I was on “Stateside” on the Israeli global news network i24 on March 20, 2019 to talk about the “inappropriate touching” allegations against Joe Biden.
Kamala Harris is doing a nice thing on Twitter, asking people to share stories of teachers who changed their lives. Here’s one of several I can think of right away: Kenneth Clegg, the chemistry teacher at Warwick Academy in Bermuda. He made us all love to be in his class because he so clearly loved all of us.
My dad, David Critchley, who knew what he was talking about, would have said Mr. Clegg was an example of what really matters in good teachers — more even than how well they know their subject (although Mr. Clegg knew his very, very well). Quoting Charles Truax, Dad said three simple things make the difference: empathy, warmth, and genuineness.
The trouble is, those are hard to turn into checklist items in a teacher training curriculum. You don’t so much learn them as you’re given them, usually in childhood, by your parents or other mentors — or, if you’re not so lucky, through the hard work of clearing away all the junk that gets built up in their place.
Slavery was repugnant to many Americans long before America was a country — the Germantown Quakers denounced it in 1688. It was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833. We fought a Civil War over it from 1861-65. Still, injustice and violence against black people continued, and that has been an issue every minimally educated person has known about ever since, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the rise of the KKK, the 1909 founding of the NAACP, “Strange Fruit” (1939), the civil rights movement, landmark legislation, assassinations, the Southern Strategy, birtherism, voter suppression, and Charlottesville.
When the movie “Birth of a Nation” was released, it sparked widespread protests over its celebration of the KKK and demeaning depictions of black people. That was in 1915. More than a hundred years ago.
Harry Truman was born in 1884 and raised as a racist in a pro-Confederate family in rural Missouri. But he, like many white Americans of his time, was able to learn, to feel compassion, and to change. In 1947 he said, “If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry and his character.” And the next year he desegregated the military.
That was more than 70 years ago — and even then, it was a common belief that what progress had been made had taken far too long.
Also in 1947, Frank Sinatra, who had been raised in a working class family and never finished high school, said this: “We’ve got a hell of a way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro as a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up.”
Every American alive today has the benefit of centuries of thinking on civil rights, and centuries of examples of people who managed to choose respect and kindness over bigotry and cruelty. All the information about this that anyone could ever need has long been available easily and for free.
So maybe, by 2019, the “innocent mistake” defense is done?
Beyond a certain point, ignorance becomes a choice, and “innocence” is just a cloak.
It’s been hitting me hard lately how so much of the agony we’re living through now originates in our bungling response, or lack of response, to the fall of the Soviet Union.
When the USSR collapsed in on itself under the weight of its own illogic and corruption, we could have recalled the lesson of the stunningly successful Marshall Plan, then only four decades in the past: Do not let a defeated enemy sink into despair and humiliation. In your own self-interest, help the foe succeed, and become a friend.
But no, as the Russian empire fell, America and the West stood back, trusting that freedom and free markets would be enough.. But instead, oligarchs and gangsters used their new liberty to set about looting their own country.
And the horrors of communism were replaced with the horrors of thugocracy.
So? Maybe we didn’t care so much, since there was money to be made by us as well.
But the corruption spread. And it breached the borders of the West as Soviet aggression never could.
Ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his gang didn’t need to invade Britain with an army. They did it by buying up luxury real estate with their looted billions, or by parking their money in British banks, or by negotiating joint ventures with British corporations.
And it turned out they they could do the same to the United States — except that even better, in an incredible stroke of luck, they apparently were able to make a partner of America’s future president. When no reputable American bank would lend to him, they bailed him out of his bankruptcies and, by the evidence, hired him as a money launderer, converting their cash into condos.
We humiliated Germany after World War I and got World War II. But we learned, and got it right with Germany and Japan after World War II. They became two of our strongest allies.
And then, after the Cold War, we made the same, old, terrible mistake again.
And here we are.
Erasing the difference between America and a thugocracy like Russia may be this presidency’s most tragic effect.
Millions of Americans are being held hostage by a leader who can’t get what he wants through the legitimate legislative process. Count 800,000 federal employees, with let’s say the average two children per family — that’s 2.4 million Americans. And then there are all those who depend on federal services — in some cases, with their lives at stake.
And while he’s taking hostages, he’s also running a protection racket: he does damage and then negotiates a price to make him stop. Like creating a humanitarian crisis at the border, or throwing Dreamers’ lives into turmoil, and then offering to stop in exchange for his extortionate demands.
And then there’s the long list of his other mob-boss behaviors: intimidating witnesses, obstructing investigations, self-dealing, concealing financial information, constantly and flagrantly lying, attacking law enforcement, and years of business dealings with gangsters — Russian and American. How much more obvious could it be? Innocent people don’t behave this way.
America has never been perfect, as other countries have always been ready to point out. But other countries have also trusted that America was much, much better than Russia, or any of the other alternatives as the world’s leading nation — and that, not money or weapons, was why America could have so much power, for so long.
But now, they can’t be so sure. As the president himself said when challenged to — just once — criticize Vladimir Putin: “You think our country is so innocent?”
Not any more.
One thing that President Trump understands is branding, although with “steel slats” I really think he’s losing his touch (panic will do that to you).
His more successful efforts have included MAGA, Crooked Hillary, Fake News, and, of course the Big, Beautiful Wall, compared to which Steel Slats is New Coke.
Branding is perfect for Trump, whose name is itself a brand, because a brand doesn’t require facts, logic, or any argument at all: just an impression.
This might be a lesson for corporations that have invested so much in creating and building their brands — not least by backing them up with actual goods and services.
Trump sees the power of a brand as pure incantation: simply say the right words the right way, and, as the ancient Irish filid could tell you, the human mind can be ensorceled into believing nearly anything.
Try it: Crooked Hillary. Or Nancy Pelosi.
Do people really know why they’re supposed to hate them? No — unless it’s to recite other powerful though empty incantations, like Benghazi, Uranium One, or (shudder) San Francisco.
In TrumpWorld, it’s brands all the way down.
[Also published at Medium.] After the shock of Donald Trump winning the presidency, the hope many of us clung to was that he would grow in office.
Instead, America has shrunk.
There was some reassurance at the beginning, as his poll numbers fell — especially once they reached the low 30s, because 30 percent might as well be zero. As pollsters will tell you, it’s the noise floor of politics: there are always about that many voters who are uninformed, careless, or crazy.
But lately, support for Trump has been rising, at times approaching 50 percent.
This after the Muslim ban, Charlottesville, the attacks on our institutions, the attacks on our allies, the children in cages, the thousands of lies, and on, and on, and on.
Nearly half the country is OK with all that. And a small but growing number of violent extremists are emboldened by it.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Trump isn’t getting better. He really doesn’t seem able to.
But neither should we be surprised that instead, America is getting worse.
We like to say “This is not who we are,” and “We’re better than this.” Normally, those assertions are true.
And yet with the wrong leadership, it is who we are. Yes, America is exceptional. It’s the first country to be founded not on an ethnicity but on an idea, and that idea, freedom and equality for all, is a glorious one.
But Americans are human beings, and human beings are creatures of light and dark, of hope and fear. If a leader constantly summons the worst in us, it will come forth.
History has shown, over and over and around the world, what can happen. Still, we think it couldn’t happen here. Instead we ask, “What was wrong with those people?”
The answer is, they were people. There was nothing wrong with them that isn’t also wrong with us — as a nation of immigrants, we literally are them.
But in a democracy, so does citizenship.
We have chosen a terrible leader.
If we want better, we must be better.