A few minutes ago, a breath of much-needed fresh air: the swearing into office of the 46th President of the United States, Joseph Robinett Biden, Jr.
And, the installation of the first woman Vice-President of the United States, who hails from a lineage of Africa and South Asia, Kamala Devi Harris.
Let’s hope we can finally work to beat the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 400,000 of our compatriots in this country, and millions around the world, and begin to right our precariously listing ship of state.
In these dire times it feels a little more than self-indulgent to canter on about the minor joys in life; a desire to expound upon the little things when the world is on fire seems a private and guilty pleasure. But, while pondering standing down and standing by, I remembered a quote posted last year by an old friend in India:
I’ve no idea who Cleo Wade is but this paragraph was/is a powerful reminder to stop and breathe – with a deep breath, at that, and gather your joy. And so I will expand upon my joy in re-living the excitement I felt when first reading of the research being done by William Donald Hamilton, FRS (1 August 1936 – 7 March 2000) and Robert Ludlow Trivers (b. February 19, 1943); especially Bob Trivers, one of the bad boys of science, and his work on the troubling existence of altruism in a world where survival appears to solely depends upon self-interest.
Some weeks ago I was looking for something I had written in one of my old journals and, in doing a fast sweep through one, I saw notes I had written on the work in evolutionary biology by Hamilton and Trivers. To have someone like Steven Pinker write, as he has of Trivers, that he is “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought” is not too shabby.
There is a profound beauty and deep pleasure in a life lived exploring the interests of the mind – or, rather, in the mysteries of the universe – of all things great and small. We imagine those who lead such lives rarely descend from the realm of theory and quick-firing neurons to spend time amongst the dross that daily surrounds those of us beetling away in the more mundane trenches of life. Or so it seems.
But there are exceptions. (I remember a great photograph of Stephen Hawking looking up from his motorized chair at the bottles of wine in a Pasadena supermarket. He could not reach the fruit of the vine on any but the lower third row of shelves. I’ve often wondered if the person who asked if he needed assistance ever knew who was being helped.)
The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has led a life that is anything but ordinary, both in the ivory tower and out. In a handful of ‘simple’ theoretical papers in the 1970s, seeking to lay a foundation of questions into the links between genetics and behavior, he spawned research into whole galaxies of new suppositions and questions. I remember these ideas were pervasive in university, and not just in biology departments. Two very influential books, in part spurred on by the kind of research he was doing, were published in the mid-1970s dealing with just the questions Trivers had grappled with: Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. Both stirred controversy that spilled out into general publications and the consciousness of lay people. At the time I would often think it must have been a little like this in Darwin & Wallace’s mid-19th century day with their theories on evolution.
Trivers studied evolutionary theory at Harvard from 1968 to 1972 with Ernst Mayr, a man of many talents. But it is Mayr’s genius with work on speciation that broadened Darwin and Wallace’s dissection of Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being that most fascinates those of us who studied anthropology. Trivers had first gotten the biology bug from his paying work (writing science books for children) with the ornithologist William Drury who was, Trivers says, “the man who taught me how to think.” Critical consciousness: it is the most important intellectual skill a human can possess as far as I am concerned.
a mental breakdown (bi-polar disorder) in his Harvard junior year Trivers considered
a major in psychology (not a real science but, rather,’ a joke’) or law (“I
thought I would do poverty law work” but was turned down by both Yale and the
Univ of Virginia). In any case, his childhood interests in astronomy (a look
into both the infinitesimally small and the ginormous) and mathematics have stood
him well in his work with animal behavior. And, yes, ‘animal’, here, includes homo sapiens sapiens.
Curiosity is THE great driver of human intellectual, cultural and physical advance and Trivers has it and has had, so far, a life of the utmost divergence and a knack for criticizing what we generally think of as both the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’ political sphere. His resume includes being a white guy member of The Black Panthers and friend of Huey P. Newton (together they published a scholarly paper analyzing the role of self-deception by the flight crew of Air Florida Flight 90 that crashed into the 14th Street bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, DC in 1982); a proposer of questions and principals in evolutionary biology papers that, pretty much alone, spawned totally new sub-disciplines in behavioral psychology, sociobiology, evolutionary this & that and more; a subject of a gun-point encounter near his home in Jamaica; academic suspension at Rutgers and academics attacks on a few of my clients and friends.
If you are now intrigued you might start with reading his 2015 autobiography that I am reading now: Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist.
This isn’t their Republican Party anymore,’ Donald Trump Jr. says of GOP lawmakers who don’t back his father. – Wednesday morning, January 6, 2021“
The people [Republicans] who did nothing to stop the steal — this gathering [the agitators outside the White House this morning] should send a message to them,” Baby Trump said at a rally outside the White House. “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
The Washington Post reports that ‘Trump Jr. also pledged to work against the reelection of any Republican who doesn’t try to overturn the results, echoing his father’s threats against officials who have rebuffed his efforts’… “These guys better fight for Trump, because if they’re not, guess what?” he said. “I’m going to be in your backyard in a couple of months! … If you’re going to be the zero and not the hero, we’re coming for you, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”
You must give credit to the evidently persuasive agit-prop of the Trumpers. Anytime you can take wages (vs. dividends), food security, education and health care from those most in need – and still have them worship the ground you walk on, you are a master illusionist.
Monkeying around with democracy, we have well & truly gunned our country into high gear toward becoming what we used to call a ‘banana republic’.
UPDATE to my morning post:
6 January 2021, 2:35pm
Of all the ‘sacred’ symbols of these United States of America – the flag, the white House, the Statue of Liberty, etc. none are more important – or potent, than the U.S. Capitol Building, the edifice where The Peoples’ Business is daily transacted. I think if we do a little research, we might have to go back to 1814 to find a time when the Capitol fell into the hands of an enemy of our democracy.
Interestingly, during these hours of a seditious, Trumpian mob’s breach and control of the building, the Senate has changed political party hands with the state of Georgia declaring Mr. Jon Ossoff (D) as the winner of the senate race there between him and David Perdue (R).
Both Democratic Party winners make this an historic contest: Ossoff is the first Jewish senator from Georgia and the other seat’s winner, Raphael Warnock (D) is the first Black American to win a Georgia senate seat. Two important moments of our history, a high and a low, braided into the same day. Let’s hope our democracy is not as fragile as the security of the building where its aims are carried out.
The world has recently learned of the sophisticated supply-chain attack on FireEye by inserting malicious code in a software update for a tool called SolarWinds Orion. The operation may have started as early as mid-2020. The Orion system is used by the U.S. Treasury Department, Commerce Department, Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the Navy and many others. And, even as I type this post, Tuesday evening December 15, the security firm GreyNoise Intelligence reports, “SolarWinds still has not removed the compromised Orion software updates from its distribution server.”
DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) purchased $45,000-worth of licenses for Solarwinds tools in 2019 while the U.S. Cyber Command spent over $12,000.
