Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading is Resistance Vol 1

One of the big differences I've noticed between the growing resistance to the Trump presidency and my activism in college is a general acknowledgment of the need for members of the resistance to care for themselves, to make sure that everyone does what they need to do to be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy. The idea of resistance (perhaps even revolution) is seeing its members not as soldiers in an army, but as human beings fighting to make the world a better place; whole people with needs, wants, talents and weaknesses, and who are also supposed to benefit from that better world.

Of course, ideally we try to find things that do both; actions that directly contribute to the resistance and energize and sustain us. For some, going to protests and rallies is energizing. (If anyone is energized and sustained by running committee meetings or drafting municipal legislation please stand up. We've got a lot of stuff for you to do.) For me, reading can be that dual action, that activity that contributes to the resistance while energizing and sustaining me.

Furthermore, we as individuals can't do everything. A big part of the success of the #smallacts movement is that it breaks the difficult, relentless effort of activism into chunks that nearly everyone  can fit into our lives. Along those lines, we also have to find what we, as individuals are best at, and how to use that talent, expertise and wisdom, together with other people and their talents to have the greatest impact. You will be shocked to know that, after several seconds of consideration, I decided that as a bookish person, a reader, and a writer, I hope to use my expertise in the world of books to help the resistance however I can, by sharing what I know about reading, how it can connect to the resistance, and, of course, recommending the weird and challenging books to get through this weird and challenging time.

For this installment, I'm going to focus in on reading techniques, the ways we can read that will help develop the skills we need to resist the Trumpocracy.

Cultivate Context
Yeah, let's not have this anymore.
To me, one of the big reasons why conservative ideology is still politically effective despite being shackled to racism, bound to dogmatic religious thinking, and committed to policies and economics that have definitively failed, is the ability of conservative pundits and politicians to remove contemporary debates from their historical context. The way Republicans talk, you'd think all of our current federal regulations were foisted on the public by Bill Clinton. Every law is a story, a story about debate, lobbying, amendment, and negotiation. This is not to say that every law or every regulation is effective, but that, at some point, someone thought it would make the world or some part of it a better place. For an easy example, find pictures of major urban areas before the EPA. We have the Environmental Protection Agency because, at some point, many Americans and enough federal legislators and executives believed society benefited overall from protecting the environment. More frustrating, for me, is how we have actively forgotten the policies that contributed to the invention of the middle class after the Great Depression and World War II. (FYI: It wasn't low taxes and a balanced budget.) In short, the only way contemporary conservative policies win debates (when they even are debated as quite often these ideas are taken as articles of faith) is to remove them from all context and discuss them as axioms.

In many ways, reading is all about context. We learn from information and exploration through images that are arranged in relation to each other. Interpretation is driven by extrapolating what these events, these images, and even these words mean because they are in the context of these other words, images, and events. Often, however, that act of contextualizing is automatic, perhaps even unnoticed, because it feels like you're just reading. But if you read with that idea of contextualizing at the front of your mind, you both see the process and improve your ability to make connections across time and space.

Those connections across time and space, between the past and the present, between cause and distant effect and between people who never interact on a daily basis, are exactly what conservatives need us to forget for any of their points about tax rates on the top income earners, trickle down economics, and government regulations to make any sense at all. Reading intentionally builds that contextualizing skill so that you always ready to respond to a statement from the government or an argument about say, health care, with the necessary follow up questions and research to establish their context.

Become an Expert in Something
A portal to expertise hides in the back of nearly every work of popular nonfiction: the bibliography. The bibliography or works cited, is a list of other books and primary research; the time-consuming, expensive primary research upon which so much rests, and exactly the kind of research vulnerable in a malignantly anti-intellectual government. Furthermore, as funding is cut, as scorn is heaped on experts, as they are removed from positions and not consulted when their knowledge will be useful, their impact on our culture will wane.

One way to resist the de-knowledging of society is to become knowledgeable yourself. To replace, as much as you can, the absence of experts in mass media and government with the presence of expertise in your life. Furthermore, buying (when you can) and requesting your library carries these primary source or more scholarly works will support (at least a little) some of that un-glorious but vital scholarly work. Furthermore, there's always the chance, depending what you focus on, that some bill or statute or referendum (especially at the municipal and state levels) will touch on your topic and if that is the case, you will be ready to write letters to the editor and speak at meetings. (And the more of us that become experts in something the more likely citizen-experts will be around for every issue that comes up.) So, follow something that catches your eye in a book you're reading to its primary source and because an expert on it.

Develop Your Ear for Bullshit
Alternative facts” happened on Sunday January 22, 2017. The day before, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, out loud and into a microphone for all to hear, the utterly laughable, easily disprovable assertion that Trump's inauguration had the highest attendance in history. We all saw it. We know that's not true. When pressed to explain why the White House Press Secretary would blatantly, even casually, lie to the American people in his very first and thus heavily symbolic appearance, Conway said that he just presented with “alternative facts.” And, even if you're not terribly politically engaged, or even if you are but are conservative, any reader will hear something off about that phrase. The word “fact” by definition, implies an absence of “alternative.”

