A Reluctance To Repudiate Anti-Semitism

Ernst Hess. Emil Maurice. Most people don’t recognize these names. That is because these men are footnotes in the history of the Third Reich. They had the dubious honor of being personal friends of Hitler. Hess was Hitler’s company commander during WWI. Maurice was a longtime friend from when he and Hitler were members of the German Workers Party. After Hitler rose to power and the anti-Semitic agenda of the Nazis was well established, Hitler went out of his way to issue two orders. The first order commanded the German secret police to grant Hess “relief and the protection as per the Fuhrer’s wishes”. His second order was addressed to Heinrich Himmler. Maurice, despite his Jewish heritage, had not only joined the Nazi Party, he was an SS officer as well as Hitler’s sometime bodyguard and personal chauffeur. Himmler insisted that Maurice be expelled from the ranks for failing the racial purity rules, but Hitler wrote a letter to Himmler ordering him to make an exception for Maurice as well as his brothers. The Maurices were declared “Honorary Aryans” and allowed to stay in the SS.

So what is the point of this brief glimpse at Hitler’s protection of these two men? Yesterday an Israeli reporter questioned Trump about the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and asked what he had to say regarding concerns in Jewish communities internationally that his administration was playing with xenophobic and racist tones. Trump’s response was:

“Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honored by the victory that we had — 316 electoral college votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there’s no way to 270. And there’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.

I will say that we are going to have peace in this country. We are going to stop crime in this country. We are going to do everything within our power to stop long simmering racism and every other thing that’s going on. There’s a lot of bad things that have been taking place over a long period of time.

I think one of the reasons I won the election is we have a very, very divided nation, very divided. And hopefully, I’ll be able to do something about that. And I, you know, it was something that was very important to me.

As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening.

And you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love.”

Trump first words were to revisit and relive, once again, his electoral college victory, as if to validate himself as president, because he was good enough, he was smart enough and, doggone it, people liked him. He then segued into generic comments about crime, long simmering racism, and a deeply divided nation, as if to wash his hands of the nationalistic, racist and anti-Semitic activity that has been emboldened since his candidacy and election. When Trump finally got to the “Jewish question”, he talked about his Jewish friends, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, then rambled on about how the United States will be very different in the next several years, but a lot of good things and love will be happening. He couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “anti-Semitism.”

The point is even Hitler had Jewish friends whom he protected from his own policies. But Hitler rose to power promising the German people how different Germany would be under his leadership, how he would make Germany great again, after the humiliation of the First World War. He showed just how much love he had for those who fit the mold, who were shining examples of Aryan ideals and ancestry. As for the rest, especially those who were Jewish, it was off to the concentration camps and crematoriums.

The Holocaust didn’t happen in spite of these promises and policies. It happened because of them. Hitler created carveouts to shield his nearest and dearest, but it didn’t alter the Nazi agenda one whit. Likewise, Trump’s showcasing of his Jewish friends and family members is not reassuring in the slightest. His failure to indict anti-Semitism unequivocally indicates either an unwillingness or inability to quash the hateful forces his rhetoric has unleashed, or a desire to use those forces to bend the arc of American history towards racism again. Both possibilities are horrifying.


Alternative Facts, Inadvertent Omissions And The Inconvenient Truth

Michael Flynn tendered his resignation today, after the clamor over his discussions with a Russian diplomat about the U.S. sanctions became too much for even Trump to bear. That’s saying a lot. Donald Trump’s trademark, both in his private business dealings and in his administration, is undisciplined impetuousness. He thrives on thrashing about like a bull in a china shop, ignoring any protests regarding his behavior, and paralyzing those around him for fear of setting him off.

Trump is ignorant, yet believes himself infallible and beyond reproach. He is arrogant, yet remarkably insecure. When criticized or made to feel inadequate, he obsessively lashes out, both verbally and on Twitter, like a petulant toddler. During these tirades, he almost always resorts to citing false, disproven stories, either unwilling or unable to separate truth from fiction. Like a child, he seems compelled to rewrite history to cast himself as the hero, smarter and more talented than he really is. When reminded of what really happened, he angrily dismisses it as “fake news”. In summary, Trump plays fast and loose with the facts.

