I have done something, said something, back then, to keep that from happening? Could I have reached out more, found conservative but reality-based news sources to help them feel comfortable staying with us in the real world?

Because I can’t have arguments with them anymore. I have to spend all my time trying to convince them that these things they fear are simply not true.

And I can’t get through to them. No matter how many news articles I link. They’re “fake news” from the “mainstream media,” and so can’t be trusted.

Not only can’t be trusted, but challenging their reality this way is taken as a personal attack. They’re not “lies” they’re “conservative facts.” I can’t…I don’t know how to respond to that.

And all the time I spend fact-checking, they’re continuing to like and re-post articles spreading hate and fear about liberals, about BLM, about…well, about me. Not directly, but people like me. My friends. My neighbors. Our fellow citizens.

I’m…angry, sure, but also sad. Because I’ve lost something that was very important to me. I’ve lost my debate partners. But more, I’ve lost my family.

And I don’t know how to get them back.

Radicals Disguised as Conservatives

My wife and I are re-watching The West Wing for the first time since Trump took office. It’s been…revelatory, to see those people and those controversies again, after the last four years. To imagine (again) a White House whose biggest scandal might be some harsh words said to a fundamentalist on television, a White House where a single lie to the Press Core can occupy a character’s arc for a whole episode.

A White House that might hire Ainsley Hayes.

If you’re not familiar with the show, Hayes is a young Republican that out-debates a high-level member of the President’s staff on a political talk show. When the President finds out, he decides to hire her to work in the White House Counsel’s office. She refuses, at first, to come work for a Democrat. But after seeing them working in the White House (as part of being there to turn the job down) the Chief of Staff summons her sense of duty, and she accepts.

I love the Ainsley Hayes character. She’s an excellent counter-weight to the arrogance of the other staff members, she’s smart and witty and optimistic amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the administration. And she faithfully represents the Republican position on issues circa 2000, right down to her objections to the Equal Rights Amendment.

It’s during an episode where she has a casual debate with another staffer on the ERA that she articulates the Republican governing philosophy:

I believe that every time the federal government hands down a new law, it leaves for the rest of us a little less freedom. So I say, let’s just stick to the ones we absolutely need to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen.

This is an absolutely accurate summation of what Republicans believed (and many still believe).

The problem is, it’s not a conservative stance. It’s a libertarian one.

Libertarians want to roll back the role of government to what it was in the pre-industrial period: foreign defense, a little bit of property law, and that’s it. That’s why the Libertarian Party wants to legalize all drugs: the War on Drugs is not in service of either of those goals.

Which is all well and good, but neither is Social Security. Or the fire department. Or public schools.

If you believe that more law means less freedom, then you have no interest in making good laws. Because the only good law is the law that never gets passed.

This stance has been masquerading as conservatism in the United States for the last few decades, but it is not conservative.

To try to recover the conservative position, let’s turn to the writer considered the progenitor of the movement, Edmund Burke:

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

Hmm. Doesn’t sound like he thinks fewer laws means more freedom.

Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.

Oh? He doesn’t want to make government so small he can “drown it in the bathtub”?

Two more quotes, both of which, I believe, sum up the actual conservative position:

A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.

And:

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

In other words: Modern Conservatism is opposition to radical change

That may sound like a small philosophy, but it turns out to be a big one. Burke was writing (from the safety of England) during the French Revolution, forming his philosophy out of opposition to the Terror.

He opposed both the refusal of the French aristocracy to change and the radical changes being made by Robespierre et al.

The conservatism of Burke fully believes in the power of government to do good. But it acknowledges the potential for government — like any powerful organization — to do evil.

It’s a combination of a skeptical view of the nature of people — government being necessary, in part, to protect us from our worse instincts — and a skeptical view of power wielded without check.

So while Burke might have opposed something like the ERA in his own time, someone like Burke dropped into the US of the 1970s, where women had been voting and going to college and having careers for decades, would have seen no issue with enshrining their equal status in law. In fact, he would have (rightly) seen it as a preservation of liberty against backsliding by the state.

Okay, one more quote:

The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.

For a true conservative, one of the purposes of law is to firmly entrench the rights and liberties of the people. Thus more law can and does mean more freedom, if those laws are written correctly.

