The Wonk and the Wild Man


, , , , , ,


sell the sizzleStudents of marketing have known this for years: you sell the sizzle, not the steak.  At the point of sale, though, you had better be able to deliver the beef.

When you make the decision to buy something, there are many facts to consider.  Is it a quality product?  Will it last?  Will its maker be there to fix problems if they arise?  Will I like it after I have bought it, or regret the purchase?  If we each had a personal research staff, we could keep it busy for a week before we bought a cup of coffee.

brand 1That is where branding comes in.  Consider that cup of coffee: it might be yesterday’s leftover thin, oily swill, or it may be the rich, creamy latte we hoped it would be.  If we buy it from an unfamiliar corner kiosk, we take our chances.  If we buy it from Starbuck’s, we know what to expect.  We trust in the effort that has gone into making that coffee for us.  We know that Starbuck’s has taken the time and expense to resolve all those quality questions for us before we buy from them.  Without thinking about all that, we will pay extra for the Starbuck’s brand, and feel good about it.

Feeling good is what branding is all about.  We don’t have to worry about the facts that lie behind our coffee—the violence in Colombia, the tariffs on coffee imports, the wages paid our barista—because Starbucks has taken care of all this behind the scenes.  We see that green and white logo, and feel good about the coffee.  That good feeling, not the facts, sells us on the coffee.

pavlovNear the turn of the 20th century, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was studying the digestive process in dogs.  He diverted the flow of saliva to an external pouch so that he could measure its volume.  He noticed that the volume of saliva produced by the dogs in his lab increased when the technician who usually fed them came into the room.  To see whether this was a psychological phenomenon, Pavlov chose a more neutral stimulus (the sound of a metronome) to precede the dog’s feedings before the technician entered the room.  Soon the steady tick if the metronome was sufficient to make the dogs’ mouths water in anticipation of food.

conditioned responsePavlov (and Edwin Twitmyer, working independently at the University of Pennsylvania using the knee-jerk reflex) had discovered the conditioned reflex.  We have added much hard science since their pioneering work.  Classical conditioning applies a stimulus before the desired reflex, in order to provoke it.  Operant conditioning, researched by American psychologist B.F.Skinner, applies a stimulus, either pleasant or noxious, after a behavior has occurred in order to create an association that will reward, modify, or extinguish it.  In humans, simply imagining the conditioned stimulus can evoke the response.  Just thinking about the sizzle can make you want the steak.  That principle lies at the heart of the branding phenomenon.

Increasingly, emotional conditioning lies at the heart of American electoral politics, especially at the national level.  In today’s politics, the term “dog whistles” reverberates with echoes of Pavlov’s lab.

Sound bites” on television news were goals before the ascendance of social media.  Simple phrases such as “I like Ike” and “We Shall Overcome” carried practically no cognitive information, but evoked huge affective responses.  One could like Ike without going to the trouble of learning his positions.  Overcoming adversity just sounds good, no matter what it is you are overcoming.  Attaching positive operant stimuli to your candidate’s name wins votes.

lbj ad

not a crookNegative operant stimuli work at least as well.  LBJ’s powerful campaign video, of an innocent little girl counting daisy petals, juxtaposed  with a mushroom cloud, tanked Barry Goldwater’s campaign, though hardly anyone could articulate his positions on childcare or nuclear war.  When a haggard Richard Nixon cried “I am not a crook!” on national TV from the White House, the very perception of crookedness became the quicksand that sank his presidency; the more he wriggled, the faster he went down.  As candidates realized this, negative campaigning became the underpinning of American politics.  It remains so today.

twitter button 2Great as the sound bite is, the tweet is greater.  Its limited length precludes filling it with cognitive content, but its immediacy makes it a powerful emotional platform.  A Congressional budget proposal may run to thousands of pages of arcane detail that no tweet thread could hope to contain, and few would ever read, but tweets (“Dems rap GOP budget as Welfare for the Rich!” or “GOP budget is the last hope for the middle class!”) do the job efficiently, are cheap, reach a wide audience, and are read in their entirety. 

facebook buttonFacebook posts allow for more cognitive content and less often read to the end, but they can contain pictures that can be absorbed at a glance.  Pictures can be a more visceral stimulus that text, and Instagram is nearly all images.  Taken as a whole, the social media comprise a powerful political platform whose influence is primarily in the affective, rather than the cognitive, domain.

The social media have a feature that broadcast media did not have before the advent of mass computation: they are curated.  Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google record and analyze your online preferences, and send you only the content that is likely to please you, and increase the chances that you will return and eyeball their ads again.  .  If your browsing history tends towards civil rights and economic opportunity, the material you see will be quite different from if you favored gun rights and Christian values.  Your profile is then sold to advertisers who want to sell to someone who thinks ad you do, or to politicians who advocate for your causes.  

 You only hear from people and groups who already agree with you.   This tends to reinforce your pre-existing reflex conditioning (yes, we all have it), amplifying the polarization that is shattering American society today.

Now consider the 2016 presidential campaign: the wonk and the wild man.

clinton announcesHillary Clinton began her candidacy in a flurry of emails and a video, projecting herself as a high achieving policy wonk with a common touch, and with a grand political history.  She presented what she considered to be the most positive facts from that history: her achievements as a Senator from New York and as Obama’s Secretary of State, her knowledge with the process of government in Washington and the officials who run it, and a very detailed set of policy proposals that gradually developed on her campaign website during the run-up to the election.  She suppressed the facts she considered unflattering: her closeness with the New York investment banks that filled her war chest, her remoteness from the working class that propelled her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and the dynastic appearance of a former First Lady (and the wife of an impeached president, to boot) running for President.

trump de-escalatesDonald Trump launched his campaign as a blonde deity, in the world he had created (Trump Tower), descending a golden escalator accompanied by his impossibly beautiful wife, into the roar of an adoring crowd.  It was very long on show, without facts or analytical thinking to get in the way of our feelings of awe.  In the campaign that followed, he promised us policies that would be beautiful, unprecedented, the best ever.  He offered an economic plan, but when actual economists weighed in against it, he stopped touting it.  He never sullied his rhetoric with actual details after that.  He sold himself as a champion of the working man, too rich to be corrupted, but he refused to offer details of his wealth.  He piggybacked on the ideas of others—the NRA, the Christian right, Breitbart—for the passions they aroused rather than the ideas themselves, which he appeared to only dimly understand.  He openly defied ‘political correctness’ without defining what it was, and courted those who did not require ideas or facts.  “I love the poorly educated!” he crowed.

When dealing with a wonk, fact-checking is pre-eminent; statistics, facts, data are what drive him.  When dealing with a demagogue it is a waste of time.  Facts concern him only for the feelings they invoke, and can be spun to suit his pre-determined purpose.  “Fake News!” merely makes you cleave tighter to his cause, regardless of the truth of it.  Fistfights in the aisle only added to the

The sound of a Hillary rally was the drone of ennui, punctuated occasionally by a shrill hiss like escaping steam, the last gasp of an outmoded, pre-millennial form of feminism.  The sound of a Trump rally was the thunder of a demagogue, and the pulse of the crowd shouting back “Lock her Up!” without offering any reason why.