As has been made painfully evident during the past month, those in his administration share these characteristics. Kellyanne Conway is often smugly and glibly dishonest during interviews. When she was finally called on the lies she was spouting, she claimed she was offering “alternative facts.” Sean Spicer’s press conferences are the American equivalent of the surreal press briefings given by Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf during the Iraqi War, where al-Sahhaf would claim that no American troops were in Iraq as U.S. tanks rolled by behind him. In his resignation, Flynn stated that he “inadvertently briefed…incomplete information”. In other words, he lied by omission. Trump didn’t feel this was an issue until the story was leaked. After being publicly pressured to fire Flynn, Trump was more angry about the leak than about the lie and potentially illegal actions of his former National Security Adviser.

The problem is that facts don’t matter to this administration. Stories can be conjured out of thin air, like Conway’s Bowling Green Massacre, or made up in the face of contradictory evidence, like Spicer’s insistence that more people attended Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s, despite photos clearly showing the opposite. Words can be strung together any which way and presented as facts, regardless of whether they are or not. And if actual facts are not presented? Then it never happened; what happens in Moscow stays in Moscow. But like the boy who cried wolf, this administration will lose all credibility, if it hasn’t lost it already. While this may provide priceless material for comedians, the situation is quite serious. What countries would trust us, either in trade or in an alliance? The world may very well decide that it can live without a delusional, unreliable partner—and that is the inconvenient truth.

Of Men And Mice

In the 4th century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle created two bodies of work, Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Both deal with the question of what it means to be good on a practical level. Whereas the former work explores the connections and conflicts between personal happiness and virtue and what it means to live a “good” life, the latter raises the discussion to how these concepts apply to those charged with helping the community live a “good” life—in other words, politicians.

In Politics, Aristotle states that there are three general types of government, based on the number of people wielding power:

1) Monarchy – governance by one person

2) Aristocracy – governance by a few people, relative to the size of the community 

3) Constitutional Government – governance by many, a representative government 

He further argues that no type of government is inherently bad. For example, if a monarch is thoughtful and a true leader, and he unfailingly governs with the well-being of all his subjects in mind, he is the proverbial benevolent dictator. It is simply a matter of what laws are implemented, the motivation behind them, and whether or not those laws help those governed in their quest to live a “good” life. The idea is that, through ethical governance, people can go from merely surviving to striving for excellence, from being mice to being men.

All this depends on man being able to suppress his baser instincts. This is known in Judaism as the yetzer hara, the congenital evil instinct that drives him to put his wants and needs ahead of anyone and everything else. It is this instinct we see when a child refuses to share his toys, when he points to someone else after getting caught doing something wrong, and when he leads a group of hangers-on in bullying someone who is different. Most of us learn to tame this instinct, and to channel its energy in more productive endeavors; the desire to have becomes the desire to succeed.

In politics, however, there is an intrinsic danger, and that danger is power. Lord John Acton, a 19th century British historian, wrote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” According to Aristotle, each type of government has the potential to degenerate into its “evil twin”: a monarchy metastasizes into a tyranny, an aristocracy transforms into an oligarchy, and a constitutional government turns into a democracy. The corrupted form of each exists when those with power horde and abuse that power, then rely on fear, mindless obedience, or oppression to control the community. The common characteristic of these regimes is that their goal is to rule in favor of the governing body. The king is only concerned with his well-being. Those in the oligarchy are only interested in protecting their financial empires. And democracy is when a constitutional government becomes mob rule, when the hue and cry of the day is, “What’s in it for me?”

Trump rode to power because our constitutional government, one created by men who struggled with designing something that would give voice and representation to the disparate interests and concerns of a nascent nation, has devolved into a democracy. Governance has become all or nothing; for one interest to win, the other side must lose. Compromise is a dirty word. Trump promised his supporters that he was their champion, that he would take care of those who voted for him. He promised to subjugate those who were not like them, who, simply by virtue of being different, posed an existential threat. Once in office, he nominated for Cabinet positions the most rich white men in decades, with an average net worth of over 8 billion dollars. After he signed an ill-conceived and even more badly implemented travel ban, a federal appeals court affirmed the stay on the executive order despite his lawyers’ argument that a president has ultimate and unreviewable authority to issue orders. When questioned about his refusal to divest or his tweet against Nordstrom after they dropped his daughter’s line of products, he hid behind the claim that, as president, he is not subject to federal ethics laws.

