Wednesday, January 16, 2019

First Thing We Do: Kill all the Coastal Elites

Elites?  Who or what are elites?  The alienated right wing is certain elites are responsible for their alienation.  The alienated left wing is sure elites control everything.  A recent newspaper article harped on the role of coastal elites.  A local conservative friend rejoices that the electoral college makes it possible for sparsely populated rural states of real people to elect presidents who protect them from the ravages of a special brand of coastal elites – liberals.  For him, big city, coastal, liberal and elite are synonyms.  Not to be outdone, a Marxist friend is equally certain that coastal elites are all right wing capitalists who have engineered control of the electoral college to elect predatory presidents.  The two have a lot in common.

Mysteriously evasive to pin down, except they’re usually coastal, elites appear to be the primary malevolent force in society, admired only by the bourgeoisie, and nobody knows who or what they are other than detestable, mostly because anyone labeled with a word so hard to spell or pronounce has to be detestable.  But they’re not the deplorables, whom we now know to be good, ordinary, real people who are not elite.

The dictionary defines elites as being small groups holding disproportionate amounts of wealth, privilege, political power, etc., or who are known to be the best in their fields of endeavor (Wikipedia).  I first ran into the term in C. Wright Mills’ 1956 book, The Power Elite, in which political and economic power was said to be located in a few organizations led by “men” who networked to make decisions controlling almost everything else affecting the entire nation.  

The idea of elites just begs for conspiracies, and two of the most popular are the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati.  The Trilateral Commission is real, a non-secret society of mostly academics from many nations who meet from time to time to discuss world affairs.  Founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller, it’s been accused of having secret control of government policies world wide.  The Illuminati, on the other hand, was an 18th century secret society of European academics that exists today only in the imagination of those who believe its unknown members are puppeteers pulling the strings of government throughout the world.  Neither live up to the threat of today’s coastal elite.

It appears to me that right wingers, having run out of politically correct scape goats of the usual kind, have settled on elites as an acceptable substitute, especially coastal elites, who by definition are extreme liberals.  Borrowing from conspiracies past and present, they can be blamed for almost anything without having to be specific about who they are, except that Nancy Pelosi is one of them.  Left wingers are left nonplussed, having had their favorite category of scapegoat taken from them.  However, their elites tend to be corporate moguls and Republican so it works out OK.  They each get to have their elites to blame.

Are elites really that bad?  Should we exterminate them?  No.  Elites are a natural phenomena of human society, and they have important roles to play in making human society work –– for weal or for woe.

Every community or organization I’ve worked with has had several sets of elites.  Some hold more wealth and economic power than others.  Some hold more political power, some more social standing, some more intellectual standing, some control more means and content of communication, and some have power that’s less obvious.  For instance, there are thought and opinion leaders no one would call elite.  Having little obvious power in the usual sense, their words, judgement, and networks of friendship have enormous influence over decisions made by others. 

Among these elites, some are known for humility and some for arrogance, some for generosity and some for meanness, some for the common touch and some for being snobs.  Being among the elite is not a measure of one’s moral character.  But membership in an elite group carries obligations.  Elites have real power in their areas of influence, which means that there are moral consequences to how it’s used and the results of using it.  Elites, maybe more than anyone else, need wise counsel reminding them of it.  From where, from whom?  From clergy and teachers.  Of course there are others, but clergy and teachers stand at the forefront.  Among thought and opinion leaders, clergy and teachers are the least recognized and most influential.

People discover themselves to be members of an elite group mostly by dumb luck, the passing of time, or while they were busy doing something else.  They come to it having been equipped, or not, by clergy and teachers with the moral habits and critical thinking skills needed to guide them.   Ambitious politicians, for instance, may aspire to high office, but I think they’re unprepared for how influential high office can be, not in their lives only, but even more in the lives of others.  The worst among them don’t care.  The mediocre are aware but stumble in their incompetence.  The best struggle daily to do what is right for others while not damaging their own standing.  The same might be said for leaders of business and in the church, each in their own way.  

