Nature abhors a vacuum, or so Aristotle taught us.  That may not be true as a physics theorem, but it is certainly true of the history of human affairs.  It was a vacuum of leadership that allowed the great monsters of our time, Hitler and Stalin and others, to gain power and work their epic evils.

One of the great mysteries about these historical nightmares is why the people under the rule of these monsters did not rebel and throw them over.  Even Hitler, with his carefully crafted programs of propaganda and repression, had relatively few enforcers under his command compared to the population as a whole, and that population was one of the most highly educated and intelligent peoples in the world.

The answer to that question has, no doubt, many layers, and people far more informed than I have no doubt explored the answer at a level far beyond my abilities.  Whatever that answer may be, the phenomenon itself is a perfect illustration of the venerable adage, attributed to C.P. Snow and others, that the veneer of civilization is exceedingly thin.  Over and over, in literature and in photographs and now daily on social media, we see descriptions and pictures of people who, while presumably also peace-loving parents and children, spew out mindless hatred and bigotry.  I have in mind, as I write these words, those gruesome photos and films of ordinary citizens cursing Jewish men, women and children as they are ripped from their homes and led to unspeakable torture and death.  I have also in mind the smiling faces of white men and women standing under the bodies of black men strung from trees.  Those people no doubt went home and ate dinner, and they got up on Sunday and went to church, and they went home and hugged their children and tucked them neatly in bed.

Whatever else it was that drove these people to accommodate these hideous deeds into their otherwise civilized lives, one conclusion must be drawn:  that whatever they had identified in their lives as of value was, at base, vacuous, empty, meaningless.  Nothing identified as a true, meaningful value could ever have allowed these nightmarish occurrences, and yet there can be no denying that they did indeed occur.  Whatever God they worshiped, whatever cultural practices they followed, whatever family values they espoused — all of that was sufficiently specious to allow them to engage in activities so monstrous that, if called savage, would be an insult to the word “savage” itself.

Recently a dear and wise friend suggested that the recent political discussions made him conclude that it was within the realm of possibilities for American citizens to engage in some event comparable to Kristallnacht.  That night, in November, 1938, a horde of German and Austrian citizens smashed Jewish businesses and places of worship and beat and killed scores of Jewish people who were themselves German citizens.  That brutality set the scene for hundreds of thousand of Jews to be sent to concentration camps, and ultimately to the massacre of millions of innocents.

I initially scoffed at my friend’s observation, but then I put it before myself as I listened to the most recent debate in the race for a Republican candidate for President.  I watched Donald Trump insisting over and over that we must uproot millions of undocumented aliens from their homes.  I heard Jeb Bush denounce Trump’s suggestion on the grounds that it was “not possible.”  Oh, I thought, but what if it were?  Would you do it then?  Because, with just a small change in policy, it would be possible.

I know you are thinking that all of that is ridiculous.  This is, after all, America.  But here is the problem:  do we know what it really means to be an American?  In theory it means that we endorse the principles that all human beings are created equal and that every human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights.  In practice, however, I am hearing more and more that to be an American is far different from that, and, to my mind, far less than that.

I put it to my dear reader that there is, in America, a growing dearth of ideals, and that dearth is edging toward a vacuum.  Our policies are far more often guided by more parochial, more economic, more self-centered goals than Jefferson’s earth-shaking definition of the American ideal.  When political positions are assumed not on those ideals but on the size of your wallet or the color of your skin, the veneer of your civilization threatens to become diaphanously thin.  If it does, it takes only some relatively trivial event to tip your world into a nightmare akin to Kristallnacht.

I hope and pray that my dear wise friend is wrong.  I fear that he is not.


There is a decided wisdom in allowing some time between the heat of an election and the assumption of duty by those elected. It gives us time to shift from the clamor of politicking to doing the serious business of governing. It is in that interspace that we are allowed, in fact required, to retreat from our political prejudices and reflect about our ideals, about who we are and who we want to be and what we should be doing to take ourselves in the direction we desire. That reflection rests upon a hope. best captured by Franklin Roosevelt in his last inaugural address. He said there that the trend of civilization is always upward, and that, if one draws a line through the peaks and valleys of human history, the line will point up. Our hope is that that is true, that, however chaotic and discouraging the current atmosphere may be, we are, in the long run, making a better world.