In short, the constitutional government created by our Founding Fathers, men who fought for liberty from a tyrannical monarch, is now in the hands of a man who would be king, aided by an oligarchy of the very businessmen he railed against during his campaign, and supported by a minority of the country’s population who willingly run roughshod over anyone who is not like them. A thick vein of self-interest ties them together, but it remains to be seen whether this cord will bind them closer or end up strangling them. Their self-interests will inevitably clash; such is the parochial nature of self-interests. The saddest part is how we as a country were lifted from being mice to men over two hundred years ago, only to teeter on the verge of becoming mice once more.

Not My Leader

Since World War II, the president of the United States has also been viewed as the leader of the free world. The mantle of that title carries with it great power, but as Uncle Ben warned Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. President Trump got into office by touting his acumen and success as a businessman. He managed to convince enough people in the necessary states that he was the right person to lead the nation and, as he frequently boasts, “Make America great again!”

What makes a good leader? What is leadership? These questions have stymied not only nations, but groups of any kind since time immemorial. Civilizations have risen and fallen along with the fortunes of their leaders: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Ghengis Khan. The course of history was changed by the likes of William the Conquerer, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Thomas Jefferson. Courses on the topic are offered at universities, as are seminars at business conferences. Despite the plethora of analysis and advice available, however, good leaders and good leadership remain difficult to come by.

The first thing that should be recognized is that being placed in a leadership position does not make one a leader. A true leader is a good leader. A good leader possesses the qualities which are associated with good leadership. What, then, are the qualities of good leadership? When I was serving in the Navy, I attended a class on leadership. It was required training for officers, since they, by dint of their rank, are tasked with leading their units. One afternoon, the instructors screened Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V”. The speech is famous for the phrase “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” and it was delivered by the king to inspire his tired and disheartened troops. King Henry painted a vision of the glory that arose from honor and courage and exhorted his men to unite with him in the battle. The instructors went on to discuss different types of leadership. Visionary leadership by the commanding officer provides the big picture goals along with the inspiration to achieve them, while logistic leadership from the executive officer provides attainable short-term milestones along with guidance and encouragement. They intertwined these concepts with the military-wide adage: “No man left behind” and emphasized that no unit could succeed unless every member could trust every other member to watch his back, from the highest ranking officer to the lowest enlisted serviceman.

In the March 2016 issue of Entrepreneur, Adam and Jordan Bornstein wrote an article titled “22 Qualities That Make A Great Leader.” Whether their list is all-inclusive or is missing qualities can easily be debated, but at least some of the traits on the list are commonly recognized and accepted as characteristics of a good leader: focus, confidence, transparency, integrity, inspiration, commitment, patience, persistence, wonkiness, authenticity, open-mindedness, empowerment, generosity, insight, and accountability. If you were to think about the bosses and supervisors you have had over the course of your lifetime, there is a very good probability that the one whose leadership you most admire exhibited a high percentage, if not all, of these qualities. What that person exemplified was someone who:

1) Believed in a goal.

2) Was confident his team could achieve that goal.

3) Could communicate his vision in a clear yet inspiring manner.

4) Was committed to creating and fostering teamwork.

5) Was willing to listen to, learn from, and give credit generously to all team members.

6) Delegated authority to those best equipped to make the necessary decisions.

7) Was trusted by his team to not sacrifice them for his own advancement nor abandon them when problems arose.

8) Had the maturity to acknowledge and own mistakes.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt top the list of our country’s greatest presidents. There is a reason why four of these five men are memorialized on Mount Rushmore. Each of them left an indelible mark on history, where if lesser individuals were in their place, the United States and the world as a whole might be very different today. All of them believed that the nation would be stronger together, if we watched each others’ backs and united both when fighting a common enemy and when working to improve American society. None of them forwarded dark visions of the world adrift or cast themselves as the only one qualified to be the nation’s savior. They did not pit the country’s citizens against each other to maintain political advantage. Yes, mistakes were made, and some were outrageous. But, for the most part, our greatest presidents were true leaders.