Also note that for Burke, liberty is not the freedom to do as we please. Burke believed that we could not be free unless we tamed our passions; that only a people with their emotions in check could be said to be free.

To take a more modern example, freedom does not mean the freedom to go without wearing a mask. Public health fits squarely in the realm of government, and those who defy laws written to preserve public health are not exercising their liberty, but inciting anarchy. That’s a true conservative viewpoint.

It’s difficult to see, after decades of the Republican party trying to put their stance into practice, but they are not conservatives. They’re radicals, shading into libertarians, wrapping themselves in a tradition they no longer follow.

Biden Defeats Trump

You love to see it.

Jesus, we actually fucking did it.

We’re kicking the Giant Orange Baby out of the White House.

This is an historic victory, for so many reasons.

First Black woman elected VP.

First South Asian VP.

First woman VP, period.

A record 74 million votes and counting for the winning candidate. In the midst of a global pandemic. And while the incumbent spent months casting doubt on the entire election process.

Biden’s also the most experienced President-elect we’ve had in a long time.

Obama was a one-term senator. Bush II had been a state governor, but hadn’t served in the federal government at all. Same for Clinton.

And we all know Trump hadn’t worked in government at all, not even at the level of parking attendant.

You have to go all the way back to George H.W. Bush to find a President with anything like Biden’s experience. Bush I had been VP to Reagan for eight years, and before that he’d been a Congressional Representative, the US’ Ambassador to the UN, and CIA Director.

It’s a good precedent. Bush I was a steady hand at the wheel, avoiding the quagmire in Iraq that his son would jump into feet-first, and navigating the end of the Cold War with grace.

But maybe a better parallel for Biden is even further back, nearly sixty years back, with LBJ.

Like Biden, LBJ served for decades in the US Senate before becoming VP to a younger, less experienced, but more charismatic President. And when he took office, he was seen as carrying the burden of finishing what the previous President had started. Just we look to Biden to consolidate and extend Obama’s legacy.

Thankfully, LBJ was a master at getting legislation passed, which is how a Texan ended up signing both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Biden’s going to need some of that skill to work with Congress, especially if the Republicans hold onto the Senate and McConnell decides to continue his role as Majority Roadblock.

We can only hope the parallel holds that far. Goodness knows we could use some good luck, here in the States, after four years of being cursed with the worst administration in over a hundred years.

Please Vote

The Washington Post has a comprehensive run-down of everything the Trump regime has broken over the last four years. The list is long, and it starts from the very first day of their time in office.

We need to roll it all back.

But more than that, we need to fix the broken parts of American democracy, that have allowed a minority government to stall progress and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

We need to reform the Supreme Court. Justices should have term limits. And the power the justices have arrogated to themselves of deciding the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress should be removed, and placed in a completely separate, explicitly bi-partisan, Constitutional Court.

We need to abolish the Electoral College. We elect governors and mayors directly. We should elect the President directly, too.

We need to admit both Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states. They deserve the full rights (and responsibilities!) of citizenship.

Finally, we need to address the balance of power between Congress and the Executive. Congress should take back powers it’s given away, like the ability to declare a state of emergency.

And it should reduce the powers of the executive branch where they have been delegated. For example, border patrol agents should have no special powers to search and seize, no matter how close to the border we are. Federal police should not be able to deploy military weapons against citizens who have peacefully assembled. And moving funds between agencies or programs (when Congress has explicitly earmarked them) should be labeled a crime, and thus an impeachable offense.

All this, in addition to specific policy shifts, like stopping the provision of military gear to police departments, ending the abuse of refugees and migrants, and rebuilding the State Department as the primary driver of foreign policy.

It’s a lot. But it’s not impossible. We can do it, but it’s going to take all of us.

So please, vote. Vote not as the end, but as the beginning, of building a better country together.

Because none of us are free, unless we are all free.

Foreign Affairs: September/October 2020

I’ve got subscriptions to half a dozen different magazines, most of whom I don’t get through.

So I’m trying something new this month: reviews of different magazines, which highlight stories or articles that stuck with me. I’ll also be honest about any sections that I skipped out on, and why.

My hope is that it’ll incentivize me to read them through, and hopefully point you, dear reader, to articles and magazines that you might otherwise miss?

So here we go:

Overview

The theme of the issue is “The World That Trump Made,” but its contents don’t bear that out.