That hope, however, rests on an assumption, namely that we can identify just what our direction is, what a “better world” consists of, what our true ideals, our long-term goals, really are. Answering these questions is fairly impossible in the midst of the daily struggle to earn a living, feed a family, do all the mundane tasks that take us from morning to night. We have, first, to set aside a time away from all that, a time to think, and a time to talk, to discourse honestly and calmly and rationally and cooperatively.

Assuming that we can find such time, we need, secondly, to figure out just who we are, what that direction is toward which we aspire, and what we think are the best means to achieve those aspirations. A good friend recently likened it to laying out what he called a storyboard. At the top you set forth what it is you want to achieve. Below that you lay out a list of various proposals for the best means to attain those achievements. In all of it, you agree that what is important is the goal, and, if the means you choose fail, you admit your failure and choose others.

Following this pattern on the question of how we wish to govern is made immensely easier by the fact that our founding fathers did the first step for us. They laid out, quite directly, the ideals that define the American way of governance. “We hold these truths,” they stated, “to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

These words, read honestly, are breathtaking, earthshaking. They are a declaration that we recognize the right of every human being — not every person of a certain color or a certain sex or a certain religious persuasion or a certain national origin, but absolutely every human being — to be treated even as we see ourselves as deserving of being treated. The American ideal is of the very essence of morality. To be an American is to have as one’s ideal not power, not wealth, not status, but a world in which every human being is honored.

If we agree with this ideal — and one cannot claim to be an American without agreeing to it — then the next point is critical. Everything else is a discussion about means. If we are Americans, we are all working toward the same goal. If we disagree, we do not do so as enemies, but as members of a team trying to find the best way to achieve our ideals. If we are Americans, then those who oppose our proposals are not enemies but friends, co-workers, fellow strivers toward that upward trend to a world of universal recognition of human rights.

Let me be the first to admit that I have not treated my political opponents in this fashion. Both sides of the recent political debates have failed miserably to honor their opponents as fellow strivers toward the American ideal. Each side has, in effect, denounced the other as precisely unAmerican. Each has decried the other as working against the American ideal, as being fascist or communist, as replacing the American ideal with an ideal of power or wealth. That, fundamentally, is not so. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell — all of these are Americans, because all of these adhere to the American ideal of universal human rights. They have, at enormous cost to themselves and their families, dedicated their lives to public service. They can only have done so because of an abiding commitment to the American ideal. No amount of honor or power or wealth could, by itself, have justified the sacrifices that each of these public servants have made.

Herein lies a key to the appropriate structure of political debate, a key to determining whether a particular political argument is sincere, and the basis for a promise I am making to my reader. All political debate, if it is appropriately structured, must be a debate about means, a debate that honors all proponents and opponents as members of one team, all seeking the same goal. Any political debate, if it is sincere, will be reasoned discourse about the best means to attain universal human rights.

Third, and finally, I renew a promise the founders of this blog made when it was first created. I promise to concentrate my efforts on insights and proposals meant only in the service of the American ideals. I promise to honor the right of the those who oppose my thoughts as honestly striving for those same ideals, and I promise to roundly criticize those, including those with whom I agree, who unfairly treat their political opponents as anything but sincere Americans.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Everything has a logic, even illogic. Logic, after all, is only the art of laying out the consequences of any given set of first principles. It might make no sense to you that a person with a wonderful family and a great job would lose that job and family by drinking himself homeless. If, however, you assume the first principle of alcoholism — I want to do whatever it takes to get drunk — then losing your job and family is perfectly logical, i.e., it necessarily follows from that first principle. Likewise, getting up at five every morning and running twenty miles is my idea of utter insanity, but it is perfectly logical for someone who wants to win the Boston Marathon. It follows, then (quite logically, I might add), that, if you wish to understand the arguments or conduct of someone, you need first to identify that person’s first principle, and that will make sense of what follows.

Therein lies a huge problem for Republicans. Why is it, I ask myself, that Republicans rise to power and then almost immediately set to antagonizing the electorate by making life miserable for the average person? And how is it possible to make sense of arguments made by Republicans on behalf of programs that are clearly antithetical to the common interest? How make sense of vigorous arguments against protecting the environment, providing health care to all at a reasonable price, providing a living wage to the lowest earnings levels? How is it possible to argue that the correct policy in good times and bad is to lower taxes on the wealthy? What sense is there to demanding cuts to education for those unable to afford private schooling and increasing subsidies to those who can? How can you logically decry our treatment of disabled veterans and at the same time cut funding for their treatment? And how, in the name of all that is reasonable, can you argue on every imaginable plane that we should deny the factual findings of the sciences?

All of this makes perfect sense only if you identify the first principle of those who control the Republican party. Nobody said it better than Al Capp: what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the country. What serves the interests of the wealthy serves the interests of the entire country. You may assign whatever motives you wish to the adoption of that particular first principle. Maybe the Republican power brokers genuinely feel that concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few is the best way to govern a nation. They would not be the first to think so. The list of historical oligarchies is far longer than that of genuine democracies. On the other hand, you may feel that the Republican power brokers are simply paying back those who provide them with the funds to stay in office. Whatever the motivation, the principle is quite clear, and, once you set that principle in place, all the rest makes perfect sense. For instance, why would you argue that running an oil pipeline down the middle of the country the provides scant jobs and that does nothing for energy conservation in America is good for the American people? Let’s say it together: BECAUSE IT’S GOOD FOR GENERAL BULLMOOSE, AND WHAT IS GOOD FOR GENERAL BULLMOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY.

That analysis will help you understand all the rest. You challenge science because the findings of science conflict with the interests of the wealthy. You reduce health care, education, veterans’ benefits, increases in the minimum wage because these things conflict with the interests of the wealthy. This, of course, assumes that the interests of the wealthy may comfortably be reduced to wanting more wealth, and those with wealth cannot fairly all be tarred with the same brush. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have both decried the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and they have both dedicated a massive percentage of their wealth to the improvement of the lot of the less advantaged among us. The Koch brothers, on the other hand, sadly personify a far-too-substantial portion of the wealthy for which the only value lies in increasing their financial holdings.

To answer, then, the question with which I started. The Republican reliance on Bullmoose logic requires them to get creative in convincing the people that Republican politicians will serve the interests of the people. Once in power, however, they must serve those who put them there, and inevitably that must end in damaging the interests of the general public. You cannot promote policies that increase poverty and igorance, decrease a healthy environment and access to medical care, etc., and continue to enjoy the adulation of the masses. Absent restricting the voice of those masses, you will, having revealed your true colors by your actions, be summarily thrown out.

I am not saying here that the Republicans will be routed in 2016. They may succeed in somehow silencing the disadvantaged majority. They may succeed in restricting the vote or starting another war or some other tactic. What I am saying is that a program of action built on advantaging only a few is intrinsically doomed to fail. Eventually the people catch on, and eventually the people overthrow that oligarchy. They did it in Russia. They are doing it in China. Soon or late, they will do it to the Republicans.

General Bullmoose, take heed.

Puttin’ up with Putin

There is an ominous resonance between the conduct of Russia’s czar Putin and the rhetoric of certain conservatives, particularly Senator John McCain.  Like Putin, McCain seems to think that the solution to pretty much everything is violence.  Like Putin, McCain openly scoffs at attempts at peaceful resolution or sanctions.  Finally, like Putin, McCain takes every opportunity and uses every movement in the world as grounds for condemning those whom he sees as enemies, i.e., everybody who does not agree with him.

     What is most particularly foreboding about this resonance is that Czar Putin has developed support for his usurpations by drumming up nationalistic fervor among his people, and then he has used that support to justify all kinds of oppression, even oppression of those very supporters.  So, for instance, he has instituted censorship of the press.  He has blocked access to the appearance of opposition thought on the internet.  He has persecuted opposition politicians.  In Ukraine, he has only thinly veiled his seizure of the lands of his neighboring sovereign nation by sending thugs to do violence even to his own people and then sending Russian military forces to “protect” them. 

     That is the way of dictatorship —  ridicule and demonize your opposition, suppress dissent and centralize power.  Oh, and all along the way, deny that you are doing it.  Now, look at conservative attacks on the President of the United States, and look at what those conservatives are doing wherever they are in power.  Ridicule and demonize everything and anything the President does, regardless of the ill effects of your conduct on the national and international consciousness.  Limit the right to vote, and limit access to basic needs, education and health care.  Finally, limit the powers of local governments (and, where possible, federal government) and put as many decisions as you can in the hands of the central government.

     This is what Nero did.  This is what Caligula did.  This is what Peter the Great did.  This is what Henry VIII did.  This is what Hitler did.  This is what Stalin did.  To put it succinctly, this way lies dictatorship, whose ruling principle is power.  And, in the end, this way lies revolution, violence, mass destruction. 

     Lest we forget.  Lest we ever, ever, for one moment, forget.