Rule of law and the civil society

Would you stop for a pedestrian about to enter a crosswalk? Or one who had just stepped into the crosswalk in your own view as you approached it in your vehicle? Of course you would. Ask yourself why. At a minimum most people would answer, because it’s the law.

This morning as I was jogging along a local rail-to-trail, like many others in America these days I was mulling over the Judge Kavanaugh hearings and the likely Senate confirmation vote about to take place. I should state right off that like Judge Kavanaugh I graduated from a Jesuit prep school and attended Yale College, about 6 or 7 years earlier than he. Unlike Judge Kavanaugh, I am not a Republican, but neither am I a Democrat. I have been an Independent ever since my first election in which I had to choose between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. To be honest, I don’t remember which candidate I supported, they both had things going for them. But I do remember that I voted a straight Republican ticket on the rest of the ballot in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of New Haven. Generally I think government works best when the checks and balances come into play. One party dominance tends toward autocratic governance, and part of the promise of our system of government, founded in the face of English monarchical autocracy—think the Stamp Tax and the Boston Tea Party—is its protection of minority voices, of the weak in the face of the self-serving powerful.

It seems likely that the FBI’s investigation was narrowly focused on two instances of alleged sexual assault. This is unfortunate. I am not going to address that question beyond stating the obvious that we will likely never be able to prove to the standard of a court of law that a teenage Brett Kavanaugh was the boy who assaulted a teenage Christine Blasey-Ford in a locked upstairs bedroom back in 1982. And although this process should be understood to be more like a job interview than a juried trial, partisan differences seem to prevent clarity even on this point. Confirmation bias will also factor into whether we think Judge Kavanaugh has a drinking problem, though testimony of those who knew him back then suggests he drank more often and excessively in both high school and college than he let on, and this raises suspicions about his basic honesty with himself.

I do not doubt Judge Kavanaugh’s legal acuity. He follows what constitutional scholars call the “originalist” approach, a method that one can disagree with but has an intellectually legitimate basis and is supported by a significant portion of the legal community. But I do not think Judge Kavanaugh should be confirmed. Judges are supposed to comport themselves with probity and respect for the truth and ultimate societal good. In indulging in theories of left-wing conspiracies concocted by the Clintons frustrated by their loss in the 2016 election and bent on revenge for his own role in the Monica Lewinski investigations, Kavanaugh showed a lack of judicial probity. In suggesting that he would hold a grudge moving forward, observing that what goes around comes around, he undercuts his own reputation. Or he was playing to President Trump’s vanity? Either way, it is Judge Kavanaugh’s behavior that reflects badly on himself, and if confirmed, on the integrity of the Supreme Court.

So I was thinking about these things when I approached that cross walk just as a school bus with a long line of cars behind came into view. I hadn’t quite gotten to the cross walk when I made eye contact with the bus driver and I basically told him to go on through. School buses are special, and deserve special treatment. That’s why we stop when they are stopped to pick up and drop off children. But as I stepped out into the cross walk as the bus went by, the following drivers did not stop for me. Like Judge Kavanaugh, I don’t like to lose, so I stepped forward across the road. But I’m no fool, I didn’t step into the line of cars and get injured just to prove a point. I just stood there mouthing something like, “It’s the law!” And since they were behind a school bus it’s not as if they were going to get where they were going any faster anyway. Finally the last driver stopped for me, and I saluted him as I crossed. Why did I step out like that? I think it’s because I had been thinking about our system of government designed to iron out laws in a fair manner, and accordingly a country founded on respect for the law. And that respect for the law ultimately rests on our faith in the fairness of those laws and the judicial system that supports them. Judge Kavanaugh showed he cares more about winning a seat for himself on the Supreme Court than the reputation of that very same court, more about winning than in protecting the impartiality of the bench, and in my mind that disqualifies him.

