Monday, September 18, 2017

Rot in our Body Politic and Cycles of Rejuvenation

Jack Balkin @University of Indiana
Maurer School of Law

Jack Balkin delivered a lecture at the Maurer School of Law at the University of Indiana on September 13, 2017. It's worth a listen.  Balkin discusses our "recent unpleasantness," that is the political ennui and dysfunction of our time. What we are living through is not novel, he says. It is part of a cycle. We are living in a troubled moment, and not unlike the Gilded Age, this moment too will pass--within five years he promises. Let's hang on to that thought! 

Our politics has been dominated by periods of stability overseen by a major party, followed by decay and rot. He identifies six such periods: 
  1. The Revolutionary regime, dominated by the founders: ~1776-1800
  2. The Jeffersonian (small government, rural republic) regime: ~1800-1824
  3. The Jacksonian (pro-slavery) regime: ~1824-1860
  4. The Republican reconstructionist regime: ~1860-1932
  5. The New Deal civil rights regime: ~1932-1979
  6. The Reagan (smaller government, less regulation, less taxation,  culture war) regime: 1980-present. 
These regimes were all undermined by increased polarization and constitutional crisis (the Civil War) or rot (all the others).

The civil war was a moment of constitutional crisis, but what we have today is constitutional rot, not crisis, says Balkin. The Reagan regime has lost its mojo, and we are awaiting a new regime to  assert itself. During the Reagan regime our system has become less democratic, more oligarchic, less devoted to the public good, more corrupt. We are looking at you, Newt Gingrich! There's something rotten in the body politic, but we are not in crisis, says Balkin. Our past political cycles provide hope that we can (and will) renew ourselves once more.  

Our present constitutional rot has been brought on by a breakdown in the parties, the failure of campaign finance reforms, the info-tainment of mass media, and the poison of talk radio. Yes, we are looking at you Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity! We are left more susceptible to propaganda from within and without, says Balkin. 

Polarization is a symptom of constitutional rot. It undermines trust in government, trust in our fellow citizens.  Cynicism grows. Today we have more oligarchy, less accountability, greater economic inequality than we had in the 70's. Greater inequality results in more cynicism, polarization, and lack of trust in institutions; it's a vicious cycle. 

Left unchecked, oligarchy, polarization, and unaccountability result in economic policy disasters: the Iraq war, and the financial deregulation that led to the 2008 financial crisis are just two examples.  Oligarchy and electoral unaccountability also leads to risk shifting, e.g. the shift from defined benefit pensions (risk borne by employers) to 401K plans (risk borne by employees). This leads to further inequality, polarization, disillusionment--rot; it's a vicious cycle.

But our present rot, too, will be cut out of the body politic, suggests Balkin.  We will rejuvenate ourselves before we are faced with an  actual constitutional crisis yet, he suggests hopefully.  

That's the gist. . . .  Listen to the talk, it's 50 minutes well spent.  [Balkin's comments start at 2:50] 

Here is the original link to Balkanization, always a site worth checking in on. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CBP's Racial Profiling of Akram Shibly

Akram Shibly, filmmaker/2016 festival photo
Akram Shibly is an independent filmmaker. He lives in upstate New York, is a native of New York,  and a U.S. citizen. He is Muslim, looks Middle Eastern, and has recently traveled to Jordan in order to make a documentary film about Syrian refugees living in the Za'tari Refugee Camp, the worlds most densely populated refugee camp. His short, sensitive film, Waiting at the Door, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 SUNYwide Filmfestival.

Looking Arab, being Muslim, and traveling to Jordan to make a documentary film are not crimes. Looking Arab, being Muslim, and traveling to Jordan to make a documentary film does not give license to the police, or the Customs and Border Protection Agency, or the Department of Homeland Security to discriminate, much less to assault. As the ACLU puts it: "Racial profiling is patently illegal, violating the U.S. Constitution’s core promises of equal protection under the law to all and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures."

Despite the fact that racial profiling is illegal, police forces abuse the rights of minorities by racially profiling on a daily basis. Often it comes with plausible deniability. How do you prove it? Here's what racial profiling looks like at the border in a clear case:
While returning from filming in Canada in January 2017, Customs and Border Protection agents detained [Akram Shibly] for nearly two hours and demanded his social media identifiers and the password to his phone. When he objected to turning over the password, a CBP officer asked if he had something to hide. Because he had no meaningful choice, he complied. His phone was taken out of his sight for an hour. CBP officers refused to tell him what they did with the phone.
A few days later, while returning from a day trip to Canada, Mr. Shibly was again detained and told to hand over his phone. When he refused, three agents responded with force. One agent grabbed his neck and began to choke him while another held his arms and legs. The third agent reached into his pants’ pocket and took the phone. Mr. Shibly describes feeling severe pain and fearing for his life. At no point did he physically resist
Bloomberg reports that under the Trump administration, such searches have increased nearly four-fold. In 2015 CBP conducted 8,500 searches of electronic devices of visitors and returning travelers. This year, there have been 15,000 such searches for the first six months alone.

Such searches only affect a very small percentage of U.S. travelers, wrote the Department of Homeland Security's acting general counsel in March. Right, those people who look like Shibly.  DHS and CBP appear to be thoroughly unclear on the concept of "racial profiling is illegal."

Today the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit on behalf of Shibly and others. “I joined this lawsuit so other people don’t have to have to go through what happened to me,” said Shibly to Bloomberg. “Border agents should not be able to coerce people into providing access to their phones, physically or otherwise.”

Amen. Keep up the good work, and good luck with the suit Mr. Shibly.

The Bloomberg article is HERE.   I have previously written about the issue of the Customs and Border Protection Service asking to search your cell phone without any articulable suspicion that a crime is being committed HERE and HERE.

The suit filed today is Alasaad v. Duke, 1:17-cv-11730, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Mikheil Saakashvili, post Soviet Political Troubadour

Mikheil Saakashvili returns to Ukraine, September 10, 2017
Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Mikheil Saakashvili is a troubadour politician of post-Soviet Republics. He was born in Tbilisi, in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, on December 21, 1967 to a physician father and a historian mother.  The cold war was in full swing. The notion that the Soviets might yet tip third world states to communism, like so many dominoes, had a grip on politicians and military leaders in the West. The U.S. had nearly 500,000 troops in Vietnam to ward off the menace [three times the highest troop level in Iraq], and the Soviets were training 5,000 North Vietnamese combat pilots.

By the time Saakashvili attended high school in Georgia nobody still believed that communism was destiny, or that the Soviet Union might overtake the West. By the time Saakashvili attended Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev, Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing Glasnost--an effort to open up Soviet Society, make it more responsive to the people, and less corrupt. At KNU Saakashvili studied international relations and was friends with Petro Poroshenko--Ukraine's current president. He discharged his military obligation with the Soviet border guards at the international airport just outside Kiev in 1989-1990. It was a moment of great change and of great optimism for the young: on November 9, 1989 the Berlin wall was toppled, on December 22, 1990 Lech Wales was elected president of Poland, and on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Both Georgia and Ukraine became independent republics. As Saakashvili's story illustrates, their fates remain linked.

Saakashvili headed off to New York City. There he attended Columbia law school, earning an LL.M in 1994, and worked briefly in a Manhattan law firm. But opportunity beckoned. He was asked to enter Georgian politics by associates of Edouard Shevardnadze.  [Shevardnadze had been the de facto leader of Georgia from 1972 to 1985, and then served as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era: from 1985 to 1991. Following dissolution of the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze served as president of Georgia 1991- 2003]

With the aid of Shevardnadze's party, Saakashvili was elected to the Georgian Parliament in December 1995 and quickly gained power and stature. He was appointed chairman of the parliamentary committee tasked with creating a new electoral system, an independent judiciary, and a non-political police force. In January 2000 he was appointed vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and at the end of that year Shevardnadze appointed him minister of justice.

"Saakashvili took up the battle against corruption," said Kelli Hash-Gonzalez. He focused on passing laws to confiscate unlawfully acquired property. He accused some members of parliament of having used public funds to build luxurious houses for their personal use. He looked for ways to reduce the bueareaucracy he was working in. It brought him popularity.  He was soon the second most popular man in Georgian politics according to one opinion poll, behind only Shevardnadze. In 1997 he was named "man of the year" by a panel of Georgian journalists and human rights advocates. His work, undoubtedly, also brought him enemies.

A week before 9/11 (2001), Saakashvili resigned from the government, decrying that corruption had penetrated to the core of the Georgian government. "Current developments will turn Georgia into a criminal enclave," he prophesied. In October 2001 he founded his own center-right party, the United National Movement. "A touch of nationalism," says Wikipedia; it's in the air everywhere.  In June 2002 Saakashvili was elected chairman of the Tblisi City Assembly, and from that perch he led his new party into parliamentary elections in November 2003.

The Georgian elections of 2003 were denounced as rigged by international observers, with Saakashvili's United Nationalists left out in the cold. This resulted in massive street protests and the resignation of Shevardnadze in a popular coup, dubbed the Rose Revolution, by the Georgian press--the first of the "color revolutions" that subsequently swept through the near East and North Africa. The success of Saakashvili's Rose Revolution was "the first indication that people of some post-Soviet republics were willing to struggle toward the hopeful prospect of Western liberal democracy rather than retreat into strongman models," said Louis Navarro.  Fourteen years on, hope is muted.

Saakashvili won a re-do of the presidential election in Georgia in 2004 with 96% of the vote (?!). He and his government launched "feverish" efforts to stamp out corruption, crack down on crime, overthrow a regional potentate, implement agricultural land use reforms, and to challenge traditional culture, says Navarro.  By all reports they enjoyed some success.

When you wade into the mud to wrestle pigs, you get dirty. There was talk of a cover up of a banker's murder, and the take-over of the nationally broadcast opposition television station. Thousands claimed loss of property through eminent domain, while a few profited handsomely from this use of state power.

During Saakashvili's nine year term, Georgia fostered close relations with the Bush administration.  There was talk of joining NATO. The Russians did not like it.  Georgia also sought to subdue separatist movements in two restive provinces: South Ossetia in the north, and Abkhazia in the northwest along the Black Sea. This resulted in a one week war between Georgia and Russia in 2008. After the war, Russia, joined by Venezuela, Nicaragua, and a few Pacific Island states, formally recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent counties. For most of the world, these areas remain technically part of Georgia.

Georgia with Abkhazia in green, South Ossetia in purple/Wiki
Losing territory is not a popular political move. At the same time, the rural countryside in Georgia felt left out of Saakhasvili's reforms. The dynamic sounds similar to the tensions built up between Democratic party technocrats in Washington DC--e.g. Hillary Clinton--and the rust belt of the Northeast. Saakhashvili and his party went into election on October 1, 2012 expecting to win, but they were unexpectedly upended by a populist billionaire. He does not have orange hair. Olena Tregub put it this way in the Kyiv Post after the election:
Village and countryside clearly fell out of the orbit of Saakashvili’s reformist agenda and the lives of people who rutinely came to expect a support from the state, had not improved. Instead they feel a considerable administrative burden and control, combined with attempts of intimidation by local officals. They also complain that Saakashvili’s government spent more time and money doing “fancy things” – external PR, attracting foreign visitors and investors, trying to impress with glass bridges and palaces, a daily“reality show” about the president on state-controlled television – than trying to solve the everyday problems of the needy population. 
Why did all these people vote for Ivanishvili? 
The answer is simple. He is the richest Georgian in the world, worth more than $5 billion. So there is a chance – the thinking goes- he will share his wealth with the people and will build churches, playgrounds, libraries and hospitals for them. He is unlikely to steal from people, since he is already that rich and his populist promises are just too hard to resist.
Now that has a familiar ring.

Saakashvili promptly relinquished power. It marked the first peaceful electoral transition for the state. An achievement. But this being the post-Soviet world, politics get murky. Saakashvili fled the country for the U.S. for fear of being prosecuted by the new government for alleged political abuses. Most of his key governing compatriots—former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, former Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava—did in fact go to prison after Saakashvili fled.

Off to Ukraine

In February 2015, Saakhashvili was asked by his school friend, Petro Poroshenko, now president of Ukraine, to head an advisory council on reforms. In May, Poroshenko appointed Saakhasvili as governor of the notoriously corrupt Odessa Oblast region. He was granted Ukranian citizenship. It did not last long. Less than a year later, last November (2016), Saakhashvili resigned his governorship of Odessa and in a news conference he accused President Poroshenko of personally supporting "corruption clans in the Odessa region" and that the "Odessa region is being handed over not only to corrupt people, but also to enemies of Ukraine." 

Odessa Oblast, Ukraine
Saakashvili (still in his prime at 50 years old) has ambitions for a repeat performance of what he accomplished in Georgia. On 11 November 2016 he announced he would create a new political party called "Movement of New Forces" with a view to compete in parliamentary elections "to be carried out as quickly as possible." In  February 2017 Ukraine's Ministry of Justice registered the Movement of New Forces as a political party, and (apparently in response) Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship on July 26, 2017 while Saakashvili was out of the country. This left Saakashvili a man without a country. Georgia, in the meantime, had revoked his Georgian citizenship. 

Politics is fluid in these former Soviet Republics. Territorial wars in Georgia, territorial wars in Ukraine, citizenships granted and revoked for political reasons, corruption, political opposition pushed aside through imprisonment, talk of political murders: these states remain very much a work in progress. Citizenships are fluid, there are shared pasts.

So it was rather dramatic when Saakashvili occupied the Polish/Ukrainian border a couple of days ago and pushed his way through a police cordon with the assistance of supporters, including past president, and presidential aspirant Yulia Tymoshenko

Ukrainian police restraining supporters of Saakashvili
at Polish border with Ukraine, September 10, 2017/AFP
What are we to make of this man? Louis Navarro's judgment is harsh: "The once-visionary revolutionary appears to see no greater good to be served, except his own ambition and pursuit for the roar of whatever crowd will listen," he says. Perhaps. Or perhaps this itinerant troubadour politician of former Soviet Republics remains dedicated to help bring these post-Soviet states into the modern world as best he can, and he's not ready to stop fighting. 

We may not yet have heard the last of him. Both Georgia and Ukraine could do worse. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Our American Road Trip, Reprised

I blogged about our American Roadtrip in the links referenced below. For context and for our future memory aid, and for anyone who has been following along, here is the route of our trip.

The first Segment took us from San Francisco to the Black Hills of South Dakota. I wrote about this in Out Inspecting Some of our Properties,  in Nevada to Idaho and the Snake River Plain, in Up the Continental Divide and Into Wyoming, and, From the Coal Town of Gilette to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The maps below are interactive.

Here are some pictures from this segment of our trip.

The second segment of the trip took us from the Black Hills to Midland, South Dakota:

The highlight of the Black Hills was Mt. Rushmore.  Here is my blog on Mt. Rushmore and Our Common Inheritance. 


The next segment takes us from Midland, South Dakota to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, through The Farm States of South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

The next segment saw us visiting friends in Highland Park and Oak Park, and Evanston:

From Green Bay we headed up to the North Woods, and down to Petosky, MI.  I wrote about our trip Into the North Woods

Next we visited our friends in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, which featured a drive-in Jazz concert in Baldwin.

From Idelwild to Lebanon, Indiana:

Lebanon, Indiana to Herod, Illinois:

From the edge of the Shawnees we followed the path of the eclipse:

From the eclipse in Higginsville we headed off to Buena Vista, in the Rockies.  I wrote about Sailing Down the Roads of America and the End of our Road Trip , somewhat prematurely.

Bobbi wowed by the eclipse

From Buena Vista, Colorado, to Battle Mountain, a mining center in Nevada:

And after one last campground in the Sierra's we are back home:

10,182 miles in all . . . (if I counted this right).

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Fate of DACA . . .



Our economy depends on immigrant labor. In fact, today, thirteen percent of the population (~43 million) are immigrants. And it is the job of Congress to write the laws, and to keep up with changing conditions to assure we have enough immigration, and to regulate and normalize the immigrant population. To that end, Congress last tackled immigration reform and tried to normalize the immigrant population in 1986.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 allowed all undocumented workers who had been living continuously in the United States since January 1, 1982 to apply for a residency permit. "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," said Ronald Reagan in 1984. Indeed, that has been our policy for three hundred years, even if you wouldn’t know it from listening to Trump and Jeff Sessions. The 1986 legislation substantially cleared the backlog of undocumented workers. A host of 4.8 million undocumented workers in 1987 was reduced to 2.2 million in 1988.

But it wasn’t enough. And Congress failed to properly account for future needs. In the three decades that have passed since Congress last tackled immigration reform, our economy has more than doubled in size, from $8 trillion to $17 trillion. Congress has not allowed for sufficient legal immigration to keep up with the need. As a result, major parts of our economy employs undocumented immigrants: 26% of farm workers are undocumented; 15% of construction workers are undocumented; 9% of workers in manufacturing, food processing, and textile industries are undocumented; 6% of workers in the transportation industry are undocumented. 

The idea of extirpating this undocumented workforce root and branch is fanciful. It’s not going to happen. When Congress fails to adjust immigration laws to keep pace with the needs of the economy the rolls of the undocumented increase, and our representatives in Congress should look nowhere else but in a mirror. 

The Question that Confronts Us

The political question is how are we going to get the immigration laws back in line with reality? Are we going to do it by being cruel and ungrateful (which is the evident approach of Trump, Sessions, and ICE), or are we going to do it with respect, appreciation, and thanks for the contribution the undocumented have made to our society?

The approximately 11 million undocumented among us are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of our society: more than half have been in the country for more than a decade; a third of them own houses; a third have American born (i.e. citizen) children; between 1996 and 2003 they paid $90 billion into Social Security and Medicare.  If we kick them out, not only are we being monsters, we are effectively stealing their money.

The Roots of DACA

Through its inaction, Congress has presented the executive branch with a problem. Under the U.S. Constitution, the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Art. II, Section 3. The president, and the executive departments more generally, have a duty to enforce the law as written—even if the law is out of step with reality, as in the case of our immigration laws. But when Congress allows the rolls of the undocumented to balloon to more than 11 million through its inaction, the executive branch is confronted with a huge enforcement problem.

The president has a limited number of resources at his disposal to enforce the laws, and when we have 11 million undocumented immigrants, the government is not able to deal with them all. The president must prioritize; he or she must exercise discretion.

In 2012 the Obama administration, faced with a backlog of 11 million undocumented immigrants, stepped into the breach and announced it would not enforce immigration laws with respect to undocumented workers who came here as children (DACA), provided they were law abiding and going to school. DACA was a formal program based on a memorandum issued by the Director of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and was modeled on the DREAM act (discussed but never enacted by Congress).

The Napolitano Memo

The Obama administration, in a memorandum written by Janet Napolitano, announced it would exercise prosecutorial discretion to not enforce the nation's immigration laws “against certain young people who were brought to this country as children and know only this country as home…. These individuals lacked the intent to violate the law,” she said, “and our ongoing review of pending removal cases is already offering administrative closure to many of them.” The goal, she said, was to ensure “that our enforcement resources are not expended on these low priority cases but are instead appropriately focused on people who meet our enforcement priorities.”

In order to be eligible for DACA deferment, an undocumented immigrant had to prove that they arrived in the U.S. before they were 16 years of age, that they are under 30 years of age, that they have been continuously living in the U.S. for the last five years, are in school or have graduated high school, and are not a threat to public safety. Estimates are that approximately 800,000 young people were eligible for the program.  

DACA, of course, did not go to the heart of the problem. It affects just seven percent of the undocumented population, the most sympathetic group: those brought to this country as children, under 30 years of age, and in school, or graduated from school, or having served in the military.

Prosecutorial discretion to implement DACA was appropriate, suggested Napolitano, because our immigration laws are not “designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language,” and because many of these young people have “already contributed to our country in significant ways.”

“This memorandum,” she concluded, “confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights. It remains for the executive branch, however, to set forth policy for the exercise of discretion within the framework of the existing law. I have done so here.”

Reaction to the Napolitano Memo

Commentators on the right attacked the Obama action, arguing that DACA amounted to improper legislation. And, indeed, although Napolitano said that DACA “confers no substantive right,” this seems like a stretch: granting a piece of paper that says we will not prosecute you for two years, and we will give you a work permit in the meantime, does rather seem like a substantive right.

“There is a world of difference in refusing to enforce laws that violate the Constitution ... and refusing to enforce laws because of disagreements over policy,” argued John Yoo in National Review in 2012.  Under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, continues the argument, the president has the duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” This provision was included to make sure that the president could not simply choose, as the British King had, to cancel legislation simply because he disagreed with it. President Obama cannot refuse to carry out a congressional statute simply because he thinks it advances the wrong policy. To do so violates the very core of his constitutional duties.

Trump's Reversal

In his announcement that the Trump administration would “end DACA,” Jeff Sessions put it this way: “the executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions.” He claimed that some states were “threatening” to challenge DACA in court, and that it was his judgment that these arguments would prevail.

We might point out that these arguments apply equally to Trump’s efforts to sabotage existing laws from the Affordable Care Act, to environmental laws, to financial laws regulating banks. Even if Sessions lacks intellectual integrity, we cannot do so without acknowledging that these arguments also have some force with respect to Obama’s action with respect to DACA.

Legal Challenges to DACA's Termination

We may get to see how the courts deal with the DACA policy, the reach of prosecutorial discretion in this context, and how they will view Trump's abrupt reversal of the DACA policy without input from the public. The University of California, headed by Janet Napolitano, has filed suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The suit alleges that the beneficiaries of DACA “are Americans” and that the abrupt cancellation of DACA (1) violates substantive and procedural provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act; and (2) violates the due process rights of these “Americans” under the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

A significant factor for the court to consider will be the fact that DACA recipients have stepped out of the shadow, relying on the program, and that they have taken concrete steps to alter their position based on the promises made by DACA. Does this tie the hands of the new administration in how it exercises its discretion? We’ll find out.

A similar action is pending in the Eastern District of New York (Batalla Vidal et. al. v. Baran et al.) . . .

Stay tuned. And follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Saturday, September 2, 2017

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall” . . . , says Richard Spencer; and “Smash that mirror!” say Jane Eisner and Jonathan Greenblatt.

America is based on the idea that we are all created equal. We hold this truth to be self-evident, says our Declaration of Independence. And over the years we have tried to put our money where our mouth is. We come together in the body politic as individuals, even as we also identify with different sub-groupings—racial, sexual, cultural, religious, place of origin, professional. We are not equal in fact, of course. We elect politicians and lobby as groups, and some groups are stronger than others.  But whether success or screw-up, Americans feel strongly that, all things being equal, everyone should have the same shot at success. When it comes to race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, alienage, and gender, our courts will not tolerate making distinctions between groups or individuals absent some compelling or heightened state interest. And “We prefer this group” or “we don’t like that group” doesn’t cut it.

That’s not what Richard Spencer and his white nationalist movement believe. It's not what Steve Bannon believes. It may not be what Trump believes. “We . . . stand against the dispossession of America’s historic majority,” (i.e. whites), says Spencer in an advertisement for the National Policy Institute.  At a rally celebrating Trump’s victory last November he gave a Nazi salute and shouted: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.” Spencer prefers Americans of white northern European Christian ancestry, and he thinks our politicians and courts should too. Spencer thinks that in the culture wars, the state should side with white European, Christian culture. He (correctly?) understands Trump’s campaign slogan of “make America great again” as “make America white again.” It’s a profoundly un-American idea.

Because Spencer knows he is advancing a profoundly un-American idea, he hunts around for models of respectability to associate with. And as he looks around, he sees that Zionism is respectable in our circles of power. So he threw Zionism in the face of a rabbi at Texas A&M University who challenged him last December: “The Jewish people are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion,” he said. “Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate; it’s because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.” The rabbi was flummoxed.

After the protests in Charlottesville, Spencer doubled down in an interview with Israeli television: “You could say that I am a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland that is for us and ourselves, just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”

Spencer is aided in his analogy by what Israel has become, even as it stays respectable. He is aided by the fact that Israel has occupied the West Bank for 50 years, all the while denying citizenship and access to civil courts to 2.7 million Palestinians living there. Spencer is aided in his analogy by the fact that Israel maintains the Gaza strip as an open-air prison. Spencer is aided in his analogy when Prime Minister Netanyahu says that the West Bank is “the inheritance of our forefathers, this is our country. … We came back here to stay forever. There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the Land of Israel.” He is aided in his analogy when Israel’s minister of justice repudiates universal human rights, saying: “Zionism should not continue, and I say here, it will not continue to bow down to the system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way that divorces them from the history of the Knesset and the history of legislation that we all know." Spencer is aided in his analogy when Israel is ready, once more, to entertain a nation state bill that will explicitly favor Jewish culture over the democratic nature of the state. These are all things Richard Spencer and his movement would like to see in the United States. And who is to say that Spencer is wrong in cozying up into the glow of Zionism when Netanyahu receives 25 standing ovations in Congress every time he appears there, and the world tolerates this state of affairs in Israel and deems it respectable.

Spencer’s association with Zionism, of course, does not make his ideas any more respectable in American eyes. It does run the risk of making Zionism less respectable in American eyes. As Naomi Dann from Jewish Voice for Peace pointed out in a gently worded article in The Forward (8/17/17), Spencer’s comparison of white supremacy to Israel is discomfiting because Richard Spencer “is holding a mirror up to Zionism and the reflection isn’t pretty.”

The reaction to Dann’s article in Zionist circles was as swift, as it was predictable. The instinct of the Jewish establishment is to smash this mirror rather than to gaze upon it, lest Zionism turn to a pillar of salt like Lot's wife. Instead of squirming in the presence of this strange and unwelcome bedfellow (Spencer), Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, launches an ad hominem attack on Dann. “Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) staffer Naomi Dann” was “riding the waves of extremism and hate” he begins. He continues by attributing improper motives to her. Her purpose is to demonize the Jewish state of Israel; she is a “Jew hater,” he suggests. And he concludes by exhorting that we ignore the image in the mirror. “Richard Spencer and JVP … mischaracterize, distort and blaspheme Zionism and do so to further their own perverted political agenda,” says Greenblatt. “[W]e must have zero tolerance for those who seek to divide and vilify the principles which we hold dear which include living proudly and securely as Jews in America and defending the legitimacy of the Jewish State of Israel. There will always be those on both extremes who seek to attack or undermine those core principles. As proud American pro-Israel Jews, we must continue fighting those hateful voices.” 

But what if Spencer's mirror shows that the principles we hold dear as Americans are at odds with Zionism as lived. . ., that Zionism as lived is more in line with what Richard Spencer stands for?

Jane Eisner piles on in the same vein. The analogy Spencer is making is “offensive” she says, and it’s “even more distressing” when Naomi Dann gives a “supportive rendering” of the analogy. “When a Jew even hints at comparing Israel to Nazis,” says Eisner, “it must be denounced.” Smash that mirror, never mind the truth it might speak.

But pointing to Nazi flags in the streets of Charlottesville is a distraction. Spencer is not comparing Israel to Nazi Germany: he is making a cool reasoned argument for preferring white European, Christian culture in this country that (he claims) white European Christians have founded. He is making a case for a very un-American idea, and that very un-American idea is, in fact, expressed by Netanyahu and Ayelet Shaked, and many others, in Israel.

Greenblatt asserts Spencer is motivated by hate. Eisner agrees: “Like the anti-Semitism at its core," she says, "this ugly syllogism will not die, resurging at times of anxiety and anger, and fueled by a willful disregard for what Zionism and Nazism actually represent.” And, of course, anti-Semitism will not die. It has expressed itself in the Charlottesville march (“Jews will not replace us”) and elsewhere since Trump’s election, but when Spencer holds up Zionism as a positive model for what he wants for white America, he is not expressing anti-Semitic ideas, and he is not being disingenuous. Spencer's challenge to our American values is real and he will continue to point to Israel as long as we continue to tolerate those ideas within Zionism.

“The version of Nazism that Spencer espouses,” continues Eisner, “even if it’s dressed up as a kind of perverted affirmative action for white people, is by its nature exclusionary and racist.” But why is that different from "Zionism dressed up as a kind of perverted affirmative action for Jews?" The loss of white European Christian culture in America is real. After all, white Christians inter-marry too. The country is much more secular and multi-cultural than it used to be. Whites are slated to become a minority by some projections by mid-century. White Christians can get nervous about this without being “propelled by grievance and hate,” as Eisner claims. Just like Zionists don’t have to be driven by grievance and hate. Spencer “views ethno-nationalism as a zero-sum game," says Eisner, "where one group’s power automatically diminishes another group’s status.” And Spencer would agree with this—but so would Netanyahu and Shaked, and that’s his point.

“The American ideal has always aspired to the . . . notion of nationalism that expands to include rather than restricts to reject,” says Eisner. And this is true. But it’s not Spencer’s view, and it’s not Netanyahu’s and Shaked’s view. So when we look at Netanahu's and Shaked's Zionism, Eisner is wrong when she claims “Zionism, too, is an expansive aspiration, asserting that Jews, like all other peoples on earth, deserve the right to govern themselves in their ancestral homeland.” Spencer would agree with “ancestral homeland;” but he views America as the ancestral homeland of White Christians who landed at Plymouth Rock. That involves considerable fiction, but it’s an idea at least as coherent as Israel being the ancestral homeland of 21st century Jews of the world.

Eisner concludes with an appeal to “Truth.” “For a Jew to compare Israeli policy that she finds offensive to Richard Spencer’s ideology is more than troubling. It’s also not true," she says. "And truth is too precious a commodity these days to ever be squandered.” 

A search for truth requires introspection and self-reflection. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’se the fairest of them all?” The mirror may lie, but smashing the mirror before it answers does not advance the search for truth.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sailing down the roads of America: the end of our road trip

Leaving the Manistee National Forest in our wake, we navigated through islands of civilization in Lower Michigan: Saginaw, Flint, Ann Arbor, and Detroit on our port side; Muskegon, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo to starboard; Lansing and Jackson menacing shoals ahead of us. We found a channel down the middle and settled in Custer State Park, near Battle Creek.

Traveling with a small camping trailer is a lot like gunkholing in a sailboat. You wake up in the morning, cook some hash browns and eggs, do the dishes, get organized, and pull the metaphorical anchor. You travel down lonely country roads. It’s an advantage that we don’t have to worry about headwinds, but we nevertheless tack left and right to avoid the interstates with their wide pavement and trucks. By mid-afternoon we look for a safe anchorage: in this case, this means quiet, near a lake or stream with shade. Potable water and a shower facility are a bonus.

Like good anchorages in sailing, secure and desirable campgrounds are scarce. Travelers congregate in the best spots. Once settled in, we relax and look around at who is nearby. We don’t have to worry about dragging anchors, the relative position of boats, or changing wind and tides, but the layout of a campground matters. We try to stay away from generators, away from loud and partying sorts. And we find boom-boxes and loudmouths are rare. The forest, the streams, lakes, and our self-sufficiency serve as equalizing agents. We are subject to the whims of the same weather, and the same bugs. We wind up speaking with fellow travelers from a common place. We have conversations with people from very different walks of life, without pre-judgment; we are all peers.

At Custer we were next to a family who comes regularly. They use the park as their trusty nearby anchorage. They invited us to share their camp-fire. Mother was a teacher, about to begin another school year. Father works as a splicer for a cable company. Their grown up son was along to share a weekend, and to do some bike-riding with dad; he works in a plastics factory nearby. “We make all sorts of parts: for cars, computers, and machinery,” he said. The next morning we shoved off early, towards Indiana.

Indiana (total state pop. 6.6 million) is like the spoke of a square wheel with Indianapolis (metro pop. 2 million) as its hub. The industrial center around Gary (metro pop. of 700,000), South Bend (metro pop. 320,000), Fort Wayne (metro pop. 410,000), the Louisville, Kentucky suburbs, Evansville, and Terra Haute define its rim. An inner circle of Kokomo, Muncie/Anderson, Columbus, Bloomington and Lafayette are like rim reflectors on a kid’s bike. We stayed away from all those places (except for Bloomington) and navigated through beautiful, tabletop flat fields of corn, accented by stands of trees and well kept farmsteads. We set up camp at Salamonie Reservoir and played tunes to the delight of nearby campers and a 20 years young park ranger. “I’ve worked here three season and never heard a fiddle before,” he said. He is studying law enforcement at a local college. Someone offered him a beer. “No thank you. I’m only twenty, and I’m studying law-enforcement,” he said. Indiana is building integrity from the ground up, while DC burns, and Trump fiddles. I took it as a sign of hope.

The park ranger steered us to McCormick state park outside Bloomington for our next night. There we walked up a limestone canyon and frolicked in the creek and waterfall. A mixed-race college couple joined us, with a beautiful young husky. She was Indiana white, he dark complexioned from India. “What are you studying?” I asked. “Coding for analyzing big data,” he said. He is on the seven-year plan. The young couple looks like a good investment for parental support.

Bloomington is a university town: 40,000 college kids and some ancillary services around the edges (total population 85,000). There are good coffee shops near campus. The place was full of nervous energy from returning students, moving vans, and parents eating a farewell and good luck meal in restaurants. A leggy young woman in tight jeans, classy, loose fitting sweater, and subtle, skilled use of make-up, walked up to the counter to order coffee. “Don’t touch” said her look, a little cold. Forty years ago I would have found her intimidating. Now, the insecurity shines through. There’s a big difference between—what the hell am I going to do next year when I graduate—and sitting in the cat-bird’s seat at the end of a successful career. Age has its perks.

We kept heading south, through the gentle rounded hills of Southern Indiana, crossed the Ohio River at Evansville to dip into Kentucky, and turned west towards Southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest. Southern Illinois, bounded by the Ohio River on the south, and the Mississippi River on the west is full of verdant rolling hills and beautiful forests.

Mississippi River marks western boundary of Illinois,
the Ohio river marks the southern  boundary

After a stretch of staying in state parks (cost $22-$28/night) I was looking forward to a night of dispersed camping in the national forest. Instead we found ourselves at the Double M Shawnee Campground. It is owned and operated by Amy and Heath, who offer a bar, restaurant, a charming porch, and cater to horsemen and horsewomen who come to ride the ample trails of the Shawnees. “I bought a hundred acres with my dad when I was seventeen years old,” said Heath. “We built it up together, and I bought him out back in 2000.” We played some tunes on the porch and Heath bought us a beer. “You guys need to stay,” they said. “We’ll have music every night.”

Amy and Heath have a son in the army, working as an airplane mechanic. He is being deployed to Afghanistan next month. They expressed pride and happiness at the adventure that lay ahead for their son. In the meantime, they were expecting a full house for the eclipse. Two days before the event there was no sign of it. “Everybody says we’ll be swamped. . .,” they said. Although the Double M was on the path of totality, they weren’t quite sure. “Have you got your viewing goggles?” we asked. It had not occurred to them. “I might take a peak, but I’m not really planning to watch,” said Heath. “We could live here,” we said. And we meant it. They have internet access. One of our baseline requirements.

Finally heading west, we passed through Carbondale, the geographic center of the eclipse—the place where totality lasted 2 minutes 40 seconds, longer than anywhere else. In the Garden of the Gods we ran into a couple from North London. “Have you heard, Bannon is out,” we said. We were excited, reading the news bulletin. “Ah, you have Trump; we have Brexit! We were strong remainers,” they commiserated. They booked a house in Carbondale for the eclipse a year ago. They flew to Chicago and rode the train down.

We crossed the Mississippi at Chester, the only crossing between Cape Giradeau and the outskirts of St. Louis. E. C. Seger (1894-1938), the creator of Popeye, was from Chester. No one is agitating to tear down the six foot statue of Popeye at the east entrance to the Mississippi bridge. The bridge was built in 1941, and like the Tacoma Narrows bridge of the same era, it collapsed soon thereafter in a storm and had to be rebuilt.
Safe and sound: Popeye statue, Chester, IL/Nikles
“You should stop by St. Genevieve. It’s a town that dates back to the mid-18th century,” said a fellow traveler from Boston. And we did. We visited the Louis Bolduc house, built in 1792, and we stopped in at the St. Genevieve Herald, a venerable local newspaper dating to 1882. Mary Pryor invited us in. She had just moved from Oklahoma to take a job at the Herald. “Don’t worry about going to Oklahoma,” she said. She seemed happy to have landed in St. Genevieve. We also spoke to Mark Evans, a columnist at the Herald who has also written a book describing 95 of St. Genevieve’s historic houses (“The Commandant’s Last Ride” 2001). The town was strangely quiet at 5:00 p.m., for a tourist destination two days before a total eclipse. High school kids training for cross-country were running through town. “While the general consensus seemed to be ‘prepare for something’,” said Mary Pryor in her article about “Counting Down to the Eclipse with Music, “no one really knew if they were preparing for a few dozen people, a few thousand, or something in the middle.” And it’s true, the whole eclipse fever we found everywhere along the path of totality from Southern Illinois to northwest Missouri had a certain Y2K quality about it. We didn’t sample any of the ample restaurants in St. Genevieve, but this looks like a place worth returning to.

Jour de Fete in St. Genevieve, MO, at the Jacob Phillipson House
The eclipse found us in Higginsville, just east of Kansas City. The sky clouded up all morning and by 11:00 a.m. it was covered with black storm clouds. Miraculously, at noon, it cleared and we witnessed the unobstructed eclipse with awe and wonder. “It’s like the dilated eye of God,” said Don Shearn. Sharon Rosenzweig captured it in her spirals series. “The mechanism predicts and explains the eclipse,” she said, “but it looks like the tip of the hat from that which we don’t understand.” I think that captures the emotion perfectly.

A Beautiful Coincidence, Sharon Rosenzweig
HERE is Sharon speaking about her spirals process; you can follow her work HERE.

We headed north and crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph, west bound, briefly tied down in post-eclipse traffic. But not for long. We crossed the broad, northern expanse of Kansas on the lonely Pony Express Highway. The Pony Express relayed letters from St. Joseph to Sacramento on horses at full gallop from April 3, 1860 to October 1861, soon replaced by the telegraph (1861) and the first transcontinental railroad (1869). The pony express could deliver a letter from St. Joseph to Sacramento in 10 days, a vast improvement from the 110 days it took for news of the death of President William Henry Harrison to reach Los Angeles. [Harrison died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841, just 41 days into his term] “Flat enough for you?” quipped my sister-in-law in a text. But northern Kansas is no more flat than the Pacific mid-way between Santa Barbara and Hilo. The ground moves, like the ocean swell. When sailing I always felt “if purgatory is sitting at the helm of a sailboat in the trade winds forever,” I’m O.K. with that. Driving through the plains of Kansas evokes that feeling.

Route of the Pony Express, 1860-61
We stopped for breakfast at a cafĂ© on the outskirts of Marysville. At 9:00 a.m. the place was filled with gossiping weathered old farmers, waited on by a young pregnant woman. Fox News blared softly in the background. Talk was filled with politics, friendly banter, and gossip. By our third re-fill of coffee a second young woman was pouring. “I thought you had to be pregnant to work here?” said one to general good natured amusement. These men wear their leathered skin like a badge. “How large are their farms?” we ask a neighbor at the next table. “About 1,500 acres is the norm,” he said. “I used to be the police chief. My daughter is now the prosecuting attorney in town,” he elaborated. “But I also have 250 acres of farmland. My son-in-law is operating it now with his spread,” he said. And I imagine that most of these men have sons and daughters working the land. They are resting on well-deserved laurels, gossiping along with Fox News in the coffee shop.

At Washington, Kansas, we turned south and stayed in a lovely City Park in Cheyenne-Wells, Colorado. We had the place to ourselves.

The eastern plains of Colorado, no buffalo/Nikles

Eastern Colorado is like sailing across the primordial prairie. Only the delicate balance between the buffalo and nomadic Indian bands is absent. And suddenly, there they were majestically rising in front of us out of the prairie: the Rocky Mountains. Colorado Springs. . . . We had 1,400 miles to travel, but we felt like we were home.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles