Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 February 2016

Martin and Bernie

[For comment on female leaders and the GOP’s South Carolina debate, click here. For a recent post on the Dems’ post-New Hampshire debate and its significance, click here.]

Our recent holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came and went with mostly ritual observance. For many of us, Martin has become a plaster statue on a pedestal, a figure of the past, whose struggles are over.

Yet Martin was far from static. His restless, probing mind was constantly re-evaluating the state of the world, and of America, and the threads of cause and effect. A year before he was martyred, he gave a speech entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” In that 1967 speech, he came out, for the first time ever, against the War in Vietnam.

Today we have waged three major needless wars: in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We are war weary, despite the fact that 99% of us bear no burden, except taxes, from today’s two needless wars. No one wants to send more combat troops to Iraq or Syria, just a few special forces.

So it’s hard to imagine the moral courage that Dr. King required to make his first antiwar speech half a century ago. When he made it, the antiwar movement was just beginning. It was almost entirely a movement of students, who didn’t want to be drafted to fight a useless war, and professors, who almost alone could see how wrong-headed it was. The vast majority of Americans supported the war out of ignorance and blind patriotism.

After Dr. King made his 1967 speech, they turned against him. So did many of his own supporters. They argued against “wasting” precious political capital that should have been spent in the struggle for racial equality, then just beginning to achieve some success.

But Dr. King was not just a peaceful revolutionary. He was a also a great thinker. He saw webs of cause and effect that few others could see, especially at that time. He saw that needless wars, economic inequality, and racial injustice are all interrelated as cause and effect. And with perhaps impolitic honesty, he told it like it was.

Here’s what he said:
“A few years ago there was a shining moment in [our] struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war . . .”
Just as clearly, Dr. King saw that Christian charity is not enough to produce an economically and morally just society: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Having seen and said these things, what would Dr. King have said about our 2016 presidential campaign? Would he have been eager to escalate our role in the struggle against IS—a struggle that, as our President says, is a struggle among Muslims for the heart of Islam? Or would he be eager to continue his lifelong struggle for racial justice and economic equality?

Would he recognize that, today, young African-American males, among whom unemployment in some cities exceeds 50%, are the canaries in our coal mine, feeling the brunt of the toxic gas of oligarchy as it permeates our nation? Would he see the brutal, unrestrained behavior of over-militarized police as a symptom, not a cause, of our vast and growing economic and social inequality?

By and large, police don’t beat up or kill equal citizens of an egalitarian society, let alone the rich. They are beating and killing powerless African-Americans as practice for the rest of us, when inequality and injustice become rampant and the dam of civility holding back popular resentment cracks.

Dr. King was a revolutionary, a peaceful, nonviolent revolutionary of the stature of Gandhi and Mandela. Like Bernie today, he knew that only a revolution of values can put us Yanks on the right path. His shifting of focus from a revolution in racial justice to a revolution in foreign and military policy and in economic equality may have been partly responsible for his assassination in 1968.

Today, we have two views of America. Hillary thinks we need (or can have) only incremental change, more business as usual. Bernie tells us, as Martin did almost half a century ago, that only a peaceful political revolution will do the job.

Our youth appear to agree with Bernie. In the New Hampshire primary, about 85% of them voted for him—an extraordinary Millennial landslide.

So what’ll it be? Hillary’s brand of triangulation and incrementalism? Her claim to competence, the like of which lost John Kerry the White House in 2004, against a man who may have been the worst president in American history? Or will people who haven’t voted before see, with Bernie, that “enough is enough”? Will they register and vote to complete the peaceful revolution that Martin called for nearly 50 years ago?

After half a century, the answer is still blowin’ in the wind.

Update: Erica Garner’s Endorsement

Remember Eric Garner, the big but out-of-shape African-American whom New York police killed with a choke hold for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally? Two days ago, his daughter Erica endorsed Bernie.

She did so for the reasons discussed in this post. But I’m white; Erica is black. My post is theory and sympathy; Erica’s endorsement emerges from practice and unending personal horror. She has had to live with the unspeakable consequences of police brutality—the untimely and unjust death of a beloved father—for nineteen months.

For all that time, she has protested twice a week. For all that time, she has lived the political revolution—the peaceful but relentless activism—that Bernie stands for. Can the rest of us do less?

Female Leaders

Female leaders have a high bar to leap for two reasons. First, there have been so few. Second, the reason why there have been so few is that we humans are primates.

As with most social mammals, our biological evolutionary paradigm of leadership is the alpha male. That’s why an inconsistent, capricious, fear and hate monger like Donald Trump can garner so much inexplicable support. Even in the twenty-first century, some of us instinctively hanker for a strong male leader. It doesn’t much matter what he says or does, as long as he appears to be a “winner” and takes charge.

This feature of our biological evolution is so strong that it has moved us to follow alpha males into the jaws of Hell. Examples are: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. Today it has given us Assad, the Kims, Mugabe, and the steady devolution of Putin and Erdogan from ostensible democrats into tyrants. Once an alpha male entrenches himself as leader of a clan, it’s hard to dislodge him, even if the “clan” has members numbering hundreds of millions.

Think I exaggerate? Then watch or re-watch the whole of the GOP South Carolina “debate” Saturday night.

Some interesting practical ideas got mentioned. They included: a flat tax, making the first $36,000 of income tax free, a consumption tax, enticing corporations to bring home foreign cash hoards estimated collectively at $2.5 to $5 trillion dollars, enticing or forcing corporations to bring jobs home, and attracting immigrants we need to do our dirty work fairly, whether with guest-worker programs or a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

But there was no serious discussion of or debate on any of these ideas. They were self-evidently rare sops to the few college-educated viewers who might have thought that a little policy substance in a debate among candidates for the presidency is mandatory.

Instead, the candidates focused on attacking each others’ records, repeating the slams others had made on their rivals, and debating who was a real “conservative.” It was a test of dominance among alpha males, not a discussion of policy. Even the discussion of foreign policy, which may have been the most substantive, became a test of which alpha male could best dominate perceived foreign enemies.

In the test for primate dominance, Trump’s profanity, insults, and claims to be a “winner”—to which he devoted his entire closing statement—served him well. You could almost see the biggest ape showing his teeth, growling, and giving the other contenders roundhouse swipes with his huge paws. So his chances for winning in South Carolina, as he did in New Hampshire, appear good, despite the apparently staged boos in response to some of his wilder remarks.

Our species desperately needs to change this biological evolutionary paradigm. For our modern technology has vastly outpaced our social development. Now we threaten not only our own survival, but the survival of numerous other species that share our small planet.

Nuclear proliferation, unchecked pollution, and global warming are all human phenomena, things we have caused. Any one of them, let alone all together, could take us out. They could take out much of the biosphere with us.

So we humans desperately need the life-giving, life-nurturing and life-preserving instincts—plus the pragmatic wisdom—that biological evolution has assigned primarily to females. We can exploit those instincts with social evolution, which proceeds must faster than biological evolution.

Despite their scarcity, female leaders have been instrumental in our social evolution. Queen Elizabeth I took an island riven by constant male internecine warfare and rife with assassinations among kings, queens and their heirs. She forged the explorational, technological, business-oriented, democratic culture that has now come to dominate the world. Chancellor Angela Merkel has completed the transformation of the last century’s most brutal conqueror into a beacon of progress and humanity at the center of Europe, in energy, immigration, and rational social and economic organization.

Great female leaders like these two have been few and far between. But their contribution to human social evolution has been far out of proportion to their numbers. Think also of Queen Hatchepsut, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi.

Fighting our biological evolution with social evolution may be the hardest thing we humans ever do. But it’s absolutely necessary. That’s why it’s vital for the first female president of the world’s now-dominant culture to be a stunning and unquestionable success—an Angela Merkel on steroids.

Is Hillary Clinton that female? I think not.

She voted for invading and occupying Iraq. She did so without reading the National Intelligence Estimate, which revealed stark division and dissent inside our own intelligence community. At the time, Hillary was de-facto leader of the Democratic Party and therefore of progressive forces in America. She didn’t read the NIE because she had made her fateful decision purely for domestic political reasons: to prevent the GOP propaganda machine from tarring her as “weak” in foreign affairs. She was trying to outdo the alpha males.

Was that leadership? I think not. Was it helpful? Absolutely not. Just look at Iraq and Syria today.

Bernie is absolutely right to keep mentioning this failing. It was infinitely more consequential than “E-mail-gate.” We had Saddam contained and controlled with a no-fly zone, which we could have tightened like a noose. Our collective blunder in invading and occupying Iraq spawned an ogre: a debacle and quagmire now thirteen years old, with no sign of ending. The ogre’s children are Syria’s utter devastation, the EU’s refugee crisis, and IS.

The decision to invade and occupy Iraq was the second biggest blunder in foreign and military policy in our national history, after Vietnam. As leader of our Yankee progressives, Hillary facilitated it, not as a matter of thoughtful policy, but in a vain attempt to advance her own career. That was a catastrophic blunder in policy, wisdom, perspective, and judgment.

We have a much more promising female waiting in the wings. She’s not as tested or as experienced as Hillary. Not yet. But Elizabeth Warren has all the vital traits that Hillary’s personal story lacks.

Warren has penetrating intelligence that gets to the heart of issues. She doesn’t just make lists. She sets bold goals and priorities and follows through. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that she created has vastly reduced big banks’ scamming of hapless consumers.

Finance and banking are Warren’s special points of expertise. She has relentlessly pointed the finger at the bankers who caused the Crash of 2008, and she has pursued them with vigor. Like Bernie, she has called repeatedly for breaking up the big banks—the only expedient for preventing the next Crash that has good odds of success.. That’s why her enemies kept Warren from heading the CFPB that she created. That’s why the people of Massachusetts elected her junior senator, to replace the venerable Ted Kennedy.

As someone who worked with Warren briefly, I have followed her political career closely. As far as I know, she has never made any policy decision just to advance her own career, let alone push for war. On the contrary, she told the truth relentlessly at a time when doing so insured her marginalization from executive politics. Then she fought for and won her Massachusetts senate seat with honesty and simplicity as relentless as Bernie’s. Today, she carries the banner of progressivism proudly and unapologetically, as heedless of the enemies she unwittingly makes in so doing as was FDR, who said, “I welcome their hatred.”

Can Warren leap to the level of national executive in four years, when Bernie will be 78? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear right now. If we Yanks want our first female supreme leader to be anything like Queen Elizabeth I or Angela Merkel, we had better look to another Elizabeth and be patient.



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