Clergy and teachers, ordinary rank and file clergy and teachers, carry the burden of doing what they can to prepare a new generation for the burden of leadership, counseling the elite whom they can reach, and confronting the abuse of elite status wherever it is found.   Clergy and teachers are obligated to inform persons that they are elite, and that being elite has consequences for which they must be held accountable. 

So, this column has drifted from elites as handy scapegoats to the reality of elites as worthy of recognition and guidance, ending with an observation about the importance of clergy and teachers as essential tools in the formation of elite morality.


Friday, January 11, 2019

Fear Mongering Socialism - An American Pastime

Fear mongering about Communist plots to take over the world was a dominant theme of conservative politics in the decade following the end of WWII, and not without cause.  The Soviet Union had violated almost every term of post war agreements between East and West;  Stalin’s cruelty was fully revealed; an “iron curtain” fell into place; newly independent nations were being forced to choose between one or the other, and there really was an American Communist Party.  It didn’t help that Communist parties were actively engaged as powerful players in Italy, Greece, France and other Western countries.

But fear mongering, as always, got out of hand.  Between Representative Martin Dies (D, TX) who headed the House Un-American Activities Committee, and senator Joe McCarthy (R, WI), commies, socialists and anyone pink were looked for under every rock, everyone was a suspect, reputations and lives were destroyed, nothing helpful was achieved, and Congress used tactics to stifle personal freedom that echoed Stalin himself.

The nation was littered with pamphlets warning about the dangers of creeping socialism.  They were all over the place – in offices and factories, schools and churches, living rooms and kitchen tables.  Socialism was never well defined, but whatever it was there were two things to know about it.  First, the New Deal of FDR, the Fair Deal of HST, and all things progressive were instruments of creeping socialism that would bring ruin to America.  Second, the Soviet Union knew how to take advantage of them to hasten the take over of the world.  Communists were behind it all.  Less clearly voiced was a warning that (uppity, naive) blacks agitating for equal rights were being taken advantage of by socialist provocateurs.

It was all a long time ago, so why rehearse it here?  It’s because people now in their 60s and 70s were heavily influenced by it, retaining a deep, fearful suspicion of anything labeled socialist, vaguely understood as anything liberal or progressive.  Moreover, they share their fearful suspicions wherever they can in ways that help strengthen extremists tea party libertarianism.  They’re good at it.  It works.  

A recent letter to the editor is a case in point.  The writer believes progressives are socialists who, given the chance,  will lead the nation to bankruptcy.  He would disagree that socialism is vaguely understood.  For him it means one thing: “…dependency on the government to provide all our needs.”  Isn’t that clear enough?  It would be pointless to answer with an argument based on the history and philosophies of the many forms of self described socialist movements that value private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government.  It would be gobbledygook double talk to him, obviously a cover up for what he already knows to be true. 

It would be possible, but not easy, to argue for a progressive approach to issues, problems, and needs grounded on how they would enhance economic opportunity, restore pathways to the American Dream, and remove unnecessary dangers to life and limb.  The argument would have to be framed in language appealing to the value of private enterprise, individual freedom, personal accountability, and democratic government.  But it would have to overcome big obstacles.  

That the federal government is likely the best tool to provide resources and make things happen, is repugnant to them.  Never mind that everything making prosperity possible in rural America depends on federal policies and investment.  Never mind that urban America pays for it.  It’s a deeply rooted shibboleth that the government is trying to regulate everything in one’s life.  It’s a given, an article of faith.  It doesn’t have to be proved, but if you want proof just look at the people who want to regulate guns.

That the full measure of opportunities these values represent would be open to every race and ethnicity no matter what, and that assistance would be given to those who have previously been discriminated against, makes some conservatives very nervous.  Bizarre as it may be, it looks to them like others are getting a better shot at the good things in life than they are.  Iowa representative King may be too blunt, but not altogether wrong from their point of view.  After all, the white middle class defined what it is to be American, why should that not continue to be the standard for all others to meet?

