Truth and civilization
More than 30 years ago now, I was selected as my high school’s intern for our local Congressman. I spent a week working from the Capitol Hill office of Representative Bruce Morrison, a Democrat who represented the third district of Connecticut.
Though he was running for Governor of Connecticut that year, he still kept a very full schedule, and as Chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee he was working on a bill that was instrumental, for better or worse, for bringing in tech workers from outside the U.S.
Bruce Morrison did not win his contest for governor, though I turned 18 that year and I am proud to say that the very first vote I ever cast that year was for him. The winner, Independent Lowell Weicker, instituted a deeply unpopular state income tax, was hanged in effigy in Hartford and did not run again; the Republican candidate, John Rowland, later became governor and wound up serving time in federal prison for bribery and campaign fraud, so Connecticut judged extremely poorly that November. Rep. Morrison did not run for political office again but left a lasting legacy. Among his many credits is that he was instrumental in helping bring about the Irish Peace accords by normalizing relations between the U.S. government and Ireland’s Sinn Fein.
I was only working in Congress for one week, but it was thrilling to be at the center of our country’s government, being part of what was making the news and seeing the workings of government up close. I helped write a letter to a woman in Mystic about the Women Infants and Children program, sent faxes to other Congressional offices, and did tasks that were menial office tasks but felt like they carried the gravitas of democracy nonetheless.
I would spend hours after work in the visitors’ galleries of the House and Senate, watching the debates. It was thrilling to see Senators and Representatives argue their positions with eloquence and mutual respect. The formality of how they addressed one another, as “Senator” on the Senate and “Gentleman” or “Gentlewoman” in the House, lent grace and dignity to the proceedings, even amid what counted as partisan rancor in 1990.
Among the tasks was going around to various offices collecting signatures on a letter to the Secretary of State in the wake of army killings of students in Zaire, which later resulted in Congress cutting military aid to that country (their dictator would be overthrown in a coup seven years later). I walked the halls of the House office buildings, finding my way to the various offices and sometimes meeting the different Representatives along the way—I usually only handed the letter to a staff member who would go into the inner sanctum of the office and return with the signature of the Congressperson, but chatted with a few in person. At one point while gathering these signatures, I ran into my sophomore year English teacher, Mr. Degenhardt, and my high school’s former Principal, Gilbert Cass, and showed them to our Congressman’s office.
At another point, a Congressman who pledged to sign the letter was on the floor of the House. I was not allowed to go there. Only Representatives, pages, and certain other staff were allowed. Luckily, someone—I think it was another Congressman—ran the letter to the floor and back for me.
The floor of the House of Representatives was a kind of sacred ground; it was for people who got elected, who entered by the will of the people. It is not another part of the office, or a fancy perk Congress gave itself. People died to keep it free. In fact, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House during the War of 1812.
So last month when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it took on a kind of unfathomable horror. There was an element of watching something we didn’t think could happen here. Even in the most depraved days of Trump’s two presidential campaigns, I had a higher level of faith in his rank-and-file supporters than to think they could be led so far astray from reality.
The past several years have shown us that the fringe elements of our politics have gained traction among the mainstream and have no allegiance beyond their own ideas. The history and honor of our country mean nothing to them, as they see themselves as elite warriors correcting injustices rather than as citizens with obligations and responsibilities. Whatever destruction they or their allies cause is considered justified by the morality of their cause.
What the last four years have laid bare is that both political parties are broken, with great swaths of voters and activists that will be led to violence based on misinformation and propaganda.
Overwrought self-styled patriots, who thought Donald Trump was the last bastion of defense of law and order and America itself, stood with crowds that attacked police officers in an attempt to thwart a democratic election. Self-indulgent social justice advocates, who looked the other way as mobs burned down police stations and created “autonomous zones” in major cities, posted tributes to fallen Capitol police offers and talk of meting out punishment for sedition.
The partisans stuck with extremists in their midst want to blame someone else. Trump supporters claim these were really Antifa activists in the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Black Lives Matter supporters would have us believe it was secret Trump “Boogaloo” militia burning and looting U.S. cities last summer.
Two central tenets can guide us forward out of this decades-long quagmire:
- There must be an absolute and unwavering respect for and obedience to the truth.
- American institutions deserve our utmost care and protection, not because they are perfect but because they are ours.
The truth knows no political allegiances and always disappoints dogmatic partisan politicians. Our institutions were created in different times by different people than comprise America today, but they were made to last and have survived multiple wars and upheavals. If we respect them, they can thrive again.
Trump to New York: Drop Dead
Among the political headlines that screamed from the shameless ramparts of social media over the past few weeks, one news story that added to the four-year hate on Donald Trump was his switching his address to Florida from New York. It was a minor note that was lost in the partisan volleys regarding impeachment, with Trump complaining via Twitter that he has been treated unfairly by New York City and State leaders.
Donald Trump became a household name in the U.S. with his television show, “The Apprentice.” But New York has been familiar with Donald Trump much longer than the rest of America. For most of my adult life he’s been a tabloid figure, a willing mouthpiece for morning radio and other fodder for the endless chatter and ego jousting that hangs thick in the atmosphere of the city.
New York politicians were happy to take jabs at Trump’s repudiation of his home state. “Good riddance,’ said Governor Andrew Cuomo.
There are three reasons driving the move and Trump’s timing of it.
Distracts from the latest circus. Trump made the move during the week when several career, nonpartisan government officials were telling Congress about Trump’s conduct related to the Ukraine, the impetus for the current impeachment effort. Trump found an alternative instance to claim that Democrats were treating him unfairly, helping him construct the conspiratorial framework he’s hanging his entire anti-impeachment platform on: that the system is corrupt and everything is being driven by political machinations on the part of Democrats.
Helps with reelection in Florida. Trump did not win New York State and has little hope of doing so, but Florida is up for grabs and is a much needed piece of his reelection puzzle. His move aligns himself with the large population of transplants who fled to Florida from the Northeast.
Saves him money on taxes. This is probably the most important factor driving Trump to the Sunshine State. He’ll save significant money on taxes. New York State has a much higher tax rate than Florida, and if you can pick an official residence between the two, New York will lose out every time on tax considerations.
New Yorkers who don’t like Trump would like to disown him, and act as if he is some rare aberration who does not reflect at all on the five boroughs, but we can’t.
We can’t act like we’re the trendsetter and the capital of the world and then pretend that the leader of the free world, a native of our city, is somehow not a part of us. Yes, New York is more diverse and the focal point of a lot of worldly art and culture, but human nature doesn’t change, and New York is every bit as tribal and parochial as the rest of America. The partisan divide that creates ugly scenes across the country is present here also.
Landlords like Trump are slightly less revered than rats and muggers in New York. Trump’s rise in presidential politics is an indication of the complete dysfunction and utter detestability of our political class, not from any sheer genius on his part.
Atop of all the other controversies surrounding the Trump administration at the time, his moving his official residence to Florida is small potatoes. It was in the media for a day or two and wasn’t even the lead story those days; then it was gone. There are more important stories to chase during this absolutely bonkers administration, and political griping and standard tax dodging would just don’t fit the bill in these strange times.
No one can honestly say Trump is not a New Yorker. He’s one of us, and we can’t brush him off like yesterday’s news. The city helped create him; it was our tabloids that made him a celebrity and grew his name recognition for decades. It was our political leaders that constantly sought his donations and took their picture with him.
President Trump is thoroughly ‘Florida Man’ now, but he’ll always come stamped with the “Made in New York” label.
Demanding a better 2020
As the presidential race of 2020 is already underway, before the office-holders elected in the mid-terms have even taken their oaths of office, it would be a great time for Americans to demand that the level of conversation be switched permanently to ‘grown up.’ The stakes are very high with the looming possibility of a recession, a bitterly divided Congress and an executive branch in a constant churn. It would be a real treat for a few brave candidates to insist on taking the high road and talking about how their policies will benefit the citizenry.
This will run afoul of the zeitgeist of contemporary politics. Rampant partisanship has created a knee-jerk politics where not only is everyone expected to wear their allegiances on their sleeves, but to be at the most ideologically pure part of the spectrum with blind obedience. Facts that may run counter to one’s argument are “Fake News” or “Hate Facts.” Serious adults don’t use terms like that except to mock those that do.
We’re seeing the worst in tantrum politics and mental gymnastics among both major political parties as the current budget impasse over a border wall continues. Trump’s insistence on a border wall is a clear sign he doesn’t understand the issues, and Democrats are hard-pressed to demonstrate any serious commitment to increased border security or give lie to the notion they want open borders.