Operant conditioning works both ways, though.  It can extinguish behavior as well as incite it.  As the crown responds positively to an affective reward, so can it respond adversely to negative reinforcement.  A child burnt by a hot stove will not touch it again.  A cat punished for soiling the floor will learn to use the litter box.  A dog conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell in anticipation of food will soon stop doing so if the reward regularly fails to appear.  The branding effect may be a mile wide, but it is only inches deep.

This is especially true in politics.  If you promise specifics—universal health care, say, or affordable prescription drugs—at the end of your term the voter can look around and see if you have delivered on your promise; if you haven’t, your office is in jeopardy.  When the voter actually feels worse rather than better, look out!

If you have been promised only emotional goals—pride in America, reinforcement of your own racial, ethnic, gender or consumer identity—when the time comes to vote again the voter who was swayed by an appeal to emotion must  look within to see if he has been rewarded or disappointed.

This is actually a fairly complicated proposition, since external facts do not apply.  If you were promised economic prosperity and then you lost your job, you might feel abandoned and vote no:  Oh, no, I’m not going there again!  If your vote grew from anger at the political establishment, and now find yourself angrier still, you might vote yes.  Hell yes!  If you find yourself both economically diminished and politically betrayed, who knows what roiled emotions you will carry into the voting booth, or where they will lead you.  A third party seems increasingly possible

The best campaigns, of course, balance the affective with the cognitive.  No one did this better than the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, who was both a savvy showman and seasoned politician.  Consider this opening narration from a TV commercial  that ran during 1984 campaign:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

There is an easy to assimilate, uplifting tag line: Morning in America.  Dull statistics are made buoyant by an exhortation to feel-good optimism.  Why should we care about interest rates, employment statistics or inflation?  Because it’s Morning Again in America!  Because we are Stronger! and Prouder! and Better!   Who is tending to those dull, wonky things that are making us feel so good?  Ronald Reagan, that’s who!

morning in america

What followed were popular and Electoral College landslides, of historic proportions.  (Actually historic, not Trumpian histrionic.)  Sixty percent of votes cast nationwide were for Reagan.  In the Electoral College he lost only a single state, Minnesota, which was the home state of his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale.

The take home it this: a demagogue usually beats a wonk, and a demagogue who is also a wonk trumps everybody.

2020, Here we come!








little black dress3 lo resA few days after her 35th birthday, Brittany learned she had stage 1B2 cervical cancer. She remains positive and is looking at treatment options.  Brittany is tough and she will beat this.

 Sadly, the best treatment options will leave her unable to get pregnant or carry children, a heartbreaking blow to say the least; Brittany has always dreamed of the family she would raise.

There are some options to freeze eggs for in vitro fertilization (IVF) later, but these are extremely pricey and time sensitive. She has health insurance, which will help with cancer treatment, but it does not cover all expenses or any of the IVF options.

bthere2We who love Brittany have created a Go Fund Me campaign in the hopes of raising as much as we can towards her cancer care, and especially to preserve the possibility of her having children of her own someday.  Always a self-starter and a hard worker, Brittany is not able to work much now.   She has considerable back pain from the tumor as she juggles medical appointments and struggles with the many challenges of fighting cancer.

Any donation will be greatly appreciated.  Just sharing this campaign online will help. Knowing that IVF is possible for her will free Brittany to concentrate on her fight with cervical cancer.

Thank you in advance for giving Brittany the hope that, she after she beats her tumor, she can start a family of her own.



The Pee Wee Gambit


, , , ,

pee wee

pee wee playhouse

Link to FLICKR

“I know you are but what am I?”  “I’m rubber, you are glue.  Names bounce off me and stick to you!” 

When Pee Wee Herman says such things, we recognize at once how puerile they are.  When Pee Wee says them, though, they are alloyed with childhood innocence, which gives them a pleasant, if a little edgy, nostalgic glow.  They are child-like, not childish.

When the President of the United States plays the Pee Wee gambit, it seems childish and churlish.  It insults our intelligence.  It is also dangerous.

trump looms2

Remember the debates?  Looming over Hillary from behind, playing the cameras like the seasoned TV performer he is, while using his height and sheer bulk to intimidate, like the sexual predator he is?

She said, referring to his relationship with the post-Soviet oligarchy:  “You’re a puppet.”

Without elaborating, out of turn, as a practiced casual aside (though he surely knew the camera was on him), he said :

“Puppet?  I’m not a puppet.  You’re the puppet!”

Clinton was, clearly and unequivocally, accusing him of being an agent of a specific foreign power, Russia.  He might have been implying that she was too beholden to unnamed gigantic donors on Wall Street and in Hollywood, but he never actually specified who was pulling the strings.  He wanted to establish a sense of equivalency where none actually existed.  His target was affective, not cognitive.  Specificity does not suit his purpose.  He wants you angry, not informed.

Such false equivalency is an important weapon in the Trump arsenal, the heart and soul of the Pee Wee Gambit. 

This is nowhere more evident than in the speech he gave outside Trump Tower a few days after a ragtag mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis,  white nationalists, gun rights advocates and simple thugs had gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia under the rubric ‘alt-right’, ostensibly to protect a statue of a man who led an armed uprising that attacked America in a desparate attempt to preserve black slavery when the tide of history was turning against it.  In the melee nineteen protesters were injured and Heather Heyer, a principled young woman who had come to protest the violence and hatred, was murdered when an avowed white supremacist rammed his car onto a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters that was boxed into a narrow, crowded street.

charlotesville crash

Shortly afterwards Trump read from a teleprompter a lackluster statement that denounced hatred and violence without naming any of the violent haters.  Later, though, Trump spoke off-the-cuff to a boisterous gaggle of reporters in front of Trump Tower.  He clearly viewed the crowd as hostile to him.   He was flanked by members of his cabinet–an Asian woman and two Jews–who visibly squirmed in their discomfort at his remarks.  His Chief of Staff stood apart, arms clasped tensely in front of him, glowering down at his own wing-tips.  The event sounded more like an argument than a press conference as Trump responded to the questions hurled at him:

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

TRUMP: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was viscous and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.

(unintelligible Crosstalk)

TRUMP: Well, I do think there’s blame — yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at — you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.

With the idea (or more accurately, the affective impression) of equivalency thus planted, Mr. Trump uncharacteristically got much more specific:

TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. (inaudiblie) themselves (inaudible) and you have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.


QUESTION: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same (inaudible)…


TRUMP: George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to


TRUMP: OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You’ve got — you had a lot of bad — you had a lot of bad people in the other group… take down statues to George Washington?


TRUMP: How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?


QUESTION: … treated unfairly (inaudible) you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? (inaudible) understand what you’re saying.

TRUMP: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So, I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country (sic).

The equivalency is reinforced in affect even as the facts are obscured in a blizzard of inaccuracy and irrelevance. The obscurity is amplified by POTUS’ peculiar patterns of speech; his meaning is clouded more by his fractured syntax than the depth of his thought, closer to E.E. Cummings than T.S. Eliot.  Though he went to an Ivy League school, he does not seem to have learned the value of a complete sentence.  He does use simple ones, though, in his familiar, snarky asides: You know what mean.  You get it.  Am I right?  You’re the puppet! (See Spot run?)

