finally, an apt hitler comparison

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Hitler, ever the boogeyman of the Western World, is one name that truly suffers from the extreme hyperbole it is subjected to on a daily basis. If someone is strict in some regard they can be a grammar nazi, or the supposed extreme feminists called Feminazis. One partisan propaganda machine is compared to that of Goebbels by the opposite party. If you are extreme left you get called a Nazi, the extreme right you are fascist. Most abusers of language don’t understand the danger that this exaggeration places people in. By removing Nazism from its context and what it was, and shoving it into inane, untenable portmanteaus that serve no purpose other than disparagement, we run the risk of making the terms Hitler, Nazi, and fascism meaningless. We stop seeing the actual dangers of fascism and fascist-like ideologies, and merely understand the words to connote evil or strict.

For once we are actually seeing references to Nazi Germany in an appropriate manner, even if quite a bit of damage has already been done. I noted in myself how weary I am of comparisons to the rise of the Third Reich, but what is happening in Ukraine right now fits the description well. Much like Germany, Russia is using the excuse of protecting Russian interests and ethnic Russians. The former apology is one that has been used very often in American history: The Spanish-American War, almost invading Mexico during their revolution, as well as various occupations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the whole (long) list of supporting coup d’états in order to establish pro-American governments. The latter, however, rings of the Nazi Germany and lebensraum. Russia has no business trying to “protect” people of Russian heritage. As a state, its only duty is to its citizens, which can potentially be of any heritage. There are Russians all over the world, does that mean Russia would occupy a Russian concentrated area in the U.S. to protect ethnic Russians? No, it’s obviously a false pretense, and an excuse to justify their actions.

The recent, increased suppression of homosexuals in Russia also speaks to a historical precedent. Sochi, in hindsight, feels reminiscent of the ’36 Berlin Olympics, as the issue of the recent event was homosexual rights, while the past was noted for how race played into the politics of the games. What Putin is accomplishing here is creating a straw man, blaming homosexuals for the erosion of Russian cultural values and diminishing Russia’s power. The anti-gay laws that were enacted were designed to remove homosexuality from the public sphere. If this trend continues, it will be almost exactly like the methods used against Jews during the Shoah, which marginalized Jews to outside of the rest of the population with rules that singled them out, took away their rights, and with resettlement and ghettos allowed for their elimination almost outside of the public’s eyesight. Much in the way that Hitler was able to use anti-Semitic sentiments to rouse his base, Putin is also consolidated power by demonstrating strength with a military buildup (classic Hitler move), finding a group culpable for the loss of culture, and engaging in imperial expansion under the pretense of aiding Russians outside the country. That is lebensraum, though I don’t know the word for it in Russian. This is all more Third Reich than it is Soviet Union; it is not a return to the cold war, but an imperialist moment in a time when we all thought there would be no more European wars of conquest.

In no way am I advocating that we should go to war with Russia right now. Neville Chamberlain continues to receive posthumous flak for pussyfooting with Hitler, and the result was that Hitler became emboldened, or so the story goes. A lot of American pundits no doubt want to compare Obama to Chamberlain, a typical American-centric view of the world, especially ignorant today as Merkel is by far the most important player other than Putin in this dangerous game. My point though, is that Chamberlain, some have argued, was strategically delaying the war, because Great Britain did not have the necessary force to combat Hitler, especially after the Great Depression. Today we are (supposedly) just leaving our Great Recession, and war may be at our doorsteps. It is true that we have the most formidable military in the world, and would likely have the backing of the EU and maybe even China. But, because not a single shot has been fired yet, it will do the whole world good to work diplomacy to the best that we can. Once the shooting starts there is no guarantee it can be stopped until many bodies have paid the price. Long before that, we should exhaust our diplomatic resources to end this affair as bloodlessly as we can.

 

Oh, did I forget to mention South Ossetia?

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some votes are more equal than other votes

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Every election brings on the debate about the Electoral College, even as there is no real prospect of its abolition, nor is the debate taken seriously. It is merely a part of our system that we accept, an antiquated, uniquely American institution that endures like U.S. customary units. Some people even defend the Electoral College, either by hewing to the old apology as a means of combatting the idiocy of the voting majority (which I admit, is rare and you won’t see it any respectable media), or by arguing that it is simply a quirky way to measure the vote, but ultimately works. Some think that it protects the less populated states from tyranny by the big states, the rationale for the two senators each state gets. But what is failed to address is how undemocratic the Electoral College is, and the way that it skews the entire political system for the benefit of the two major parties at the expense of the American public.