Throughout his campaign, Trump ran on a nationalistic and xenophobic platform. He portrayed the country as a post-apocalyptic dystopia, its citizens hunkered down in their homes, awaiting their savior. His strategy was to divide and conquer, and to leave scorched earth everywhere his proposed policies were rejected. He attacked and mocked anyone who disagreed or opposed him. When things went wrong, he blamed everyone but himself, and when things went right, he strutted about and crowed about himself incessantly. He claimed to know more about everything than anyone, not because he had been educated on the subject, but simply because he has “a great intuition”. In fact, he refused to attend meetings where he would have been briefed on important matters because he did not feel he would learn anything. Furthermore, he has maintained a lifelong policy of never acknowledging or apologizing for a mistake. In summary, Trump revealed himself not to be a true leader, but a demagogue and an self-aggrandizing authoritarian.

Trump’s version of leadership is one characterized by intimidation and vindictiveness. Those who support him do so because they think they will benefit from his actions; the ends justifies the means. They are willing to look the other way as American ideals and traditions are trampled for what may be a few extra dollars in their pockets. He was inaugurated less than a month ago. He has claimed that he knows how to behave more presidentially, and would do so once in office, but he has yet to show any sign of changing or even thinking he needs to change. After paying lip service in his acceptance speech to the concepts of unity and leading the nation for all Americans and not just those who voted for him, he has proceeded to govern the way he campaigned, by denigrating and vilifying anyone who does not revere him. A man with these characteristics does not represent me. Trump may be my country’s president, but he is not my leader.

Let Them Eat Cake (As Long As It’s Not Part Of The Free Lunch Program)

Today the Senate confirmed the nomination of Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education. It required the vice-president to cast a tie-breaking vote. By doing so, Pence helped seat one of the most unqualified persons ever to fill the office. DeVos was born into a billionaire family. She married the scion of a billionaire family. DeVos attended private schools and has sent her children to private schools. She did not earn a degree in education, nor has she ever been a teacher. The only reason she was nominated was because of the millions of dollars she and her family have donated to the Republican party. Her advocacy for charter schools and vouchers stem from a desire to lower the price of private school tuition for other rich parents, because, quite frankly, a voucher won’t get families below the poverty line very far. The effect of the vouchers on the public school system will be to reduce the resources available to them, plundering the education available to poor families just so rich families can have more money to go on vacation.

I have strong feelings for public education. I am not blind to its shortfalls. Too often the brighter children are frustrated at the pace of learning, too often the slower kids are aged out of the system without getting the education they need to thrive as independent, productive adults. The current administration has demonized the public education system like they have demonized everything else they dislike. Their vision of public schools is like their vision of the inner cities: broken, violent, decaying infrastructures. It is true that there are some schools that fit this description, but the majority of schools provide good educations that are ladders to the middle class for many. Furthermore, a strong public school system lays the foundation for a cohesive and knowledgeable society.

I grew up in a minority neighborhood in Los Angeles. My parents immigrated to the United States with nothing, not even speaking English. My father held and worked three jobs simultaneously, as a delivery truck driver in the mornings, as a valet during the day, and as a dishwasher at night. He and my mother scrimped and saved, and they eventually opened their own small takeout restaurant. With five kids, however, we remained below the poverty line and qualified for free lunches through high school. Even with vouchers, there would have been no way that they could have afforded to send us to private schools. They knew, however, that education was the avenue to success in America, just as Horace Mann did in the mid-1800s. Today, with the help of the public school system and state and federal financial aid, my siblings and I are all college graduates, have advanced degrees, and are working professionals in the engineering and medical fields. Three of us have proudly served our country as naval officers. This is all within one generation. In 2013, the average cost of providing public education through high school was roughly $120,000 per student. This figure includes teachers’ salaries, maintenance of facilities, utility bills, purchases of computers and books for the schools, etc. While this number is not insignificant, consider the fact that, as a result of that investment, there are five more highly productive, responsible, self-sustaining citizens in the country who together pay hundreds of thousands in taxes EACH AND EVERY YEAR.