 Washington and Jefferson vs Robert E. Lee?  These men were of different eras.  The former were slaveholders in the eighteenth century, true enough, but beside the point.  Both were even then growing leery of the morality behind an institution on which their economy still depended, and neither led an armed rebellion against the Union they created.  Lee resorted to a treasonous war in an attempt to extend the chattel servitude of blacks into the last half of a nineteenth century, fifty years after Washington and Jefferson thought they were witnessing the twilight of slavery in America.  The founding fathers’ ownership of slaves was not the equivalent of Lee’s, nor is it relevant to what happened at Charlottesville.

The self proclaimed alt-right had a permit to assemble, while the counter-protestors did not?  Even if this were true, the permits only applied to designated parts of Robert E Lee/Emancipation Park, and not to Market Street, where the melee with Antifa took place, or to Fourth Street, where Heather Heyer was mowed down by an angry white supremacist. No one had a permit to battle in the streets with helmets, shields and clubs.  No one had a license to kill.

Violence occurred streets throughout the city,  involving small bands of armed, angry people holding diverse political views.  While the marching, and later the street fighting, was going on, the status of permits was not relevant, not even very interesting.  No one gets the moral high ground because of the status permits.

Trump pivots from the issue of ‘moral equivalence’, and makes the point that many people “on both sides” came with the aim of peacefully protesting the removal of Lee’s statue.  This is true as far as it goes, but it obscures the fact that the rally, called “Unite the Right”, was meant to cement various organizations on the far right—The KKK, the Aryan Nations, the NRA, and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example—into a coherent political movement.  They marched through the streets at night, some girded for war and many carrying tiki torches, chanting things like “The Jews will not replace us!” 

On the left there was no such uniting principle.  There was a grass-roots yearning to not let hate speech go unopposed, but was there premeditated violence among among participants with progressive political views?  Yes, there was, as evidenced by those who brought shields and clubs, but their stated motive was to resist the spread Neo-Facismism and white supremacy.  Is hating Nazis equivalent to hating blacks?  Is resisting hate mongering the equivalent of the hate mongering itself?

Having inured us to false equivalencies and the Pee Wee Gambit, Trump is now free to take it where he will.  This week he has soared to new heights with the assertion that not only are the allegations of his campaign’s collusion with the Russians to fix the 2016 elections a nefarious false narrative, invented by the Democrats to excuse their ‘historic’ drubbing at the polls. Instead, says POTUS, the Democrats themselves are guilty of collusion, but have escaped investigative scrutiny for their heinous crimes because of their controlling interest in the permanent, unelected shadow government that has dogged Trump since he first descended the golden elevator to announce the start of his campaign to Make America Great Again.

The facts of this uranium deal are much more complex.  Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the deal:

(Warning–Rough seas ahead: Like much in politics it can be a difficult slog to understand who the players were, and how the game unfolded.)

On July 5, 2005, Southern Cross Resources Inc. and Aflease Gold and Uranium Resources Ltd announced that they would be merging under the name SXR Uranium One Inc.[3]

In 2007 Uranium One acquired a controlling interest in UrAsia Energy,[4] a Canadian firm with headquarters in Vancouver, from Frank Giustra.[5] UrAsia Energy has interests in rich uranium operations in Kazakhstan.[6] UrAsia Energy’s acquisition of its Kazakhstan uranium interests from Kazatomprom followed a trip to Almaty in 2005 by Giustra and former U.S. President Bill Clinton where they met with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan. Substantial contributions to the Clinton Foundation by Giustra followed,[5][7] with Clinton, Giustra, and Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim in 2007 establishing the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative to combat poverty in the developing world.[8] In addition to his initial contribution of $100 million Giustra pledged to contribute half of his future earnings from mining to the initiative.[8]

In June 2009, the Russian uranium mining company ARMZ Uranium Holding Co. (ARMZ), a part of Rosatom, acquired 16.6% of shares in Uranium One in exchange for a 50% interest in the Karatau uranium mining project, a joint venture with Kazatomprom.[9] In June 2010, Uranium One acquired 50% and 49% respective interests in southern Kazakhstan-based Akbastau and Zarechnoye uranium mines from ARMZ. In exchange, ARMZ increased its stake in Uranium One to 51%. The acquisition resulted in a 60% annual production increase at Uranium One, from approximately 10 million to 16 million lb.[10][11] The deal was subject to anti-trust and other conditions and was not finalized until the companies received Kazakh regulatory approvals, approval under Canadian investment law, clearance by the US Committee on Foreign Investments, and approvals from both the Toronto and Johannesburg stock exchanges. The deal was finalized by the end of 2010.[11] Uranium One paid its minority shareholders a significant dividend of 1.06 US Dollars per share at the end of 2010.

ARMZ took complete control of Uranium One in January 2013[2] in a transaction which was reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.[7] In December 2013 an internal reorganization of Rosatom extinguished the interest of ARMZ making Uranium One a direct subsidiary of Rosatom.[3]

(Congratulations! You have made it through the perilous shoals of links and footnotes.  Do you have a firm grasp now on how this relates to the Steele Dossier–almost as complex an issue in its own right– and the purloined Hillary/DNC emails?  Trump insists they are are the same issue, smoking-gun proof of a conspiracy against him.)

Was Guistra’s contribution to the Clinton Foundation the payback for Hillary’s cooperation in a deal that enriched the Canadian by allowing him to sell his interest in American uranium to the Russians?  That is the snake oil that Trump is trying to sell.

Look through the complexity, though, and that notion does not hold up. The ‘American’ uranium interests were Guistra’s holding in UrAsia, whose ores came mainly from not the within the US, but the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.  The deal was not done in back rooms, but had to be signed off by financial regulators in Kazakhstan, South Africa, Canada, and the US.  Hillary’s involvement came via her role of Secretary of State, at a time when there was a functioning State Department with professionals to oversee the diplomatic, political, and financial aspect of the deal, and a functioning ethics infrastructure to monitor its honesty.

uranium deal

Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Both events happened, but were not cause and effect.  The implication that the uranium deal was at Hillary’s sole discretion is patently false.

Hillary’s influence was hardly the deciding factor.  As Secretary of State her input on the deal was as a member of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which also includes the Secretaries of Treasury, Defense, Labor, Commerce, and Homeland Security, the Attorney General, the US Trade Representative, The Director of the Office of Science and Technology, the National Security Advisor, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.  CIFIUS’ primary concern is that technology or funds from American enterprise do not violate sanctions or fall into enemy hands.  It reviewed the UrAsia deal, and found no fault.  President Obama, who had the final say,  signed off on the deal.  The idea that Hillary personally overstepped her authority to sell American uranium stocks to Russia for her private gain is easy to comprehend, but simply not true.

Nor is the false equivalency of this evidence of collusion with Russia with Trump’s own possible relationship with Putin valid. 

dem russian collusion

If UraniumOne was a conspiracy, it had to be much bigger than this.