That some people who don’t or won’t work as hard as they do will get something for nothing is appalling.  If they won’t work, make them.  That hard working folks might be forced to pay taxes for something they don’t want or need is wrong, and what they don’t want or need is welfare going to the undeserving. 

Obstacles such as these are not impenetrable Great Big Beautiful Walls.  Well framed arguments demonstrating how conservative values can be enhanced through progressive policies will not convince the hard core right wing, but they will deprive them of their best ammunition.  In like manner, they will reduce the likelihood that the whackier ideas of far left wing enthusiasts will sway voters to stay home or vote conservative. 

Speaking only for myself, I would like to see a legislative agenda that aggressively moves us toward universal health care, reinvests in transportation and communication infrastructure, reforms immigration to open broad pathways for new arrivals, protects the environment, and makes taxes more progressive at the high end.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Discouraging Letters to Editors

The letters to the editor page of our local paper provide an abundance of fodder for these columns, but sometimes I find them overly discouraging.  For instance, we have two regulars who are certain global warming is a hoax contrived by out of control liberals.  Or, if it is warming, humans have nothing to do with it.  Or climate change may be happening but CO2 has nothing to do with it.  As one wrote in today’s paper, “if someone believes the liberal nonsense…please support it with scientific facts.”  What he means is that the mountain of scientific study that has convinced nearly all climate scientists is nothing more than conjecture about which there is no proof.  

Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but the regularity of these two on the editorial pages is discouraging because they appeal to the dominant conservative political ethos of the region that prides itself in being suspicious of the educated elite, anything that smacks of government regulation, and is certain the mainstream media is misleading them.  

Right behind the climate deniers are a couple of others who’ve taken up the cause of The Wall.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning for TANF, Medicaid, CHIP, Food Stamps, Section 8 Housing, SSI, and more free stuff.”  That was the opening salvo from one of them.  Coming across the southern border he sees only drugs, human traffickers, and assorted criminals.  They’re “storming” the borders.  He cites a statistic: “63% of noncitizen households access welfare programs, compared to 35% of native households.”  

Those are figures provided by the Center for Immigration Studies based on 2016 data.  The Center, known as CIS, advertises itself as anti immigration, which should be a clue that their reports may be biased.  With joyful abandon, the numbers have since been repeated ad nauseam under many banners by every anti immigration website there is.  A more critical examination of the data, and of their report, from other sources, for instance the internet’s StackExchange, reveals how distorted the CIS report is. But more critical examinations of the data don’t count because they’re the product of intellectual elites who look down on ordinary hard working people.  Yet there is a germ of truth, and germs are all one needs to get an “Aha, I told you so”: immigrant persons (legal) have about the same rate of using programs such as SNAP, CHIP, and other family oriented benefits as do so called native persons.  Illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal aid, but may receive certain state or local benefits in the way of basic humanitarian assistance. 

Aside from citing misleading studies, this morning’s writer assumed that “liberals” want open borders.  I have no idea what that means, but hear it often.  Moreover, he rested his case on the notion that God created nations and borders because it says so in Acts 17.  It’s where Paul, speaking to the Athenians, tried to explain who the unknown God is and why they should listen to him talk about Jesus.  For the writer, Trump’s Big Beautiful Wall is the very thing meant when Paul talked metaphorically about nations and borders established by God.  Never mind that Paul was speaking in an age when nations were peoples, not states, and borders were vaguely marked, seldom guarded, and the world was free to wander at will.

Letters such as these are feats of legerdemain no less impressive than Lou Costello’s mathematical proof that 7x13=28.  Look it up.  It’s on YouTube.  When Costello is done, it’s hard to believe he didn’t prove it, and the same goes for my letter writers.   

I suppose one could argue that getting discouraged by a couple of small city letter writers makes little sense, except that regulars such as they are present in every city and town, making sure their views are made as persuasively public as they can, and they’re backed by well financed propaganda outfits masquerading as genuine think tanks.  Are they something new?  Did Trump’s election give birth to them?  No.  They’ve always been there, but they now have more freedom to act out in public with little fear of repercussion.  

