Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland


More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.


Free Speech in Germany? Up to a Point

Free speech is in the news again as a German court ruled this week that a comedian, Jan Boehmermann, may not repeat parts of a poem critical of Turkish president Erdogan. Did the judges get it right? Let’s look at the details.

The poem came in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists in his country and accuses him of treating minorities badly.   Surprisingly, Germany still has a law on its books dating from the 19th century that forbids criticism of foreign heads of state. Boehmermann broke that law. He knows he broke it, and wanted, in fact, to challenge it. The German government agrees that law should go and is going to repeal it soon. Chalk one up for freedom of speech. No person, not even a head of state, should be immune from criticism.

But the other part of the ruling had to do with the way in which our comedian chose to criticize.   He did it by stating that Erdogan watched child pornography, was a gang rapist, and had sex with animals. This is reminiscent of Hustler magazine’s scurrilous “jokes” about Rev. Jerry Falwell, humor that the US Supreme Court ruled was allowed under free speech protections. The German court found the exact opposite, saying this was a type of speech not covered by German law.   So who was right? If you’re a moral relativist you might say both—it’s a cultural thing. I don’t think so.

It’s important to note that the Germans use the word “Meinungsfreiheit”—Freedom of Opinion—instead of “freedom of speech.” It’s a good distinction to make. Article 5 of the German Constitution has this to say:

1) Everyone has the right to express their opinion in speech, writing, or in pictures.

2) This right is limited by the laws that protect children and by the right of personal honor (der persönlichen Ehre).

3) Art and science, research and teaching are protected freedoms.

Boehmermann claimed he was exercising his artistic freedom. But the court noted that art must give way to Erdogan’s right to maintain his honor, or we might say his personal dignity. That seems unquestionably the correct way to look at this.   You shouldn’t be able to just spit out obscenities about anyone in the name of art.

So who is this comedian anyway? One news report noted that Herr Boehmermann is one of the most “incisive satirists” in Germany with his own show on a TV network. Really? And this is the kind of material he comes up with? What is going on over in Germany? This sounds about as incisive as any snickering schoolboy could come up with on his day off. The question I have is, did anyone think it was funny? Or was it just a stunt to challenge that old law?

Whatever the answer to that question, can we agree he was way off base? Just as in the Charlie Hebdo case, there should be limits on speech, writing, and pictures. That limit could be summed up in the word respect.   Let’s have your opinions by all means, but choose your words with care.   To adopt Boehmermann’s tactic only makes you look like an idiot and undercuts your message. The German law has it right and should be a model for every other nation.

How Democracy Dies: Austria 1933, USA 2017

In case you were asleep that day in high school when you covered events leading up to World War II, pay attention now. In 1933, hit hard by the worldwide depression, the young republic in Austria suffered a fatal blow through the carelessness of its legislative leaders.   The main parties in Parliament were very evenly divided that year. In fact, the voting on certain bills was so close that the Speaker (who by law could not vote) stepped down from that position, so he could vote with his party and tip the balance on an important issue of the day. This prompted the two deputy speakers to resign their posts as well, so they could also vote and tip the balance in turn. That left Parliament without anyone to lead the sessions, and no rules on what was supposed to happen in a case like this.  Consequently the session couldn’t close, and the parties were in such a snit they couldn’t agree on what to do next.

That left room for a guy named Dollfuss, the Chancellor of Austria, to announce that the Parliament had, in effect, shut itself down. His word for it was die Ausschaltung—the “self-deactivation.” He said “They pushed the off button, but I’m here, so don’t worry.”  He got the police to block the doors of Parliament when the members tried to reconvene, and it was as simple as that: the end of democracy in Austria until 1945. Dollfuss became a Mussolini-style dictator, and was assassinated by a group of Nazis a year later, paving the way for Hitler to annex the the whole country a few years after that.

Our country is also evenly divided in Congress, reflecting the divisions in the nation at large.  We’ve got the Democrats walking out of committee meetings, Republicans refusing to consider Supreme Court nominees, a tie vote on a nomination to the Cabinet, talk of secession in California, accusations, recriminations, and prognostications all served up with  huge helping of mediocrity and mendacity.   It doesn’t get much worse.

But it could.   It sometimes seems as though the old idea of give-and-take is a forgotten art, and yet it’s central to what politics is all about.   I’m talking to both parties here.   Could we have more cooperation, please!     There are always Dollfusses waiting in the wings, waiting for any excuse to grab more power.

Watch out.

Kurt Vonnegut and the Women’s March

After reading The Sirens of Titan again, it finally became clear to me what the meaning of 2016’s madness was.   Vonnegut’s masterpiece is brilliant in so many ways, but what got to me was the part about the invasion of Earth by an army from Mars.   The reasons for this attack are complicated, but the main thing is that our entire planet rallies to the defense: implacable enemies like the Soviet Union, China, the US and all the Western World come together in the face of this interplanetary menace and they utterly annihilate the Martians.   The world becomes one and a new dawn of cooperation breaks for our ailing planet.

This is what 2016 has begun to do.   We haven’t been attacked by Mars, but the new crop of leaders in Washington may as well be a pod of aliens as far as the feminists of the world are concerned. Now the Women’s March has galvanized an intercontinental movement that began with the outrage of finding that an unrepentant, predatory satyr could boast his way into the White House.   The women (and men) who were at these marches are as determined as Vonnegut’s defenders to wipe that smirk off the face of the current commander-in-chief, the Ober-gropen-führer*, as one sign at the March succinctly put it. But lest we forget:

42% of American women overall voted for Trump

53% of white women

62% of white women without college degrees

These women weren’t at the March. In a New York Times interview in a small town in Michigan, some women didn’t even know the march was taking place, and when they were told about it, dismissed it as a bunch of pro-choicers. One woman said she didn’t think her husband would approve of her going to the March.

So there you go. We certainly haven’t reached the point of Vonnegut’s unifying alliance because it seems that many women either don’t care about sexual predation, or shrug it off as normal and what can you do about it anyway, or they buy into the old male-dominated way of life that seems to suit them just fine. Or maybe they just hated Hilary Clinton too much (20% of voters said they disliked Trump but voted for him anyway). Put another way, these women are less worried about sexual harassment and more about the deterioration of the country they thought they knew: the drug problems, the factories closing, the loss of small-town American values at the hands of ….of who? I would say, of guys like Trump. But they see him as a businessman who knows how to get things done.

So, sisters, you’ve got your work cut out for you.  You’ve got some people to convince–not the leadership currently moving in down in DC–save your breath with those guys–but those ladies in communities all across America who don’t yet see eye-to-eye with you on the issues you care about most.  Until you can persuade them that we have to unite to stop sexual harassment, you can march all you want, and write letters to Congress, but all you’ll get is another four years of This, whatever This is.

For more on the March :  The Womens March: God vs. the Goddess

*It’s terrible to have to explain your allusions, but I’ll do it anyway.   In The Man in the High Castle, the excellent series on Amazon starring Rufus Sewell, the premise is that the Nazis won WWII and the USA is ruled by an American offshoot of the SS. One of the top brass is Obergruppenführer Smith, played by Sewell. It means chief-group-leader in German, and was a rank second only to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.

Trump and the Lord of the Rings

I finally understand Donald Trump.  We decided to watch the first part of The Lord of the Rings again last week, and at the very end—do you remember?—when Frodo has brought the One Ring safely to the elf-home in Rivendell and everyone has gathered to decide what to do about it, there’s that scene where the ring is sitting on a pedestal and they all begin to argue about what to do next:  Use it to fight Mordor! Destroy it! Lose it in the ocean!    These are all good people from the different races of Middle Earth, and they all want to do the right thing, but the power of the ring is so great and so sinister that the argument becomes super-heated. Suddenly we see a close up of the ring itself and reflected in it are the angry faces of the elves, dwarves, hobbits and men, shouting at each other, growing red in the face, about to come to blows—a perfect image of the ring’s power to bend them to its will.

That’s what Trump does. He is the ring, making everybody crazy around him. Every time he opens his mouth or hits twitter there’s another round of media attention and everyone goes berserk.  At rallies, on talk-radio, on NPR, on TV good people get mad and start yelling at other good people. No one listens to anyone else, they just holler and scream and mock and tweet and sometimes even lash out, punching whoever is closest.  We’re all in its thrall, and by “its” I mean the power of anger.

Where does this analogy take us?   Where is our Mt. Doom, that place where we can un-make this power?   Is it in a protest march? A prayer for a speedy impeachment?   Or what?

Protests are fine –we need them too to send messages to our leaders–but what we also need  is  to recognize how reactive we’ve become and do something about it.   Limiting the time we spend with the media would help.  This 24-hour news cycle is making us all nutty.      Of course we have to keep up with events, but so many of us have become news junkies, that’s all we think about.    It’s eating away at us, devouring our very beings. Before you know it we’ll all be like Tolkien’s Nazgul, those black riders, the ring-wraiths, who were once men but are now the mere shadows of human beings, their bodies and spirits destroyed by the power of the Dark.

Let’s stop providing the fertile soil for the chaos the ring sows. Let’s turn off the radio and the screens and go play with our kids or  go to a community supper.   Perhaps instead of reacting to tweets, we could turn directly to our fellow citizens and try to understand what they’re telling us. Let’s get better at listening, and go into conversations willing to learn something we didn’t know before, and let’s hope our interlocutors are willing to do the same thing. Let’s be the change we want to see, as the old saying goes, and model the kinds of behaviors we wish to see take root.



Geert Wilders: Is He Inciting Hatred?

This week Geert Wilders, the leader of one of the major parties in the Netherlands, was found guilty of inciting hatred by a panel of judges. This was his crime: He asked a question at a cafe gathering: “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this country?” and when his supporters answered “Fewer!” he said, “We’ll take care of that.”

The judges got it wrong.

First of all, “inciting hatred” is a vexed term.   Here is what the Dutch law prohibits:

1) expressing yourself “insultingly” with regard to a group of people because of their race, religion, philosophy, sexual orientation, or disabilities.

2) inciting hatred, discrimination, or violence against a person based on race, religion, philosophy, sex, sexual orientation or disabilities.

So you CAN suggest that immigrants be kept out of your country, as long as you don’t insult them or incite hatred or discrimination or violence against a racial or religious group.  That means if you say, “someone needs to round up all the migrants and deport them”—that’s not targeting a racial or religious group even if it happens that all the migrants in your country are of just one religion. You should be able to express your opinion on immigration freely as long as you don’t bring race or religion into it.  “Moroccan” is not a race or a religion, so the law doesn’t apply.

But let’s assume the lawmakers meant “ethnic group” in what is verboten, and let’s assume “Moroccan” is an ethnic group.   Would this be a good law or not? Many in Europe and North America are complaining that everything has gotten too PC to the point where no one can tell it like it is any more—that’s why they like Trump and his ilk-lings.

Here is what we want: we want people to be able to talk about things that are bothering them in a respectful way. We want suggestions for a better world—a marketplace of ideas to use that tired old phrase—and we want to be able to choose from among those ideas.

Here is what we don’t want: we don’t want people to get so worked up that they start rampaging through the streets, burning, looting, beating people up and killing them. We would like there to be a free exchange of ideas precisely because we hope the best ideas will come to the fore based on reasonable people making reasonable decisions. We also hope that the results of those ideas will be obvious to all reasonable people.

 We want these things because the alternative is unrest that leads to violence that leads to revolution as history has shown over and over again. Changing the complexion of a country too quickly can lead to exactly this kind of unrest. When people see rapid change, they get nervous, there is often a backlash, and there is often violence. Europe is in the grip of its biggest series of changes since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Wilders should be allowed to express his views on how to manage these changes. He also should be allowed to call the Islamic religion “fascist” as he did in 2011.  It’s offensive, it’s insulting, but is not necessarily “ridicule.”  He should be allowed the freedom to state his case.  If there are objectionable parts of any religion, they should be made known and then, in the best of all possible worlds, incremental change can occur.

But Wilders should not be allowed to resort to mockery–no politician should.   In the past, Wilders has referred to Muslims as “towel-heads” and “scum”—this should not only be condemned, it is and should be illegal under free speech restrictions.

Inciting hatred is a bad term.  So is the use of “insulting.”  You could be condemned  under this law for calling the members of ISIS barbarians for using the civilian population as shields.  Any member of any group that is subject to criticism will be offended and claim the haters are after them. The legal line we draw should be ridicule.



Note to Electoral College: Pick Someone Totally New–Tom Hanks!

I originally posted a version of this back in February, but with the vote recounts, rising hysteria, and all-important electoral college vote on Dec. 19th, the time seemed right to reprise it with some small alterations.

All these divisions in our poor country! All this squabbling and name calling! And now with the electoral college vote looming, it’s  worse than ever. Our country is Humpty-Dumpty, wobbling on the wall, and once it falls, who will ever put the pieces back together  again?

There’s only one person who can rescue this country, and it ain’t Jill Stein.  Clearly our star-struck citizens want a celebrity, not a statesman, so…. I hereby nominate, that great American patriot, who has shown us again and again that he is a leader, a hero, a husband, a loyal friend.   Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about Tom Hanks.   Tom, save us, like you saved Private Ryan, like you saved the crew of Apollo 13, and that ship full of Somali pirates, like you saved yourself from that desert island. You proved that immigrants can be loveable in The Terminal. You taught us compassion for gay men in Philadelphia, and that even someone as alien as a mermaid needs our love.    You’re Walt Disney, Robert Langdon, and Sherriff Woody all rolled into one! And—wait for it— you’re a cousin of Abraham Lincoln through his mother, Nancy Hanks! Wow! It’s like he’s at the crossroads of celebrity!

We need you, Tom!  Step up to the plate like you did in A League of Their Own, and save this poor nation of ours!   Announce your candidacy for president immediately and there isn’t an elector in that much-maligned college who wouldn’t put you in the White House on January 20th.