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Duplicitous fundraising

I just received an urgent email plea for a contribution to Sen. Bob Casey’s office, ostensibly because the Senator needs to raise $10,000 by midnight. There was no real explanation as to why it had to be done by midnight, and it looks to me like an indefensibly duplicitous method of fundraising. I regard this sort of thing as dishonest and unprincipled. I am a long-time registered Independent even more likely to vote against Trump and Republicans in the midterm elections because of their embrace of “alternative facts,” but this sort of thing makes me think I can’t believe what Sen. Casey says either.

I googled keywords “Casey” and “$10,000” and found only a quote from Tom Daschle saying that a Senator has to raise an average of $10,000 per day to fund campaigns for reelection. Undoubtedly this is behind the number and the notion that he needs the money by midnight…I must say it follows a Trump-style fast and loose regard for truth.

A number of years ago I received a similar email from a student fundraiser from my college fundraising office. There was a contact number so I called, or perhaps I emailed. At any rate, I did have a long, frank and friendly phone conversation with the student who explained that marketing studies showed that this technique declaiming urgency is successful in raising money. I suggested to him that short-term gain might undercut the long-term relationship, and the longer term fundraising potential. I told him to take me off the list. And I “unsubscribed” from Senator Casey’s list as well.

Since I reached awareness of politics during the Vietnam era, I have always been skeptical of government pronouncements. I was appalled by Pres. George W. Bush’s weapons-of-mass-destruction canard, but for the most part I at least listened to most government statements with the assumption that government announcements more or less reflected reality. Pres. Trump’s actions have flipped my approach to the current administration’s pronouncements. Democrats would do well to hold themselves to a better standard of truth than shown in Senator Casey’s email fundraiser, lest they contribute to loss of public trust.

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I am thankful that we have constitutional protection to allows dissent against autocratic and mercurial government leadership, and that we have a large enough community in our country that supports the rule of law. That’s what I said I was thankful for at a family Thanksgiving meal hosted by a staunchly Republican brother-in-law who voted for Trump even though he knew he was a despicable human being and a wild actor. I heard it “killed him” to vote for Trump, but he ascribed to the theory that the Republican party would reign his wilder character in. I almost didn’t go to the family gathering, but my kids said I had to, and you know, family’s family. Where to draw the line? So I promised not to bring it up during the festive occasion, but when the host insisted everyone in the room say what they were thankful for, that’s what I had to say.

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Veteran’s Day and Protest

I wrote the following on Veteran’s Day morning soon after Mr. Trump’s electoral victory. There had been a suggestion that Veteran’s Day was not a suitable day for students to protest Mr. Trump’s electoral victory, that somehow this might dishonor veterans. I felt it important to express my view that it was more than suitable. The following is what I wrote to my faculty and staff colleagues.

Since today is Veteran’s Day, I hung out on my front porch the American flag that my father, a WWII veteran, flew in front of his house for many years.

Might I suggest that, since this is Veteran’s Day, it be recognized at this morning’s gathering that this particular holiday is the state and nation’s collective way of honoring military service to our national community. In this vein, separate from policy issues on the Republican and Democratic, Libertarian and Green party platforms, I am ashamed that our citizenry has chosen to elect a man who is unaware of his responsibilities as our presidential spokesperson. In addition to the numerous character flaws he exhibits, and in addition to the various repugnant attitudes he openly indulges in regard to race, women, immigrants, religion, and many Others, he is a man who denigrated a gold star family because they are Muslim. He had the temerity to suggest that his own sacrifices in pursuit of personal career success were equivalent or greater to the public good than a family’s sacrifice of their son in military service to the country. And yet this man will now become our commander-in-chief.

Today is not Memorial Day, but it seems to me some expression against Donald Trump’s anti-American narcissism is appropriate to the day.

It is essential to the health of our democratic system that we acknowledge Mr. Trump’s victory at the polls. And those of us who are appalled by Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric must find common ground with those who voted for the man. Yet that does not mean we must fall lock-step into unthinkingly and unimaginatively following his leadership. Nor does it mean that anti-Trump citizens’ shouldn’t use the day to assert their citizenship rights to heal our body politic. To my patriotic colleagues, students, and friends at Bucknell please recall, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Since his Inauguration, President Trump has shown himself exceedingly self-centered and callous to our constitutional principles.  But he has also showed himself incompetent in simple implementation of his agenda. The travel ban from seven select Muslim countries this weekend is a good example of a thinly veiled anti-Islamic measure that revealed its rashness by banning green-card holders from returning to their jobs and families. His instigation of a fight with Mexico over an ill-conceived wall, an item that even immigration experts hold will not work, and his insistence that “Mexico will pay for it” with a tariff that will only result in American consumers paying the bill, is utterly counterproductive. He is sowing the seeds of divisiveness even among Republican stalwarts.  But he is pandering to the worst instincts of our body politic and vigilance is required to hold President Trump’s authoritarian tendencies in check.  Write your congressional representatives. Support those who voice opposition to his madness.

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Letter to my Senator

Ok, so I’ve got a bunch of work-related things I’m doing, but when I noticed my Senator hadn’t spoken up about Trump’s travel ban, I sent his office the following note. Just go to your Representative or Senator’s official website, and there should be a simple way to voice your input to your elected official:

This is an Immigration as well as a National Security issue.

I am disappointed that Sen. Toomey has not spoken out against the poorly conceived ban on entry of refugees from the 7 predominantly Muslim countries. There are several reasons why this constituent opposes the measure. Please do not pigeonhole my opposition to any one of the following:

1. On a fundamental level, it violates our fundamental national principles of freedom of religion. It may in part be conceived as a national security measure but it is structured on religion. I think Rep. Charlie Dent has it right on this one. Listen to your successor House Representative.

2. We are a nation of immigrants, and this is a turn against who we are as a nation. We are so much richer as a nation because of these brave, energetic people. Do we want to maintain our national security by becoming in inward-looking people? This policy is just fundamentally, again, contrary to who we are and ought to remain.

3. Even if you accept the idea that we can lower terrorist threats by restricting travel from countries that contain terrorist breeding grounds (too blunt a policy that I do not agree with), this implementation is poorly conceived. I understand green-card holders are no longer being detained–seriously, how can you keep out the engineers, doctors, university professors, hard-working entrepreneurs who have chosen to immigrate and raise their families here–but the ban is still too broad. We need people from these regions to see America for themselves. Putting up a wall simply isolates us, and isolates them. It is a propaganda windfall for the terrorist leadership in these countries and elsewhere. The Iranian anti-American leadership has been hoping to stop interaction with the West. Trump’s policy is helping them achieve that by giving credence to their characterization of America as anti-Islam.

Please be a voice in the halls of Congress, within the Republican Party, and among the politically powerful in Washington to protect our civil liberties against President Trump’s isolationist, authoritarian tendencies.

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Remembering Pearl Harbor

On August 1st this year, my father’s ashes were interred at Punchbowl cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, and spent the first two years of the war on a destroyer in the Western Pacific before the Navy sent him to college in their V-12 officer training program. After a 25 year career he retired as a Commander, then worked several decades more before a long and active retirement. He served as president of his local retired officers association as well as in several leadership roles in many other civic groups. He passed away in January 2015 at the age of 92.

The Navy gave us a ceremony that was especially moving, complete with military honor guard, a ritual folding of the flag and presentation to my eldest sister, and three volleys of a 5-gun salute. A Punchbowl volunteer, a retired navy chief petty officer, recounted for us my father’s experience on the day, about how at the very beginning of the attack, before anyone knew what was happening, he watched one of the first Japanese planes fly over his ship on its way to drop a torpedo on the battleship Oklahoma, and how in the resulting rush to battle stations he jumped into the water to cut loose the captain’s gig so it wouldn’t jam the ship’s propellers as it got underway. At this point in the chief’s recounting, a lone plane flew across the patchy blue sky above the Punchbowl, an apparition that suggested some cosmic resonance connecting past and present. Later, as we placed my father’s urn into the crypt, a gentle rain began to fall.  In Hawaii they say this constitutes a blessing from the gods, and I tried to take comfort in that.

The chief petty officer called my father a hero, but he was never especially comfortable with being called that simply for happening to be in a certain place at an epochal moment in history. And serving in the wartime Navy wasn’t so much heroism as civic duty to him, something every one ought to do as a matter of course. To me though he was heroic in another way, in a way we all could strive to emulate. More than once he told me that he would find himself in the middle of battle, even in the middle of exchanging fire, thinking “that poor guy on the other side is just like me.”  He wasn’t denying difference, rather he was asserting an essential core truth.  I always admired his capacity and grace at such a young age to comprehend the fundamental humanity of his ostensible enemy during the great conflict of WWII. His admission of caritas for the Other, even in the midst of fulfilling duty to his own community, strikes me as especially admirable, and worthy of remembrance.

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Shinkai Makoto

I had occasion recently to view Shinkai Makoto’s 5 Centimeters per Second, an animated film put out by the man widely lauded as the next Miyazaki Hayao.  In my history of contemporary Japan course we discuss Hayazaki’s films as representative texts from the 1980s and 1990s in their nostalgic visions of a cleaner, simpler past. Shinkai’s animated films are clearly inspired by Hayazaki’s work.

I first saw a Shinkai film a few years ago when I noticed his The Place Promised in Our Early Days in our library DVD collection.  I found that film a bit hard to parse. It seemed to reflect a Cold War science fiction sensibility about a future Japan divided by competing Soviet and U.S. interests, and yet it was produced in 2004 after the Cold War had “ended.”  Then I came across Shinkai’s magnificent 2-minute long advertisement for a Japanese distance-learning juku corporation-Z-Kai “Cross Road Special”. It focused a boy and girl from different parts of Japan who shared remarkably similar aptitudes and perspectives, used the same juku to prepare for the university exam, and then meet by chance outside the results board.

5 Centimenters also focuses on the almost mystical affinity that a boy and girl have for one another. In the film they end up drifting apart, but in the commercial the two end up at the same university. The ad ends with the note, “I’m not alone anymore.”  Haven’t seen any of his other films yet, but they seem to follow similar story lines.

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Press Conference in Tokyo, 13 May 2015

I was having lunch in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan today and my host thought I might be interested in a press conference held there later that afternoon by the City of Minamikyushu about their application for the inclusion of the Chiran archive in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” Registry. The Chiran Repository of War Memories began as a memorial site for documents related to the many tokko or kamikaze pilots who flew out of an airfield there late in the Asia-Pacific War. In the last few years they have tried to create a museum that avoided beautifying suicidal war sacrifice, that served to convey the horror of total war conducted by industrialized societies. They have “contextual” material such as diary entries by local schoolgirl volunteers, letters to the pilots and their bereaved families written by community children, and artifacts such as a “mascot doll” given to a tokko pilot by a schoolgirl, intended to encourage him in his mission. They also have letters and poems written by the pilots themselves before they flew off on what was intended to be their last mission.  I was particularly interested in this event because the Repository’s historical consultant was M.G. “Bucky” Sheftall, a professor of Japanese History at Shizuoka University who has worked with discipline and compassion on war memories of Japanese veterans for the past 15 years or so.

There was quite a buzz in the room that was packed with about 80 journalists and a dozen or so television cameras.  Afterwards, as I was waiting to introduce myself to Bucky, a camera crew approached me and asked what I thought of the whole project. As I was asked in Japanese, I responded in Japanese, though I discovered after the fact that the crew was from SBS, a South Korean outfit. Here is what I wished I had the presence of mind to say.

All the correspondents in the Q & A session were right in their concerns about how the project is a difficult one. However earnest and successful the current curators are, and however independent of state interference they might currently be, there is no guarantee that future Japanese administrations might bring pressure to bear on the museum to change the exhibits to be more in line with statist presumptions of patriotic sacrifice in support of war efforts. Furthermore, any one artifact is subject to different interpretations depending on the disposition and assumptions of the viewer. And there is no getting around the bad timing that this local community effort at UNESCO recognition comes at the same time as the national government’s controversial application for a number of Meiji industrial sites for World Heritage designation.

I wasn’t really able to speak to Bucky, but I wanted to tell him his was a noble effort, and that such a repository is suitable for inclusion in an international repository such as the UNESCO registry. Yet one shouldn’t imagine that establishing the proper context is a one-off operation; it will require continuing effort and no illusion otherwise.

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Turning Points

It struck me this morning that my first year students were probably in first grade at the time of the 9/11 attacks. 50 years ago today I was in first grade when Kennedy was shot.

I don’t remember when I learned of his being shot, or of his death. What I do recall is standing in line on the streets of D.C., late into the night, waiting to view Kennedy’s body in state. My father told us that he knew some one who had seen Lincoln’s body in state and he wanted to give us the same kind of historical memory. It was a bitterly cold night, and the new overcoats my mother had gotten us did not match the cold late November chill. I suppose I must have whined about wanting to go home because I remember my mother eventually convincing my father it was just too cold and too late for the children to stay out. I do remember understanding my father’s desire to give us a special memory, and the wonder of having participated in an event of national historical significance.

A few days later, my father took my older siblings to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. I wanted to go, but either there was not enough room in the car or my Dad didn’t feel he could look after a small child on top of his other children–I was the youngest. I remember watching the service on tv, and saw a girl on a man’s shoulders in the broadcast, and was certain my father and sister had been captured by the tv coverage. I also remember John-John and Caroline, who were more or less my age, and I felt sorry for them.

Kennedy was, of course, the first president I remember. We had made fun of his accent, mimicking it to hilarious laughter. We enjoyed Vaughn Meader’s album having fun caricaturing the family. Those are joyful memories. The Kennedy family was remote from us, with the aristocratic wife/mother and the funny talking husband/father. But in our imaginations they played touch football on the White House lawn, and they were in many ways “our” first family.

Kennedy, supported by speech-writer Ted Sorensen, was inspirational. A generation asked themselves what they could do for their country. And his was the public voice for the 1960s effort to put a man on the moon within the decade “and other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  When I think of Kennedy’s death, I also want to remember the moon landing, an achievement and turning point of far greater import to humanity.  After Kennedy’s death, those left behind picked up the torch of his inaugural, lighting the way toward civil rights at home, the moon and beyond in space.

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Better “than” than “then”

Every now and then I come across writing that really hits a nerve. One particular mistake is the misleading use of “then” instead of “than.”  For example, in this week’s Bucknellian the editorial is particularly poorly written.  Here is the incorrect use of “then.”

“Most students do not drink by themselves, and more often then not they are encouraged by their peers to engage in heavy drinking.”  The Bucknellian 152.1 Sept. 6, 2013.

As I tell my students, the effective writer understands that attentive readers will, at least early on, trust the writer not to mislead them.  They will pick up on clues the writer gives, anticipating where the writer is going.  In the case of the editorial quoted above, the “more often then not” is ambiguous. I read “more often then not” and I trust the writer to mean “then,” in which case the logical meaning would be something along the lines of “more often, then not [so often].” Of course, from the larger context it is obvious that the writer intended “more often than not.”

I don’t look at this as being picky.  After all, at first I’m assuming the writer intends to use the words he uses, and intends to say something a little more nuanced than the obvious. Else why bother writing it, why bother reading it?

By the time I got to the sentence where the editorialist uses the word “fair” to mean “fare,” he’s lost me.  A colleague of mine puts it this way: Don’t piss off your reader。

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