Current Comment #13

A weekly recap of worthwhile political opinion and social commentary.

Vol 1, No 13 ……… December 12th, 2020

SCHEDULING NOTE ~ With this issue, Current Comment is taking a 3-week break for the year-end holidays. The next issue will be posted on January 2nd, 2021.

THE WEEK JUST PASSED ~ Three separate news stories this week gave us small, but significant, cause for guarded optimism. First, concerning the coronavirus pandemic, the Pfizer vaccine began shipping to all 50 states. Second, amidst the continuing uncertainty about the electoral college’s certification of the presidential election results, the Supreme Court – its three Trump appointees notwithstanding – rejected the Texas challenge to the election results in four crucial swing states. Third and last, the United Nations reminded us in its latest report that the global climate crisis is still very much with us, and suggested that we may actually be making some progress in dealing with it.

The two selections this week both reflect back upon recent history to paint contrasting portraits of Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama. Reading them one after the other may bring to mind the famous opening line of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Twelve words that perfectly capture the last twelve years of the American presidency.

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Selection #1 – New York Magazine political commentator Jonathan Chait takes a look back at an ominous but influential essay from Michael Anton of the conservative Claremont Institute, published in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, in which the author misappropriates the heroic choices made by the 9/11 victims on Flight 93 to make a fantastically delusional case for Republicans to choose to support Trump …

“Anton articulated the bedrock principle that has driven the right the last four years: The Democratic Party is so terrifying and all-powerful that literally any measures, however unwise, are justifiable to block them from winning an election. That is the power of Anton’s chosen analogy, which urges his audience to overlook all of Trump’s complete unfitness to handle the job (“You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane,” he concedes) on the grounds that the alternative means imminent national death. Consciously or not, Anton’s imagery seemed to lodge in the minds of the party elite. Again and again, officials tasked with preventing Trump’s erratic impulses from producing a disaster cast themselves in the position of emergency pilots. “I can land the plane,” promised Rod Rosenstein. “I’m landing the plane right now,” testified William Barr.”

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/michael-antons-flight-93-election-trump-coup.html?utm_source=tw

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Selection #2 – Author and retired New York Times lead book reviewer Michiko Kakutani interviews former president Barack Obama on the occasion of the publication of the first volume of his presidential memoirs, “A Promised Land” …

“Mr. Obama speaks slowly and thoughtfully but with the conversational ease that distinguishes his books, moving freely between the personal and the political, the anecdotal and the philosophical. Whether he’s talking about literature, recent political events or policies implemented by his administration, his observations, like his prose, are animated by an ability to connect social, cultural and historical dots, and a gift — honed during his years as a community organizer and professor of constitutional law — for lending complex ideas immediacy and context.”

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THE WEEKS AHEAD ~ Looking for progress on the coronavirus vaccine rollout and the ongoing Biden presidential transition, and hoping for an end at long last to the democracy-undermining tactics of Trump and his enablers seeking to overturn the results of the November election.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you all in the year ahead good health and growing harmony, in your personal lives and in the world at large. 

Take good care of yourselves and stay well … Tom 

REMINDER ~ Current Comment will return with issue #14 on January 2nd, 2021. Until then, you can keep up with the articles I’m reading by following me at https://twitter.com/LiberalBuddhist.

Current Comment #10

A weekly recap of worthwhile political opinion and social commentary.

Vol 1, No 10 ……… November 21st, 2020

THE WEEK JUST PASSED ~ Another week of President-elect Biden continuing to be patient and presidential, and of the (hopefully) outgoing President Trump continuing to act puerile and pitifully. The world’s leaders are increasingly more welcoming of Biden, while the occupant of the White House is increasingly isolated and unsuccessful in his attempts to undo the election results. The daily drama of waiting for Trump to concede while worrying about what dangerous actions he may yet unleash in his bid to retain power has exerted unprecedented stress upon the country. What is normally a time of calm in the wake of the election contest just ended, and of peaceful transition from the outgoing administration to the incoming one, is instead a time of intense agitation and heightened polarization. As regards America’s four-years-long national nightmare, sadly it’s not over yet.

The two selections that follow each explore the prospects ahead in the next four years – the first a realistic assessment of what we must expect, the second an inspirational picture of what we might hope for.

