Monthly Archives: July 2017

But I’m You’re Older Brother, Ivanka

Drama at FamilyCo.USA. You almost have pity for the fool. It’s almost too played, cliché and depressing to be true. Besides being the spitting image of every rich brat from every movie you’ve ever seen, how many fits has Jr. thrown at the dinner table about daddy loving Ivanka more, about being the older brother who gets stepped over. Ivanka gets all the good, high level White House positions. The ones that the most qualified people in America used to get. Even daddy seems to respect Ivanka’s husband more than Jr. But Jr. is smart, he can help out too. But when he tries, Jr. goes and screws everything up.

Like Ross Douthat says, he’s “the hapless Don Jr. — the Gob Bluth or Fredo Corleone of a family conspicuously short on Michaels“. And now Jr. has hired the mobsters’ lawyer. Who would have thought?

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The Country Run like a Family Business

There’s a popular myth, a cliché even, that America should be run like a company and only a successful businessman can get the job done. That’s a nice soundbite, but countries and governments are not corporations, and historically most businesspersons turned politicians are not to be successful presidents.

As mentioned here before, while Trump is a businessperson – with occasional success and regular failure —  he has never run anything like a large corporation where he’s accountable to shareholders. Rather, his managerial experience is limited to running a small family business with a fairly simply business model, where the only ones to enjoy in his venture’s success are family members and those who suffer its losses are employees and consumers.

It follows logically then that when Mr. Trump has no expertise on a subject or bandwidth – which as it relates to both domestic and foreign policy is always – instead of listening or delegating to professional bureaucrats, Trump defers to his children or people that have worked on his business dealings in the past, no matter how unrelated to the issue at hand.

Therefore it is no surprise that as President, instead of letting the seasoned pros do their jobs, Trump sends out his daughter to act as the official U.S. representative in front of foreign leaders, his son – who resembles the rich-kid bad guy from every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen – or his son-in-law or bankruptcy lawyer to do his billing. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers questions this in today’s Washington Post:

It is rare for heads of government to step away from the table during major summits. When this is necessary, their place is normally taken by foreign ministers or other very senior government officials. There is no precedent for a head of government’s adult child taking a seat, as was the case when Ivanka Trump took her father’s place at the G-20 on Saturday. There is no precedent for good reason. It was insulting to the others present and sent a signal of disempowerment regarding senior government officials.

So the question for Americans is: do we want the United States of America to be run like a family business?

 

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Our Sacred Western Values

In response to Trump’s The West is under siege speech questioning whether, “we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost,” the Washington Post’s editorial board rightfully asks if “Trump wants us to defend ‘our values’. Which ones?

This reminds me of 2003 during the Iraq War when a woman at my gym in Madrid, upon learning that I was American, felt the need to insult me over the lack of values of my country and countrymen. When I asked if she had ever been to my country to see for herself, she said that she would never go as long as we still had the death penalty.

Only four industrialized nations still have capital punishment: the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. In this sense, the Spanish woman was right. Maybe the United States does not represent Western values after all, being the only Western country on the list. In fact, the Europeans use Turkey’s continued application of the death penalty as a key reason for denying them entry into the European Union.

But as I reminded the woman yelling at me, European abolishment of the death penalty began in the 1990s. Did that mean that no one should have visited Spain prior to that time or that Europeans didn’t have values before? Europe and America have different political histories and experiences. It takes time for societies to evolve.

For example, when Medieval Christians judged the innocence or guilt of a person by seeing if he could float or endure grueling pain, Islam represented a revolution in civil and criminal rights. In order to be convicted of a crime, Islamic law dictated that there must be witnesses to the crime and evidence presented against the accused.

As I wrote recently, Christianity in the U.S. was used as the main justification for chattel slavery and the subsequent torture, killings, acts of terrorism, denial of rights, and overall brutality that constituted Jim Crow until 1970. Certainly none of those acts represent Western values today. Does that mean that Americans or American Christianity did not share Western values until recently? Or did Western values change?

When the French, Belgians, English, Spanish and Italians colonized much of Africa to the south and the Middle East, India and South East Asia to the east, whose values were they representing? For example, when the Belgians slaughtered millions of Congolese for both sport and economic gain, were they manifesting Western values? Or when the French complain today about Muslims immigrants not integrating into French society or accepting French culture, did their French grandparents integrate or show any respect for the local cultures of the societies they were raping and pillaging less than 100 years ago? Or did their grandparents simply not yet accept Western values?

In part that is why Mr. Trump’s pontification in Poland is so contradictory: he preaches the values and need to defend the West precisely on the soil where so many human lives were brutally murdered to defend the superiority of those located directly to the west (not to the east). So then what does Trump mean by the “West”?

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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