Solarwinds, in a legal filing yesterday, Monday, December 14, says malicious code was pushed to nearly 18,000 customers (that does not mean I am one customer and you are another. It means Microsoft Office 365, for example, is ONE customer.)
We can look to Microsoft to soon get an idea who, and how many, SolarWinds customers were really affected as Microsoft (according to a quick look at the Internet’s “Whois”) has taken control of the Domain (registered and managed by Go Daddy in Arizona) used to control the infected systems.
“Vinoth Kumar, a cybersecurity “bug hunter” who has earned cash bounties and recognition from multiple companies for reporting security flaws in their products and services, posted on Twitter that he notified SolarWinds in November 2019 that the company’s software download website was protected by a simple password that was published in the clear on SolarWinds’ code repository at Github.” – Krebson Security.
I must say that I am shocked… SCHOCKED that the (purportedly) Russian hackers were able to get through the sophisticated systems in place at Solarwinds, a company so advanced I have heard they did not even see the need for an internal chief of cybersecurity. I mean who at the Russian FSB, even tho they have some of the best cyber-hackers on the planet, would ever have thought to build code-busting software to break the heavy-duty security at Solarwinds?
Oh… wait a minute! The password was published amongst the public repository of Solarwinds files at Github. It was a masterful password most of us would have had to write on the back of our hands to remember: solarwinds123
Anti-Social Media Platforms & The Erosion of Democracy and Social Justice
(Or, why surveillance capitalism is bad for you and the world)
Part 1 of 3
“Social media, once an enabler, is now the destroyer, building division—‘us against them’ thinking— into the design of their platforms…. It’s time to end the whack-a-mole approach of the technology platforms to fix what they have broken,” – Rappler CEO Maria Ressa
“The past years have offered a wake-up call for those who needed it….Without explicit and enforceable safeguards, the technologies promised to advance democracy will prove to be the ones that undermine it. It is now vital that democracy is made more resilient,” – Marietje Schaake. former EU parliamentarian
Most people, historically, have been
alarmed by intrusions of government and its spying into the lives of ordinary
citizens. But, while our attentions have been fixated on this, we ‘dropped the
ball’ on the far more invasive mining and use of personal data by the large
companies we, all of us, have connections to, however deep and pervasive or fleeting
In 2014, based upon the rising amount of captured data large
companies, led by “social media”
companies, were beginning to harvest and utilize, Shoshana Zubroff coined the
term “surveillance capitalism”
to describe this mountain of personal data accumulating in staggering quantity
each year. It is a business model predicated on harvesting the online user experience and
then manipulating human behavior for monetization, that is, a basic move from processing
internal to mining external data, a handy and lucrative convergence of
enterprise and consumer IT. Now, many of these
mega-companies generate more revenue and exercise more power that all but a
handful of the world’s nations.
In 2016 the World Economic Forum (the
group that meets in Davos every year) reported that of the world’s top 100
global economic entities, (measuring revenue, not GDP) 69 were corporations –
meaning only 31 were countries. Here, in order, were the top 10 entries:
This list might strike the sobering
thought that economic powerhouses like South Korea, Russia, Switzerland and
others were, in fact, further down the list. The trend continues so that by 2018
157 of the top 200 world economic entities by revenue were corporations, not
Here were the top 10 companies in 2016
with their world economic ranking by revenue in parenthesis:
State Grid (14) [a Chinese company]
China National Petroleum (15)
Sinopec Group (16)
Royal Dutch Shell (18)
Exxon Mobil (221)
Toyota Motor (23)
Now, for a 2020 country update, using International Monetary
Fund data: USA and China are still top dogs, Japan and Germany switched
positions, India made an appearance at spot #5, UK and France swapped lanes,
followed by the same three, Italy, Brazil Canada, as in 2016. Rounding out the
next ten countries – but not revenue generation when companies are tossed into
the mix, are Russia, South Korea, Spain, Australia, Mexico, Indonesia,
Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Switzerland.
Showing it is difficult to break into the top 20 countries is
the fact that 17 of these top 20 were also on the list in 1980, that is, 40
For a 2020 update on companies (from Fortune 500 data) we have:
China National Petroleum
Royal Dutch Shell
So why are these figures important? Ah… I am pleased you
For one, it means that many sovereign nations cannot rein in
companies engaging in bad behaviour within their borders – even if and when
they have the desire. Chevron in the Peruvian Amazon comes to mind. Oil
exploration is a dirty business and when little recoverable amounts are found
there is still a mess to clean up – or not. In a place like the Amazon who is going
to see the contamination other than indigenous locals?
But the issues I am getting to here are more about the
so-called ‘social media’ giants, companies we used to think of as having a
In the early years of the internet revolution early adopters of the technology bought into services billed as connecting/informing us at the speed of the electron, prepping us for our lives in the 21st century. These services were, in the main, offered for free as companies, including newsrooms, tried to figure out how to monetize their products. The few ads we would see were bothersome but easy to ignore, especially as they lacked personal focus and sophisticated tracking technology. It reminds me of the early hype of the energy companies with their mascot Ready Kilowatt and the 1954 statement of Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, with his alluring, sloganeering promise to the National Association of Science Writers: “electrical energy too cheap to meter!” – a good example of what we now know as “overpromising & underdelivering.”
In less than twenty years internet coding wizards have made
stratospheric leaps and small startups have combined, morphed and advanced into
extremely sophisticated entities. At the same time we have come to recognize
there is a dark underbelly bolstering the magical kingdom of all-connection,
all-the-time. A 24/7 existence, like so much of life’s general intrusions, is a
I think of surveillance capitalism as a natural outgrowth of a technology and life forewarned in 1956 by the brilliant, if troubled, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. In his novella (made famous by the Spielberg movie) “The Minority Report” three mutants foresee a person’s propensity for committing a ‘future crime’. Their prescience determines the future and freedom, or lack thereof, of ordinary citizen’s based upon criminal actions before they happen. In the same way, surveillance capitalism attempts to predict our future voting, movie-going, book-reading, food shopping, sexual preference… well… all behavior and, subsequently, influence that behavior in a semi-predictable manner, that is, move us toward a specific purchase.
not a purchase exactly, then other economic considerations come into play. A
good example is the selling of ‘spit’ data from the genealogical work performed
by the company 23 & Me, a noted seller of DNA info to ‘third parties’. They
caused a minor tremor in 2018 when they announced the sharing of consumers’
anonymized genetic data with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Sharing is,
of course, a euphemism for ‘selling’; in this case GSK shared $300-million.
While it is hopeful that people with inheritable genetic diseases may well
benefit from this deal in the form of future medicines, data security is never
distant from my mind, especially as data security is, it appears, never in all
ways, secure all the time. Do you really want your health insurance company (who
has always been a gatherer of data that could be used in health/mortality
actuarial practice) rescinding your coverage because you have a 35% chance of
getting motor neuron disease or some other ailment?
