First, two key points drive my observations here.  First, Donald Trump lies.  That point has been exhaustively demonstrated, and it needs no further comment here.  Second, a group of good, honest, hard-working people voted for Donald Trump because they believed those lies.

Donald Trump has now demonstrated to those people that he was lying about the very things that caused those good people to vote for him.  There are many things that he lied about that have been exhaustively catalogued elsewhere.  “Putin is our friend” and “China is a currency manipulator” are on that list.

The two lies that most betray the working people who voted for him have now come starkly clear, not by mere words but by his deeds.  Trump promised those people that he would replace Obamacare with an insurance program that 1) insured everyone, 2) cost less, and 3) covered more procedures.  The program presented by Paul Ryan, and endorsed by Donald Trump, does exactly the opposite of all three points.  It insures fewer people, costs more, and covers less.  Don’t take my word for this.  Listen to how Ryan presents it, and listen to how Trump lies about it.  For instance, Trump said recently that Ryan’s plan preserves the ban on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.  The most recent version of the proposal allows states to increase rates for people with pre-existing conditions, which will make it impossible for those people to afford the plan.  Trump and Ryan make it sound like the program covers everyone by saying that the plan provides “access” for all to insurance.  That is the same as saying that we all have access to purchasing jet planes.

Trump’s second lie may be even worse than the first.  He promised those hard-working people that he would reform the tax laws and, by doing so, give a huge boost to jobs and to the economy.  “You’re going to win so much you’re going to get sick of winning,” he said.  Now the “tax plan” has arrived.  It provides enormous tax breaks.  The problem is that you have to have an income in excess of a million dollars a year to see any of it.  Worse, the gigantic tax breaks he gives himself and others of his income level will cause the national debt to skyrocket, and that will lead to the biggest economic collapse this country has ever seen.

Neither one of these plans will succeed, because a number of reasonable conservatives have, so far, rejected Trump’s efforts to put these things in place.  Whether they can continue to do so remains to be seen.  What should be clear to those who were swindled into voting for Trump is that he lied to them about the things that most mattered to them — income and health care for their families.

We will likely have Trump for three and a half more years.  He will continue to damage both the substance and the image of America throughout that time.  On these two issues, however, if he and Ryan and their cronies succeed, America will not be the place into which you were born.










y of it.













Donald Trump has begun action to deport most if not all of the people presently living in the United States without proper documentation.  On its face, his action here has a prima facie justification.  These millions are, by definition, in violation of the United States’ policies regarding legal entrance into our country.  One need not, however, look much beyond that surface reasoning to see the issue as far more complex.

The slightest reflection raises several questions, the very first of which is:  How did it happen that this country allowed eleven million people to enter the country without documentation, and how did it allow these eleven millions to take up residence and support themselves, in many cases for decades, and to raise children — feed them, clothe them, educate them, all with little or no reliance on public contributions?

The answer is as obvious as it is embarrassing.  We allowed them in.  No, more than that.  We invited, no, lured them in.  We wanted low prices for goods, and low prices require cheap labor.  So we enticed these millions to come to work our fields and our factories for little wage and no benefits.  We worked them and even housed them in the most miserable of conditions.  We took tax money from them knowing that they could never expect any return.  We routinely denied them the protections of safety ordinance, worker’s compensation, health insurance, any and all benefits rightfully belonging to the average worker.  There is, for instance, a plant in an obscure town in northern Wisconsin in which the majority of workers are undocumented.  It does not even approach rationality to think that these unfortunates just happened to wander their way from the Mexican border all on their own to this one small northern town and all employ themselves at this one factory.

So the presence of eleven million undocumented workers is, in large part, of our own doing.  We brought them here, and we profited from them, and we took advantage of them.  And now, when those in power find it to their advantage, they propose to chase them all out of the country.  In doing so, they completely ignore their own complicity in allowing these millions of men, women and children to think that they had, by their tireless (and poorly compensated) contributions to our economy, been given a de facto right of place in our community.

So there it is.  There are eleven million undocumented aliens in this country because we brought them here.  Because we did, we at the very least owe them the opportunity to have a reasonable path to staying here.  A reasonable path.  Not sending them out and letting them wait years to return.  That smells far too much of the rank injustice of the internment of Japanese Americans.  These good people took their meager earnings and turned them into homes.  They raised families who know no other country than this. They contributed in myriad ways to their communities. Tearing them away from all that requires a reason far more significant than political advantage.

