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

20 June 2018

Vote Character

[For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For a brief, preliminary reaction to Trump’s and Kim’s meeting in Singapore, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

A recent essay on this blog advised new voters to focus on pols’ character. If old ones had done so in 2016, it reasoned, we might not now have to put up with the least experienced president in our nation’s history—one who not coincidentally also has the worst character.

But the question of character goes far beyond elections. At stake today is our national character: our moral acuity, how we see ourselves, and how the rest of the world sees us.

From time immemorial, nations have bragged of their power to crush others. Historians now believe that the pyramids of Giza and the Colossus of Rhodes were just propaganda in stone, built at times when only tiny fractions of the population could read. Their intent was to instill in others a sense of awe and fear of the power of empires.

The poet Shelley captured this kind of “international relations” in his poem “Ozymandias.” He described a colossal desert statue, long vanished except for its legs and fallen head. The inscription on it remained: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

As Barack Obama noted in his 2007 speech on terrorism, that’s not how we Americans have traditionally viewed ourselves. We want to inspire hope in outsiders, not fear or despair. We lean toward the positive, or at least we used to.

The French gave us our Statue of Liberty in recognition of this national character. Our Lady raises her lamp to guide weary refuge seekers to safety, not frighten them away. Emma Lazarus added the words: “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”

No more. Now we rip children from their parents’ arms, in order to instill fear in refuge-seekers and keep them away. This policy is so stark a departure from our longstanding national character as to compel Laura Bush to speak out.

Laura Bush might as well have been a statue herself during her husband’s (Dubya’s) presidency. But this sharp departure freed her from her silence. She condemned the interment camps where tiny victims of our child-ripping are warehoused. She called them “eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

Yet the putrefaction of our national character only begins with resort to fear and deliberate, massive mistreatment of asylum seekers. It does not end there.

Charles de Gaulle was one of the most arrogant and stubborn leaders of any modern democracy. Yet during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when JFK offered to show him spy-plane photos of Soviet intermediate-range missiles installed in Cuba, he refused to take a look. The word of the president of the United States, he said, was good enough for him.

Today we have a president who, according to the Washington Post, has made 3,251 false or misleading claims in less than seventeen months. Our credibility as a nation, carefully cultivated for more than two centuries, has all but vanished. We, our allies and adversaries can no longer see clearly through a blizzard of lies, “show”, “spin,” fake news, and false claims of fake news. Worse yet, we’ve stooped to the level of the Russian disinformation that helped elect our president, pulling yet one more pin from the scaffolding of our “exceptionalism.”

It’s easy to blame it all on Donald J. Trump, because he lies so often and his character is so vile. But he’s hardly the progenitor of the change. Nor is he likely the end of it.

It began at least as early as the reign of Ronald Reagan. In order to win elections, Reagan made selfishness a national norm. He even had a slogan for it: “It’s your money.” (Emphasis added.) That slogan and its emphasis on lowering taxes began our slide into selfishness and greed as national norms.

As good athletes know, where the head moves the body follows. Once, during the Great Depression, our hurting farmers left sandwiches for desperate passing hobos on their window sills. Once, our Marshall Plan paid to rebuild the economies of our bitterest wartime enemies, Germany and Japan. Our generosity helped make them the world’s third and fourth national economies today. Yet today we blast foreign aid, the United Nations (our own creation!), and the trading regime we ourselves established in favor of “America First!” Selfishness has metamorphosed from a validated norm to the basis of national policy.

Selfishness is, of course, contrary to the teachings of every modern religion. Yet religion itself has been corrupted. How can selfishness reign supreme, in our age of Christian evangelism, when muscular individualized Christianity is busy supplanting staid and institutionalized Catholicism in our own country and throughout Latin America? Organized religion seems on the ropes, as Pope Francis, the humblest Pope of my lifetime, keeps busy jettisoning longstanding regimes and bishops, just to stem the tide of pedophilia within his Church.

Religion, it seems, cannot help us; it’s too weak and confused in our secular age. So here in America the egotistic beat goes on.

We reject the global scientific and political consensus on global warming because we lag other nations in renewable energy. So, apparently, we are striving to have the last man standing with a gas pump in his hand. We—the nation that rose to greatness on respect for science and technology—want to ignore how rapidly oil and gas are running out (in about two generations).

I could go on. I could mention our general tariffs, with no coherent plan or justification behind them—only a primitive urge to bargain by fear. I could mention our failure even to address our appallingly dilapidated infrastructure. We could create millions of good, non-outsourceable jobs rebuilding it, and doing so would raise no tension with our allies and exacerbate none with our adversaries. But we’d rather posture and fight than pick the low-hanging fruit.

A century ago, we had a word for bomb throwers bent on blowing up the existing order with no coherent plan to replace it. We called them “anarchists.” In fact, we executed two of them—Sacco and Vanzetti—albeit for a crime they didn’t commit.