Two years ago I was sitting with a friend talking about his new Maserati. An hour later an ad for Maserati popped up on my mobile phone browser during a search for something totally unrelated to cars. That is when I discovered that Google has a division with a huge number of employees developing, listening in and then tweaking their speech and voice components for their algorithms. Turn off your microphones! Siri and Alexa are you listening? (Being highly open to suggestion, I inquired as to whether Google was assisting with monthly car payments but received no answer.)
So, how is all this related to Democracy and Social Justice?
Commercial connections have forever had tentacles entwined
with, and embedded into, governmental components. While governments are often
slow on the uptake of the new (and, to grant and uphold citizen rights) their
bureaucratic nature and love of big data do eventually move the organs of
governance to utilize the lessons of commerce. This learning often first makes
an appearance to ‘improve’ focus on the big picture of where ‘trouble’ among
the rank and file may begin, never mind the trouble may only be citizens
engaging in their constitutionally guaranteed rights of assembly and protest.
But, before we go into more detail here let’s sidestep and read
a little about the
Big Picture & Big Data
That big picture is assisted by ‘big data‘, a term coined in a 1997 scientific paper by NASA. ‘Big data’ is, by definition, unwieldy. It is defined by Wikipedia (even before the Oxford English Dictionary added it to their list) as “an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand data management tools or traditional data processing applications.”
There is a pervasive belief that it is true the more data one accumulates the more answers one has available; that is, quantity is in itself a necessary and sufficient parameter for accurate research. But AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Information, one of the leading lights in data and its management, writes that, “We want students and consumers of our research to understand that volume isn’t sufficient to getting good answers… [the] School challenges students in the online Master of Information and Data Science program to approach data with intentionality, beginning with the way they talk about data. They learn to dig deeper by asking basic questions: Where does the data come from? How was it collected and was the process ethical? What kinds of questions can this data set answer, and which can it not?… We run the risk of forgetting why we collect data in the first place: to make our world better through granular details,… The way we talk about data matters, because it shapes the way we think about data. And the ways we apply, fund, and support data today will shape the future of our society.”
The school says this process is part of ‘data science’. A more useful shorthand than big data, the words imply a rigorous approach to analytics and data mining. This view espouses that, “a data set is not so much a painting to be admired but a window to be utilized; scientists use data to see the world and our society’s problems more clearly.”
Another definition of big data, from the McKinsey Global Institute, is “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyze.” This has been tackled in the past two decades by trimming big data down to size. Data scientists have created new tools for collecting, storing, and analyzing these vast amounts of information. “In some sense, the ‘big’ part has become less compelling,” according to Berkeley’s Saxenian.
A Quick Lesson in Data Volumes: The volume of data in a single file or file system can be described by a unit called a byte. However, data volumes can become very large when dealing with, say, Earth satellite data. Below is a table to explain data volume units (credit Roy Williams, Center for Advanced Computing Research at the California Institute of Technology).
Kilo- means 1,000; a Kilobyte is one thousand bytes.
Mega- means 1,000,000; a Megabyte is a million bytes.
Giga- means 1,000,000,000; a Gigabyte is a billion bytes.
Tera- means 1,000,000,000,000; a Terabyte is a trillion bytes.
Peta- means 1,000,000,000,000,000; a Petabyte is 1,000 Terabytes.
Exa- means 1,000,000,000,000,000,000; an Exabyte is 1,000 Petabytes.
Zetta- means 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000; a Zettabyte is 1,000 Exabytes.
Yotta- means 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000; a Yottabyte is 1,000 Zettabytes
We will return to this later
in a discussion of social media algorithms.
Governments have always been nervous about protest of any
kind. The validity of such jitters was brought home with the ability of mass
movements’ non-violent action in bringing down governments of Warsaw Pact
countries and the Soviet Union itself, felling them like phantom dominoes in Southeast
Asia. Similar events shook the Islamic countries with the ‘Arab Spring’
Governments like using a scattershot approach to try and corral the proverbial needle in a haystack. Certainly we all want the authorities to catch terrorists seeking to do our country harm. But, is a record of all the telephone calls in the country, in real time, going to assist that endeavor? The ubiquitous use of cellular communications lends itself to lax control even for bad actors. So, as listening to U.S. citizen’s phone calls without a judge’s warrant is illegal, perhaps simply getting a list of all the outgoing and incoming numbers being called by people in the U.S., and the duration of the calls, might be helpful? It is that word ‘might’ that bothers me. I’ve no problem with law enforcement requesting and receiving records after an arrest, or the request for a wiretap with probable cause, but the uncontrolled amassing of the 3Vs (volume, variety, velocity – see graph, below) is troubling. A few years ago I was happy to read that when the administration wanted to monitor the mobile phone records of everyone in the United States all the big companies, except for my carrier, T-Mobile, rolled over without requiring probable cause warrants or even administrative subpoenas.
Less than an hour ago I ended one of the most informative and entertaining Zoom sessions I have ever had: Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward speaking as part of the ending ceremony of our 2020 ‘Journalism Under Fire’ conference in Santa Fe.
The president would not talk to Woodward for his book titled “Fear” released in 2018. After publication White House staff told the president the information in the book was basically true and accurate, so he agreed to talk to Woodward for the latest book “Rage”.
Woodward observed that one way of getting an interview is just to show up. Many today use email or telephones or texts to conduct interviews but do not go that extra mile to show up in person. Covid-19 put a stop to most in-person interviews so he and Trump talked by phone, usually at night which suited Woodward because of an adage he holds dear: “Lies in the Day, Truth at Night.”
During the nine months they talked on the phone President Trump did not let anyone at the White House know he was talking with Woodward and, upon publication, lashed out at the book but has since said he read the book and is pleased that he got many of his points out there in its pages.
A topic of current interest was touched upon in our Zoom meeting: presidential pardons. In 1998 Woodward interview Gerald Ford and asked him why he never pressed Nixon for an admission of guilt. Ford pulled out his wallet. He went thru the wallet and found a small, folded old newspaper clipping and showed it to Woodward. It had an article about a US Supreme Court decision from 1915 reading, in part, “Acceptance, as well as delivery, of a pardon is essential to its validity”, that is, an acceptance of a pardon is admission of guilt. [Note: The case was Burdick v. United States, 236 U.S. 79. Quaere – whether the President of the United States may exercise the pardoning power before conviction. “The facts, which involve the effect of a pardon of the President of the United States tendered to one who has not been convicted of a crime nor admitted the commission thereof, and also the necessity of acceptance of a pardon in order to make it effective, are stated in the opinion.”]
Woodward ended our Zoom with a story he has told before. After Nixon resigned Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham sent a note she had written on a yellow legal pad to Woodward & Bernstein. On it she had written a statement mentioning that their work had been important in bringing down a president and ending with a warning that all of us may take to heart: “Beware the demon pomposity”.
Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the city’s segregation on the bus system illegal. Behind her is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter covering the event.
It’s the 1st of December 1955, late afternoon in Montgomery, Alabama. A seamstress, going home after a long day of labor, takes a seat toward the front of the bus’s ‘Colored Section’. The bus begins to fill with passengers as it moves along its route. Eventually, the driver, James F. Blake, tells the seamstress to move further to the rear so a white man can take her seat. His demand is just one of the many, ‘ordinary’ actions Black Americans have had to endure throughout most of American history.
But on this day the seamstress, 42-year-old Rosa Parks (who was also the Secretary of the local NAACP), decides she is fed up, or, as she put is, “was tired of giving in.”
You know the type of day I’m writing about: it’s just one of those days when you simply don’t give a f—. Whatever happens, as a result of your obstinacy, happens. ‘Bring it on!’
On this day, 1 December 1955, 65 years ago, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat. The police are called. Rosa is arrested. Mrs. Rosa Parks is convicted of disorderly conduct four days later and pays a fine.
We know the rest of the story but, as a refresher:
A 26-year-old Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), spearheaded a Black American, 381-day boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. Workers made do with makeshift transport scraped together using peoples’ cars as taxis to get to and from their workplaces. Rev. King had only recently moved to Montgomery and it was this that led him to being picked to lead the MIA: he was too new and unknown to have any enemies in the city.
Finally, in the autumn of 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a district court’s ruling that segregation on Alabama’s public transport deprived Blacks of equal protection under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment and was, therefore, illegal. But, that was only for Alabama. It was not until 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson, a son of the South, signed the Civil Rights Act that ALL public transportation in The United States was desegregated.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) lived a full life and took a step requiring the utmost in bravery (somewhat difficult for us to recognize now with the superior legal protections many – tho not all, of us enjoy.)
She was honored by the U.S. Congress: her coffin was placed on view in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. While Mrs. Parks was the 30th person to lie in state there, she was the first woman! Her coffin was placed on the same catafalque (the decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state) that was built for Abraham Lincoln.
On this day in 1731 Benjamin Banneker (died 19 October 1806), free African-American man of science, author, surveyor and grandson of Bannaka, an African prince, was born in Baltimore County, Maryland. He produced commercially successful almanacs in the 1790s, and his knowledge of astronomy helped him be a part of Andrew Ellicott’s team that Thomas Jefferson ordered to survey land for the young nation’s capital city, Washington, DC.
Banneker, an older contemporary of my 6th generation grandfather, Bazil Norman (who fought in six military campaigns of the American Revolution) never married or had children. But, I am an 11th generation descendant of his sister Jemima. (In 11 generations of Banneker descendants the long-lived Normans only had 6; we marry late and, usually, live long!)
And Jemima begat Meslach who begat Mary who begat Sophia who begat Mary Elizabeth who begat George who begat James ‘Blind Jim’ who begat Mary ‘Polly’ who begat William Franklin who begat my father who begat ME!
Alas, on the day of Banneker’s funeral his cabin burned to the ground destroying almost all his papers and belongings. One journal and some rescued furniture were kept until recently by the Ellicott family, descendants of those original DC surveyors and also founders of Ellicott City, Maryland. A few items are at The Maryland Historical Society tho a Virginia collector bought most of the extant material at a 1996 auction.
I make a valiant attempt to honor my great grandmother Mary Polly’s dictum written on the sheet of paper holding her portrait: “If you don’t remember us grandchild. Who Will?” Polly was Jemima Banneker’s 8th generation grand daughter.
Photo Credits: a page from Benjamin Banneker’s journal (courtesy American Antiquarian Society) and Mary Polly Norris-Norman (1 May 1844 – 12 March 1941) (courtesy Norman Family Archive).
“Mixing business with pleasure since 1965.” – Baron Wolman, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Small in stature and large in heart, Baron Wolman (25 June 1937 – 2 November 2020) died yesterday, 3 November 2000, at the age of 83.
Tho born years apart we both hailed from “The Great Midwest” and were born near each other. Lest you wonder if you ever saw his pictures let me write – ‘Yes! You most certainly have – even tho you may not have known it!’ He was at Woodstock with cameras in hand and was the first photographer at Rolling Stone Magazine (1967-1970) where Jan Wenner has said Baron set the look for the magazine. Photographing The Grateful Dead band was Baron’s job for the first issue of the magazine. Not too shabby!
Baron sold his first photo, the construction of the Berlin Wall, to The Columbus Dispatch Newspaper for $50, a pic from a gig not many probably knew he had: counterintelligence in Berlin for Uncle Sam as a volunteer in the U.S. Army!
His last post to Facebook in October was typically self-effacing:
“Just as the sun sets over the Pacific, so, too, is it about to set over my life. A few of you know that a year ago I was give[n] the formal diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a disease for which there is no cure. Sad to say I’m now in the final sprint to the end. I go forward with a huge amount of gratitude for the many blessings bestowed upon me (family, friends, travels and more), with no regrets and appreciation for how my photographs – my life’s work – have been received. Leave comments if you wish, but please don’t ask any questions or expect any further words from me – I am very, very weak. Because of Covid, like thousands of others, I will pass quietly and with very few people around me. It’s been a great life, with Love being my salvation always… #fotobaron#thefotobaron#vote#voteblue2020“
Baron was a class act to the end and I trust he will be surrounded by the same sentiments he wrote to me in one of his books: “Peace, Love & Music!”
After a 3-day occupation of the Santa Fe Plaza in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day (we no longer celebrate October 12 as Columbus Day here in New Mexico) the monument holding center stage on the Plaza has been brought down by a largely-white mob of protestors as police backed off and vacated the Plaza.
The obelisk was originally put up in 1867 to honor Civil War Union soldiers who stopped the advance of the Confederacy in the West but had a plaque added later, on one side, that read, ‘To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.’ The word ‘savages’ was chiseled off in 1974.
The mayor earlier this year had announced there would be a decision on the future of the monument but he and the city have dragged their feet on any decision-making, in part, no doubt, over causing offense to the large population of people of Spanish descent here who revere their conquistador roots and feel theirs is THE heritage that matters in this state.
It would be great if the city decided now to have an international competition to replace the obelisk with something that embraces all New Mexicans in this the oldest capital city in the United States.
I actually liked the obelisk and thought the addition of the plaque (done a few generations ago) was itself a defacing of the monument’s original Civil War reason for being. But, there is and was, no denying that many of the northern heroes of that war went on to become principal actors in the genocide enacted upon the Indians.
Chief among this group were generals Sherman and Sheridan, both born in 1831 and who both grew up not too far from where I was born; as local heroes they were valorized with prominent statues. Both were also capable of incredible brutality to the ‘enemy’. (Sheridan was one of the first men to use what we call ‘scorched-earth’ tactics when he razed the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman is well-noted for his March Through Georgia).