But as with all things, sorting through meanings to find concealed deception (though, honestly, if they think this conceals deception they think very little of the American people) is a skill that needs to be learned and developed. Close reading isn't just an academic exercise, it is an exercise in getting beyond the first layer of meaning, of identifying phrases that seem odd, and of blocking the verbal jujitsu those in power use to sound like they're saying one thing when they're actually saying its opposite. It might be taking things too far to say that all deconstruction does is apply a bullshit detector to the book you're reading, but not much.

But close reading is a skill that erodes when you don't use it. So dust off the old lit crit and start reading your books with an eye for the layer beneath, so it is easier to see what Conway, Spicer, and Ryan are hiding. If you weren't an English major, and want to develop this skill, there are, of course, plenty of books, both popular and academic that explore the technique, but I would also recommend finding a book or two about your favorite book (or at least one you're very familiar with) and reading those. That will show you an example of close reading in the context of something you already enjoy.

Find your skill, take your small act, and keep reading.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Declaration of Congressional Opposition

In 2008, Congressional Republicans lead by Mitch McConnell committed to do everything in their power to obstruct the Obama agenda, not for any reasons inherent in the policies themselves, but so that Obama could never claim bipartisanship on any legislation he might have been able to pass. It was a cynical tactic that essentially dug up Madison's grave to spit on his corpse. And it worked. The tactical opposition of Congressional Republicans wasn't able to prevent a second term for Obama, but it did contribute greatly to the historic Congressional and state level swing to Republicans and particularly conservative Republicans in 2010 and, by preventing legislation like a second stimulus package or a major infrastructure investment, ensured the economic recovery from the Bush recession would be more sluggish and less well distributed than it could have been and contributed to Trump's victory. In the history of the American 21st century, should there be anyone around to write it, Mitch McConnell will be one of our great villains, and a big part of his villainy comes from this tactic and all damage and death it lead to.

Congressional Democrats should learn from McConnell's technique, but, rather than hide behind lies about negotiation and compromise, come right out and sign their own Declaration of Congressional Opposition. Here's what that Declaration could look like.

Whereas the extent of Russian influence and interference in our presidential election, potentially in the hopes of securing a president in line with there own interests, is still to be officially determined, but thought by most intelligence agencies to extensive and intentional;

Whereas the extent of the relationship between Mr. Trump, Russia, and the Vladimir Putin regime is still unknown and that Mr. Trump himself has publicly downplayed the significance of Russian interference in our election and currently and historically praised Vladimir Putin, often comparing Putin favorably to the democratically elected and re-elected Barack Obama;

Whereas Congressional Republicans are at present unwilling to allow an independent investigation into the Russian interference in our election;

Whereas, in the absence of his full tax returns the extent of the conflicts of interest inherent in his business holdings, both foreign and domestic are unknown and;

Whereas Mr. Trump has been grossly negligent in dealing with the conflicts of interest currently known to the public by claiming to transfer executive power over his business affairs to his children who also have public roles within his transition team, rather than to a true blind trust, remaining an executive producer of The Apprentice, and maintaining ownership of his new hotel in Washington, D.C.;

We believe it cannot be known whether policies offered and/or supported by Mr. Trump and the Republican party which he now heads, are policies offered in good faith for the betterment of the United States of America and its citizens, are in service to a foreign agenda from a nation that wields power over Mr. Trump, or are for the personal enrichment of Mr. Trump, his family, and/or members of his administration;

And with the fact that Trump's opponent, Hilary Clinton, received 2.8 million more votes than he did;

We the undersigned resolve to oppose each and every policy or person offered by the Trump administration and the Republican party, including cabinet level positions and Supreme Court Justice seats, with every legislative, congressional, and parliamentary tool at our disposable, until such time that the extent of Russian influence over our election and over Mr. Trump and his administration is known and dealt with and all potential conflicts of interest are accounted for and dealt with.

One of things I've heard a lot of is this idea that Democrats in Congress will have to “pick their battles,” that they will not be able to fight everything and so must focus on the worst of Trump's potential policies. So who do we not fight? Do we give Rick Perry a pass to focus on Ben Carson? Tillerson to focus on Sessions? Or vice versa? Let the less powerful agencies slide so we can focus on the bigger departments? Which one of Trump's public nominees to date doesn't represent an existential threat to either the department which they are ostensibly supposed to lead, a dramatic departure from previous and longstanding U.S. domestic and foreign policy, and/or present legitimate risks to civilization as we know it? Who do you give a pass to?

Even the most reasonable nominee, by far, is tainted. Elaine Chao actually makes a fair amount of sense as Secretary for the Department of Transportation, however, she is Mitch McConnell's wife. McConnell was the primary force that prevented making the intelligence around Russian meddling in our election to increase the chances of a Trump victory public prior to the election and, McConnell has said he will not recuse himself from her nomination process. Chao may be qualified, but that to me, looks like textbook corruption. As much as possible, we cannot allow corruption to gain any kind of foothold in our government.

