Beginning the New Year, Eyes Wide Open

“People are slow to recognize events taking place around them. They have other priorities, events happen invisibly, changes are incremental, people keep recalibrating.”

That quote, from an article in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine, appears in the introduction to a story of a young Jewish girl’s diary written during WWII and only recently discovered.  Her name was Renia Spiegel and she was murdered by Nazis when she was 18.

The quote jumped out at me because as 2018 was coming to a close I found myself increasingly concerned about the precipice we seem to be facing as American democracy steals ever closer to dangerous and perhaps irrevocable decline. The rapidity with which we are descending into unprecedented political depravity was alarming in itself, but so too was the fact that so many people didn’t appear to understand what was happening, or didn’t seem to care.

One can perhaps understand the lack of gravity among people too young to remember the terror of 1930s Europe or our own crisis of the 1960s and the Nixonian blight, but how, I wondered, could the worries of the present, and the warnings from those who witnessed WWII through the lens of global aggression, hatred, prejudice, and violence not be taken more seriously?

We are not, of course, the only country flirting with or openly embracing fascism. Almost all of Europe is now threatened with reprisal of a time, and a scourge, we thought impossible to repeat when the war ended. Many other regions of the world from South America to the Philippines are also facing threats, or the reality, of dictatorship. It’s a situation we all need to be aware of and to resist mightily. After all, to where does one flee when the majority of nations have succumbed?

But our country has other trouble signs that don’t exist elsewhere and they need attention and action too.

We are virtually the only “developed” nation in the world that has chosen to ignore the visible, verifiable science of climate change.

We are a country unable to enact gun laws that could keep our children from being murdered.

We are a country in which white men, like outrageous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, or crime partner Michael Cohen, can negotiate their way out of appropriate jail time despite serious crimes they’ve committed, while black men caught with a bit of marijuana in their possession a decade or two ago languish in jail, and women like Cyntoia Brown, a victim of sex abuse and trafficking who killed her 43-year old abuser when she was 16, gets a life sentence with a 50-year wait for possibility of parole. 

We are a country that lets people die for lack of access to massively expensive healthcare, a country that stands by as our sacred lands and national parks are drilled, fracked, and mined, our water is polluted, and our kids can’t get a decent meal in school, which for many is their only solid meal a day.

We are a country in which decent people seeking safety and the dignity of work are torn from their children and an agency like ICE can detain and deport them at will while holding their kids hostage in cages and desert jails.

We are a country (although not the only one) where hate crimes and violent rhetoric and behavior have escalated dramatically in the last year, and where anyone perceived as Other is fair game for such crime and violence.

And we are a country where legislators try their damnedest to forbid women control over their bodies and agency over their lives.

It’s enough to take anyone’s breathe away and it makes it really hard to “go high,” as Michele Obama would say, because there seems to be no end to how low people who have no business in government are willing to go.

For two years I clung to the idea that surely, this event or that would be the one to end the dysfunction, cruelty, corruption, lying and various abuses we were experiencing and witnessing. I’ve tried to offer optimism and hope to people as their (and my own) angst has grown. And as 2018 faded, there were signs that we might see an end to the travesties engulfing us. The courts were holding, journalists were doing extraordinary investigative research while media was finding its voice when feet needed to be held to fire, and Robert Mueller was closing in. And that big blue, female wave in Congress and down-ballot was, I believe, a foreshadowing of the change that is possible, and I think inevitable – so long as we maintain vigilant and vocal.

All of that is encouraging. But there is still a tsunami coming toward us and the clock is ticking. The moment when it will be too late to hide or run get to higher ground is nearly upon us. So, while we cling to hope and optimism, we must never allow ourselves to let other priorities prevail or to miss noticing, or rejecting, incremental or invisible changes lurking below the radar. Perhaps most important of all, we must never, ever recalibrate our way into complacency, and thus ultimate collusion.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

Is America Up to Its Newest Challenge?

We’ve been through a lot for a country with a relatively short history.  Starting with the American revolution against the British, we’ve faced many challenges that could have broken us. There was the Civil War, which cost us more American lives than any other, World War I, World War II, the 1929 stock market crash, the Dust Bowl era and various economic crises, the Vietnam War, political assassinations in the 60s and the 1970 Kent State massacre, race riots that could have divided the country again, the terrorist attack on 9-11, and more.

But what we face now is alarming in unprecedented ways. There have been bad presidents before and governments rife with corruption as well as administrations that lacked skill, compassion, and ethics. In those times, as David Kaiser wrote in TIME Magazine in 2016 after the presidential election, we overcame threats because of “the nation’s ability to come together and embark upon a great enterprise to solve a critical problem.” In the face of our current crisis, we seem unable to muster the spirit of compromise, cohesion, good judgment, and sound governance, not to mention moral compasses.  

As Kaiser wrote in TIME, “Americans are entitled to hope that the new crisis will not end with hostile armies marching through our territory and fighting battles.” He had yet to envision that cyber warfare would eliminate the need for marching troops, nor could he imagine just how disastrous a Trump presidency would be.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Sen. Orrin Hatch is quoted. “This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes, but it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.” He was talking about President Clinton in 1999. The senator’s hypocrisy is stunning, and extremely dangerous at a time when the Republican opposition cannot own – and reverse – its behavior, even when our country is faced with monumental threats.

The Times editorial addresses the “growing possibility” that Mr. Trump might attempt to end the ongoing investigation into his campaign, his administration, and his possible obstruction of justice if not overt collusion with the Russians. Should such a moment come, The Times said, we will “suddenly find [ourselves] on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in [our] hands.”

If Mr. Trump succeeds in his attempts to shut down the ongoing investigations, he will have destroyed the very foundation of American democracy and rule of law, already fragile by nature because it relies upon tradition, good sense, and strong motivation for the greater good. He will, most awfully, have set himself above the law and effectively become a dictator. 

Should that terrifying scenario come to pass, it will be up to Congress to uphold our laws, maintain the separation of powers established by our founders, and keep intact the constitutional framework that has kept us a government, “of the people, for the people, and by the people” for over 200 years. There will be no time for continuing polarization in the Capital or the public square, no room for vitriol and partisanship, no benefit in clinging to harmful ideologies and hateful rhetoric. We will all be on the sinking ship together, and none of us will be singing to the end.

Everyone paying attention now acknowledges the fact that our democracy is truly threatened. We admit to feeling terrified by what could happen. We openly use the word “fascism,” so long danced around. We talk with a façade of levity about leaving if it gets much worse. We see Facebook posts of what Hitler and Goebbels said and we shudder before sharing. We learn about protesters being arrested, and the Sinclair broadcasting syndicate scripting pro-Trump messages for their many stations.

We join hashtag discussions about police brutality, racial injustice, ICE roundups, anti-Semitic and Muslim hate crimes, pro-natalist positions, abuses in education, the environment, and the interior by functionaries like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and Ryan Zinke. We bemoan the fact that the new Secretary of Health and Human Services is a former senior vice president for corporate affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. who served as president of Lilly USA LLC.  We worry about how the State Department can operate without a Secretary or a full staff of seasoned diplomats in a world on the brink of disaster in various parts of the world. 

We stress over the lack of access to safe and effective healthcare, none moreso than women in need of reproductive healthcare. We worry about shrinking consumer protections, reduced regulations that keep our water and air clean, and who will be seated next in our federal and Supreme courts. We fret about voter registration being tampered with, and innocent immigrant children being shipped to countries they’ve never known, and we wonder how long it will take to correct the problems created by this administration if and when we finally elect sane legislators.

But most of all, what we worry about is this:  Will politicians finally put America and its people above any consideration of personal power or benefit, and will they, at long last, have the decency and moral courage to stop the travesties of a Trump administration before it is too late?

In short, can we, together, meet America’s greatest challenge ever, and can we come back again?

 

Beware the Growing Demise of Democracy Globally

With each passing day, a question rises to the top of my troubled thoughts: Why don’t more people seem to get it? Why don’t they sound concerned about what pundits dub the death of our experiment with democracy? Why can’t they grasp that autocracies are rapidly flourishing?  Why doesn’t that scare us into greater vigilance, and more sensible votes?

Democracy becomes threatened in many ways. While violent power grabs are increasingly rare, the number of elected officials subverting the very processes that led them to power – a global phenomenon - is alarming.

In most cases, plutocracy, or oligarchy, means governments ruled by the rich for personal gain. As analysts have noted, with the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allowed unlimited amounts of money to flow to politicians, “the wealthy are getting the democracy they pay for” in America.

In order for autocrats to hold onto power, voting rights are threatened or removed. Recent examples in the U.S. are the purging of voter registration rolls in Republican controlled states, and restrictions that make it harder for Blacks and Latinos to vote. At the same time, the media is positioned as an “enemy of the state,” not to be trusted with information, and facts, they share.

Another threat to democracy exists when voters are apathetic and take the rights they enjoy for granted. We have notoriously low voter turnout rates, although this year that may change. But when people feel they can’t do anything that will make a difference, they stop paying attention, and don’t go to the polls.

Carol Anderson, a history professor at Emory University, sounded this alarm recently. “Bringing an independent judiciary and investigative branch under the domination of the executive is one of the first moves of regimes that do not respect the rule of law.” She cites Pinochet’s Chile, Nazi Germany, and Putin’s Russia as examples. “The rationale is simple,” she says. “Besides the military, the judiciary and law enforcements branches are the most powerful in a state. Control and politicization of that wing allows rulers to criminalize opponents … when in fact they are really defenders of a more viable, democratic nation.”

It’s not just what’s happening in America because of the Trump administration.  Examples of threats to democracy around the world are frightening, and they matter. Civilization is once again threatened by regimes that quickly, effectively, and surreptitiously bring down democracy. As a collective movement, those regimes are again creating the resurgence of totalitarianism, with unimaginable results because nations of the world no longer live isolated from each other, politically, socially, or economically. 

Here are examples of what is happening elsewhere. In July, people in Poland marched to protest “the impending death of democracy” under the Law and Justice Party. Parliament had passed a bill giving the government the power to remove all Supreme Court judges through forced retirement. The president also announced he would sign a bill making it illegal to discuss Poland’s role in the Holocaust. (There were good Poles who resisted, but Poland also committed atrocities; denying them is denying historical fact.)

In Hungary, the right-wing party won sweeping political power in its national elections. Under Viktor Orban, the political climate is one of “a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party culture,” as Patrick Kingley put it in The New York Times. Orhan has instituted financial penalties for groups that help migrants, changed the electoral system, assaulted the country’s Constitution, curbed the media along with the country’s checks and balances, made homelessness a crime, and diverted huge sums of money to his loyalists. He is now influencing other Central and Eastern European countries like Romania.

In Egypt and Turkey, things are not going well either. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pushed his most serious opponents out of scheduled elections. Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy says the country is “caught between an American-style Sisi and an Egyptian-style Putin.” Yet Sisi enjoys the support of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Rex Tillerson.

Meanwhile, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, is dismantling democracy in his country and turning it into an autocracy divided by ethnic and religious factors. In the name of “stability,” Erdogan has concentrated power in his office. As of next year, he can appoint the cabinet and a number of vice-presidents without parliamentary approval, and he can select or remove senior civil servants at will.  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, must be turning in his grave.

The problem of dissolving democracies doesn’t stop in Europe or the Middle East. Latin America has had its destructive experiences and so have African countries. In Kenya, people are worried that their democracy is disappearing. Television stations have been shut down by the government, opposition politicians are under arrest and journalists have been threated with jail under President Kenyatta.

The rise of authoritarianism is real, dangerous, and on our doorstep. Nationalism, polarization and tribalism are being used to centralize power, destroy institutions of democracy, and lay the groundwork for re-writing rules that have been the foundation of democracy.

The question is, will we allow enemies of freedom to kill the democratic safety nets we have come to take for granted, or will we resist mightily at the ballot box and beyond?

 

Stay Awake, America! We're Heading for the Abyss

Right after the election of Donald Trump, I was anxious in a cerebral way.  I experienced a level of anxiety, disbelief and grave concern that can be energizing and I jumped into the resistance movement full steam ahead, full of adrenalin produced by stress.

Now I find myself in a state of deep, visceral anxiety. I am truly afraid – of lots of things. Anti-Semitism and white supremacists. A Muslim ban and immigration policy that have barely begun to reveal their terrible consequences.  The threat of being too late to save the planet from the effects of climate change and global warming. The threat of nuclear war. The idea of millions of people dying for lack of health care. The demise of public education and necessary regulation. The disasters waiting to happen if we don’t fix our failing roads, rails, bridges, tunnels and airports.

But even worse than that, I’m afraid because I can see truth dying in this country and because I think the freedoms we take for granted will be next. I’m afraid because conspiracy theories designed to destroy our trust in the institutions that have existed to keep us “free and the brave” are giving way to an alternative reality. I’m afraid because we are rapidly descending into a state of nationalism in which a few madmen will kill our system of checks and balances, ignore our justice system, attempt mind control by denying media legitimacy as they spew lies that people begin to believe because they are repeated so often.

Think that’s going too far?  Why, then, have agencies been rapidly dismantled, their senior staff fired, so that no institutional memory or proven expertise prevails? Why have government agencies been silenced? Why has critical information been removed from agency websites? Why are Alt-Right media being credentialed while mainstream reporters are denigrated and denied access? Why are so many clearly corrupt, unqualified people now in charge?

When all these egregious, undemocratic actions began occurring, we cautioned against “normalizing” what was happening. Now we are beginning to hear a new word: “Destabilization.”  That’s a serious word, one that we can no longer ignore or make nervous jokes about.  Our collective fear is not subliminal now; it has grown into overt, overwhelming anxiety because we are staring at the real possibility of witnessing the demise of democracy in the face of rising fascism. 

The idea that our future is in the hands of a few deranged demagogues is nothing short of terrifying.  Our president is not the leader of the free world; he is the emperor with no clothes and he is madly marching toward the abyss, dragging us behind him.

So, my question is: Why are we so powerless to stop him and his cronies? How do we move beyond hand-wringing and bearing witness before it’s too late? (And there comes a time when it is too late.) We are, of course, up against a Congress largely devoid of compassion and intellect, but we must bring enough pressure to bear on our legislators that we deny the encroaching evil. It falls to us, concerned constituents, to ensure such evil does not prevail. It falls to us to see that America does not die for lack of goodness.

As Rabbi Hillel once asked, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

Every day social media and mainstream news reveal more Russian collusion, more heinous decisions emanating from the West Wing asylum, more lies, more Draconian travesties from Donald Trump’s henchmen. They simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Nor can the Mar a Lago madman in the attic. We cannot think that reason will ultimately rid us of his scourge . Reason alone will not stem the tidal wave of his hate or rid us of his putrid swamp, full of predators snapping at our feet.

We have heard already the language of “purges” and women as “hosts,” both terms reeking of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We’ve seen good people, like TSA agents, airline personnel and border patrol, do bad things. We’ve seen bad people do bad things, like deface synagogues, burn down mosques, march in favor of killing people or forcing them to abandon the country of their birth.

We can’t wait for a dramatic disaster to understand that the time has come to reclaim our country and to take back its values. We can’t allow ourselves to be sucked into the irreversible vortex of Bannon’s nationalism or Putin’s agenda or Trump’s narcissism.

And so I ask again, as Rabbi Hillel did: If not now, when? If not us, who? And if not now, and not us, will we be forced, sooner than we think, to ask how it happened?