Both parties once were able to function and understand nuances of policy. Sovereignty and human dignity are not mutually exclusive. It is inexcusable for Americans to support a porous border and deny our right to a sovereign nation. It is also inexcusable that children would die preventable deaths in the wealthiest country in the world, no matter their circumstances. We are a better country than to let people die of common disease or dehydration in detention centers; we also won’t be a country without strong, enforceable borders—there is no contradiction in those statements.
Let’s all admit that our political opponents are not monsters and that seeing the logic in the other side’s argument is not a betrayal of our own ideals. No, people advocating for stopping family separation at the border are not doing so to create some kind of socialist global utopia just as people advocating for tougher border controls are not trying to reproduce the Third Reich on American soil. These are not staggering revelations to the worlds of adults, but these are gut-punching concepts to hyper-partisan audiences that tend to dominate the public conversation these days.
Future generations will look upon these times as days of decay and decline, when a vacuum in leadership and long-standing myopic public policy exacerbated a fractured society. The values that make our society great can endure even if our institutions crumble, but it means a conscious effort to build new communities for those of us with clear vision and willingness to see beyond the outdated prism of our fraying standards.
We can rebuild communities if we leave the echo chambers of media and engage with the world around us. If we can take anything constructive from the Trump candidacy and record in office, it’s that people respond to frank dialogue and people who stick to their guns. Trump trampled several political sacred cows in his road to the White House—I thought his candidacy was dead when he insulted John McCain before the first primary was held. Have no doubt: Trump’s success in winning office came from his being rooted firmly outside the political establishment. You don’t have to be a fraudulent, vulgar ignoramus to break out of the mold and effectively challenge that status quo. Let the barriers Trump broke down let in a better slate of candidates and activists. There are decent people who hold all kinds of political opinions. Hear them out and be one of them.
Let this be the year you speak your mind and demand honesty and understanding from candidates within your own party. The first step of breaking out of our political rut is to embrace the politics of honesty and change on our own terms.
Demand more from the election of 2020 than we got in 2016. We (hopefully) can only go up from here.
Democracy is in the details
Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill is famously quoted as saying, “All politics are local.” He was right. What’s more, so much of what gets decided in our republic doesn’t happen on the televised stage but in the mind-numbing minutia of committees and boards you’ve never heard of unless you are willing to delve into the morass of local politics. But I’m telling you: delve into that morass.
This universe of local community boards and party committees have more sway and control over our politics than one might think, and they are a way to have an outsized influence on your community without having to run for public office. Depending on what you do, you might only need a few hours a month.
And no matter what your politics, you likely agree that the political establishment is decrepit and in need of new blood. Case in point: here in New York, the Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates for party positions who were not even aware they were running. There were actually people interested in some of these party positions, but the people in charge filed the names of candidates they drew from old lists, thinking they could fudge the paperwork and appoint their own candidates later. The bosses had become accustomed to few showing interest in these party positions. With more people engaged in the political process on the local party level, this kind of rusty machine can’t continue run like that. Why shouldn’t there be a contest for these positions every step of the way—picking candidates who are actually running would be a good first step.
And in addition to the usual local and state races on the ballot Tuesday, there are three ballot initiatives specific to New York City that can shape the future of local politics and open the door for more involvement. The first would mean stricter limits on individual campaign contributions candidates could collect but increase public funding for candidates. The second would create a Civic Engagement Commission under control of the mayor (please vote against this if you live in New York City). And the third would put term limits of a sort on people serving on community boards (they could serve for eight years but then must step down for two years with the ability to reapply). I think a better solution to create more responsive community boards would to make them elected positions—members are currently appointed by borough presidents.
Whatever your position on these or other issues, you won’t change a thing by throwing rocks at someone you hate, marching on Trump Tower, or trolling normies with dank memes. Go vote.
Clearly there is a populist political wave that is cresting with Democrats now after Donald Trump surfed it to victory two years ago. There’s no reason it should stop for either party. In both cases it has widened the debate.
Five years ago, Democrats were scared to call for socialized medicine and Republicans would not have dared question birthright citizenship. Both these topics are rightfully in the mainstream now. There is no reason that ideas should be kept out of the public sphere by old and uninspired machine politics.