If the accusations against Clinton were true, they would have resulted in a multi-billion dollar initiative to eradicate poverty on the developing world.  It the accusations against Trump are true, they have resulted in a subversion of American democracy that may have put him in a position to plunder the country’s economy, and put his twitchy finger on the nuclear button.  Moral equivalence?  You be the judge.

“Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?), the Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more, Trump said in a pair of tweets on Sunday.

im rubber 2

It would be sad, too, if it weren’t so terrifying.

Yin and Yang


, , , , , , ,


If Maxfield Parrish had gone to Sarah’s Wedding…

My little girl was married yesterday in Pennsylvania. The groom is a marvellous man whom I both respect and love. I had to stay home on Cape Cod because of a family illness.

My little girl is a lovely woman of considerable grace and accomplishment.  Her husband is a handsome man of principle, strength and sensitivity.  Their family deserves the best of the best. Always.

While I am filled with magical happiness for them, it made me very sad and lonely, too.

Sarah’s Vows

On our very first date, we went to Bell’s in Lambertville. This was when you found out that I don’t eat red meat. I could tell that you were disappointed, but you hid it well.

Before we ordered, we both thought about ordering the fish special, but you actually got it, and I ended up ordering a pasta dish. I didn’t realize that it had bits of meat in it, and halfway through our meal you noticed that I was picking around it.  I told you the problem and you said: Oh, here! Even though both dishes were half eaten, you took my dish and swapped it with yours, giving me your half eaten special and taking the half eaten pasta dish with a little pile of meat bits on the side. 

And I thought, oh, okay, that’s….really cool. To me, it was everything that I’ve come to know you are in spades – it was selfless and spontaneous,  thoughtful and kind, fun and free, and maybe a little bit kooky, but in the best of possible ways. 

This thing that you did on our first date, this impulsive and generous thing, became the first on a long list of things you do and have done that make me love the crap out of you. The list is long – I think I’m up to 1987, (he cries shamelessly and audibly at movies, he cries for a good poem, he makes amazing crepes, he speaks fluent French, he loves and respects his mother, he is a loving and present father, he climbs trees for a living, constant bad dad jokes, for example) but you should know that that was where the list began – that was the first thing that showed me who you are and why you’re the type of person I might just want to spend my life with. 

You are the most sincere, loving, genuine, loyal, outgoing, nurturing and beautiful man. I love how you make me feel. You bring me down to earth and you push me out of my everyday skin. You lift me up and you tell me how you see it, whether I want to hear it or not. You are my anchor and my sail, and sometimes the wind too. 

I love that you have been knocked down by life. I see everything you have been through, and the grace you have had under pressures of many kinds, and the resiliance you have shown again and again; I see a strong, if stubborn, man. I know that you will weather the worst with me because I’ve seen you down and I know the strength and integrity and force of will you have to stand up stronger  and then even offer a helping hand. 

I love that you are my partner in every way imaginable, and in ways I never imagined.  

Even though I still think that if you had to choose between me and your plants in a house fire I would be out of luck, I forgive you that! Because, I have also been the beneficiary of your green thumb. You have nurtured and coaxed me and helped me grow. You have loved me for who I am, even as that has changed. You have looked at me with pure love in my worst moments. You have walked beside me when I felt like I was struggling down the narrowest of corridors. You did not leave my side, and I know beyond all things, in the cells of my skin, that you never will. I know you will be with me always, and no matter what. I promise that I will do the same, as long as live. 

I love that you are package deal. I will not only gain a husband today, but two daughters – two of the coolest, smartest, sassiest daughters out there. I couldn’t be more grateful for the deep and loving relationship I have with them. Today I am officially a step-mother. I am so very proud of that, and of them. Lili and Maddy, OR and I promise to be here for (them) you, in any way I possibly can be, for as long as this life will let me. 

And, chris, you gave me Katherine. You made me a mother and fulfilled a dream that I could only touch the edges of understanding before she arrived and blew that dream into this chaotic colorful reality.  

You have made with me a life passed the horizon of my hopes – a beautiful, overflowing, and truly unbelievable life. I am so excited to embrace our future. Together. 

Thank you. I love you. And I promise never to take any of this, you, our daughters, our lives, for granted.





Back to Basics


, , , ,

trump header

trump shootsWhenever Donald Trump asserts a position that he held on the campaign trail, the pundits all join in a chorus: “He’s playing to his base.” What is Trump’s base?  A scruffy gang of alt-right trolls led by Bannon?  A flock of button-down investment bankers like Mnuchin?  The sea of middle-American working-class people stretching from the rust belt to the corn belt to the Bible belt? The doe-eyed innocents who lined up with cash for Trump University, hoping it would lift them from the mire?

trump shoots cartoonTrump once boasted that his base consisted of people so loyal to him that he could go out onto Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and they would still vote for him. They are among those who view him favorably in the polls, a number that hovers around 40% of the electorate in polls, and thus amount to a minority of eligible voters.  Only 55% of those eligible actually voted, and the “base “is less than 40% of that.  This minority—fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters(do the math) –is driving radical policy change today in Washington.


Curiously, in the 2016 presidential elections, the least popular candidates captured the nomination of each party on the national stage, and in the general election, the less popular of the two won the electoral vote with a decisive margin, though he narrowly lost the popular vote.  This is not how a democracy is supposed to work.

election scoreboardI think the problem arises from this: the process of our elections had taken precedence over the issues.  The news media spew statistics, probabilities, and projections where once facts and opinions held sway.  Even the “debates”, when reported in the media, are parsed into “sound bytes” of a dozen words or less, and are presented as if who “won” was more important than what the candidates actually said. 


Rep Fred Grandy R-Iowa

Pop culture figures–Ronald Reagan, SonnyBono, Fred “Gopher” Grandy, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Al Franken, to name a few, have huge electoral advantages that have nothing to do with any political competence they mey or may not bring to office.  Both parties have become  far too beholden to the large the contributions of donors whose identities are kept secret, known only to the pols themselves.  Well funded organizations like the AARP and the NRA, have disproportionate influence, over officeholders

house divided cartoon


The GOP is paralyzed by hidebound ideological sectors—the Freedom Caucus, Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives and the Tea Party, for instance, while at the same time being nearly homogenous in its whiteness, maleness, and advanced age. 

clinton weinstein

Groping for Cash

The Democrats have rendered themselves irrelevant by abandoning their working class roots for the easy money in finance and industrial/entertainment behemoths.  Procedural rules in Congress have become an instrument, not to protect the voices of minorities, but to suppress dissent or obstruct the process of governance.  This is no longer government.  It has become blood sport.


election not football

Cool it! This is an election, not a football match.

The very democracy of our republic is at dire risk, but it is not too late to save it.  I offer some ideas which may help.  My Democratic bias shows through here.  While the Dems are enfeebled by their fundraising zeal, the GOP is moribund from its hidebound ideologies.  The failure at the top of government is a bipartisan thing, but right now the Dems are better positioned to recover and set us back on the right track.

1)  The Democrats must field candidates with fresh ideas, who are true to the progressive, middle-class values that once drove the party.  They must run on ideas and grass-roots cash, forsaking the triumvirate of secret corporate boardrooms, old-school backroom power politics, and a Wall Street that raises oodles of cash for them while their souls atrophy, but repels the middle class voters who have traditionally propelled Democratic candidates into office.


If the Clinton-Sanders experience taught us anything, it is that when cash and ideology clash with fresh ideas and idealism, the energy of the latter can knock the former out of the ring.  Do you remember when audacious young Cassius Clay knocked out older veteran Sonny Liston in the first round? And Sanders has shown us that watching ideas flourish can be much more fun than simply watching money flow.

 Leaders must lead, but direction and power flow from the bottom up.  Fresh ideas and grass-roots funding, propagated by social media, must infuse Democratic campaigns for the White House, Congress, legislatures, state houses, and city halls across America.

white text block below

2)  Republicans in office, including Mr. Trump, must be encouraged to bluster and fret about healthcare coverage and tax reform, continuing to propose their programs to shift wealth to the already immensely wealthy segment that funds them.  At the same time they must be restrained from actually enacting these programs, or dismantling too much of the regulatory infrastructure that protects the middle class from plutocratic predation.

Come election time, Democrats must have the insight and courage to expose these programs for what they are: instruments of the wealthy and powerful to consolidate their wealth and power.  They do this at the expense of the working people and the poor, who are ill-equipped to resist.  If you want to wield power, there must be someone for you to wield it over. 

Fresh ideas must replace the stale ideology of old white men in both parties, and a tide of diverse young faces must flood city halls, statehouses, and Congress.  Votes, not cash, win elections, and ideas win votes.

end of white text

gerrymander chart

gerrymander cartoon3) The mechanics of our elections must be fixed.  The toxic effect of dark money must be eliminated.  All foreign influence, but especially influence with malicious intent, must be expunged.  The fixed biases introduced by partisan gerrymandering must be eliminated.  The insidious remnants of the political machines must be ferreted out.  The obstacles to voting that employ things like voter ID and poll taxes must not be allowed.  The usefulness of the Electoral, College in today’s elections needs to be examined.  The old goal of ‘one person, one vote’ is still the target to shoot for.

Electronic social media have introduced challenges never faced before.  The voters barely feel or understand the invisible hand that pushes them in a certain direction, gently but inexorably.  tweet sealOur very choices on line—websites visited, goods purchased, entertainment views, and so much more—go into the algorithmic hopper and come out as tailor-made “online experiences” designed to nudge our real-world behavior, without our being aware of it, toward goals decreed by others: commercial goals to make us buy a certain product. Political goals to make us vote a certain way.  Foreign goals to advance the interest of sovereign governments, like, say, Russia’s?  Because this problem was born in technology that can spread ideas across the globe in microsecond, it will probably require a technological fix, which may be different from company to company and country to country.  However, we must find that fix, and find it fast.

America has much to be proud of in its elections systems, but it was never perfect.  Now it faces challenges from within and without.  We must find them and answer them before our democracy evolves into something else.  Oligarchy, plutocracy, and autocracy are all waiting in the wings.


4)  The biggest challenge facing our democracy is to understand and accept our diversity–of skin colors, faiths, gender identities, ethnic backgrounds, and more.  The 20th century idea of the “melting pot”, where everyone, regardless of background, would simply homogenize into a bland uniformity with white, cis-male, Protestant “American” values, will not work.  Nor should it. voter suppression It is good to be proud of your blackness, your Muslim faith, your gay lover, yourself just as you are.  Hate and intolerance poison the process.  Cooperation and compromise enable it.

Phenotypic diversity in animal populations strengthens them.  A fat zebra is less able to outrun a lion than a lean and nimble on, but when famine comes that leanness becomes a liability, and obesity prevails.  The species survives both predation and drought because of its diversity; zebrahood lives on.

Populations, too, draw strength from their diversity.  To make it work requires not integration, but acceptance.  We must see the humanness in people, and not dwell on their Jewishness, or gayness, their accents or the melanin levels in their skins.  It must be normal to say, “I believe Jesus Christ is my personal savior, and you believe in the prophet Muhammed, and that’s okay.  Right now we are debating tax reform, though, so let’s get to work.”  We must listen to, the others who touch our lives, even tangentially, and understand them even if we do not agree.  Their views may be informed by their and experiences that differ from yours, but then your ideas spring from your faith and experience, too.  Whether your name is Yitzchak, Chiaoxiang, or Mary, we still need to agree on a world that treats all of us fairly.

diverse crowd

That is how Democracy works.  Diversity makes the process messier and more difficult, but it makes the end result fairer, and more stable.  If we really listen to one another, if we can keep intolerance and hate out of the process, if we respect the checks and bzlances and if we can find within ourselves the strength to compromise without abandoning our own interests, diversity will make our country a  stronger, better place to live.

That was the gift the Founding Fathers gave America when it was born. It has served us well for nearly two and a half centuries.   Let’s not squander it now.



Las Vegas


, , , , , ,

las vegas shooting frac pbo noise

Heroism amongst the Horror

This insanity must stop! Gun rights are not absolute, and madmen are everywhere. In a country that birthed Jim Crow and the genocide of its indigenous peoples, the events in Las Vegas shock, but they do not surprise us. The accentuation of our racial and religious differences, and the fomenting of our mistrust and hatred, is not saving us from the many faces of terrorism.


We draw our very strength as a nation from the diversity of our races and faiths, as Samson drew his strength from the length of his hair. Donald Trump is our Delilah. We trusted him, even loved him, and he betrayed us.


We must grow up and get over this–as individuals, as a country, and as a people, united and proud. We must end this evil, all together, once and for all!


las vegas shooting 2 lyr2

Run for your Life! Duck and Cover! Is This For Real?!

The Public Garden


, , , , ,

boston garden pond layer 2 lo res

In the 17th century, most of what is now Boston consisted of a few dry hills jutting through salt marsh, on a peninsula–the Shawmut Peninsula— with a narrow neck jutting into the harbor. The site was chosen because it was easy to defend from the limited war technology of the aboriginal people, and to supply by  ships from Europe and the Caribbean.

old boston map

1650s Boston superimposed on 1880s street map

In the 1630s the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony set aside a portion of land too swampy to build on for use as common ground.  Footpaths were made through the mire for crosstown travel, and cattle grazed on the dry hummocks. Witches, felons and Quakers were hanged on the common, and British soldiers bivouacked there before the Revolution.  Most of that land remains today as Boston Common.

beacon hill demise

The end of Beacon Hill

The wetlands were gradually filled in by razing prominent high ground–Beacon Hill, Pemberton Hill, and Mount Vernon (which British soldiers called Mount Whoredom during the war).  They dismantled the hills with shovels, moving the soil and detritus in handcarts. Later a “gravity railroad” was built to expedite this work.  By the 1830s both the hills and the marshes were gone.  Behind them had sprawled a vast tidal basin called the Back Bay, which was rapidly filling with trash, sewage, the remains of the Tri-mount Hill, on its way to becoming dry land and prime real estate, over which the city and the commonwealth would argue for a generation.  Grazing was banned from the Common, which was girded with a cast iron fence.  A cemetery was proposed and rejected.  It became a true park in the modern sense of the word, simple and practical, true to its Puritan origins.

public garden aerial 1880

1850s concept for the Common & Public Garden.  Note the marsh in foreground.