It is easy for the mob to forget (if it ever knew), that history is not changed by smashing the signposts of history. Rather, it is amplified and extended by its wider unveiling from the shadows – something that was not undertaken on a large scale until universities began graduating those who would research and write our stories from a far different perspective from that which we learned in our 5th grade reader in the early 1960s. That formal and institutionalized history was one of the consequences of promoting a national identity linked to an ignorance and purposeful ‘white-washing’ of our treatment of Indigenous people and all other people of color in the United States.
Many argue this was all in the past and it is time to move on. It is, of course, easy to move on when one is part of the dominant social structure; as far as such people are concerned, there has never been any noticeable problem.
Despite being born in the second half of the 20th century I actually traveled from Philadelphia to Florida to interview a man who had been born in Africa, captured by slavers as a child with other children (lured to a ship by corn fritters dipped in honey) and sold into slavery in the American South. To know that I met and spoke to a man who lived under the regimen of the United States’ ‘peculiar institution ‘ shows how recent, in historical terms, the wide disenfranchisement of a large swath of our countrymen really has been.
The destruction of our local Plaza monument shows that not every crowd chanting ‘progressive’ slogans and carrying placards with the ‘right’ words is necessarily going to do the ‘right’ thing. Nor does being on the wrong side of the law in civil disobedience necessarily mean one is on the right side of moral history.
I don’t have answers, only questions. Like all human interaction – it’s complicated.
The Notorious R.B.G. (15 March 1933 – 18 September 2020)
I have sent three Tweets in my life and one of them was to Justice Ginsburg. It was an inquiry asking if she was going to make the season at our great Opera here in Santa Fe. She visited in the summers and could be seen with her omnipresent Secret Service detail headed to her seat in the lower central section of the open air house.
The first time we met her, however, was a big surprise. It was September 27, 2000 and we were at a conference in Ottawa, Canada with a group from The World Bank Ethics Office. Being interested in circumpolar artifacts, Donna and I took some time to visit a shop that specialized in Inuit art. While browsing the great wares a guy with an ear bud attached to a spiraling line came in, stopped and gave a slow survey to the store. He reminded me of the Secret Service executive protection guys we would always see around Washington, DC and it made sense as we were in the capital of Canada. Just the day before I had taken a really atmospheric portrait of Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien, 20th Prime Minister of Canada.
Suddenly a second ear-bud guy came in. Then in walked a diminutive woman who was unmistakably Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed by yet another agent. My first impulse was to go to her and simply say how I admired her and the work she had always done. So, of course, I stepped toward her. Immediately the Secret Service guys took alert positions and the front one moved to block my advance. I quickly realized how stupid I was to make such a sudden move so made an apology and had my say from where I stood. She graciously acknowledged my fandom and we all went about looking at the art in the shop.
“She had this uncanny ability to be very much in the weeds, if you will, of the intellectual legal arguments and yet never lose sight of the human impact of her decisions,” was a description Former President Clinton used to describe Ginsburg.
No doubt part of her common-sense nature came from being a mother before she went to law school and having a difficult time getting a job with a top-flight firm even after graduating first (shared with another graduate) in her class. My wife has reminded me that when she was a young woman she needed a man’s signature to open a bank account and it was also impossible for most unmarried women to get a home mortgage. The Dean of Harvard Law reportedly invited the female law students (only 9 in a class of nearly 500) to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?
We have Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with a host of other talented and determined women, to thank for leading the way to necessary and long-overdue changes in the way we men handle affairs that affect everyone. Alas, we are just not that good at sharing.
The Notorious R.G.B.* will be sorely missed.
* a law student bestowed this moniker on Ginsburg that is take-off on the nickname of the late (also) Brooklyn-born rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
Last autumn I posted a photograph on
Facebook of two adult women from a Sing-Sing in Papua New Guinea. They were
wearing grass skirts and necklaces. Within a couple hours it disappeared and I
received a notice that the photograph “violated community standards”.
Evidently, Facebook trolls their platform with algorithms looking for the
breasts that half (or more) of homo sapiens sapiens possess and that many
display as part of either ordinary living or reenactments and continuation of
traditions dating back millennia.
If I had, instead, posted some vitriolic, racist bullshit about exterminating people of color, starting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, all would have been hunky-dory. No problema, I would have been simply a righteous asshole expressing my First Amendment rights and espousing violence like many another red-blooded white man with below-average self-esteem; poor work skills; poorer general social skills; a skepticism of science and book-learnin’; a knack for receiving a world view from Fox ‘News’ and, if I am a teen, an inability to get laid (young girls have radar that, almost immediately with few mistakes, can spot weirdos.)
In other words, a white guy who,
along with his white male ancestors has enjoyed the prosperity and unearned
status that has been their lot for the last few hundred years. When such a
status is jeopardized by anyone, including their ‘natural’ soul mates, white
women, it is time to pull the plug on the veneer of ‘live and let live’ and
fight to keep – and extend, the privilege that exists. So what I dropped out of
school in the 8th grade and would love to have lived in Roman times. I could
have gone to those gladiatorial contests to give the thumbs down on the
barbarians from the provinces? Yeh, I would have loved to join the military to
bear arms if I could have passed the rudimentary skills test. And doin’ it for
the USA would have been a bonus ‘cause I love this country, especially back
when it enforced racial separation. Hoo-rah!
But, carrying a semi-automatic gun… er… weapon, in public is the next best thing. Hell, better: I don’t have to follow orders from some jerk with a ‘high & tight’. (And, too, it really makes me feel like a man, you know. A whole lot. I know the chicks dig it!)
Who you callin’ deplorable!
To be more fair, there are fellow
travelers who are not functionally stupid. As I have no known close
acquaintances in this category I have not been able to ask whether such
individuals actually believe all the clap-trap of white supremacists or whether
they are just along for the ride because they stand to benefit from any
extension of ole’ white boy power.
So… what this rant is really about
is whether I will continue to use Facebook for posts or dump it and return to
just writing on my Blog. As Facebook is 110% dollar driven I don’t think it
will change much, despite Zucker-face buying time by mouthing the right code
words at congressional hearings about the company having to do better.
What WILL amend Facebook’s corporate
behavior is when they are sued and saddled with billions of dollars in legal
claims similar to those that were faced by Big Tobacco. When a corporation
knows it operates in an area that is a detriment to society it is culpable. I’m
sure they will holler they are a news outlet letting their users enjoy the full
extent of their First Amendments rights but we all know that, in truth,
Facebook is a private business that is, in fact, in business to make money, not
engage in the public good.
I have two more postings I am
contemplating. One on evolutionary biology and one on Trumpism and capital.
Then, I think I will bow out. It’s been a good, if uneasy, ride!
There has always been Big Money in U.S. politics. It is just that, now, it is Huge Money.