Don’t like it? Get out there and do something about it.
Presidential stupidity and the need for patriotic immigration reform
When I moved back to New York City as an adult in the late 1990s, the job that got me here was as an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Services. I worked at J.F.K. airport stamping passports and processing immigrants, refugees, tourists, celebrities, and anyone else that came through my line.
In some cases the job could be very humbling and inspiring. For a short time I worked at the federal building in downtown Manhattan interviewing refugees and asylees who were applying for green cards. I met people who would rather be fry cooks in America than engineers in their native country. I met a woman who had seen her family murdered, a man who did time in jail for being gay, and young guy who faced prison time for simply protesting for his rights.
I also saw first-hand how our system is completely broken and is largely not at all in keeping with the traditions of what we consider our great American heritage of immigration. Our immigration laws and policies are a patchwork of corporate influence and ethnic lobbying. There is no comprehensive consideration of the national interest in how immigration is handled in the U.S. and it’s been that way for decades.
In New York City, you know something crazy is going on when people are voluntarily going to JFK Airport when they don’t have to. This past weekend thousands of people flocked there to protest the detention of a handful of travelers by order of a hastily drawn up Presidential executive order travel ban that affected a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
Travel bans like the one issued are done at times when there is a potential immediate terrorist threat. Others that have been cited have been President Carter’s restriction on Iranian travel during the hostage crisis at the time and President Obama’s temporary ban on processing Iraqi refugees in 2011. But those were limited and in response to events happening at the time. There aren’t corresponding crises that would equate to the recent Trump travel ban.
President Trump’s ham-handed executive order is like everything else he has done: a dramatic show without any planning or thought and with no understanding of the issues. He managed to make life difficult for those border and airport inspectors on the front lines of our national defense and energize the opposition. He’s helped open-border advocates position their agenda as more mainstream than it is.
Trump won the election based largely on the strength of his opposition to illegal immigration and within the first week of his administration he’s undermined his greatest political asset.
And the biggest tragedy is that now real patriotic immigration reform is going to be even more difficult to achieve, because any attempt to enact a common-sense agenda is going to be linked to Trump’s bone-headed travel ban.
This weekend’s move also hurt the fight against Islamic terrorism. Keep in mind that our best allies in the fight against Muslim extremists are Muslims from those afflicted countries. Trump’s attempt at a show-business presidency punishes some of the people who worked alongside our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, truly deserving refugees that risked their lives for our servicemen and women.
The decay of our immigration system began in 1965 and it’s had more than 50 years to morph into the mess it is today. It will take years to pass the laws needed to make sensible immigration policy stick. If Donald Trump is serious about really making a lasting change, he would stop his senseless showboating and start drafting legislation with Congressional leaders. That would require time away from TV cameras and social media. That requires real work. Start now!
A Dog That Didn’t Hunt This Time
The most deplorable thing about the general election was the awful choices voters were handed. The wife of a former President and a shady real estate mogul best known for hosting a reality television show? There was no way the outcome could be anything less than embarrassing. Each candidate deserved to lose.
There’s not much negative about Donald Trump that he didn’t say himself. He refused to even read the news during his campaign, brushing aside the pleas of his staff that he prepare for debates or learn about the world he was asking to lead. He’s arrogant and vulgar and his life is a monument to bad taste and delusions of grandeur. He’s been wrong about almost everything. But he was right on illegal immigration and crime and America is so desperate for people to speak at least partially honestly on controversial topics that this paid big dividends at the polls.
Hillary Clinton is an intelligent person with political skills and a mastery of the law and public policy. While there’s no doubt she got to where she was in large part because she is a former first lady, she’d be a formidable candidate and no question the most qualified by experience on the ballot. No one doubted her intelligence or her skill. But her career has been marred by repeated short-sighted judgements based almost solely on political calculation. In the end Hillary Clinton outsmarted herself.
The Clinton campaign followed the conventional wisdom of American politics that says accusations of racism is the Kryptonite of Republican candidates. Anyone so shamed with that scarlet ‘R’ is supposed to meekly apologize for whatever infraction they’ve committed, and sulk off to political purgatory. Trump threw that political calculus out the window and if fortune smiles upon our republic it will be his enduring legacy.
Trump set the stage early with his stand against illegal immigration. It was considered radical and extreme because he delivered a speech with his usual bombast. But the Democrats’ year-long overreaction to Trump’s stand against illegal immigration was their biggest gift to him.
You can’t solve a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist or trying to demonize those who want to fix it, even if your opponent is an ignorant blowhard. Illegal immigration on the scale we have now suppresses wages, brings criminal aliens into the country, poses serious public health risks, and often places unfair burdens on state and local governments forced to provide higher levels of service for populations that pay little or no taxes. You would have to be a reclusive millionaire not to see first-hand some of the negative effects unchecked immigration has had on our country. Somehow the view from Trump Tower was better than that from Chappaqua.
[N.B.: The idea of building a wall to solve the immigration problem shows just how clueless Trump is. Many if not most illegal immigrants enter the U.S. legally and then overstay their visas and Mexican cartels have shown themselves extremely adept at digging tunnels.]
Instead of serious policy solutions to issues of immigration and crime, Democrats delivered pompous moral lectures and in doing so they helped hand the election to Donald Trump. While it was impossible to cast a vote for either candidate, it was fun watching the premature Clinton victory celebration dissolve into a weepy pity party.
But what Trump supporters will soon realize is that they’ve been sold a false bill of goods. Trump is no real populist, and he’s aligned himself with religious conservatives hostile to science. It’s good to no longer ignore realities that were verboten in American political discourse, but Trump has never been interested in helping working-class Americans before. He’s a snake oil salesman. His willingness to speak a few harsh truths somehow overshadowed his bulwark of lies and empty boasts.
But the game has been changed in at least one positive way: The valid concerns of working-class Americans can no longer be shunted to the nether regions of the Internet by smearing them as “racist.” That’s the silver lining of Trump’s victory; it may be the only one.
The start of a long, hot summer
The 7 train was unusually crowded coming home tonight, especially for the late hour. The consolation prize of working late at the office is that the trains usually aren’t as crowded. Not tonight. There’s no Mets game so there must have been a bad delay that is still making the trains more crowded. It happens all the time.
I don’t get out of work much earlier than 7 p.m. these days, and I’m usually at my desk well before 9 a.m. It’s at least an hour and change commute each way, but I can’t really complain. I have a job and the kids are fed and we have health insurance.
It’s a small office where I work. Everyone has too much work to do and not enough time to do it. We get emails on Sunday night which I do my best to ignore until Monday morning, but I can’t always. There’s always one more thing to mark on the calendar; we won’t remember it otherwise, and our work will suffer. None of us want to do a half-assed job but there are too many clients and not enough staff. The boss stopped telling us that “help is on the way” months ago. Now he fesses up that it will get worse before it gets better. I daydream about quitting all the time; I keep reminding myself that I have kids to feed and I need this job.
A woman who crammed herself onto the train at Queensboro Plaza is trying to move to what she thinks is a better place for her to stand, but she can’t get there. She’s asking people to move and they answer her back that they don’t know where else than can go. We’re all packed onto the train as tight as our bodies will allow. Some poor slob lucky enough to fall asleep on his commute has too much luggage in front of him and that throws everything off. The woman struggles in vain to make it to this coveted space, trying to nudge her way past people who don’t budge.
I was lucky that I got on at Grand Central and got a good spot to stand in. I try to read but wind up looking out the window of the train. It’s almost 8 p.m. and the setting sun shines a punishing glare across the city.
There is hate and violence in the streets of the country and it will get worse before it gets better. There is ineptitude at every level of governance and service and the promise of more of the same. There will be more fighting and less fixing at every turn.
The kind of political violence we’ve seen in other parts of the country has yet to really rear its head here this season, but it’s still early. I like to think that we’re an exception, that New Yorkers are accustomed to a certain level of general animosity and dislike for one another and that by necessity we don’t let it get out of hand. But this year could prove me wrong; it’s proven me wrong at every turn so far.
When I was in high school I was lucky enough to visit Rome. It’s a beautiful city full of great history and art. The people were nice too.
New York will survive and be here forever, long after the American empire has done the way of the Roman one. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for at this point. We do what we can and look out for our own, try to remain strong and leave our bloodlines in good shape for the future. Let our blood survive while society drives itself asunder. It’s happened before; we can fight one another but we can’t stand except from human nature or the forces of history.
This is going to be a long, hot summer.