DeVos and her supporters wish to dismantle public education in favor of a pay-for-play system. They present it as giving “choice” to parents, but it is really a gift to the rich, to those who can already afford to send their children to private schools. The vouchers that would be provided won’t be for the amount that is currently being spent; it will be for a fraction of that. It would be enough to discount the cost of private school tuition, but not enough to do anything for those who do not have much in discretionary funds. In addition, DeVos has refused to state that she would hold private and charter schools to the same standards, so schools like Trump University can crop up everywhere to profit from the vouchers without meeting any meaningful requirements. In the DeVos scenario, caveat emptor—and if parents get taken in by slick, fast-talking shysters pretending to offer a solid education for their children, well, it’s just too bad, because it’s the parents’ fault for not being better educated consumers. The confirmation of DeVos is another example of an administration committed to installing highly unqualified supporter-donors in powerful positions; in other words, cronyism. In Trump’s world, the rich get richer and everyone else can chase after their crumbs. With Cabinet appointees like DeVos, we will get there swiftly.

The Dangers of Faulty Logic

It goes like this:

If someone is a jihadist terrorist, then he is Muslim.
So-and-so is Muslim.
Therefore, so-and-so is a jihadist terrorist.

The problem with this logic is that it is flawed. In philosophy, it is known as affirming the consequent, or an attempt to infer the reverse from the original statement. The deficiency here is the IF clause was never asserted as the only sufficient condition for the THEN clause to be true. While the IF clause may be true, there can also be other factors, unspecified in the original statement, that result in the THEN clause being true. To demonstrate how deeply flawed this type of thinking is, consider the following:

If something is a fish, then it can swim in water.
An otter can swim in water.
Therefore, an otter is a fish.

Faulty logic is lazy logic. It is the hallmark of a lazy intellect, a shallow thinker, and an incurious mind. It reduces complex concepts into simple sound bites. Feeding these to an audience hungry for a scapegoat only whets their appetite for more fallacies to continue justifying their worldview. Unfortunately, this is the type of “truth” that is the currency of the new administration, where all negative news regarding it is deemed “fake news” and they offer “alternative facts” instead. It is only a matter of time until a lot of people get hurt.

Welcome to 1984.

Who Is Protected By The Constitution?

Lawyers from the Justice Department have filed an appeal to lift the stop order on the executive order banning entry into the United States from those holding passports from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months, refugees in general for four months, and refugees from Syria indefinitely. The main argument is that “an alien seeking initial admission to the United States requests a privilege and has no constitutional rights regarding his application.” There are three questions:

1) Do legal residents who are citizens of the seven countries named in the ban have constitutional rights?

2) Do illegal aliens have constitutional rights?

3) Do refugees have constitutional rights?

The 14th Amendment states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” For legal residents, the amendment means that being denied re-entry if they were abroad when the executive order was signed is unconstitutional because the travel ban would deprive them of their property without due process of law. These are people who have created a life in the United States; it is where their homes and their livelihoods are. To prevent them from returning would render them homeless and possibly penniless. For illegal aliens, the amendment affords them, by virtue of their residence within the borders of the country, equal protection of the law, including constitutional rights. This is because the amendment states “any person within its jurisdiction”, not “citizens of the United States.”

For refugees, however, they are not citizens, legal residents, nor illegal aliens who are already living in the United States. So does the 14th Amendment, or any amendment in the Constitution for that matter, protect refugees from the executive order enacting the travel ban? Until a refugee has gotten past immigration at an airport or border crossing, they are not within the jurisdiction of the United States. It is actually the 1st Amendment that gives the refugees constitutional rights. The executive order suspended admission of all refugees but ordered the Secretary of Homeland Security “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” While the order does not explicitly ban Muslims, by naming Muslim-majority counties in the ban, then carving out preferential treatment for refugees who are a minority religion from those countries, the executive order established a preference of one or more religions over another. The 1st Amendment states, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” While the the executive order was not created by the Congress, nor does it establish a religion per se, the amendment has been interpreted to mean that it is unlawful to discriminate against any religion, which is what the travel ban did. Furthermore, immigration law states that “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence”.

In summary, a broad range of people are protected by the Constitution, including those who are not citizens or may not even be in the United States yet. That is the beauty and wisdom that was established as fundamental law during the development of our country. For a single man to try to wipe that away with a stroke of his pen is deeply disturbing.