You do not have to consider the needs and desires of working people if your power base is Huge Money. Especially if that worker base is composed largely of one-issue voters you can keep in the fold by spouting code words every now and then: guns, abortion, immigration, etc. Besides, the poor will just spend federal largesse on groceries, rents and mortgages, car payments, church tithes, etc. Few, if any, are giving money to political causes. And you can still tout Free Speech, even if you do not countenance it, because those one-issue voters are mostly concerned with free speech in their own lanes, those particular, narrow issues. (But do not forget, if you ever knew it, you one-issue revolutionaries: over time most revolutions tend to eat their own.)
A ton of the money given to large business for Covid-19
relief will end up in the coffers of the Republican Party as donations and
funding for PACs. Why not dole out those dollars if some eventually comes back
to assist your campaign? The decision is eazy-peazy, no?
A comparison one could use of the change from an individuals-based outlook to a grifting, corporatized one is the example of the National Rifle Association. The NRA was once powered by individual gun owners sending in their membership monies. Throw in the manufacturers and you had a tidy sum to use for lobbying. Now the NRA has morphed, essentially, into an extension of the manufacturers’ lobby, it’s just based in northern Virginia instead of on ‘K’ Street in DC. The NRA Board has been pliable enough that in 2018 CEO Wayne LaPierre (2015 compensation $5,110,985 and $2.15 million in 2018) was said to be involved with the NRA’s ad agency, Ackerman McQueen (they have since separated acrimoniously) in the non-profit, tax-exempt NRA (501(c)(4)) being asked to buy him and his wife a $6 million gated-community, lakefront mansion near Dallas, Texas because… if you can believe it, LaPierre – with little expressed concern over school shootings, was reportedly worried about his own security after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida! The request was not fulfilled, perhaps because then-president Oliver North and LaPierre had a tiff combined with the fact that the home-buying scheme came to light and that in 2018 the organization ended the year with a $2.7 million shortfall, a $17.8 million shortfall in 2017 and a $45.8 million one in 2016. None of this stopped LaPierre from reportedly spending $500,000 on ‘luxury clothes and travel’. This style of executive compensation when companies are running deficits or performing poorly is not a rare one these days.
Another example. People have complained about U.S. Foreign Aid but the reason it persists is because the money sent out always stipulates the work be performed by American companies with American products, the food from American farmers, the transport on America transport (even if ‘flagged’ under another nation) and so on. A whopping amount of those government dollars – or, rather, our tax dollars, ends up back in American pockets. Deep pockets. Illegal immigration is similar. Big industries like building, service (lodging and food) and manufacturing have enormous labor needs – and cheap labor, at that. Who you gonna call? Are you, dear reader, hiring low-wage, relatively ‘unskilled’ Mexicans? Where do all these folks crossing the border look for work? Are they knocking on the doors of our homes?
These examples of self-dealing are visible to anyone with an
eighth grade education who will take a moment to read newspapers and think critically
about their lives, the lives of their fellows and their country. Such
comprehension is one, maybe, THE, essential element of a functioning democracy
(along with exercising one’s franchise.) Apparently, the numbers of such citizens
are getting fewer and fewer. It’s easier to get our ‘important’ news via
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other Internet-only sources and to shrug off
voting as ‘not making a difference”.
I think a big reason McConnell and bedfellows don’t want an extension of the $600 per week is that he and his cronies realize the only way, today, to force people to work in dicey, dangerous, unhealthy workplaces is to cut off federal support money so that many people are forced to return to work, ignoring safety issues because, oddly enough, most of us have a priority of putting food on the table.
Forcing people to work in unhealthy, dangerous jobs has
always been a problem for rulers. Slavery is the obvious example. But, others
have found superbly ingenious ways to make people work. Great Britain’s
colonial administration in East Africa used a tax on salt. When native workers would
earn enough money for their immediate needs they simply stopped showing up
until they needed money again. How to force them to continue coming to work?
Ah…. levy a burdensome tax on salt, a necessary ingredient for a healthy life
in a climate where one sweats it out and needs to daily replenish. (Salt tax
earned early Chinese civilization half its tax revenue and remember it was the
righteous purpose of The Salt March that made Mohandas Gandhi famous outside
his immediate circle.)
Obviously, people working is what keeps a country’s economy bumping along and accounts for whatever level of financial prosperity a nation enjoys. But, must we force people, before the proper time, to return to jobs that are very likely going to be nurseries for Covid-19?? When is the proper time?
Personal prejudice is a powerful guide to action – or inaction. We have all heard or read phrases that come from nebulous, unsubstantiated beliefs: ‘the undeserving poor’, ‘the idle rich’, etc.
When Jeffrey Epstein was arrested his story was covered
extensively locally because he owned a large property here. One interesting
tidbit I saw was an incident that took place at a symposium on his private
island in the Caribbean. Epstein told one attendee he was voting Harvard
professor Steven Pinker ‘off the island’ because Pinker openly disagreed (using
fact-based science) with a comment Epstein had made. At a round-table Epstein had
said he would never fund projects for the alleviation of poverty because the
poor would just go out and breed, making more children. Pinker spoke up,
differing with this assessment, saying this belief has been shown to be untrue:
the more solid people become in their personal economies, the fewer children
We all need to do our research, think creatively and not
cast aside an open mind and the scientific method when acting on ‘facts’. Following
a ‘party line’ is one of the surest roads toward a poverty of imagination and
the narrowing of choices.
The rule of money or the rule of democracy? Like a garden,
Democracy must be tended and nurtured, its soil must be tilled and overturned
to keep it alive, active and strong. It is not a given that it will always prevail
after only a couple hundred years of existence.
OK, the innermost desires of the current occupant of the White House
are never secret too long. He has an innate inability to contain
himself in any manner whatsoever. Kind of like little boys in their
I recently heard someone use the word “Fascism”
and it reminded me that just like the word ‘racist’, it does have a
specific meaning, tho it has been prefixed to many modifiers in its
historically short, modern history.
(To be a racist, by the by,
is to also have the position and societal power to enact and enforce
your beliefs. Otherwise you are, simply, ‘prejudiced’. I dislike
pineapple on pizza is a prejudice, for example. If I wrote that I do not
like folks of the Caucasian persuasion that would be a prejudice, as
well: as a person of color I have no societal power over them. All I
could do is on a personal level, like not hiring them, not publishing
their photography, etc. As such, my actions would be prejudicial ones,
not racist ones.)
So, to fascism.
The great novelist and thinker in semiotics, Umberto Eco, was born into fascist Italy. To help clarify people’s thinking on just what the word means, he published an essay in 1995 for The New York Review of Books titled “Ur-Fascism“. While I am not certain his list is the last word, he offers 14 typical features that, like a tiny speck of atmospheric ice crystal that permits the formation of hail, allows fascism to coalesce into a state we can identify.
(via a refinment from someone named “Kottke” and then blogger Paul
Bausch) published these as the following comprehensible list:
1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of
every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The
Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult
2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the
Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this
sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
3. The cult of
action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be
taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form
4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical
spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In
modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way
to improve knowledge.”