If anything, the articles drive home the fact that Trump has been mostly ineffective or inactive in global affairs. As a result, the world is one that others have made: Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, etc.

And they will continue to do so, as long as the United States abrogates the leadership role it’s played — for good and for ill — over the last eighty years.

Highlights

“A Grand Strategy of Resilience” is a fantastic pulling together of multiple threads, linking social justice movements to the ability of the US to project power abroad. The author rightly points out that an unjust and unequal society is a fragile one, and that great powers cannot weather the storms of global politics if they are not resilient.

I love the concept of resilience, and favor using it as a lens through which to judge policy. It’s the kind of concept that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals: Because who wouldn’t prefer to live in a more flexible, bounce-back kind of country?

“The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism” raises a problem I hadn’t even considered: As different countries race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, what will we do when/if one is found? Once made, how will presumably limited supplies be allocated? And given how global supply chains have gotten, what will we do if one country refuses to manufacture (or drives up prices on) the parts of the vaccine that its companies make?

The author argues that we should be laying the groundwork now for cooperation in sharing and manufacturing any vaccines, so agreements will already be in place by the time one is found. But like so much else, I fear the major powers have no interest in cooperating, and no leaders capable of admitting they might need other countries.

Disappointments

Went into “The Fragile Republic” expecting a good summary of threats both foreign and domestic. Got thrown out of the article just three paragraphs in, though, when the authors reach back to 1798 as their framing device, but name the opposition party as the “Republicans,” instead of the correct “Democratic-Republicans.”

It seems like a small thing, but it incorrectly projects the existence of the Republican Party back an additional sixty years (!). And if they can’t be bothered to get that one detail right (that even this non-specialist knows), how can I trust anything else they say?

“To Protect And Serve” sounds like it’s going to be a wealth of information about police practice in other countries that we can draw from. But the other than “more training,” the one reform the author advocates is a federal takeover of police departments across the US, which would be politically a non-starter and doesn’t help those of us advocating reform of our local police departments.

Skipped Articles

I skipped out on “The End of American Illusion,” an article written by someone who worked in the Trump regime and thinks only he sees the world clearly. I don’t read paeans to strongmen.

Also skipped “Giving Up on God,” because I’m an atheist and the decline of religion worldwide is both not surprising (because it’s been documented since the 1980s) and not worrying (ditto).

Predicting the Next President, by Allan J Lichtman

Hope. It’s a hard thing to come by, for me, when it comes to the federal government.

The election of 2016 was traumatic. My wife and I watched, horrified, as the candidate we thought not even Republicans were crazy enough to pick won first the primary, and then the general election.

Well, “won.” He lost the popular vote by 3 million, and still walked away with the keys to the White House, because of our country’s old, undemocratic way of electing Presidents.

It was so unnerving, when it happened, that we decided not to go home.

We were living in Arkansas at the time, having moved to nurse my wife’s mother back to health after she suffered a cardiovascular incident. It was our first time living in my wife’s home state in seven years, and in that time, the state we remembered as slightly behind the times but neighborly had curdled into a paranoid, xenophobic place.

Bad enough having to live there at all. Living there while their white nationalist leader commanded the federal government? While they crowed about his “achievements” dismantling the legacy of eight years of Obama’s government? While they felt entitled to air out their racism and sexism with impunity, with pride, even, because their man was in the White House?

We couldn’t do it.

So we lived on the East Coast that winter, crashing with friends — amazing friends, to put up with us for so long — and moved back to California, renting an apartment sight unseen. We drove cross-country, stopped in Arkansas just long enough to pack, and then moved on.

Now, after four years of Trump’s chaos, his rage and his incompetence, we’ve another election looming. And that same fear is back, that he’ll win again, and our country, which has never been innocent, but has at times fought against its darker impulses, will instead succumb to them.

So Lichtman’s theory of presidential elections — that the campaign doesn’t matter, that the candidates themselves almost don’t matter, only the past four years of governing do — gives me hope. Because after four years in power, the GOP has lost seven (!) of his thirteen “keys” to the White House, and you only need to lose six to lose the election.

Which means I can ignore the polls. I can tune out — to some extent — the campaign itself. I can focus on voting, on helping others to vote, and preventing election fraud.

And I can hope.