Justice is the calculated resolution of a multiplicity of valid claims.  When we we became a party to bringing these millions into the country, we granted them an equitable claim to remaining.  Ignoring that claim is simply an injustice.  Yes, there are countering claims and issues.  But to simply throw them out is more than injustice.  It is thuggery.



“XXX.–In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

With these words, set into the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts in 1780, John Adams captured one of the pillars of the American form of government.  In revolting against England, Americans did not merely reject King George III.  They rejected the entire system of government by a single person or group.  This principle of a government of laws and not men is the natural consequence of the founding American ideal that all human beings are born equal and endowed with inalienable rights.     It is a critical point, but one that is easily missed.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all human beings are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”  That statement announces a community based, not on individual license, but on a fundamental responsibility of every human being for every other human being.  We are each responsible for honoring the rights of each of our fellow humans, and that responsibility is what gives us our meaning, and it is even the source of our freedom.  We are free because all those people for whom I am responsible are responsible for me.

The enemy of America’s founding ideal rests precisely here.  When a government makes its decisions, not based on the laws of that government but rather by the orders of a single person or group, the source of the people’s meaning shifts from the ideals embodied in their laws and constitution to the personal needs and desires of the person or group ruling them.  “L’etat c’est moi,” said the imperious Louis XIV.  I am the state, and your rights, and therefore your meaning, are defined entirely by me.  This is the real peril of dictatorship.   The individual has no meaning by himself or herself.  Even the dictator’s meaning is gone, because it is completely subjective.  It might be something one day and something else another.  Moral value derived from one individual is the morality of self-interest, and self-interest is no morality at all.

This is the real, fundamental crisis being caused by Trump’s actions and words.  He may or may not have overstepped his bounds with the ban on seven Muslim countries.  We have a judiciary to determine that in accordance with the laws and constitutional provisions that express our journey to our ideal.  It is what he did in response to that judiciary, and what his people have done in response to criticism, that is far, far more dangerous.  He denigrates the judiciary, calls a judge bigoted or characterizes the judge as “so-called”.  His advisor tells the press to “shut up and listen.”  All this and much, much more describes an attack on the fundamental rights of the people and the checks and balances system that guards those rights.  Trump doesn’t want to befriend Putin.  He wants to be Putin.  His goal is dictatorship, and if he succeeds we will not just lose our form of government, we will lose our very meaning.

We are not a perfect nation.  Our worth and meaning lie in the fact that, with all our flaws and failures, we strive for a perfect ideal.  The actions and words of Trump and his representatives signal an attack on those ideals.  We cannot allow that attack to even begin.




A very large majority of the people who voted for Trump did so because they felt, and justifiably so, that our political system was not working for them, that the politicians in power were in fact ignoring them.  They are the hard-working people, the factory workers and the construction workers and mine workers, who have had to struggle more and more to feed, clothe, shelter and educate their families while the country worries about everyone else except them.  They are the ones who really support this country with their taxes, and they felt they were getting far too little in return.  They wanted change, and the only one who was offering that change was Trump.

Trump did promise change.  He just didn’t say what those changes would be, or, when he did, he apparently didn’t mean it.  So, since we clearly cannot believe anything he says, we are left to judge him by what he does.  I list here some of the actions that will deeply affect the rights of those hard-working Americans who looked for Trump to improve their situation.

First, Trump has appointed nominees to his cabinet, people who will be in charge of the large departments of his government.  For secretary of defense, he appointed a man who is universally acclaimed for his ability and his experience.  For secretary of state, he has appointed a man who spent his career as an executive of Exxon oil, his last job being CEO of that company.  He has business experience around the globe, but he has no government experience at all.  The jury is still out on him.

Several appointments look like they are going to hurt the working class Trump voters.  A secretary of labor who is anti-worker and who feels that the minimum wage should be lowered or eliminated.  A secretary of Environmental Protection who opposes protecting the environment.  Worst of all, a secretary of education who has little or no understanding of the job, but who has spent most of her life trying to take money out of public schools and put into religious or for-profit schools.


Next are the executive orders:

  1. A ban on entry to America by people from seven Muslim countries and a suspension on entry for refugees, but with priority given to Christians.
  2. An order allowing tax-free organizations like churches to use their facilities to endorse politicians and political issues.
  3. An order striking a law requiring investors to work in the best interests of their clients.
  4. An order to ignore the environmental impact of building oil pipelines through the states.
  5. An order banning all funding to any agency that gives aid to groups that allow or promote abortions.
  6. A hiring freeze on all governmental workers, including health workers for veteran.
  7. An order to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, with no indication as to what will replace it.

The hard question for those who supported Trump is whether these are the kinds of change they were looking for.  It seems that such orders will weaken public education, lower wages, isolate America thus making products more expensive, and make medical treatment and medical insurance harder to get and more expensive.  We don’t know this for sure.  All we can do is wait and see.  The point is that, whatever we do, it must be done in the interests of all, most of all the interests of these hard-working people who are the ones who pay the bills and the ones who will feel the impact of Trump’s actions most strongly.   They asked for change, and they deserve change.  It looks like Trump will give them change that they, and those they care for, neither asked for nor deserve.


Today is the true first day of the Trump administration.  Up to this time, all that he and his representatives have said has been rendered meaningless by their constant contradictions and weasel words.  Think, for instance, of the promise by Trump that all Americans will be insured for medical care and then his Secretary of Health and Human Services announcing that all Americans would “have access” to medical insurance.  We are thus left to judge them solely by their actions.  All the rhetoric — “America First,” “We will win,” “the government is about you” — now gets its real meaning from their actions.

So how do we judge this administration and the Republican Congress that has espoused it?  I suggest two possibilities.  The first is by its ability to satisfy our own personal wants and needs.  Those who voted for this administration objected to the Affordable Care Act because it cost too much and it did not provide adequate insurance.  They also wanted lower taxes, a more or less constant Republican campaign promise.  They also wanted more job opportunities and higher pay and benefits.

The second possibility for judging this administration is by its effectiveness in promoting the American ideal, which is presented in the Declaration of Independence as the founding notion of our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …”   True enough, the founding fathers excluded, in practice, from “all men” a substantial majority of the population, but the ideal is just that, an ideal, and as such it is clearly meant to cover all human beings.

This second possibility stands in stark contrast to the first.  That possibility asks, in essence, what this administration will do for me.  I want a high-paying job.  I want all-inclusive insurance.  I want to pay less in taxes.  As for you, as long as I get what I want, I will agree to let you have whatever you want.  The measuring stick, however, is me.  This is the so-called morality of self-interest.  I say “so-called” because it is self-contradictory.  Morality is that which I owe to others.  A dedication to self-interest necessarily entails a denial of any such obligation.

The second possibility — the American ideal — has often been misinterpreted as a commitment to my own personal liberty.  It is mistakenly seen as an announcement that I can do whatever I want, with the tacit correlative that the best way to get what I want is usually to not violate the liberty of others.   Freedom, in other words, is defined as license, and that definition perverts the entire meaning of the American ideal.  To measure the rights of others by whether or not they serve your own is, at base, a complete denial of the American ideal.

That ideal is a bold and brave and earth-shaking commitment to respect and serve the rights of every human being.  Not just those of my race or my locale or my social or economic status or my religion, but every human being on the planet.  That colossal ideal is what brought the poor and the hungry and the oppressed of the world to these shores:  the knowledge that they would be freed of the chains forced upon them by their birth or their beliefs.  It is the inspiration for those words that stirred us long ago:  “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

Self-interest is not an ideal.  It is, in fact, the denial of all ideals.  The primacy of self-interest is the root of all conflict.  It is the mother of injustice.  It is the breeding ground of war.  It is the very antithesis of the American ideal.

If, then, we are truly Americans, we should, we must, measure the actions of those presently in power by whether they foster a world that respects all human beings or whether they operate on a fundamental policy of self-interest.  If self-interest prevails, the founding notion of America will fall from an ideal to a mere advertising campaign.





Some years ago, my wife and I visited our daughter in Moscow, where she was studying the Russian language.  The Soviet Union had recently been dismantled, and the people were being rapidly introduced to the corruption and gangsterism that would become standard operating procedure for their government and their economy.  With their incomes slashed while the bullying few seized massive fortunes, women stood in long lines selling their most valued possessions just to get food to survive.  The thugs ruled the streets, even taking over the Bolshoi Ballet ticket office.  As the years have gone by, those thugs have succeeded in taking power as a matter of policy.  Elections are fixed, the media are controlled by the state, people who oppose the dictatorship are imprisoned or assassinated, and the rich have become dizzyingly rich while the average working person struggles more and more with low wages and decreasing benefits such as health care and retirement benefits.


As Republicans take over Congress and the Trump crowd begins to reveal its direction and plans, we begin to get some sense of the atmosphere in which we are about to be living.  The Republicans passed the first step toward repealing the Affordable Care Act, although absolutely nothing has been done to replace it.  The president-elect has ignored and even denounced America’s intelligence community for giving the American people information that might damage him.  His appointees have made it clear that they will dismantle the country’s efforts to save the environment, they will slash the workers’ rights to organize, they will cut funding to public schools, they will drastically cut supervision of financial industries, and they will, in general, pursue a government of, by and for the wealthy.


Then, yesterday, something happened that was strange and unexplained.  C-Span, the channel that airs government hearings, was airing a discussion by a senator about current issues.  When the senator began to speak about Russia’s attempts to affect our election process, C-span’s coverage was interrupted and replaced with, of all things, state-controlled RT Russian television.  After some time, C-Span’s coverage was restored, and no explanation was given for this unthinkable switch.


Maybe it was an accident.  Or, maybe someone was sending a message.  A few things, however, are undeniably clear.  First, truth has become disposable.  The intelligence community made an airtight case that the Russians had acted to affect the election in favor of Trump, but it made no investigation or judgment about Russia’s success in promoting him.  Trump first denounced and denied the intelligence community’s conclusions, and then, when his position was finally untenable, he mischaracterized its report, saying that it had found that there was absolutely no effect on the election.


Second, whatever may be the intentions of Trump and his gang, their main motivation has nothing to do with the good of the people.  If they accomplish their proposals, health care will cost more and cover fewer, public education will see drastic monetary cuts, workers will see reductions in wages, benefits and safety, and banks and other financial institutions, including most of all Wall Street, will be given the kind of free rein they used to collapse the American economy in the ’90’s and again during the Bush administration.


All this might seem impossible in America.  If it were even half accomplished, the American people would rise up and throw the rascals out.  The public outrage would eliminate the possibility of Republican hegemony for decades.  Trump would be a lame duck president before his second year was over.


Unless.  The one thing that has prevented such skullduggery from succeeding in the United States has always been the very first right the founders placed in the Constitution — freedom of the press.  It was the press that finally ended Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror.  It was the press that finally revealed the truth that Nixon fought so hard to suppress.  And it was the press that, despite vigorous attempts to suppress its work, revealed to the public that Russia had hacked and weaseled its way into the American election process.


It is that very freedom of the press against which Trump has announced open war.  He has, everywhere he has gone, demonized the press as entirely dishonest, this while ignoring and denying blatant facts.  He has refused the press access to him, and, when he finally does appear before them, he mocks and derides them, refusing to acknowledge undeniable facts and blathering on without a hint of substance.  As inconceivable as it might have been a few months ago, it is now a distinct possibility that Trump could succeed in suppressing that one thing that stands between us and tyranny.


I have come to understand how 60 million people could vote for this man.  They were sick of being ignored, and they were ignored.  They are good people, and they are the very backbone of America.  They work their butts off, and their tax dollars fuel this government.  They want the benefits for which they work so hard and which they so richly deserve.  If, however, those assuming power succeed in the policies they seem to be pursuing, it will be these good people who will suffer the most.  If Trump and his gang succeed at suppressing the people’s right to know, and succeed also in stripping their supporters of their rights, there will be only one recourse — violent revolution.  Until today, I would have said that violent revolution in the U.S. was impossible.  But then, I would have also denied that a president would be a habitual liar.


Dear Ms. Maddow,

I have watched and enjoyed your show for some time now.  You obviously work very hard at it, and you just as obviously have a deep and passionate commitment to the point of view that you present.  I am a well-educated and liberal professional, and your point of view almost always accords with my own.  Thank you for all of that.

Now I have a request:  stop it.  Stop being the anti-Fox.  Stop the ridicule and the demeaning and the contempt for those whose views differ from yours (and mine).  Stop laughing in the face of those with opposite views.  Stop the Olympian pronouncements, the haughty demeaning of those who see the world in an altogether different light.

Why?  Because, I put it to you, that approach is pretty much what brought us Trump.  You are scoffing at, laughing at, hurling insults at the views of the sixty million people who voted for Trump.  And they hear you, and they don’t like it, and, far, far more importantly, they don’t deserve it.

Those sixty million, and likely many more, live in a country that has failed them, ignored them.  They have listened for years to you and yours promote the interests of the poor, the uninsured, the oppressed.  They have heard you so vigorously defend African-Americans and Hispanics and Asians and gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgenders and other minorities.  They have closely inspected your list of the needy, and they have found that they, and they alone, are missing from your list.  And they, rightly or wrongly but in either case quite logically, conclude that it is them at whom you are laughing.

I don’t lay this blame at your feet alone.  Note that I said I have watched and enjoyed your show.  We liberals have this annoying habit of pontificating, of making paternalistic dictates about how the world should be run.  We moralize from our lofty perch, make Solomonic fiats about health care and environment and discrimination.  And all the while we ignore the poor schlep who is just barely making it and for whom even a modest setback is a disaster.  That poor schlep heard, and felt deeply, your ridicule and your scorn, and he took his resentment of you to the polling place.  Ergo Trump.

Yes, I know that, hiding behind these sixty million good people are a bunch of self-serving, greedy vultures who would parlay the grievances of the sixty million into great profit to themselves, all likely at the cost of the rights and interests of those very same sixty million.  No doubt Trump sees his victory as a chance to pull a Putin, to turn American political power into a gigantic fortune for himself.  Trump and his ilk deserve every bit of derision that you have heaped on him.  But the guy in Oshkosh, with the wife and three kids and a mortgage and credit card debt that makes even hamburger a treat — that guy and his wife and his children do not deserve that derision and that scorn.  They deserve the praise merited by their survival and their plowing on through every economic downturn and every illness and every need of their children for food and clothing and education that makes them wonder how they will get to the next paycheck.

You and I need some humility about this.  We know a lot of stuff.  We know fancy terms like “casus belli” and “the emolument clause.”  We have read Gibbon and Manchester and Friedman.  We can speak the language of Wall Street.  We have walked Harvard Square.  We have so, so many charming and witty friends.  And we have swigged the Koolaid that we are a breed apart, brilliant and apart and pretty much all-knowing.  That vanity has taken us away from the American ideal every bit as much as Trump’s narcissism has taken him.  We need to go sit at the table of the West Virginia coal miner who, albeit dying of black lung, vows that he would do it again if that is what it takes to protect and provide for his family.  We need to go listen to the folks at the Waukesha Republican party meeting who, good and decent as they are, praise the work of Ryan and Walker and Sensenbrenner, and we need to understand why they praise them.

Most of all, we need to stop laughing at these good folk.  They are our brothers and our sisters.  We need to be a part of them.  We need to listen to them, ask their advice, accede to their wishes where we can and urge our own wishes, respectfully and understandingly, on them.  We are a union, a union paid for in much blood.  We ignore and belittle the sixty million at the risk of losing that union.  If we are to promote our views, we can only succeed by bringing those sixty million along, or perhaps better said, by promoting views that accommodate and honor those sixty million.

So, in the words of our amazing president, cut it out.  Stop laughing.  Start listening.  Start showing that you understand the views of that coal miner, that guy in Oshkosh, those nice people in Waukesha.  Then, when Perry wrecks energy, when DeVos wrecks public schools, when the policies of the Trump presidency give the lie to all the promises he made to the sixty million, you can speak about facts, and you can speak respectfully to the sixty million.  And they will listen.

Seriously, thanks for all the hard work and passion you bring to us.  I hope my little observations make that hard work and passion even more effective.



Michael Gillick




It is interesting to watch the many conservative pundits repeat over and over that Trump will not be the Republican candidate for president, as, over and over, Trump’s poll numbers keep him in a double-digit lead across the nation.  It says here that they brought it on themselves.


For years now, maybe even decades, the Republican political strategy has been to insist that its constituency refrain from thinking.  Remember when Donald Rumsfield was asked about the problems with the invasion of Iraq and he said we should be more worried about the world series?  Remember when the Republican party sent people out to disrupt discussions on Obamacare and told them to make sure that they prevent rational discussion?  Ever notice that, when they once again reject a suggestion from the president, all the objectors use exactly the same language?  The whole fabric of Republican approach is to put aside reason and march around shouting slogans.  “Obama is coming for your guns!”  “Welfare is for freeloaders!”  Blah, blah, blah.  Don’t think; shout.


Well, now they have a candidate who is simply living by their rules.  Trump is a master at making big, bold statements, completely devoid of either content or reason, but absolutely wonderful as a slogan.  “Make the military really, really, really strong.”  “No more illegal immigrants.”  “Everyone will have a job.”  He has even put phrases, magic words, out to signal that he is going to make one of these vacuous pronouncements.  Any time you hear him says, “Believe me,” or “Trust me,” or “No doubt,” or “To be fair,” you will know that he has laid down another inane, or impossible, campaign slogan.


All of these slogans are easily refutable by rational discussion, but the Republicans have opposed rational discussion for so long that they can only respond by either coming up with one of their own or denouncing Trump’s with an equally inane pronouncement.  The party of No has become the party of reasonless No, so all it can say in response is:  No.


Trump may very well win the Republican nomination.  He may also be undercut at the convention by devious maneuvering.  If the Republicans pull that, Trump would have every right, and he would no doubt have every inclination, to run on his own.  No matter what happens, the upside will be that the policy of irrational commitment will be dealt a death blow.  And that, my dear reader, is the best possible outcome.  There is a place, and there is a hugely critical need, for the voice, the reasoned and thoughtful and prudent voice, of rational conservatism in America.  That voice has been shouted down by its own people for so long that it is in danger of dying out.  That voice will save this nation from revolution against the fascistic tyranny of the shouters.  That battle does not look good at the moment.  All the rational conservatives who are running for the Republican nomination are on the low end of the polls.  Let us pray their time will come.  In the meantime, listen for Trump’s magic words.  Works every time.





Everyone has experienced the torture of watching monstrous young men, men who have apparently been scoured of any shred of conscience, going about killing everyone they can find. Everyone has equally experienced the torture of seeing a man carrying the body of a little boy who was drowned while fleeing the horror of the world created by those monstrous young men. The juxtaposition of those two experiences forces us to face a critical question, a question beyond all others, a question that might very well decide our fate as a culture and perhaps even as a species. It goes beyond the obvious question of how we expunge these deviate moral mutants. It goes even beyond the question of how we respond to the pleas of these thousands upon thousands who give up all they have to flee the hell that their home has become.

The real question, the question that is being dodged, ignored, evaded, but the question that will define us is not easy to formulate, not because it is so complicated but, on the contrary, because it is so simple. It is the first question, the key question, the question that precedes all other questions. It is the question of meaning, of worth, of value, of significance. It is the question of how we define ourselves. Who are we? What do we stand for? What is it that gives us our identity?

There was something sinister about the Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump demanding that we uproot millions of people and build a wall between us and our neighbors and close our borders to those oppressed by violence and hatred and poverty. What made it so much worse than just bad policy was that Trump insisted that we had to do these things “if we are a country.” To be a country, he was suggesting, means building our own isolated kingdom, identifying ourselves by our assets and our powers, and therefore relating to all other nations and all other people as adversaries, opponents, rivals to those assets and powers by which we have defined ourselves.

There is nothing novel about defining a group of people by power. Kings and czars and dictators have been doing that for centuries. The problem is that, if you define yourself by power, your use of power will ultimately result in your own destruction. As a great thinker who suffered through the wars of the twentieth century once put it, “Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.” If you define yourself by power, then you have agreed to the use of power against you. Justice itself will be defined by the use of power. More accurately, there is no such thing as justice or the morality that grounds justice. Justice is the will of the strongest, and there will always eventually be a power stronger than yours, and that power will destroy you. Value, worth, meaning, are all just propaganda techniques.

The problem is that America was not created on the basis of power. It was, in fact, created precisely in opposition to a rule by power. The logic of the Declaration of Independence begins with a first principle, a principle so critical and so elemental that it is self-evident, i.e., impossible to deny. All human beings are created equal, and each human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights, including (but not limited to) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being an American is based, not on power, but on the responsibility for the rights of others.

No doubt the questions of responding to ISIS violence and caring for the refugees from the violence of the middle east and elsewhere are difficult, and no doubt the answers to those questions are complex. Before we can begin to answer them, however, we must decide the elemental question of what we stand for. We are a country only so long as we stay true to the ideals upon which we were built. About that, at least one thing is sure: we were not built on walls.


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.