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Selection #1 – The New York Review of Books political commentator Michael Tomasky defines the limits of the Democrats’ electoral victory and outlines the challenges that await Joe Biden …

“The election demonstrated, more intensely than any other before, that Americans inhabit two different moral universes. In our personal lives, we may share broadly similar ideas about what constitutes right and wrong: how to raise children, how to be responsible friends and family members. But on political matters, we see two opposite realities.  The ‘Democratic brand’ is in trouble in vast stretches of the country. The party must determine why. Joe Biden will reset our struggling democracy in some important regards. He will shift away from Vladimir Putin and toward our traditional allies. He will not interfere in Justice Department investigations. He won’t fire his FBI director because the bureau is investigating him. These are not small matters. But what was needed in this election to turn back this dark tide was a much broader repudiation of Trumpism than the voters delivered.”

https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/12/17/election-2020-what-did-democrats-win/?utm_source=nybooks&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=email-share

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Selection #2 – This speaker needs no introduction, and his remarks require no excerpt. As we came to expect during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and as we have so sorely missed during the four years of Trump’s, here is a welcome display of presidential eloquence and erudition. Enjoy …

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THE WEEK AHEAD ~ A short news week looms before us as America prepares for its first – and hopefully last – Covid-19 Thanksgiving weekend. Wishing all of you a safe and happy holiday!

As always, take good care of yourselves and stay well … Tom

https://twitter.com/LiberalBuddhist

Current Comment #7

A weekly recap of worthwhile political opinion and social commentary.

Vol 1, No 7 ……… October 31st, 2020

Happy Halloween, everyone!

THE WEEK JUST PASSED ~ Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in the kind of reckless super-spreader event we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration, the Dalai Lama made a welcome appearance in New York’s Times Square on this George Floyd billboard, and the presidential race entered the final days of the campaign with the unmistakable contrast between Biden’s decency and Trump’s lack of the same on full display day after day (or, as PBS NewsHour commentator Mark Shields describes the difference, Biden campaigns as the “we” president, Trump as the “me” president).

The three articles selected this week inform us of a former president we could be proud of and moved by, a current attorney general we ought to be very cautious about, and a traditional Buddhist teaching that can support us in the uncertain times that lie ahead …

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Selection #1 – New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman reminds us of the time – not that long ago, although it seems like a decade or two – that we could be proud of, and moved by, the intelligence and the compassion of our president …

“Trump has so redefined decency down that we have forgotten what is normal, let alone optimal, in an American president. We have forgotten what it is like to have a truth-teller, a healer, in the White House, someone who starts his day with at least the inclination to unite the country and to project America at its best for the world — not someone who has lived every day in office aspiring to be president only of his base, while offering anyone at home or abroad looking to the United States for inspiration just one message: Show me the money.”

PS – Be sure to click on the link in this article to see the video clip of Meklit and the Kronos Quartet in their memorable performance of “The President Sang Amazing Grace”.

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Selection #2 – New York Review of Books columnist Fintan O’Toole profiles the current Attorney General, William Barr, and shows clearly how he is not at all the person that he purports to be …

“Because of his suave, courteous, even jovial demeanor and intellectual acumen, and his long record as a member of the pre-Trump Republican establishment, it seems superficially plausible to look to Barr as the one who might ultimately seek to restrain Trump and protect the basic institutional and constitutional order. All evidence—including ProPublica’s report on October 7 that the Department of Justice has now weakened its long-standing prohibition against interfering in elections by allowing federal investigators ‘to take public investigative steps before the polls close, even if those actions risk affecting the outcome of the election’—points in the opposite direction. The desire to believe in Barr as a potential savior of democracy goes deep. [Some of us] believed that Barr would use the independence of his office ‘to prevent us turning into a banana republic.’ But no one who has thought about Barr’s ideological formation, and in particular his views on the nature of authority, should be so naive.”

{Note – I was unable to embed the full article here … please click on “Attorney General, William Barr” above for a link to it.}

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Selection #3 – Buddhist teacher and social activist David Loy explains how the teaching “don’t-know mind” is a useful practice, never more so than as we prepare for the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming presidential election …

“We are now living through the most dangerous moment in human history – the climate crisis, threat of nuclear war, rising authoritarianism, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic breakdown, increasing social polarization, and the November election, in which many of those problems are at stake, perhaps including the very future of our democracy. Buddhist teachings have always emphasized impermanence, and this year certainly offers us plenty of examples to demonstrate that truth. The instability of the world that most of us nonetheless took for granted has become more apparent and the future seems more unpredictable than ever. We may not know what happens after we cast our ballot in what could be the most important election in US history, but there is good reason to believe we’re in for a wild ride.” 

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THE WEEK AHEAD … Tuesday, November 3rd, Election Day. Only a mere six words in that sentence, but they bear the fate and future of the country, and perhaps even the world. Here’s hoping that (1) we have an outcome by the end of the week; and (2) it’s an outcome that liberals, Buddhists, and all of humanity can take hope in.

If you’d like a head start reading the articles in next week’s edition, and you have a Twitter account, please follow @LiberalBuddhist.

In the meantime, take good care of yourselves and stay well … Tom

Current Comment #6

A weekly recap of worthwhile political opinion and social commentary.

Vol 1, No 6 ……… October 24th, 2020

OPENING NOTE – Presidential campaigning and coronavirus infection increases dominated the news again this past week, and both topics feature prominently in the pieces included below. In addition, there are two compelling essays on other matters – one examining social media’s questionable approach to moderating hate speech on their platforms, and the other taking a critical look at the questionable approach of certain Supreme Court justices (past, present, and soon to be appointed 😦 ) to interpreting the Constitution from an “originalist” standpoint.

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ITEM #1 – New Yorker contributor Andrew Marantz takes a close look at Facebook’s questionable approach to moderating hate speech and other explicitly dangerous content posted on its pages …

“In public, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, chairman, and C.E.O., often invokes the lofty ideals of free speech and pluralistic debate. But Zuckerberg’s actions make more sense when viewed as an outgrowth of his business model. The company’s incentive is to keep people on the platform—including strongmen and their most avid followers, whose incendiary rhetoric tends to generate a disproportionate amount of engagement. A former Facebook employee told me, ‘Nobody wants to look in the mirror and go, I make a lot of money by giving objectively dangerous people a huge megaphone.’ This is precisely what Facebook’s executives are doing, the former employee continued, ‘but they try to tell themselves a convoluted story about how it’s not actually what they’re doing.’ In retrospect, it seems that the company’s strategy has never been to manage the problem of dangerous content, but rather to manage the public’s perception of the problem.”

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ITEM #2 – New York Times contributing opinion writer Michael Tomasky argues convincingly that, in light of the current politicization of mask-wearing, it’s time for the Democrats to take back ownership of the word “freedom” …

“One of the key authors of the Western concept of freedom is John Stuart Mill. In ‘On Liberty,’ he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means ‘doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.’ Note the clause ‘as long as what we do does not harm them.’ Conservatives revere Mill. But today, in the age of the pandemic, Mill and other conservative heroes like John Locke would be aghast at the way the American right wing bandies about the word ‘freedom.’ Freedom emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s ‘freedom’ means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.”

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ITEM #3 – Legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky explains the fallacious reasoning behind the theory of “originalism” – espoused by Amy Coney Barrett – as the method for interpreting the Constitution, Uand warns of the dangers it poses to our democracy …

“Rights in the 21st century should not be determined by the understandings and views of centuries ago. This would lead to terrible results. Following originalism would mean that Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided in declaring laws requiring segregation of schools unconstitutional. In fact, under the original public meaning of the Constitution, it would be unconstitutional to elect a woman as president or vice president until the Constitution is amended. Article II refers to them with the pronoun “he,” and there is no doubt that original understanding was that only men could hold these offices. Moreover, it is a myth to think that even identifying an originalist understanding can solve most modern constitutional issues. Can original public meaning really provide useful insights about the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and whether the police can take DNA from a suspect to see if it matches evidence in unsolved crimes or obtain stored cellular phone location information without a warrant?”

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ITEM #4 – New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof details Trump’s “colossal failure of leadership” on the coronavirus pandemic …

“Trump says he deserves an A-plus for his ‘phenomenal job’ handling the coronavirus, but the judgment of history is likely to be far harsher. ‘It’s really sad to see the U.S. presidency fall from being the champion of global health to being the laughingstock of the world,’ said Devi Sridhar, an American who is a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh. ‘It was a tragedy of history that Donald Trump was president when this hit.’ Trump did almost everything wrong. He discouraged mask wearing. The administration never rolled out contact tracing, missed opportunities to isolate the infected and exposed, didn’t adequately protect nursing homes, issued advice that confused the issues more than clarified them, and handed responsibilities to states and localities that were unprepared to act.” 

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ITEM #5 – New York Magazine columnist Matt Stieb reports on former president Barack Obama’s speech at a campaign event for Joe Biden in Philadelphia earlier this week …

“’He hasn’t shown any interest in doing the work or helping anybody but himself and his friends,’ Obama said of Trump, before a rally of about 300 cars. ‘This is not a reality show. This is reality, and the rest of us have had to live with the consequences of him proving himself incapable of taking the job seriously. There are consequences to [Trump’s] actions. They embolden other people to be cruel & divisive & racist & it frays the fabric of our society. And it affects how our children see things…it affects how the world looks at America. That behavior matters. Character matters’”

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/10/obama-rips-into-trump-in-first-in-person-biden-2020-event.html?utm_source=tw

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CLOSING NOTES – Once again, a quick reminder that, if you have a Twitter account, you can get a head start reading the articles being selected for the next week’s edition of Current Comment by following @LiberalBuddhist.

Have a great week, everyone! Take care of yourselves, and stay well … Tom