A Frightening Move to the Right in the US and Elsewhere

Anyone who saw Donald Trump asking for a Hitler-like salute to accompany a vote pledge from his supporters, or watched an angry follower elbow-punch a protester in the face, should realize that if he were to take the White House, we would all be in deep trouble. Trump’s behavior, ideas and political rants are outrageous and alarming.

But make no mistake: we’d be in trouble if any Republican candidate were to win the election. Trump’s opponents espouse much of the same policy claptrap when pressed; they just use softer language and forego violently throwing protesters out of the room with the Stalinist vigor of the frontrunner. The party of the right has helped fuel the escalation in violence and vitriol we are experiencing. They’ve done nothing to put a lid on what’s happening and they continue to support Trump in the election. They have never disavowed his accusations about the President’s birthplace. They’ve refused to pass legislation the president proposes and they have never treated Mr. Obama with respect.

Even more worrying than the fascist machinations of the authoritarian Republican poll leader is the numbers of people flocking to his events cheering on his stereotypical scapegoating.  The hate inherent in Trump supporters is a scary reminder that a lot of Americans stand on shaky ground.

We are not alone in the fact that about half our population is dangerously right wing.

Recently Spain’s conservative government strengthened laws originally aimed at controlling separatists. The laws resulted in the arrest of puppeteers who used a political play on words at a Carnival show and the prosecution of a musician and a poet whose work suggested criticism of the government, all in the name of fighting terrorism. Maximum prison sentences for such infractions have been increased and a new “gag law” penalizes unauthorized public demonstrations.

Even before the Paris attacks in November last year France reinforced a similar gag law to punishes statements deemed to be inciting terrorism. Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, French authorities have moved to enforce the law and have been accused of rushing to convict people who may have spoken provocatively outside the realm of terrorism.

Other European nations, both east and west, have also enacting broad and troubling laws, some aimed at maintaining a leader’s control, others at limiting political speech as fears of Islamic extremism rise. Germany, for example, is showing serious signs of moving right in view of the Merkel government’s welcoming of refugees.

In Turkey, the Erdogan government recently seized the largest circulation newspaper in the country which had been critical of his leadership. Within 48 hours it was publishing pro-Erdogan propaganda. In shutting down the press police acted after a court in Istanbul placed the paper under the administration of selected Trustees without explanation. The editor of the paper was fired and Turkish sources reported that the paper’s online archive was being eradicated. This action is just the latest move by the authoritarian Erdogan, who has imprisoned critics, jailed journalists, and gone back to war with the Kurds. Oh, and it’s now illegal to insult Mr. Erdogan. Nearly 2,000 cases for that crime were filed over the last year and a half.

The New York Times, in reporting events in Turkey, noted that “it is unsettling that the US and Europe have responded so meekly to Mr. Erdogan’s trampling of a free press.” It’s also unsettling that EU countries are not willing to bear any responsibility for trapped refugees. The challenges of resettlement are huge, of course, but part of the reason no country wants to help the teaming masses is an almost hysterical fear of terrorism, which seems to have trumped (no pun intended) human rights and compassion.

In Poland, the ultra-conservative government has cleared the way for hard line legal changes, including a likely total ban on abortion and further curbs on gender and human rights. Their constitutional tribunal, the country’s highest legislative court, is losing its independence thanks to the Law and Justice Party’s win last year – a Party aligned with hostility toward migrants.

Meanwhile, Israel continues its trek right. A Pew Research Center report issued in March found that almost half of all Israeli Jews want to see the transfer or expulsion of the country’s Palestinian population. For the past decade or more racist ideas have gained power in Israel, scholars point out, powered by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and other fundamentalists. This attitude has led to attacks on Palestinians as well as women and gay activists, some of which have resulted in barely punished homicides. And still the illegal building of settlements continues, basically assuring that a two-state solution can never prevail.

As we grapple with our current political landscape as well as the debate over First Amendment rights vs. national security spawned by Apple’s refusal to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone, we need to be mindful of the full picture, and the real threats, surrounding civil rights here and elsewhere. Never has it been truer that “no man [or country] is an island.” The shift right in so many countries, possibly including ours, is perhaps the most important issue we will be forced to grapple with in coming days. Let’s not think, as many Germans did, “It could never happen here.”  It could. And it well might if we are not both vigilant and smart.  



What's Missing in Dialogues About Poverty?

When six Republicans met in South Carolina recently to discuss combating poverty their focus was predictable. Marco Rubio talked about broken families, dangerous neighborhoods, substandard housing, failing schools, and drug dealers, all while rejecting the idea of raising the federal minimum wage. He argued that welfare should be turned over to states, especially those that have recipient work requirements.

Jeb Bush, who agrees with Rubio on states taking over welfare, blathered about giving Americans the “right to rise.” Ben Carson said that “some people hate rats, some hate roaches, I hated poverty.” And Chris Christie warned against drug addiction as the gateway to incarceration.

Rubio invoked his parents, a bartender and a maid, to extol rising above poverty. But they had jobs which presumably they could get to without too much hassle, steady incomes, and, it would seem, someone to watch the kids.  Bush’s comments smacked of not wanting the problem in his neighborhood, and Carson seemed to equate poor people with vermin.

It reminded me of Paul Ryan and the accolades he received when he said he “could not, and would not, give up [his] family time” to serve as House Majority Leader. But does he hold to that ideal for people who spend hours waiting for several buses to get to two or three minimum wage jobs, worried that there is no “angel in the house” to take care of the kids, and no decent day care? Does he realize, as Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a recent New York Times op ed., that there are more than four times as many American families run by single moms as by single dads, and that a third more households are headed by women on welfare than those run by men?

The fact is the competing Republicans don’t get the reality of poverty. They’ve never lived it and they don’t like it. The only emotion it seems to raise in them is pity. God knows it’s never empathy. Nor do they get the interconnections between major federal issues in need of urgent attention and poverty alleviation.  Shove punitive, top-down, us/them welfare problems back to the states is their mantra. They don’t want to see it and they don’t want to deal with it, because dealing with it means addressing really big issues, and then funding them.

Transportation infrastructure is one example. None of the naysayers has ever had to get to work without a car (and often a driver). How willing would they be to rise in the wee hours of the morning to catch several buses in any kind of weather? How many of them have ridden sophisticated transportation systems in other countries, where wait times are almost nil and connections are well planned so that people who really work for a living can be moved about by the millions with relatively little hassle?


How many of the Horatio Alger guys have had to worry about quality, affordable, accessible daycare? Hey People on the Hill: Poor folk don’t have nannies!  They don’t have stay at home spouses. They don’t even have enough food to feed their kids half the time and some of you want to cut food stamps?

Speaking of nutrition, it’s a big part of staying healthy so you can work. So is affordable, accessible, quality healthcare.  It might be worth factoring that into the equation for ending poverty while you’re trying to gut Obamacare or avoid universal health care.

I wish Republicans who talk in clichés would understand important connections like these.

Judith Shulevitz raised an interesting approach in her Times piece. She pointed out that a number of countries are contemplating a “universal basic income” or U.B.I. A proposal in Finland, for example, would experiment with giving every adult 800 Euros (about $870) a month. Switzerland and Canada are among other countries calling for similar experimentation.

The rationale is that it’s a way to reimburse people who lead productive lives, like mothers and other caregivers who don’t receive money for what they contribute to society.  (About thirty years ago a social scientist figured out that if women were remunerated for all they do their worth would be something like $40,000 annually. Imagine what that is in today’s economy!) The U.B.I. also reflects “a necessary condition for a just society,” as Shulevitz puts it. It’s seen as a general entitlement in this framework. It’s also been called “a floor below which nobody need fall.”  

Basic income proposals like this one from both right and left are not new but they are complex. It’s something to think about while good folks genuinely strategize around ending poverty in our rich country. Of course, the Republicans who flap their cake holes about poverty would never consider such an idea.

The thing is, maybe it can help move them toward more rationale, responsible thinking about poverty alleviation. At least they might not dump it all on the states as nothing more than a local problem loaded with society’s detritus.


Overcoming the Politics of fear


Sometimes when I am contemplating a commentary events conspire to help me reflect more deeply on the subject at hand. Such was the case when, after Donald Trump’s outrageous suggestion that Muslims in America should be registered and no more Muslims should be allowed to enter the country, I began to write about the politics of fear. 

I first recalled what Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans during World War II: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the president said. He was cautioning a frightened population against fear-induced paralysis. It was an especially important message given that considered, decisive action and not passivity was urgently needed to defeat evildoers like Hitler. Perhaps he was also warning us not to cower in the face of demagogues and not to yield to unacceptable language that serves to fuel heinous deeds. Quite possibly he was also cautioning against becoming inured to a kind of evil that can invade our collective psyche so that seemingly innocuous words like “normal,” “necessary “and “needed”  begin to justify a nation’s dangerous, destructive, shameful behavior.

While I was thinking about this I happened to be reading an extraordinary novel by the Russian-born writer Paul Goldberg. The Yid is about Stalinism, anti-Semitism, racism and more in 1950s Russia and it struck me as incredibly relevant. Goldberg’s protagonist, for example, compares political purges to epidemics that “start out with a small, concentrated population, then expand their reach nationally, even globally.” Epidemics of infectious diseases, he says, “can reach a peak” before inevitably receding. He concludes that Fascism is an infectious disease and Stalinism is a plague. Neither can survive, but in their long brutality many people suffer and die.

I can’t be the only one to read this book and think of Donald Trump’s vicious talk and insidious proposals when it comes to Muslims or immigrants and refugees.

Goldberg’s character was right to say that epidemics – even political ones - can become global. The growth of France’s right wing party or for that matter the far right voters in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere demonstrate that. Never has there been a more urgent time to ask ourselves, as Goldberg does, “What are we dealing with? Is this outburst of ignorance and hatred akin to systemic disease? What if you could find a way to intervene and neutralize it?”

Then something else happened as I was tossing all of this around in my mind.  I attended an amazing non-denominational religious service in which a gifted minister spoke about fear and what it can do to us. Without ever mentioning refugees, immigrants, Republicans, or Muslims, and using only Good Samaritan stories to make his point, this good, compassionate, intelligent man hit the nail on the head. 

Fear, he said, leads to hate and hate leads to demonizing people who may be different than we are. We need to see past those differences. We must be global citizens and good neighbors. We must recall and reclaim our national shame in remembering what America did to Native Americans, to Japanese Americans during the war, to the Jews we turned away when they were desperate to escape Nazi atrocities, to the multitudes of Black Americans who died hanging from trees or attacked by dogs when they fought for civil rights, to HIV/AIDS or Ebola victims – all because we saw these human beings as “they,” The Other, the Outsider, the threat that fueled our fear. We need also to reclaim our own Good Samaritan stories if we are to survive, the minister reminded us. We must reject the fearmongering of Biblical literalists who often forget that to be human is to behave humanely.

So, no more polemicists like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson who preach fear and hatred from their pulpits.  No more demonizing of others by right-wing zealots in Congress or elsewhere. No more Trump travesties or political poison born of bigotry. No more foul-mouthed, unfounded accusations. No more letting fear dominate our decisions and behavior. No more fear defining our national character so that other nations no longer want to engage with us.

The time for proclaiming with our voices and our vote that we are not going to do it anymore is now. The time is here to say clearly that we reject fear as our future. Instead, let us see past challenging times in order to survive as a unified, dignified nation. Let us be a country whole and healthy. Let the fearmongers slink away and find their own place in the world, but let it not be ours.