The 19th century had an altogether different vision.  In 1837 philanthropist Horace Gray petitioned that 27 acres of the common land be set aside for the young nation’s first botanical garden.  A corporation was formed, and the Public Garden was born.  Some formal plantings were begun, but serious development of the Garden had to await the Tripartite Indenture of 1856, an agreement among the City of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Boston Water Power Company.  This document established the rules which governed development in the Back Bay; its influence is still felt today.

emerald necklace

Frederick Law Olmstead and the “Emerald Necklace”

Around 1880 Frederick Law Olmstead proposed that the muddy river that drained the area be dredged and a series of parks created, connected by a continuous system of waterways, parkways and promenades that would span the base of the peninsula holding the city of Boston–an Emerald Necklace.  The first jewel in the necklace is the Common and Public Garden.  As of this date, Olmstead’s vision has not been fully realized.

swan boat

Swan Boat in the 1950s

make way for memories lo res

Make Way for Ducklings

Many walkways meander through the Garden, flanked by brilliant formal plantings with a Victorian flair, which bloom for three seasons.  The centerpiece of the park is a sinuous pond where a pair of mute swans lives; they are called Romeo and Juliet, though both are female.  It is spanned by the Lagoon Bridge, once the world’s smallest suspension bridge, but now supported from below, its suspension apparatus purely decorative.  Pedal-powered swan boats ply the shallow waters from spring to fall, along with families of mallards that inspired Robert McCloskey’s children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings, which is memorialized with a bronze sculpture on the shore.

lagoon bridge

The Lagoon Bridge. A family of fledgling mallards is also seen, lower right.

Today the park is maintained by the City of Boston.  Manpower and funds are supplemented by a charitable organization known as the Friends of the Public Garden, also called the Rose Brigade. The charity hires specialists to help care for the trees,  bushes and floral plantings. Volunteers meet regularly to prune and maintain bushes. Financial support also comes from private sources such as the Beacon Hill Garden Club.

one night at the park

Night in the Public Garden

Six Flags, and then some

mar-a-lago gothic3 20x20

american gothicMany flags flew over the 2016 Trump for President campaign, all in full view, waving and snapping in the brisk political winds. (I could not find a flag to represent misogyny, but that belongs there, too.) Instead we preferred the the man in Grant Wood’s painting: a stolid, dependable family man, infused with American heartland values, ingenuity, and valor.  So that is the man that Donald Trump sold us.

That man was fading to extinction even in Wood’s time, which is probably why he memorialized him in paint.

Trump told us he was a man who had made the American dream work for himself, and now he wanted to make it work for us as well. Out of the goodness of his heart.

“Make America great again!” he said.

to do list 3 lo resHe told us he wasn’t one of them—the soulless plutocrats of high finance, or the robber barons of industry. He was so rich that he was not beholden to any of them to bankroll his campaign. He had the big jet plane to prove it, and great golden towers in cities around the world. (We had to take his word for this. His financial records were strictly out-of-bounds. That’s okay, though; when has he ever told us anything that wasn’t true?) He promised to rid us of these economic parasites when he became president, just as the Pied Piper promised to rid Hamelin Town of rats.  (Do you know where your children are?)

“Drain the swamp!” he said.



pied piper

seig heilHe was going to rid the country of undesirables–Muslims, Mexicans, transgenders, etc–and build a border wall to keep them out for good; they were all drug lords, rapists, and queers, after all. The alt-right—white supremacists, neo-nazis, assorted kooks and trolls—would help him do it, rallying  behind political savant Steve Bannon, like  Liberty leading the People, but mercifully without the bared bosom. Trump promised to shut the door to immigration in order to save American jobs, even while the jobs themselves were emigrating.

“Build that wall!” he said.



Bannon Leading the People

hillary in jailCorruption and ineptitude would be things of the past. He was going to make his predecessors pay for their political crimes, starting with Hillary Clinton, for something heinous that she did with with her emails–I can’t remember exactly what.

“Lock her up!” he said.


Instead of all that, we got a mountebank with the demeanor of a child and the conscience of a rattlesnake, along with a posse of his ilk. “I could go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he boasted before the voting, “and still get elected.” I don’t know if he actually did that, but he did get elected. 

Did he know then that his campaign was getting a boost from foreign forces? Perhaps. In any case, we elected him, and handed him the keys to our treasury and nuclear arsenal.

off to see the wizard st basils

We can’t say he didn’t warn us. Nothing he has done from the Oval Office has been truly a surprise. Impeachment is a fearsome remedy, though, like amputation. Amendment 25—removal for incapacity—carries even more frightening implications when it is exercised in the name of the President’s mental health or character.

trump desk elephant layer4

Most of these people have been fired.  Only Pence, Putin and Kushner remain.

Midterm elections are not far off now. Governorships, many state legislature seats, a third of the Senate, and every seat in the House of Representatives will be up for election. If you are anxious about the way things are going, stand up.  DO NOT SIT THIS ONE OUT!

freedom of speech

The end.




2 Meme or not 2 Meme?


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

dawkins headshot

Richard Dawkins

The word ‘meme’ was introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.  He intended it to designate a theoretical self-replicating entity which serves to transmit an idea from one mind to another, enabling culture.  Shortened from the Greek mimeme (an imitation) with a conscious nod to the word gene.  It enabled Dawkins to reflect on the evolution of intangible things—ideas, behaviors, fads, styles, even language—as they propagate through a society, among societies, or across generations.  Memes, like genes, respond to selective pressures, with the most  successful moving robustly among cultures, and the least successful foundering into  extinction.The meme, so constituted, is an elegant idea, and powerful intellectual tool—so much so that one is tempted to wonder whether Dawkins has discovered something real, in a physical sense. 


Gregor Mendel

dnaWhen Gregor Mendel described the principles of inheritance in pea plants, he invented a concept he called genes.  He thought this was a semantic device.  A century later Watson and Crick showed that Mendel’s genes were not merely idea, but fact.  The phenomena he observed could be explained by the arrangement of molecules in DNA.  His abstract concept turned out be a real, physical thing.



Murray Gell-Mann

quarkSimilarly Murray Gell-Mann, a nuclear physicist with a delightfully lyrical mind, was fascinated to find that the indivisible baryons—protons and neutrons, for instance—could be described by equations using fractions of their integer properties, such as charge and mass, in sums of thirds and one halves of the proton’s.  It was almost as if a proton was made up of three smaller particles with fractional charge and mass. which only fit together in a limited number of ways, like the falling objects in Tetris.  It was Gell-Mann himself who first suspected that these ideas were real particles, which he called called quarks,  They have since have been observed in high energy colliders. 

cat meme

Some things are true because they are elegant and useful, and some things are elegant and useful because they are true.  The true nature of truth is a slippery thing. So is beauty.  There is a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work here, I’ll bet.  There is probably a meme for that, too.

dawkins meme

There was no internet when the meme was discovered.  There was only Arpanet, which was dominated by military and scientific communications rather than kittens and Amazon.  Dawkins was not talking about digital images on cables and wifi, but about ideas moving through minds and cultures.  When the internet came along, he predicted that memes there would morph rapidly, like a virus, adopting that metaphor long before it went viral. 

As if to prove Dawkins’ point, the moment that the word accessed open cyberspace, it began to evolve at lightspeed. Today most people think ‘meme’ refers to a particularly cute picture of a kitten posted to the web, or an image with clever text superimposed.   That the ‘kitten meme’ refers to the totality of what kittens mean to the whole culture in all its media, from electronic feeds, to print, to conversations over coffee and the words mothers whisper to their babies, is a concept that is rapidly going extinct in today’s worldwide cyber-culture, with its ever shifting habitat niches.

That is too bad.  While it proves Dawkins is correct, it creates a void.  We need a new word that describes the thing that Dawkins discovered soaring like a pterosaur through our great, fragmented, shared consciousness, before it goes the way of the pterosaurs themselves.  Without that word, we could lose the concept,and that would be a crying shame.

crying shame

Computer-Generated Meme


What About the Alt-Left?

war council 2

Bannon, Trump, and Miller hold Council in Virginia (after Mort Küntsler)

Reflections on Charlottesville

In his impromptu remarks in the Trump Tower lobby on August 15, Donald Trump spoke with passion about the violence that engulfed the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA.

press conference

At a press conference in Trump Tower, the president points, insincerely, to the right.

He declined to fix blame solely the alt-right, who had sponsored the rally, apparently hoping that  violence would ensue.  He insisted instead that there was blame “on both sides.”

What about the alt-left that came charging at, what you say, the alt-right?” Mr. Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they were charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”

Sometime during the 2016 presidential campaign the term alt-right broke into the political discourse.  At first it was a descriptor for a confederation of websites where such as 4chan and 8chan, where anonymous internet trolls could gather to air their views of white supremacy, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia of every stripe. 


Alt-right fodder

It grew into a meme that encompasses much of the extreme right of American politics: the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazism, InfoWars, and Breitbart News.  Its internet tools have become a widespread part of the meme: triple parentheses to call out (((Jews))) online, the avatar Pepe the Frog, and the phrase “dindu nuffin” to ridicule the deaths of black men, such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown, at the hands of white police.

The alt-right seems to be what Hillary Clinton referred to as the “basket of deplorables.”  Steve Bannon, the deplorable advisor to Trump, seems to be proud of the label, calling Breitbart News, the internet site he once ran, as “the platform for the alt-right”

It there an alt-left, though, and did they come charging out with clubs at the participants of the rally, peacefully assembled but girded for war?  The answer to that question is more complex that a sound byte can convey.  It is really three questions:  Is there an alt-left?  Is it somehow equivalent to the alt right?  Did it, swinging clubs, charge peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville?

Is there an alt-left?

The short answer is no.

blood & soil

Blood & Soil: “In the peaseantry lies the innocent source of our power.” –Adolph Hitler

While it has no central organizing body, the alt-right is a loose confederation of ideologies defined by its use of internet trolling and public assembly to promulgate a jumble of conservative ideas (economic nationalism, isolationism, Trump support, et. al.).  Some of these ideas are bristle with hate (racism, misogyny, antisemitism, etc.).  They distribute them with a dissonant casualness that often bears a structural resemblance humor, but is seldom funny.  They use terms that intentionally hurtful or shocking (“cuckservative”, or simply “cuck”, to conflate traditional conservatives and cuckolds, and the chant “blood and soil!” to combine their ideas of racial purity and  geographic identity, as the Nazi’s did during the Weimar Republic.)  They use these devices to foment violence, even war, against a government they have declared invalid, with the goal of replacing it with a racially “pure”, all white, cis-gender male dominated “ethno-state”.

There is no remotely comparable entity on the left.

There is, however, a long history in America of political violence on the left, beginning with the American Revolution itself.  In the 18th century here, much violence and death occurred before the conservatives, British sympathizers and Tories, were subdued or driven into Canada.  The revolutionaries fully realized that this action against the government was treason.  “We must all hang together,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

thoreauIn 1849, Thoreau published Civil Disobedience, which urged people not to let governments to overrule their consciences, or allow their moral sense to atrophy; he advocated passive resistance, but stopped short of condoning violence.  In 1859, abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave rebellion by attacking a US arsenal and distributing its weapons among blacks.  During the Civil War itself, the liberal ideas of abolitionism and union overcame the more conservative aims of slavery, feudalism and states’ rights.  The treason of the Confederate rebels was granted formal amnesty by President Johnson for the sake of national unity

railroad strike

The Great Railroad Strike, 1877

In the late 19th and early 20th century the anarchist and socialist ideas that convulsed Europe, coalesced with workers’ movements here to produce a national zeitgeist that rained violence and destruction down on labor disputes across the nation, from the Great

patty hearst

Patty Hearst, aka “Tanya”, markets the SLA, 1974

Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Herrin Massacre of 1922.  Temperance and radical feminism, too, had their violent sides, personified by Carrie Nation, Emma Goldman, and others.  The 1970s, protest against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War brought a resurgence of violent demonstrations, with groups like the Weather Underground, the Jewish Defense League and the Symbionese Liberation Army taking to the streets.


An unfocused message sank Occupy.  No violence was necessary.

Today the left is quite different.  The active left has faded since its heyday in the 70s, when powerful personalities like Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Gloria Steinem, and many others led a left wing that, though jumbled, was always powerful, and sometimes violent.  Without such leadership today there is no sense of unity, and the radical left has foundered.  Though the violence has abated, the principles of civil rights, equal justice and economic fairness still prevail in such groups as the Occupy movement, and the followers of independent Senator Bernie Sanders.

mlkThe ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King began to permeate the left in the ‘60s,  Currents of non-violence run through the crowd now whereever the left congregate.   Not all on the left have adopeted non-violent tactics, however.  The organized antifascist group Antifa, for instance, see its role as resisting the message of the alt-right.  They come to right wing rallies armed, some of them (the Black Bloc) in black hoods and riot gear.  They defend against violence at right-wing gatherings with violence of their own, often pre-emptive, arguing that in the threatening horrors of chattel slavery, the Holocaust, and the subjugation of women, are real and immediate.  Physical violence to forestall these ideas is not only ethically justifiable, but also morally required.


Is Violence on the Left Somehow Equivalent to Alt-Right Violence?


If you have to hide your identity when you act, are you sure you are doing the right thing? Just askin’.

Trump has denied claiming ‘moral equivalence’ between the left and right factions as he sees them, yet he seems to have invented the ‘alt-left’ as a rhetorical device with the sole purpose of implying such equivalence.  It provided him with a place to shift the blame, from his supporters on the right to a proxy for his avowed enemies, the progressive Democrats and the liberal press.  He created Crooked Hillary and the Fake News in the same spirit, as rhetorical vessels for emotion unencumbered by fact.

In fact, the sides were not equivalent at all. 

First, there is the matter of numbers.  While there were tens of thousands of right-wing demonstrators that day, and a similar number of counter demonstrators, there were only a few Antifa, and far fewer of the Black Bloc.  The president is correct in asserting, “there were good people on both sides,” but purely in terms of tactical advantage, the violent left was outnumbered ten to one.

torch parade

Tiki torchlight in Charlottesville, 2017

nazi torch parade

Torchlight in Berlin, 1933

Then there is the matter of motive.  The spectacle of a column of people, all white, carrying torches reminiscent of the KKK, shouting slogans recycled from the Third Reich, wearing homegrown riot gear emblazoned with Nazi iconography, and openly intimidating dark-skinned people they encountered on their way with slogans and gestures invoking Jim Crow and Hitler, was disturbing to many Americans everywhere regardless of their

seig heil

In case you thought the resemblance was coincidental…

ethnicities.  To incite violence in support of the creation of a supposedly racially pure ethno-state threatens many patriotic Americans, including most whites, and is offensive beyond words to the many Americans who themselves, or whose fathers and brothers, fought and died to free Europe from this very horror.  To the Europeans who remember the cruel oppression of Hitler’s vermin, watching the U.S. convulse in this way must be excruciating.

defensive posture

Antifa assumes a defensive posture against a much larger force.  Notice the high concentration of press, and the complete absence of police. Is this just a photo op?

The left, by contrast, justifies its violence in the name of defense.  Sometimes, they argue, the evil of violence is required to avoid a greater evil.  The hydra of white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and gun worship must be slain at all costs.  If that means fighting back, the violent on the left argue, then bring it on.

I have no doubt that it is the violence itself that attracts many into the fray, yet in terms of the assertion of moral equivalency that Trump has implied and then tried to deny, there is no fair comparison been the alt-right and those who stand up against them.

Did the Left Attack the Alt-Right in Charlottesville?

street fight-1Did these self-appointed guardians of the left attack the right-wing demonstrators without provocation, as the president had charged?  The abundance of whirling, garbled cell phone video from the scene, showing only mutual, chaotic affray, does little to answer this question; clips can be isolated to accommodate almost any spin.   Ironically, though this aspect of the events at Charlottesville are the best documented, it may remain the least understood.street fight-2

Witness accounts conflict.  The many slants applied by so many activists with so many agendas who were there obscure the facts themselves.  The political leaning of the corporate news media do not help.  It may not be “fake news,” as the President insists, but neither is it neutral.

Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” march, complained about the policing. “Police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators, and now people are dead,” Kessler said in video Saturday. “They were not prepared. Their No. 1 priority was shutting down the alt-right.”   Alt-right leader Richard Spencer also faulted the police. “We came here as a demonstration of our movement,” he said. “And we were effectively thrown to the wolves.”


Some of the clergy at Charlottesville

Theologian Cornel West, Harvard professor and activist, also faulted the police, saying that he had survived only through the intervention of militant leftists. “The police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy,” he told The Washington Post. “If it hadn’t been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”

Charlottesville’s synagogue received threats of destruction and death before the march, prompting them to request extra police protection on rally day.  They were denied, and had to hire private security instead.

Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel, describes what happened on Unite the Right day:

“For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”

No act of vandalism or personal violence occurred at the synagogue that day, though less than 200 feet away a man of professed Neo-Nazi beliefs plowed his Dodge Charger into crowd of counter demonstrators on a narrow street where they were lawfully assembled, killing one and injuring many more.  The most serious injuries of the day, and the only fatality due to crowd violence, were intentionally inflicted, without specific provocation, by a member of the alt-right.

We may never know the details, but this much is apparent:  most of the violence originated on the right, motivated by the most heinous ideas.  Much of the violence on the left was in defense of self, others, or the Union itself.

There is no equivalency there at all.


…and here are some riot police.

The Robert E. Lee Statue

Since the rally was ostensibly about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park, Trump reinforced his equivalency rant with an assault on other statues. “I wonder,” he said, “is it George Washington next week?  Is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?  You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

It is true that both men owned slaves.  Washington, by all accounts, treated his slaves with a severity bordering on cruelty, even by the standard of his times.  His ambivalence showed in his will though, which directed that those slaves which he had the authority to emancipate should be free, and those who were too young or frail to work should be supported by his estate. Some Washington slaves were encumbered by liens, primarily to Martha’s estate, preventing their emancipation.  The rules of chattel slavery seem bizarre to us today, but such was the tenor of those times.

Thomas Jefferson was a more complicated man.  He owned slaves, yet was troubled by the moral implications of slavery.  He brought slaves to serve him in the White House, where he signed a law prohibiting the importation of negro slaves into the US.  When his wife Martha died, he took into his bed her fair, mixed race half-sister, Sally Hemings, who is said to have borne an uncanny resemblance to Martha.  Sally bore him six children, two of whom he allowed to ‘walk away’ from his plantation without formally freeing them; they were all emancipated in his will.  Slave life at Monticello was apparently easier than at Mount Vernon, though it was still slave life.

Lee’s views on slavery were stern and paternalistic.  He believed that slavery existed because god willed it to, and that God had made the Negro the white man’s burden in order to prepare him for emancipation in some uncertain future, when he was ready.

“… In this enlightened age”, Lee wrote his wife in 1856, “there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

Both Washington and Jefferson were American patriots and men of the Enlightenment, whose vision saw far into the future.  They believed that all men are created equal.  They were aware that this was not true of the society in which they lived, but the principles, which they enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and which they fought fiercely to defend, created a new society where such things were possible.  And they succeeded.

Black slaves were freed by the Civil War, and then enfranchised by the Constitution, in law at least, if not in practice.  Society takes much longer to change than law, but even that was happening under the rules the Founding Fathers established.  From Reconstruction in the 1860s to the civil rights legislation a century later, with painful slowness, many mistakes, and much violent resistance, all men were becoming equal.  Women were enfranchised by law in the early the 20th century, and not until the 21st century did they begin to make their influence felt in the halls of government, corporate boardrooms, and professional roles. Full ethnic and gender equality has yet to be achieved in America, but, with the guidance of men like Washington and Jefferson, we are moving in the right direction.

Lee, too, was a brilliant and complicated manm though his vision peered not into the furture, but deeply into a disintegrating past. He was a political and military genius who fought to preserve a society and an economy that relied on chattel slavery and the subjugation of women, even if that meant making war against his homeland.  Our homeland. 

That is the very definition of treason.

After the War Between the States, Lee would not support the dedication of any CSA memorials, including statues of himself.  Today his descendants, and those of Gen. Stonewall Jackson, favor the removal of their ancestors statues, if doing so will prevent a national schism.  As president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) Lee forbade the display of Confederate iconography on College grounds.  Even then he felt that such memorials were too divisive, too likely to reignite passions that ought to have been settled by the war.

We have fought this fight as long and as well as we know how,” he wrote.  “We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people, there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation.”