And what exactly have Republicans talked about as their policy goals that are not worth a filibuster? The repeal and delay Obamacare is policy nonsense that at absolute best will result in a whole bunch of meaningless legislative slight of hand that will allow Republicans to claim responsibility for their own version of exactly the same policies as the ACA and at worst will sow chaos in our nation's health care system and lead to many premature deaths. And they're talking about ending medicare and privatizing social security. Aren't those worth a filibuster? The very first action House Republicans took, was to hold a closed door meeting, on a holiday, to greatly weaken ethical oversight (you know, to help bring back jobs to the working class), and though massive public outcry saved the Office of Congressional Ethics, they still pushed through rules designed specifically to squelch dissent from Democrats. Where is the opportunity to compromise? For the last eight years Republicans have fought everything from major policy to relatively low-level judiciary appointments, while almost universally negotiating in bad faith. Democrats should be willing to die on every single hill Republicans wish to climb.

You might also point out that since I think McConnell's obstruction is undemocratic and a gross perversion of his responsibility as a legislator, as a citizen, and even as a human being, that it represents the worst kind of partisan politics where victory on election day is elevated above improving the lives of Americans through policy and legislation, it is hypocritical of me to ask Democrats to do the same thing I am condemning Republicans for.

In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9% of the vote, almost 10 million more votes than John McCain, and secured 365 electoral college votes. In the Senate, Democrats gained eight seats and earned 51.9% of the vote totals. In the House, Democrats gained 21 seats and secured 53.2% of the total vote. As I've said elsewhere, I don't think there really is such a thing as a “public mandate,” but by any empirical assessment, the 2008 Democratic platform was one of the most popular political statements in our nation's history. McConnell and the Republicans that followed him, essentially spit in the eye of the American people.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and his electoral college victory hinged on about 70,000 voters in three states. Furthermore, his number of electoral college votes was far fewer than Obama's and ranks only 46th in electoral victories historically. (It's even fewer electoral college votes than Obama received in 2012 when Republicans were all but certain they had him beat.) Furthermore, Democrats gained eight seats in the House (in our heavily gerrymandered House of Representatives) and two seats in the Senate. By any empirical assessment, the American public preferred the Democratic platform over the Republican one in 2016 and it is only through an obsolete quirk in our process that Trump won. Organized Democratic opposition could actually be understood as doing the will of the American people, rather than directly opposing it.

And, unlike Barack Obama in 2008, we still do not know the full extent of Russian influence in favor of Trump in our election. Honestly, even if it the fake news stories and social media bots are the extent of it, that is enough to question the legitimacy of a Trump presidency, especially since he has downplayed the significance of Russian interference and praised Putin and it looks as though Republicans, even with pressure from well-respected Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, aren't willing to hold an independent investigation.

We also have to wonder about James Comey and the FBI. Elections are complicated animals, and their results can rarely be attributed to any one event, idea, or person, but I think it is safe to believe that Hilary Clinton is president if Comey does not break with decades of precedent and with the wishes of the other security and intelligence agencies to release the letter about Anthony Weiner's totally irrelevant computer.

Finally, over the course of the campaign and in the months that followed the election, Donald Trump has shown a shocking lack the temperament, curiosity, and attention to information, policy, and detail to be President of the United States. The question might be better framed not was "What are the best things for the Democrats to say 'no' to?" but "What could they possibly say 'yes' to?"

As we have seen with the use of budget reconciliation in the Senate to begin the dismantling of Obamacare, there are many ways the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans will be able to enforce their policies that the Democrats will be unable to stop. Furthermore, there will be techniques of Congressional opposition that Republicans were willing to use that I'm not sure are worth risking. Will there be policies so bad that Democrats are willing to shut down the government to prevent it? What happens if there is another debt ceiling fight? Are Democrats willing to let our already hobbled judiciary system continue to erode? What happens if Trump offers a potentially palatable nominee for the Supreme Court?

There will be acts of judgment Congressional Democrats will have to make, but ultimately, they can give Republicans and Trump legitimate claims to bipartisan success or they can deny them that claim. You can start from a position of unified opposition justified by legitimate concerns and the will of the majority of Americans or not. You can continue the same efforts at traditional legislative negotiation and compromise and most likely continue to get insulted by Republicans or you can try something else. You can either have your name in the public record next to some of the things a Trump administration will do or not. You can either give fascists permission or make them take it from you.

I'm not sure if a declaration like this is, ultimately the best strategy for protecting the American public, but, in moments of doubt, when there is debate, when you might not be sure what you should do, when it is hard to extrapolate all of the potential consequences of an action, “If a fascist wants this to happen, I'm going to fight like hell to stop it,” is a pretty solid fallback position.