Today, we have one in our White House. As Fred Hiatt has explained, our current president has put Steve Bannon’s anarchistic rhetoric and plans into practice, while stealing credit for his senseless ideas and dissing him as a temporary “staffer.”

When individuals change character so dramatically, there may be no remedy. The cause may be senile dementia, clinical depression, a stroke, an hidden disease, a disability, or simply hidden traits brought out by time or stress.

When an entire society changes character so radically, we are all responsible. We all—or most of us—know right from wrong. We know that kindness is better than cruelty. Inspiring hope is better than inciting and exploiting fear. Reason is better than rage. Nurturing is better than dominance. Charity and succor are better than selfishness. Humility is better than arrogance. Wisdom is better than ignorance. Truth is better than lies. Honesty is better than “spin.”

How these traits roll out in practice is not always simple, but their understanding is innate in us. They are intrinsic human norms, with origins in our biological evolution. They are the reasons our species has come to dominate all others on this planet. They are far simpler and more instinctive than economic or military policy, or than solving the conundrum of unrestrained immigration.

So in midterm elections this November, we all have a simple task. We must stop and reverse the putrefaction of our national character. If we can do that, our national restoration and renewal will follow. If we cannot, our decline will continue and steepen.

It’s not the economy, stupid! Our economy is fine now. But decline will follow continuing putrefaction in character as night the day. Bent men don’t do good business, except in fraud and crime.

If we can’t recover our national character, the same fate will befall us as befell ancient Rome, history’s only once-democratic empire with similar geographic scope. We have the same choices as when Rome’s primitive democracy teetered on the brink of empire. But the stakes for our species and planet are much, much higher.

The choice should be easy, this time. Vote for Democrats over Republicans, who—until the child-ripping made all women stand up—refused even to acknowledge, let alone resist, the putrefaction of our national character. Look for good character in women before men, because women still have primary responsibility for nurturing the next generation and teaching it right from wrong. Look for good character in minorities before white Christians, who have inbred in power for so long they can’t see themselves with a mirror. (Remember Roy Moore!)

But most of all, vote character. For us Americans and our entire species, everything depends on us reconnecting with the virtues that once made us Americans truly “exceptional.” This November’s election may determine whether reconnecting is possible.


Today’s poster children for selfishness as a national norm are the billionaire Koch Brothers. Now in their late seventies, these two old men hold one of the largest private fortunes in America.

Their wealth derives from private businesses related to fossil fuels—oil, gas, fossil-derived paints and chemicals, and car parts and accessories. But the Koch Brothers are not content just to be successful businessmen. They have founded and help fund two of the most powerful lobbying and voter-influencing organs in human history. One is a propaganda mill called “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP). The other is a conservative so-called “think tank,” the “Cato Institute,” which the Kochs helped found in the 1970s.

Although claiming to be “conservative” and “libertarian,” these political organs seem bent on making the world safe for the Kochs’ private businesses. As the New York Times revealed in a recent exposé (“Kochs Finance High-Tech War Against Transit”), AFP has spent millions, under the radar of most local news, opposing popular initiatives for public transit in smaller cities like Nashville and Little Rock and conservative-leaning states like Utah. It also has opposed electric cars and solar and other renewable energy—in short, any technology that might challenge the supremacy of fossil fuels until they run out.

AFP’s lobbying and propaganda have been highly successful. Often to the surprise of popular local officials, they have killed public transit in about half the cities where they opposed them.

AFP’s big pitch is reducing taxes and the size of government. But AFP doesn’t oppose the massive federal, state and local subsidies that roads, bridges and highways receive for mostly fossil-fueled cars. Can we all say “hypocrites”?

Perhaps the Koch brothers really believe that fossil-fueled vehicles give consumers more “freedom” to go where they want, when they want. But surely that calculus changes when you aren’t a billionaire and can’t hire a private plane or helicopter to soar over traffic jams. Surely it’s not quite the same when you live in a major city, and not Wichita, Kansas, where the Kochs have their ancestral home.

Take the San Francisco Bay Area, for example. Since the mid-seventies, it has had a subway system called “BART,” for “Bay Area Rapid Transit,” which runs a line under the San Francisco Bay. According to the Times, a Cato Institute “expert” has blogged that “teenagers swarm onto BART trains to rob passengers[.]”

Maybe that has happened once or twice. If so, I never heard of it. But I and my fiancée, who are both over 70, take BART often to get from Berkeley to the City and back. The underwater train gets you there reliably in 30 minutes. The highways and bridge, which are overcrowded at all but the wee hours, take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on how gridlocked they are. And that’s with a new Bay Bridge more than half of which was recently rebuilt from scratch, at staggering cost to taxpayers.

On the train you don’t have to fight other drivers just as frustrated, late, impatient and angry as you are. You can sit quietly, talk or listen to music on your iPod. So which way gives you more “freedom”?

Maybe the Kochs believe that everywhere is like Wichita, where you can’t be free without a car. Far more likely, they believe in extending—by political means, not fair competition in business—the life of the obsolescent technologies that made them billionaires. Maybe they’re as ignorant of the benefits of public transit in cities as they appear to be about solar and other renewable energy. Far more likely, they are aging, powerful, narrow-minded and selfish men who are willing to push the whole world into extinction, by any means necessary, so long as it stays on their own peculiar path to riches.

Whatever the Kochs do, and however mindlessly voters follow their propaganda, the end will come for oil and natural gas in about two generations. By then, the Kochs will be dead, unless (perhaps) they freeze their living but aged bodies in the hope of some future medical miracle.

But kids today who are in high school or college, or just starting their careers, will have to bear the brunt of a transition for which our nation and the world are grossly ill-prepared. So it will be up to them to give the Kochs’ well-financed propaganda the lie and face reality, without selfishness or shortsightedness, for the good of our species. Their own and our nation’s future depends on them.

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  • At Sat Jun 30, 04:26:00 PM EDT, Blogger SukieTawdry said…

    "Our Lady" raises her lamp as a beacon of liberty to shine across the world, not to light a pathway to our shores. The whole purpose of the Statue of Liberty is to serve as an example to the peoples of the world of what can be accomplished when they opt for individual liberty, self-determination and a limitation on government power and then choose to fight for those things.

    Furthermore, the Emma Lazarus poem has nothing to do with anything. The New Colossus was written as a literary work to be auctioned as part of efforts to raise money for the pedestal (at first, Lazarus, an activist on behalf of Jewish emigres, didn't even want to submit a poem because she didn't particularly care about the cause). After Lazarus' death, a friend led an effort to memorialize her which culminated in a plaque bearing the text being placed on an inside wall of the pedestal. It is not the definition of what the statue stands for and it most certainly is not a guide for immigration policy.

  • At Tue Jul 03, 09:41:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Thank you for your comment.

    The words of the poem speak far more eloquently—and far more accurately—than your recitation of so-called “conservative” cant. Their meaning has been unmistakable since the poem was mounted in 1903, just after a generation of the most massive legal immigration in our history.

    Both the words and their historical context honor building this nation by giving refuge to the poor and miserable who have the gumption to change their entire lives and migrate to a better place. What attracted them (and still does) was indeed liberty and self-determination, i.e., democracy with majority rule, which is failing in our nation today. But today it’s also better economic conditions and the chance for a good job.

    Their coming had and has nothing to do with "smaller government"—a concept that didn't even enter the general lexicon until Ronald Reagan used it as a campaign slogan almost eighty years later. The National Park Service, which owns and maintains the Statue of Liberty, mounted the poem because it embodies the concept of a welcoming nation that build itself up from wilderness with immigrant labor.

    So much for history. As for practicality, do you or anyone you know yearn for jobs like the following: (1) working with bent back all day in the hot sun to pick our crops; (2) slashing and slogging through blood and guts in slaughterhouses, in the bitter cold of frozen-food lockers, to prepare our meat; or (3) working at hard manual labor in low-wage construction jobs to build our homes and commercial spaces? Undocumented immigrants—11 million of them—do many, if not most, of these jobs, for wages and under conditions than few citizens would accept.

    If we replaced all these undocumented workers with citizens, we would have to pay much higher wages, and prices for everything would rise, according to the universal law of supply and demand. But by keeping these workers “undocumented” and subject to deportation (especially today!) we keep them docile and fearful of complaining or even reporting crime against them to police. So we have created a massive underclass of semi-slaves, who don't know their rights and live in fear of deportation.

    This is the the end result of so-callled “conservative” immigration policy today. The contradiction serves our economic interests but neither the ends of justice nor the goals of "liberty" and "self-determination" that you laud.

    Solving the problem is not as easy as describing it. It’s hard to regularize the eleven million without attracting more. Cutting down on immigration, both legal and illegal, is a subject of proper and legitimate debate. But it’s not easy, either. Walls haven’t worked and won’t work to curtail illegal immigration, and policies of fear like ripping children from their parents are unworthy of a great nation.

    The solution has to involve high-tech surveillance (not a physical wall), humane repatriation and (ultimately) reducing the immigration magnet by equalizing economic conditions throughout the Americas. That will take time and hard work, not empty slogans like “smaller government” (smaller than what?).

    Emma Lazarus’ moving poem accurately reflected our national ethos at the time the French gave us the Statue of Liberty and we installed it. Maybe that ethos has changed with the times. It has in many developed nations, due to “huddled masses” from the Southern Hemisphere seeking better lives in the north. As we try to improve today’s difficult situation in ways consistent with justice and our national values, it’s important to remember how our nation rose to greatness on the backs of immigrant labor. We should also respect the human dignity of those who suffer just to get here and, once they do, work hard at many of the worst jobs available today.


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