Popular movements skeptical and fearful of what science reveals have been around since the time of Pythagoras.  Americans have seen virulent outbreaks in the years following Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species”, and they have not yet abated.  Various forms of xenophobic nativism have an equally long pedigree.  Remember the Know Nothings of the mid 19th century?  Violently opposed to the immigration of Irish and southern Europeans, they blended right in with other racists, and found common ground with those suspicious of science. 

Both are alive and well in the Trumpian era.  Forced into the closet following WWII, they been let out, led by their favorite president.  The curious thing is they talk like libertarians opposed to government interference in their lives, but think and act like fascists favoring authoritarian rule that will purify the nation, removing contagion of others not like themselves.  And that I find very discouraging.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On the 10th Day of Christmas: Walls, Immigration & Leaping Lords

On the 10th day of Christmas Ten Lords are Leaping, which seems an appropriate metaphor for the first day of the new Congress with its change in House leadership.  

The government is shut down, the result of a bullying power play by a childish president who wants his Wall no matter how much damage his ploy causes for the nation.  This three year old’s temper tantrum has been confronted by Democratic opposition determined not to give in to such behavior.  Reasonable Republicans, if there are any, stand on the sidelines going Tsk-Tsk, but offering no help.  We’ve all seen something like this played out in the candy aisle of the local grocery store, where there is always someone who shares their wisdom about the right way to handle it. 

Well, here I am.  Think of me as the fourth wise man heading to Bethlehem but distracted by the hubbub in the candy aisle, which is why only three made it.

Being seduced by the tantrum is to ignore legitimate issues.  Southern border security needs attention.  But there is no invasion of bad hombres.  Drugs and human trafficking have many ways to avoid fences and walls.  Illegal immigration is on a downward trajectory, and illegal immigrants are largely the product of unworkable laws and regulations.  (Source: Pew Research Center, June 2018). 

Members of Congress have long howled about the broken immigration system.  Except for the Freedom Caucus and friends, they know perfectly well what needs to be done, but have preferred rhetorical posturing over serious legislative work.  We need a relatively simple immigration system that allows quick and easy admission to the United States under terms and conditions anyone can understand and follow.  Xenophobes of one kind or another will try to mess it up, claiming to want only highly skilled or well educated immigrants, and refugees under circumstance almost impossible to meet.  It’s thinly veiled racism, as has been the case for nearly all past and present immigration laws.  Not giving them the headlines would be a good idea, but pressure to gin up controversy for the sake of reader and viewership is likely to prevail. 

Just a reminder that immigration laws in the modern sense began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not finally repealed until 1943. All those legal immigrants through Ellis Island so many are proud to claim?  They were permitted under another 1882 law.  Most immigrants entered before that by getting off the ship and walking down the street, some freely, some as slaves.  Under the new law all were admitted, if not welcome, as long as they weren’t “lunatics” or carrying an infectious disease.  Literacy was added in 1917.  It required new arrivals to read a sentence or two in their own language.  It also added restrictions on immigration from other parts of Asia.  More ethnic quotas came in 1921 and were expanded in 1924.  The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 revised the ethnic quota system, which always gave preference to northern Europeans, even when it pretended not to.  It got replaced in 1965 by legislation giving quotas to needed skills and family reunification rather than ethnicity.  Then things got complicated.  

All these legislative changes were racially motivated, encouraged by fears that undesirables would take jobs from real Americans while undermining the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that dominated American politics, established social standards others were expected to emulate, and dictated what it meant to be American.

Immigration is one thing.  Border security is another, even though the current argument tangles them into a snarled wad.  Southern border security has its own special needs, and some form of barrier more extensive than what we already have may be needed in some places.  So be it.  Fund border security to meet performance standards, and leave the means to do it to competent experts with on the ground experience.  Fund it not to satisfy racially motivated fear mongering about imaginary invasions of bad people, but about the need to secure a very porous border that yet demands easy, controlled access to accommodate huge flows of traffic in both directions.