The simplest way to gauge this is by examining the amount of electoral votes a state receives in contrast with its population. The other manner is to look at the existence of swing states. Let’s take two states as exemplars, California and Wyoming. With a population of 38,332,521 by a 2013 estimate, the state receives 55 electoral votes. That means that each electoral vote is worth 696,954.9 people. The national population (~317,677,000), divided by the total number of electoral votes (538), comes to 590,477.7. By that measure, California should have 64.9 electoral votes. You can round that up or down if you want to, but that means California is shorted at least 9 electoral votes, or in other words, the votes of 5.9 million Californians do not count.

Of course, not all Californians can or do vote, but the points and representation that a state receives is not based on its voting age population but its total population. In comparison with Wyoming, which receives three electoral votes with a population of 582,658, eight thousand under the average for just one point, California is underrepresented and Wyoming is overrepresented. A Wyomingite’s vote is worth more than three times the vote of a Californian. The fact that state populations rise and fall in contrast to each other over the ten years between censuses, as well as the variations in voter turnout among the states, means that your vote may be worth less or more in compared to other Americans in other states. Changes like in Maine and Nebraska, which apportion electoral votes based on districts, still do not fix the inherent inequality between the worth of some votes. The problem is not winner-take-all but the Electoral College itself; amending how electoral votes are given to candidates does not address that Californian votes will be less valued then Wyoming votes, though it would be a step in the right direction.

Swing states increase the disfranchisement of voters by allowing candidates to rely on their bases to carry party-dominated states. Thus you will see candidates campaigning not for the country but for Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the various “purple” states. This means that the needs of Wyomingites and Californians, and other blue and red states are under-addressed by the candidate. The argument that this moderates candidate ideology to fit these middle-of-the-road states does not hold water, nor is it worthwhile. A greater sin, in my opinion, is that the Electoral College almost completely precludes the viability of third-party candidates, who may not have any state as a base but pockets of support around the country. This can only serve the two major parties. From a capitalistic perspective, the Republican and Democratic parties maintain a duopoly on American politics, and without any competition, have no incentive to improve or do better. From a social democratic perspective, to borrow the term from Chomsky, the “capitalist party”, being both the Republicans and the Democrats, are able to maintain their hegemony and continue to be unaccountable to a voting public without any alternative.

By ridding ourselves of the Electoral College, candidates will be more beholden to the whole voting population, all of whose votes will matter equally, and it will mean that a candidate has to campaign all over the country. Republicans will be able to find votes in California, and a Democrat can stump in Texas for some actual gains. Independents and third party candidates will also be able to find support that is not geographical locked and overwhelmed by the local majorities. As it is now, only the two parties get any benefit from this system today.

our poor, fractured home

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I had a discussion with a friend recently about how highly we regarded cultures that emphasized meals as a gustatory and social event, instead of our own, which commodifies time and makes eating a solitary habit even in the presence of others. The TV dinner comes to mind. T. S. Eliot said, “Television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” We sit around one another and learn nothing, say nothing, and most importantly we expose nothing.

I’m not going to give some hackneyed rhetoric against this practice, which no doubt any Westerner has heard (at least of the English speaking world) because more important than targeting it is understanding why it exists, and also because it most certainly has been spotted since its inception.

It’s impossible to address this issue without wondering whether the TV dinner or any other noncommunicative meal is used as a bandage for familial dysfunction. Rather than argue or miscommunicate, it’s much easier to avoid one another with a distraction, or simply avoid the meal altogether. Many families are so busy that neither child nor parent can find time in their schedules that allows for simultaneous dining (and tell me that’s not a symptom of something). But why do families miscommunicate or fail to communicate at all?

For so many reasons: technology, class, education, interests, personality, culture. It would be hard to name all the culprits, nor very productive, because these are all, again, symptoms.

If one were to look at the happier families or groups, one sees shared interests, shared values, shared language (I don’t mean the same as in all speak, say Finnish, but that the words being used are understood by all parties, carrying the same definition. And pay attention to the word “shared”). The Scandinavians are generally considered to be the happiest group of people in the world. If examines them, they will see racial, religious, cultural, and social homogeneity. The more similar we are to one another, the happier we are. I have to warn here that I am not at all advocating any kind of ethnic cleansing or forced conformity. But this dissonance we find in American culture matters (I can only speak for my own country), and it is very evident in all aspects of life.

Just look at the proliferation of articles dealing with how to be a man, or how a man should treat or ask out a woman, or etiquette to hook ups or so many other phenomena; it’s very evident that we don’t really know what to do or say, even within our own social groups. Nothing can be tacit anymore because anything or nothing can be implied, too much is misunderstood or not understood at all. Values and mores are in complete and constant flux, and between generations this gap can be even more pronounced. Increasing the nuclear family is strained, and where before there were strong communities to keep people from falling through the cracks, the advance of the center-less city has decimated such a net. We are constantly segmented into our own age groups and rarely work or interact with people of a different generation. Just look at how segregated bars are according to social groups, with infringement on such environments (i.e. going to a bar you’re your crowd is not welcome at) bringing on greater isolation within those environments.

This all has a great impact not just on how we pass time and eat our meals, but also on our politics. The Scandinavian countries have a strong social democracy, and they believe that they government has a duty to help people and care for them. That’s impossible here because of strong bigotry and distrust in this country. Resentment against other racial or ethnic, groups, genders, or sexual orientations has created the gridlock we face today. One side actively yearns for Scandinavian style social democracy while the other does but can’t get over its prejudices to work for it. That is, as one might hear someone saying, “I don’t want that damned, lazy other group getting my hard earned cash for their special privileges.”

I think this all looks pretty bleak, and it may appear that there is no way forward, but there is, and it is the answer that I have mentioned quite a few times already: communication. We need active discussion between groups. We need dialogue that is not out to prove a point but to foster understanding.  The bigots will always have cotton stuck in their ears, and they may always be around. But ignore them, we need to be speaking to people of all stripes, we need to seek out people who are different from us and talk to them. Get over the awkwardness, because we need to talk about real shit that matters. Talk, talk, talk. And then listen, listen, listen. It is the only thing that will save us.

I see now, how funny it all is, that the only way to end these TV dinners and sort out all these problems is to start talking to each other. How wonderfully straightforward.

left vs. right part 2

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The issue of states’ rights has long been tied to race in America. Cases like Plessy v. Fergusson and Dredd Scott v. Sandford illuminate this very clearly. States’ rights is not an ideological argument but one based on geography. Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat party, and before that was the Democratic Governor of South Carolina. George Wallace was also elected on the Democrat ticket –  in Alabama – and like Thurmond, was noted for being progressive on the race issue in his own state. Wallace, as a judge, addressed black men in his court by their last name, instead of calling them by their first names as the rest of the judges did. This respectful formality and fairness he showed to blacks earned Wallace the endorsement of the NAACP when he first ran for governor, an election which he lost due to his opponent’s vehemence against segregation. Within hours of the loss, he was quoted as saying, “I was outniggered by George Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” After that, Wallace became one of the staunchest supporters of segregation in the country, declaring at his inauguration four years later, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” This language earned him a rebuke, and after he learned to use the coded language of states’ rights, which Strom Thurmond started (though it wasn’t quite coded at the time) in his opposition to Truman’s efforts to end segregation. The most important take away from this is understanding that many issues are not ideological but geographical. This is why the Republican Party was able to so swiftly become the party of the American South, by playing up the most important issue in the area, which was integration. This is not to say that only the South was racist, as George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon received widespread, though varying levels of, support around the country. It was that the issue of race was far more immediate in the South than the rest of the country. Even though Southerners may have supported liberal economic policies, their stance on social issues were much deeper.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a conflation of race and economic policy in the United States that has served to undercut the poor, who often vote against their own interests unconsciously. Think about terms like “welfare queen,” which implicate the government safety nets and the supposed work ethic of blacks. Some would support this argument by stating the greater percentage of blacks on welfare than whites as proof that blacks are lazy, which the data, viewed decontextualized and very simplistically, would seem to make validate. This of course ignores that the problem of poverty is an issue of location. That those who live in locations are under-serviced, have poor schools, high crime, and  have other factors that limit the economic viability of its people is hardly a surprise, but in understanding the why we come to a chicken-egg problem that is explained differently depending on whether one believes entirely in individual responsibility or systemic issue creating systemic problems. The battle over how we conceive these issues is, again, geographical rather than ideological. Red states, which tend to rail against welfare, receive the greatest amounts of money from the federal government. Under the Reagan administration, welfare programs were cut while the national debt surged. As a contrast, federal aid programs grew even bigger under JFK and LBJ at the same time that we fought the war in Vietnam. The result? The national debt declined all through the sixties. Those who blame programs like Social Security don’t realize that the amount paid into Social Security is less than the amount paid out. The surplus is then used to fund other parts of the government’s budget.

So why this gap between what the Republican Party claims it wants and what it actually does? The reality is that the wealthy individuals who control the Republican party with their campaign funding are using race to play white voters against their own interests. A strong safety net helps everyone. If we compare welfare and trickle down economics, what we see is that by giving welfare to the poor, who must spend every dollar on surviving, the economy is able to continue functioning. Money is spent on food, clothing, rent, heating, water, gas, etc., all the basic essentials to living. Wealthy individuals, on the other hand, don’t need to buy as much of these necessities, being far fewer in number than the poor. Luxury products, though expensive, have high overheads, unlike cheaper consumer goods, which means more money goes to businesses and the wealthy individuals who own it, than to the workers. Therefore, tax cuts to the rich really do nothing for the economy, just in the same way that a strong stock market has no bearing on how well off workers are. Not that the Democrats will be our saviors. In order to remain a viable political party, they have had to make a sharp right since the Reagan years. The momentum of the Civil Rights movement has helped the party maintain its position on social issues, though one would hardly call them courageous for it. Similarly, their base is populated by union members, which requires they at least pay lip service to their constituents, even as they give them the shaft as they did with the Affordable Care Act.

To return again to the issue of states’ rights, what it remains is a way to speak about social issues in an underhanded manner. Controversial topics (today) like abortion, gay rights, and voter I.D. laws are wrapped up with states’ rights. We’ve even had North Carolina create a measure that declared the state did not recognize federal court rulings that have prevented states from declaring a state religion (which fortunately was struck down). The element of religion is a somewhat recent addition to modern American politics, which has proven to be very interesting for the GOP’s big tent.

left vs. right part 1

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As with so many other fields (sociology, psychology, to name a few), in order to make some sense of the differences between ‘groups’, we must create some boundaries in order to narrow the field enough to generalize adequately. To describe the difference in thinking between the left and the right is no doubt reductive, there being myriad variations within a group (part of the reason why stereotypes are so damaging), but it is still a useful bit of information to have. To boil it all down though, the constituents that remain suggest the greatest difference between left and right thinking is how we construct the world, that is, whether we assign more power to the individual or to the systems they exist within and are molded by.

The right in the United States identify as conservatives and are generally represented by the GOP at the political level, which also contains the Tea Party. This is common knowledge, but let’s talk about how we arrived here. The Republican Party began as an anti-slavery party in opposition to the Democratic party that dominated the South. Part of the reason for this political stance was that the Republicans supported capitalism. Capitalism, despite what many people are taught, is a system where workers sell their labor to employers who own the materials, the location, and the tools. It does not require a free market system in order to function. This distinction is important because this is what separates capitalism from feudalism or serfdom and slavery. Though the southern plantation owners could sell their goods into a free market, this did not make it capitalism, as people were commodified and not their labor. The Republican Party of the 19th century wanted a capitalist nation, not a slave nation (they were, in their time, very “liberal”). From this, the Grand Old Party morphed into a business party that represented the interests of capitalists and business owners. The Democratic Party, after the Civil War, represented white agricultural interests and opposed the efforts of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction in the South. These differing interests help explain why, when one looks at electoral maps, we generally see and continue to see the North and the South voting for opposite parties. After Reconstruction ended the South continued to resent the Republican Party and rarely ever voted for Republican candidates, especially after the former slaves were disfranchised with restrictive voting laws. Literacy tests, with exemptions for those whose grandfathers could vote before 1963 (i.e. white men), as well as violence and the threat of violence, kept blacks from voting for the party of Lincoln. [As a side note, the reason why there is an explosion of violence against blacks in the South is because they were no longer goods, which meant damages to their bodies no longer carried an economic cost, nor did they have masters interested in their continued existence. Slavery though, for all intents and purposes, did not cease after the 14th Amendment. It continued into the 20th century. See John Pace’s Slave Farm for more on this.] After the turn of the century, neither party was viewed as the civil rights party or the labor party, which the Democratic party would come to be.

The Great Depression threw the Republican Party out of office, and in order to save American capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt helped make compromises, between the socialist and communist parties agitating for revolution or radical reform, and the capitalist business owners whose property would be at risk in such a revolution. Therefore, FDR helped ameliorate the plight of the laborer in America with thick safety nets, public spending, social welfare, and the legitimization of labor unions, all movements which had their roots in the Progressive Era . The Democratic Party dumped classic liberal economics in favor of Keynesian economics, which they continued to support until the Reagan Revolution. In the 50s and 60s the Democratic became the civil rights party with Lyndon B. Johnson pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the assassination of JFK. This is likely one of the most important transitions in modern American history, because prior to this the South was firmly Democrat territory. The South strongly supported the New Deal, and much of the Great Society was focused on Appalachia, with programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority designed to bring the South into the modern age with electricity, running water, and other infrastructure. This change is most observable in the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Within one presidential term the South switched from the Democratic Party, which represented them since before the Civil War, and helped bring many out of poverty and into one of the most prosperous times in American history, to the Republican Party of which its right wing continued to fight the New Deal some thirty years later. Brown v. Board of Education, though its ruling was in the fifties, wasn’t really enforced until the 60s. The rise of politicians like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace help to explain why the Republican Party came to dominate the South, and eventually much of the American landscape.

In my next post I will continue to discuss how the Republican came to its modern form up to the current date.