5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal
of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the
intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
6. Appeal to
social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical
fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering
from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and
frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest
way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
8. The enemy
is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus,
the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no
struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology,
heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the
cult of death.”
12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both
disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard
sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which
the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented
and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
Thoughts on watching the body of Civil Rights and Justice Warrior,
Representative John Lewis, being ferried in a horse-drawn wagon across the
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“And before I’d be a slave I’ll be
buried to my grave”
‘Oh Freedom’, an African American freedom song associated with the U.S. Civil Rights movement but actually written after the U.S. Civil War (12 April 1860 – 9 April 1865). A version was first recorded by Earl R. Nance (with Clarence Dooley, Tenor Vocal & Guitar; Madie Nance, Soprano Vocal; Helen Nance, Alto Vocal & Mandolin) August 26, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. (video, above)
Most of us are more familiar with the Odetta (1957), Harry Belafonte (1960)
or Joan Baez (1963 March on Washington) versions but the original recording
takes me to an earlier place in our country’s history.
“get out there and get in the way, get
in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself.”
– John Lewis, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020 (a
motivator to the end!)
John Lewis also spoke similar words to young people at the Children’s
Defense Fund Freedom Schools National Training in June 2014. Marion Wright
Edelman, founder of the Fund wrote, “As he spoke to today’s young Freedom
Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into
“necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor
in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved
enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of
his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged
him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his
segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I
tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were
too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had
one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that
newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the
news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new
events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I
heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an
old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Lewis, you, too, can do
something . . . You can make a contribution.”
John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with
the library: “So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and
cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy,
Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we
were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for
coloreds.” A year later, as a high school senior he decided to apply to Troy State
College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home—but his
application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily—but
he was not finished.
He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order
to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it,
history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when
there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer
volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and
James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21st, 1964,
almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken
out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They
didn’t die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or
South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked
upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a
new way of life.””
Looking across the aisle, I also found this interesting scene on the morning TV show The View (transcript from The Decider):
“[Meghan] McCain offered her own reflection on Lewis’ legacy with a personal
story about meeting him at her father’s office when she was 14. “It was
important to [her father] that I heard this man’s story and knew who he was,”
said the co-host. “I can remember when I was 14 not really ever seeing my dad
deferential or in awe of anyone, and that was one of the first times.”
McCain added that while Lewis and her father “ended up having a political
disagreement” when Sen. McCain ran for president — “I have no interest in
rehashing it right now,” she said — but they were able to squash it. “When my
dad passed, John Lewis put out one of the more beautiful statements of anyone,”
The Executive Branch current morphing of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security into what some other countries call their Interior Ministry has been, in a way, a no-brainer. Of the 80-odd federal law enforcement agencies in the United States, Customs and Border Protection Agents may be the most ‘physical’ with apprehended suspects as they conduct operations along a largely deserted southern border without the prying eyes of the greater public. They routinely hold people who they suspect are entering the country illegally without offering up specific charges. (Separate and incarcerate children apart from their parents? OK, no problem! They have also arrested U.S. citizens who leave gallon jugs of water in the desert for immigrants because such actions are seen as aiding those attempting to enter the U.S. without papers.)
In many countries
Interior Ministries are anything but people-friendly: these departments are not
populated by employees guiding their populace on ranger-led interpretive nature
hikes through spectacular natural scenery. They are heads-of-state directed agencies
who operate as a secret police, whose employees are feared by their own people
and rightly so. The tactics employed by such ministries include warrantless
search and seizures, arrests without stated cause, indeterminate detention,
torture and other popular acts of authoritarian governments. They are internal
police forces answering to the whims of the supreme leader, not the directives
of local officials. Portland was simply a warm-up exercise incorporating agents from Customs and Border Protection, the
Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and Immigration and
Chicago is slated to be next as what we in the past called Gestapo Tactics is
rolled out across the country’s big cities using whatever federal manpower is
available. The Trump administration has learned another valuable lesson from
Russia’s playbook by customizing its own anonymous armed officers, our version
of the “Little Green Men” who invaded and occupied eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the
Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books; 2017) spoke with Michelle Goldberg
for her New York Times July 21st column, “This is a classic way that
violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or
whether it’s the Russian Empire. The people who are getting used to committing
violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in
the interior.” “
Typical of right-winger’s flip-flops, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was rabid in 1995 with a flip warning of the seizure of American’s guns under Congress’s ‘Assault Weapons Ban’: “In Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” Now, however, the NRA endorses Trump for a second term (July 16 announcement) and, with a thudding flop, lauds his actions in Portland for “stand[ing] tall for the constitutional freedoms in which our members believe.” Where o’ where are my conservative friends who used to uphold the rights of individuals at all costs against Big Government? Perhaps they are all busy praising the powers of plutocracy and the all-controlling Spy State: all citizens are equal but some are more equal than others.
In an article in today’s The
Atlantic magazine David A. Graham writes, “Chad Wolf, the [acting head
of] DHS amid the crackdown, is also accountable only to the president: Trump,
who loves circumventing the Constitution’s requirement of Senate confirmation
for some positions, has often chosen to leave acting heads in charge of
agencies so that they are more pliable and dependent on him.”
As if anonymous federal police throwing people into unmarked rental cars is not enough, Trump has bought in John Yoo, seeking advice from the lawyer who wrote Bush 43’s 2002 legal justification for Guantanamo ‘enhanced interrogations’, the so-called ‘torture memos’. Yoo has publicly confirmed he’s helping the Trump administration find ways to skirt Congress and impose his (Trump’s) own policies without congressional approval, even if such policies violate laws – that is, the democratic principles of citizen protection upon which this country was founded.
Yoo’s thinking on this was detailed in an article in the magazine National Review (June 22) arguing the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provides a back door to implement policies by the Chief Executive without regard to legality: the ruling “makes it easy for presidents to violate the law, but reversing such violations difficult — especially for their successors.” In Yoo’s recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian he says, “And why can’t the Trump administration do something similar with immigration – create its own … program, but it could do it in areas beyond that, like healthcare, tax policy, criminal justice, inner city policy. I talked to them a fair amount about cities, because of the disorder.” And with regard to Portland’s unidentified, masked agents: “It has to be really reasonably related to protecting federal buildings … If it’s just graffiti, that’s not enough. It really depends on what the facts are.”
But… facts, of
course, never get in the way of life in Trump-ville.
I am again and again struck by our country’s
Founders who were so often uncannily prescient in setting up roadblocks for
undesirable outcomes and on-ramps for desirable ones. They could not possibly
plan for every exigency but certainly covered a lot of ground in their attempt.
For all its social faults the Age of Enlightenment bred people – men and women
– of brilliance and forethought to whom expertise, science and knowledge were
things of beauty to combat ignorance, popular befuddlement and the rule of the
I end here with a small quote from the transcript of the James Madison
Debates of the Constitutional Convention, delivered by the man himself, on
Friday, June 29, 1787. As was usual, the written record contains abbreviations
commonly used in such recorded work in the 18th century (the italics are mine).
“In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of war, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people. It is perhaps questionable, whether the best concerted system of absolute power in Europe cd. maintain itself, in a situation, where no alarms of external danger cd. tame the people to the domestic yoke.” Further, “He [Madison] entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a principle [the rank of the States as political societies, for example] wch. was confessedly unjust, which cd. never be admitted, & if admitted must infuse mortality into a Constitution which we wished to last forever.”
There are myriad qualities that make us human but few, other than the wide bailiwick of ‘culture’, have tentacles that reach – or should reach, as far into our psyches as the pursuit of justice.
All the qualities are evolutionarily useful, of course, and some are shared with other species: tool use for example. Plus we have the category of emotions – but we have no lock on exclusivity there, either; witness your dog jumping for joy when you return to your home (even after being gone for only 10 minutes!) or elephants grieving their dead. Then there is the neurological brain and unfathomed mind terrain of morality, ethics, mutuality, competition and the like.
I, and millions of others on this hunk of rock speeding through the universe, think the historical Buddha was onto something when he hit upon desire as a main cause of human misery. And, again, when he taught that wisdom and compassion were two primary keys to the alleviation of much that passes for our distress in this world. Notice that I used the past-tense ‘taught’ (teach) and not ‘preach’, a signal difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the divine. Preaching is an activity wherein someone with a supposed special insight and connection to the spiritual expounds to a (mostly) passive audience. Other than the “call-and-response” in traditional black churches there is precious little two-way communication going on.
Teaching in the active sense is a whole other endeavor altogether. It is what Doris Lessing (“Introduction” to the Grove Press edition of Ecclesiastes) identifies as the “experiential Path” vs. the “passive” one. When we hear and learn of concepts like “Justice” in our schools and places of worship we internalize, if we do at all, an intellectual concept. When we grow up in an environment with parents and a community that teaches us about “Justice” we internalize it in our hearts. It is closely linked to compassion for the Other. To see a black citizen beaten or killed on an anonymous video stream causes every right-thinking person unease. To walk out of the house knowing that this treatment might be your own lot brings on another level of apprehension altogether.
In many ways ordinary, middle-class white people in our society are privileged not so much by what has happened in their lives as by what has not happened.
The last time I drove cross-country from Ohio, then to Chicago for a Leica meeting and then home to New Mexico I was stopped not once, but twice by states highway patrol. In Illinois the trooper was right behind me as we drove 70+ mph along the Interstate. I decided to move back to the right lanes after passing a car and in a few seconds saw the flashing lights go on in the patrol car. I dutifully pulled over and awaited the standard visit from the cop at my Mercedes Sprinter van window.
When he finally came up I asked what was the problem. He said that in Illinois there is a law that a driver cannot change lanes on an Interstate within 275 feet of signaling a lane change. I asked him to repeat the statement as I was trying to internalize his comment (which was not as succinct as my version of it.) Then I did a quick calculation and said that at the speeds we were driving, 275 feet go by in less than three seconds. I added that I did not have a stop-watch but was pretty certain the legal time had transpired and I had, after all, signaled my intentions. He said, yes, I had signaled but he was pretty certain I had moved into the right lane too early. When I let out an exasperated breath (I was trying to get to my meeting hotel before nightfall) he added that he was not going to give me a ticket, only a ‘Warning’, and that I should leave my van and get into his patrol car. I responded with, “Really!” He said, “Yes, you need to comply, sir.” As I opened the door and stepped out he suddenly said, “Are you armed?” I looked at him with incredulity and said, “Are you serious? No, of course not!”m
As I approached his car I reached for the back door handle but he said, “No, get in the front passenger seat.”
“Okay, cool, I can look at all the toys!”
I did not get much done by way of inspection because there was a police major in the back seat who grilled me on fly-fishing in New Mexico when he saw the Catch & Release sticker in my rear window. I got the idea he was trying to ferret out whether I knew anything about the great art of casting with a fly or had stolen an expensive vehicle.
After several days in Chicago I headed back to the Interstate toward New Mexico. That evening late, just west of St. Louis, a car kept tail-gating me closely for miles. Rather than hit the brakes, which I would have done in my youth, I simply slowed down. Who wants to get the driver behind alarmed and pissed-off enough that he/she pulls up and sends a bullet thru the driver side window?
As I slowed those flashing lights came on! He kept me waiting for a long time before coming up to the window. Tired and (again) exasperated as I was trying to reach my usual hotel, I asked what took so damn long. He said he saw I had an old arrest record at the White House but could not find that it had ever been settled. It took him a long time to find it had been adjudicated (‘don’t return to DC and cause trouble for at least 6 months.’)
Then, I got the only laugh I have ever received from a state cop during the many times I have been stopped: “Officer, first things first. I am very proud of that arrest. It is a sterling moment of civil disobedience from my youth. I made national TV and got a televised comment from my state senator, John Glenn! Second, why did you stop me in the first place?”
“I could not read your license plate or see a sticker to see
if it is current.“
“My date sticker is right there for all to see.”
“Yes, I see it now, but in Missouri it is illegal to drive
with a license plate that is hard for an officer to read. Now, I’m not going to
give you a ticket, but….”
Another ‘Warning’ ticket in my pocket after a stop that
lasted ninety minutes.
Many of you will laugh at these stories, and I can, too,
now. But, the significance of them is that any ‘untoward’ action or displayed
anger on my part could have ended badly for me. Driving while brown can be a
risky practice in many places in the United States. What proved to be
remarkable was that the very next week the NAACP issued a notice that read, “if
you are black you should avoid driving through Missouri if at all possible.”
This is an incredible piece of advice in 21st century America.
These examples of state police action would be simply idiosyncratic stories if not for the fact that they are repeated across this nation every day. I am lucky in that I am sure the officers’ calculus of behavior was influenced by my educated flat, mid-Western speech, my demeanor and my expensive set of wheels (both officers were impressed by my great Mercedes vehicle), i.e. ‘he can probably afford an expensive lawyer’.
To sum, dear Reader, do not assume that your peaceful and secure daily existence is the norm for everyone in this country. Do not assume that those who are executed with impunity by state actors had it coming. Do not assume that after we have conquered Covid-19 everyone will return to a life of beauty and personal empowerment. Do not assume we must all color within the lines as dictated by the mandates of the 1%. Yes, applaud those officers who “take a knee” in solidarity with the people they have sworn to serve and protect but remember that real change is not a cosmetic application of soothing words and easy actions. True justice requires vigilance and perseverance – the hard work of all people of good will.
“History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” – Justice Thurgood Marshall
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” – John Stuart Mill, 1867
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass