Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Trump's Base

Over the last couple of years, it's become common to hear policy discussions about the Trump Administration, which typically include the word base. Speakers will use the phrase "Trump's base" or "he's playing to his base" or similar remarks, which are clearly intended to suggest that the President's actions are deliberately (or cynically) designed to please those who support him, or to fulfill promises or implied obligations he may have made or suggested when he campaigned for office. 

Though this use of the word "base" doesn't sound new, its use in connection with a President--this President--seems fairly novel. I've listened to political discussions and political talk shows for 40 years, and I couldn't recall any previous President referred to in this way. "Trump's base." Can anyone recall "Reagan's base" or "Clinton's base" or "Obama's base"? 

What exactly do they mean when they say a President's "base"? 

Presidents are elected by the people, through the persuasions of expressed policy or attitude, and in large measure the elections are about political parties. But parties are only one way of defining the differences among the electorate. Inside or outside parties, people can be grouped or segregated according to interest, background, age, social class, wealth, etc. People who vote for a candidate may be said to comprise a society of supporters, those whose interest in and support for that candidate transcends the momentary act of voting, those few minutes during which one actually casts a ballot. 

There are many reasons that people choose to vote for one candidate over another, but it seems safe to say that they do so with the expectation that their choice is likely to fulfill the promises--stated or implied--by the words of the candidate during the campaign. 

In a democratic society, the will of the people is assumed to be represented by its elected officials, though of course that will may be thwarted in various ways. Candidates may lie about their positions of intentions. Minority lawmakers may find it impossible to get anything done against the tide of the voting majority. The influence of money or lobbying may work against the actual sentiment of the public. 

What is new, it seems to me, is the way that opponents of our current President tend to demonize those who voted for him, or who attend his "rallies" or "vote" in polls--by referring to them as "his base." 

In what way, perchance, is Trump's "base" different in kind or type, to Obama's "base" or Bush's "base" or any President's base of support?

By continually referring to Trump's base, it seems that commentators or critics are trying to suggest that there's an illegitimacy to Trump's support, a sort of stubborn ignorance to it, a reliably naive or counter-intuitive obsession, to which the President feels obligated to turn whenever he's on the spot or cornered--a retreat to a defensible position, from which he can rely upon his army of obedient supporters.

But how is the support that Trump may claim, different in kind or intensity, either unique or new? 

All this mention of "base" it seems to me is an attempt to de-legitimize those in the electorate who voted for, or continue to support him. It's an attempt to make those constituents into grotesques or benighted fools, unfit for the democratic responsibility of self-governance.

Who would be dumb enough to vote for Trump? Dumb enough to support his policies? 

46% of Americans who voted in the 2016 election, or almost 63 million people, voted for Trump. That's what they mean when they refer to Trump's base. Of course, there are varying degrees of support, which may change and shift over time. Perhaps the "base" they're referring to is his most rabid, most stubborn supporters, those who will stand by him no matter what he does or says.

But all this "base" talk seems pretty basic to me. Clinton had his base, and Obama had his. Abraham Lincoln had his base, and so did FDR.

Pretty basic stuff. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Quote for the Day

"Having a baby is like trying to negotiate a grand piano through the transom window."
                                                                       --Alice Longworth Roosevelt

Sunday, July 14, 2019

April Photo Op in Charleston South Carolina

Caught this strange shot looking up along a side-street in Charleston, South Carolina during our swing through the South in April of this year. I think of it as an expression of skewed perspective rather suggestive of Escher's visual riddles. Though the fire-escape staircase exists in vertical space, the shadow it casts can also be "read" as in horizontal space. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

China Trade War

Many people prefer to believe that the world is entering a post-apocalyptic stage, that the peoples of the earth will soon co-exist in harmony with one another, and achieve a general prosperity and enlightenment. 

Science and technology have wrought enormous changes over the last three centuries, completely transforming life on the planet. The pace of this change is increasing, and it is difficult to know how these changes--and those to come--will affect the nature of our existence. 

Human society, which subsisted for millennia against the challenges of survival, has overcome many of the obstacles placed before it, and seems on the verge of complete domination of the environment. 

Marxist economics posited a violent transition from industrial commodity capitalism to top-down planned economy in which the hierarchy of labor value would be dictated--hardly a "withering away" of the state aparatus. Post-Mao China's hybridized version of an authoritarian state-sponsored entrepreneurism, fueled by technology theft and unfriendly corporate piracy, caught the West by surprise. 

Since the rise of nationalism over the last 400 years, we've seen an entrenchment of nativist and colonial policies, which show no signs now of "withering away" either. China's selfish trade and territorial policies are another proof, if one were needed, of the continuing appeal of self-interested diplomatic and economic postures in an increasingly interconnected world. 

Despite temporary periods of relative calm, nations habitually reassert their separatist aims. Democracy, after all, is about the will--not "the people"--but of the enfranchised citizens of separate nations, whose first priority has always been, and will probably always be, self-interest according to national borders and identifies. 

What nation would willingly sacrifice the welfare and benefits of its citizens to those of another power, another interest? 

America's trade relationship with the People's Republic of China
has been characterized over the last 30 years by a glaring imbalance. This is expressed as an enormous deficit in net parallel purchases--a "trade deficit." This deficit has ballooned to historic proportions as China has maintained a steadily restrictive and exploitative position with respect to tariffs and access to markets. It has in turn fueled one of the great economic booms in all of history, lifting China out of the doldrums and into second place, behind the U.S. This could not have happened without the willing participation of its trading partners, particularly the U.S.  

Not satisfied with being the world leader in manufacturing, China now wants to dominate the technology sector. Unwilling to develop its own educational and scientific research and development, it has chosen to appropriate ("steal") the technology of older, more mature rival economies, then outproduce and outsell ("flood markets") them.  

They have been entirely successful, in large measure because the Chinese government has worked hand-in-glove with its own industries--manipulating currencies, restricting foreign investment and control, using trade as an aggressive form of foreign policy. 

An interesting broadside essay on China's trade behavior--How China's Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World is here--which is heavily footnoted and quite persuasive in its essential thrust.  

I would recommend further reading. There is nearly universal sentiment regarding the threats that China now poses to the U.S. and other Western powers. China's authoritarian power structure has shown no signs of moderation, and appears committed to bludgeoning its rivals into submission, one way or another. Though its tools may not now include actual military means, its ability to do so, given its fast-accruing wealth, is now major concern throughout Asia.    

For centuries, European powers ruthlessly exploited Asian territories, so Beijing well understands the subservient colonial position. Meanwhile, as the rest of the "civilized world" appears to have abandoned the colonial strategy, China has adopted it. 

Since the rise of nationalism, nations have contended for leverage and advantage over neighbors. Concepts such as "detente" or "peaceful coexistence" or "mutually assured destruction" or "coordinated resistance" now seem quaintly old-fashioned in the 21st Century dog-eat-dog world of trade. 

We are now clearly dealing with an opponent who regards ordinary courtesy and the rule of law as minor obstacles. Personal and political freedom have been tossed aside, in favor of single-minded pursuit of economic conquest. Like traditional dictatorial regimes, they only understand, and respond to, power. They may pay phony lip-service to "negotiation" but in the end they can be counted on to seek total victory in every encounter--compromise isn't a part of their vocabulary. 

President Trump has been criticized for embarking on an ill-timed and ill-conceived "trade war" with China. While this may indeed be one aspect of the President "playing to his base" it does not suggest that the factual motivation is without merit. Previous administrations have sought, politely, to persuade China to loosen its restrictions, quit manipulating currency, refrain from unfriendly practices (like "dumping"), etc. This approach has had no effect whatsoever. 

On an even playing field, the U.S. economy is fully capable of standing toe to toe with any competitor in the world. But China refuses to play by the rules. It's high time we said "enough is enough" and made them retreat a step or two. 

Ultimately, there may be no future in which nations can agree to share wealth and opportunity. It seems endemic to nation states, that they will always seek the high ground in any confrontation. The days of regarding China charitably--as being in need of understanding and assistance--are long over. We are dealing with a nation state that displays all the worst aspects of fascistic, communistic and colonial regimes--a new hybrid state-run gangster capitalism. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

"Babies Dying in the Desert! Babies Dying in the Desert!"

This morning I had a fantasy meditation about the crisis at our southern border with Mexico. 

It was an exaggerated version of the sort of media event we've been subjected to routinely over the last few years. 

Though it probably hasn't happened, it certainly could happen, and would likely be interpreted in the way I imagine it, by our devoted national broadcast news services. 

A Salvadoran woman (let's call her Luz), 8+ months pregnant, with no husband, decides she's tired of living in a poor country, with no prospects for employment, under a corrupt regime in which violence and bribes are the order of the day. Luz has heard rumors that Central Americans may find "refuge" and comfort in America, if they can manage to get across the Mexican border into the U.S. She's heard that there are caravans of such "refugees" traveling north, on trains or on foot. She's also heard that if a baby is born in America, it automatically acquires American citizenship, and provides the mother with legal residence as well. The risks of injury, imprisonment or death are very real, but she decides it's worth risk. 

Towards the end of her long journey, she is within a few miles of the Arizona border. Bone tired, dehydrated, with sores on her feet, her great belly sagging, she's a pitiful sight to behold. Her companions are no better, sunburned, sick and crawling with lice. 

Meanwhile, an American news service, on the hunt for juicy "human interest" stories, is tracking the caravans, interviewing and filming them along their way, creating copy for the pro-immigrant advocates back in the States. 

One reporter, a Mexican national working with the news service, approaches Luz, noticing she's very near term, and asks her what she hopes to do. 

"I'm trying to get to America," she replies, "because I want my baby to be born there, to have a better life, and to escape the poverty and crime in my country El Salvador." 

"What if you're stopped at the border, before you can cross? What will you do then?" 

"I really don't know. I pray to God. Mexico will not take care of us. I just want to get there. We are all refugees, and Americans will take refugees, no?" 

Suddenly, Luz feels faint, she looks down at her stomach, fear in her eyes--

"Oh, my God, I am having my baby, right here in the desert!" 

Two men nearby rush over and carry her over to a bush and lay her down.

"Oh no, this can't happen! We must do something! We need a doctor here!"

She turns to the cameraman, "we need to get this woman a doctor!" 

"How the hell are we going to do that?" he replies.

"Call that number we have for the U.S. Border Patrol, maybe then can send someone down here?"

Instantly, he takes out his cell phone, and dials the number. After going through a series of referrals, he's connected to a supervisor. They argue over details. The supervisor says they have no jurisdiction in Mexico, they can't cross the border without violating regulations. If they can get her up to the border, they'll assume control, etc. After more haggling, the supervisor says "Okay, okay, we'll fire up our helicopter, but it's going to take a little time." "We don't have time!" the cameraman screams into the phone, "the woman's contractions are starting!" 

Ten minutes later the helicopter is on its way--choppita-choppita-choppita--as it hurries south over dry desert landscape.  

Meanwhile, an American television station has gotten wind of the crisis, and is reporting the unfolding narrative. "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you fast-breaking news about a Mexican refugee woman having a baby just a few hundred yards from the American border! We're hooked up to a reporter in the area, and we have a drone hovering over the scene!" 

"Will the American authorities arrive in time? Will they save the lives of this poor innocent woman and her unborn baby? We've learned that the American border patrol hopes to pick her up and fly her back across the border to safety. Will Luz's baby be saved? We're all hoping this can happen! If they can get her across the border before the baby is born, then it can be born in America!"

The helicopter finally arrives, amidst the excitement, and Luz is placed on a stretcher and hauled aboard the chopper, which rises up majestically--choppita-choppita-choppita--and leans toward the north. 

But before they can land, Luz's baby is born, to the loud vibrations of the copter's engines, the physician yells at Luz "it's a boy! You have a boy! An American boy!"

That evening, the story is carried on all the major networks. Commentators argue over whether the boy was born "on American soil" or was technically in Mexico when she delivered. 

Meanwhile, volunteers have come forth offering to "adopt" Mother and child. Luz is taken the next day to a detention center, where her claim of refugee status is recorded and she is given a hearing date and released. Because she already has multiple sponsors, and an assigned lawyer, she's allowed to relocate to her new home in Minneapolis at once. "It's like a dream come true," Luz confesses, "I knew God would hear my pleas, now my son will grow up in the promised land, and we can live in peace and harmony forever."   

Thursday, March 7, 2019


Time and duration. Increments. Segments. Blocks. Threads. We tend to think of time in terms of the astronomical events that govern our existence. The turning of the earth, day and night, the seasons, the passage of a year, the duration of a life. 

Time may be an illusion. Try to imagine time without the material clock. Anything can be a clock. The universe is a vast clock--beyond the limits of our comprehension. 

Days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia. 

We often think of centuries as demarcations of cultural descent--as if human history could be characterized by the familiar qualities we assign to them, in retrospect. The 19th Century is the "Victorian Age." Sometimes, we think of the 20th Century as the "Atomic Age." Perhaps the 21st Century will be known as the "Digital Age." 

It's the same with decades, which seem somehow more proximate. A single human life--in the classic phrase "three score and ten" [or 70 years duration, as an average]--encompasses, then, seven decades. Someone born in 1901--as my Stepfather Harry Faville was--who lived for 72 years--could think of the passage of time and fashions as distinct segments of duration, each with its own familiar--

The Roaring Twenties
The Depression Years (the 30's)
The War Years (the 40's)
The Silent Fifties
The Swingin' Sixties

We divide up the passage of our lives into such convenient brackets of time, in order to get a handle on the course of history. 

What is it about decades that makes them seem so specific and meaningful? 

When I think of my life, it is as a series of stepped ratchets, a progression of rising increments, which are years, months and days. 

The year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African American to break the barrier of the Big Leagues. The Hollywood "Black List" was created by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Andre Gide won the Nobel Prize. A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, starring Marlon Brando. 

In 1957, when I was 10, Kerouac's On the Road, Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle were published. The Bridge on the River Kwai and Peyton Place debuted in theaters. The Soviet Union launched the satellite "Sputnik." 

As we grow up, our consciousness of the limits of our attention expands exponentially. As toddlers, our world consists of the dimensions of the world we inhabit. By late childhood, say age 12, we're aware of our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation, the globe, and outer space. Our sense of our place in the larger scheme of the progression of time begins to materialize--we begin to think of years and decades as having almost a physical presence, as if they were plateaus of space, though we know this is only hypothetical, that there is no marked transition between the tenth year of one decade, and first year of the next. 

Did I feel anything specific or memorable, in 1970, as the Sixties passed into history? I can't recall. There is often a feeling of a new beginning, of a promise of something going to occur. 

Historically, time may be measured in administrations, or in the life of a monarch, or in convulsions, such as the American Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or great wars.  

Technologically, we may measure time through the incremental advance of inventions: The Cotton Gin, The Railroad, The Telephone, The Automobile, The Radio, Television, The Atom Bomb, The Airplane, The Computer, The Pill. These are both mind- and civilization-altering developments, which create their own demarcation in time, after which things can never be the same. 

Thomas Wolfe wrote several fictional novels about his own experience. Pouring out thousands of pages, living in New York, the over-riding sensation he felt was nostalgia, a nostalgia which overwhelmed him. His fictional record, which was the only means by which he could revisit the events of his past life, was like a vast project to defeat time by preserving and recreating it. He was only 37 when he died in 1938. 


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Border Security Debate

The current heated debate about security at the U.S.-Mexican border offers few new ideas or analyses. 

Despite fluctuations in the number of illegal crossings, the problems of illegal entry, drug and human trafficking, etc., opposing camps appear further apart than they have at any time over the last 30 years. 

The main reason for this, as I see it, is the considerable gulf between the assumptions people hold, which makes compromise impossible. 

This vast separation is an expression of differences in how people view the problem. A priori points of view insure that they are very unlikely to agree about any proposal.

Many of those who are against tight border security measures, such as walls, military-style check-points, efficient deportations, and personal ID systems, simply don't want any kind of border limitations at all. For them, divisions between nations and peoples are artificial constructs, based on bogus national, racial, ethnic or economic distinctions which hinder freedom of movement or commerce. The notion of unregulated borders, "international" citizenship, and unlimited quotas seems perfectly reasonable to such people. They will make arguments to claim that these are actually good things. 

Many of those who favor such measures, on the other hand, insist on the priority of citizenship, legal residence and lawful conduct, and point to the social and economic costs of entertaining large numbers of uncounted and unwelcome "refugees" inside our borders. They view the concept of "sanctuary" as an expression of lawlessness.   

In order to address any measures to control our southern border, there has to be some agreement about just what illegal immigration is, and whether it is a good thing in itself. If you begin with the assumption that illegal immigration is a good thing, it's very unlikely that you will favor any kind of barriers--physical or bureaucratic--which threaten actually to prevent people from crossing illegally. If you begin with the assumption that illegal immigration is a bad thing, the question is less about "how" you go about preventing it, as long as it works. 

In a very real sense, those who oppose barriers, oppose them in principle. For them, walls are a sad expression of the failure of nations to reach common understandings and agreements. For them, walls are bad whether or not they actually work; they will criticize them both as futile, and as immoral; walls that work are bad, while walls that don't work are a waste of resource. But the point is they don't want barriers in the first place, and will use any argument to support this position.

While it is true that no barrier mankind can construct is indestructible, there are degrees of security which can be achieved. If you accept the notion that illegal movement is wrong, and should be interdicted, then whatever reasonable measures can be employed, should be. Those who take this position are less worried about the symbolic significance of a wall between nations, as long as the solution is reasonably successful at preventing the crossing. 

What's most frustrating, is that both factions routinely summon the most extreme, and most irrelevant versions of the meaning and consequence of illegal immigration, in an attempt to sway public opinion.

On the one hand, President Trump invariably tells us that lax border security poses a threat to our national security, conjuring up visions of drug gangs, ruthless felons, political terrorists, and human traffickers ("coyotes"), to whip up fear and consternation. While there is no doubt that drug trafficking occurs, and that some relatively small percentage of illegals is potentially dangerous, these aspects are less important than the crucial issue of mass uncontrolled refugee-ism. Such visions are inflammatory, and may play well on television, but they really aren't the point.

On the other hand, the immigrant lobby enjoys portraying the situation as an humanitarian crisis, of hoards fleeing political persecution, babies dying in the desert, and the cruelty and violence of interdiction. They frame the debate as an obligation which Americans have, to "save" oppressed and persecuted "refugees." Rather than being concerned about hundreds of thousands (even millions) of illegals inside our borders, they're delighted with the fact, and would like to see more resources devoted to making their lives easier, of providing them with the "American dream" of a better life, with the same opportunities and freedoms as native citizens. 

Whatever your position, it seems reasonable to acknowledge that unless or until we're willing to have an open debate about the meaning and significance of illegal immigration, we won't be able to agree about the issue of border "security." 

Personally, though I can understand why people might theorize about the advantages of open borders,  I've not been able to imagine a narrative which would entail a complete breakdown of control. What would happen if we abandoned our I&NS system of quotas and regulation, and simply stood by and watched as humanity flowed flagrantly from point A to point B, without regard for national borders?  

I believe that legal immigration is a good thing, but illegal immigration is not. Having said that, I would clearly find it difficult to compromise and discuss "security" with someone who thought the opposite.