Sick of the Election? Here’s the Cure

What a ride 2016 has been! From the Heights of Hope for a renewed encounter with Democracy at its best, to the roller-coaster of the primaries, watching major candidates stumble and rise again, state-by-state, spattered with mud, dishing the dirt, but still chugging along until only two were left, bloody but unbowed—wow! Now into the final stretch, the plunge into the darkness of dirt and tweets and rants and leaks and lechery. Turn on your favorite news or comedy hour and it’s more of the same. Whether they’re simply reporting on or roasting the next president it’s a descent into the ooze.   Holy Mudbath! We’re as covered with slime as they are! What’s a citizen to do?

My mother, bless her soul, had a simple solution to all this. In my youth when America used to be great, my parents, brothers and sister all sat around most evenings together watching TV—shows about families with amusing problems brought about by some childhood escapades that the TV Mom and Dad would eventually sort out.   Then came the change: 1968—Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.   Women in bikinis gyrating to crazy music, their bodies painted paisley, presumably in psychedelic colors that our black and white TV could not discern, double-entendres from the leering cast, one-liners that crossed the line of decency as it was drawn then. My mother was horrified. After a particularly glaring off-color “joke” she uttered the words that became famous in our family: “Shut the Thing Off.”

It was not the only occasion that phrase resounded in our small living room. The late 60s was a time of enormous change, and Mom was not going along with it quietly. She would protect her family from the Crass, the Degenerate.   The yahoos could smirk and jibe as much as they wanted on that cathode tube, but the sexual revolution stopped at our front door.

Now the time has come once again to employ this useful phrase. When you can’t turn on the TV or radio or look at the news online without hearing an ever-more tawdry accusation, denial, reprisal or threat then Shut The Thing Off.   Get away from it now and just go vote on Election Day. You’ll be a healthier human being if you do.

Trump and the Mickey Mantle Effect

So Ted Cruz has bitten the dust and Trump seems unstoppable. How in the name of all that’s sane has this come to pass? How did so many salt-of-the-earth sorts of Republicans finally climb aboard the  Trump bandwagon, folks who initially would rather have elected Josef Stalin than this epitome of the brash, crass New Yorker? Why? Why, people, why have you done this?

Because of the Mickey Mantle Effect.

Bear with me.

When Roger Maris hit those 61 homeruns in ’61, back in the halcyon days of my youth when no one had ever heard of performance enhancing drugs, it must not be forgotten that one of the big reasons Maris climbed the heights to asterisked stardom was because the big-league hurlers were not about to resort to the usual tactic of pitching around a power hitter and letting him walk. If they threw too many pitches outside the strike zone, and Maris gets a base on balls the next guy in the order was Mickey Mantle who hit 54 homers that year.   So Maris got a lot of good pitches to swing at thanks to Mantle.

Can you see where I’m going with this? The reason that Trump has gotten so many delegates is because the guy behind him in the lineup was Ted Cruz— a terrible alternative for all those Republicans who didn’t get the memo that God had chosen him personally. No, they mistook the chrism of God’s anointing for plain old ooze, and decided they’d rather deal with a blowhard than a televangialist.

I find it incredibly consoling in this interminable campaign season where acres of mud have been slung and America has become a laughing stock, to cast my mind back to ’61 when you could get a pack of baseball cards for a nickel, a fireball for a penny, when kids actually played outside, and no one had ever heard of a reality show. In short,  when America was truly great.

When did it all go wrong?   In a reunion movie of Leave it to Beaver that played in 1983, Wally said it all: “I think it started going downhill when the Yankees traded Roger Maris.”

Twain and Mencken on Trump

One of the most worrying trends of this election cycle is that tempers are rising to the boiling point and physical confrontations are taking place. A war of words is natural during an election, but to come to blows is one step away from knives and guns. President Obama gets high marks for his “we need to calm it down” speech this week. Let’s hope his fellow Democrats can get on board with that and cool it on the protests. He’s less likely to influence the acolytes of Trump, however.

Part of the problem is that everyone loves a showman, and that’s really what Trump is.   They want the one-liners, the snide comments, the put-downs. All politicians do this to a degree, but Trump takes it to a new level.  It’s now a circus act, and as P.T. Barnum knew only too well, we’ve always been willing to pay good money to join the line to a sideshow, however bogus it may be. As one of the conmen in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn puts it as he makes plans to fleece the inhabitants of a small village: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

H.L. Mencken, Twain’s equal in cynicism, famously said: “No one in this world… has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” (This is usually misquoted as “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”)

Mencken comes to mind as you witness the fervor with which some of our fellow-citizens at Trump events chant, sway, and even close their eyes in rapturous prayer when he repeats his anti-immigrant mantras and his vow to lead us once more to  the pinnacles of Greatness.   Back in 1920 Mencken could have been reporting from a Trump rally:

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

For those of you in despair at the outcomes of the most recent primary elections, perhaps there is some cold comfort in the  fact that we’ve been here before and survived.

But that was a world without nuclear weapons.

If you liked this see “Trumpland: The Ugly Side of America”