The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999. (Some estimates are lower.) About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.
At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:
- Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
- Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
- Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?
Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics. They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control. Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.
Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.
The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –
- Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
- Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
- What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
- At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
- How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.
Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)
A reminder: All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Political system obstacles –
- “Happiness is a worn gun.” Among the fetishists. Harpers 2010, 7pp.
- Americans’ anti-govt gun fantasy. Book excerpt in Slate, 2017, 12pp.
Recommended to read 1 of those 2.
- The NRA is morphing into an even more paranoid and purely-partisan far-right-wing group. Short.
- A list of restrictions on guns Republicans are busily dismantling.
- The real problem: A deep partisan divide on a wide range of intensely-felt cultural issues of which guns may be the worst. A must-read for our discussion.
What (if any) gun control might help?
- None; gun restrictions do not reduce crime. Direct rebuttal here.
- We must:
- Wrong. Only large-scale gun control would do any good, and USA must decide if we want it, says this conservative convert to gun control.
- Key: Keeping guns away from the mentally ill is hard. Recommended NYT.
NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.
This topic is just a way to ask two big questions, I think. They are (1) What motivates America’s interaction with the rest of the world, and (2) how much “good” do we really accomplish and for whom (domestically and abroad)?
Conversations on topics like this often focus on the wars we have fought and their moral justification and successes or failures. CivCon’s discussions of war and peace issues tend to enter around the basic Left v. Right cleavage on the morality of those wars and who they are really fought for. To (some but not all) progressives, the U.S. government has been the bad guy in many times and places, mainly because “we the People” in our foreign policy is really “We, the Corporations” or “We, the neoconservative imperialists.” Many (but not all) conservatives seem to think our country’s moral virtue and exceptionalism are beyond questioning and that our national interests are broad, unchanging, and best advanced through violence and threats of violence. Both sides off and on return to an old American tradition: An almost messianic desire to spread our values, both democratic and capitalist.
Civilized Conversation has managed to broaden this stale debate in the past, IMO. Beyond wars and “other “hard power,” we also have dealt with “soft power” issues like trade policy, non-coercive diplomacy, and immigration.
Now, of course, we have to add two new wrinkles brought to us by the Trump Administration. One is a resurgent patriotism (or belligerent nationalism, depending on your POV) that Trump created and/or rode into the oval office. The other is his sharp retreat from global leadership under his campaign slogan “American First.” (We did meetings on both of these. See below.)
So, my idea was that we could go over different POVs on the (1) intentions and (2) results of the biggest chunks of our recent foreign policy, including but not limited to wars and military coercion. I don’t think people have to know much about foreign affairs for this to be a good meeting. To me our topic is really all about who you think the “We” is in “our” relations with the rest of the world.
NEWBIES: Please note that the readings are optional and some are tagged as being more useful than others. I may start reducing the number of readings since I think they scare away new members. What do the rest of you think?
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
Basic background and related CivCon mtgs –
- ABCs of how US foreign policy gets made. Short.
- 2017 CivCon – What does the USA stand for? Part 1 by DavidG + Part 2 by Ali. Some useful links.
- 2017 CivCon – Has Trump summoned a New American Nationalism?
- 2012 – What is patriotism?
Good guys, bad guys, or neither –
- USA is the good guy when we support a global rule of law.
- …and when we don’t let belief in our own superiority drive what we do. Recommended
- Trump has started a battle for the soul of U.S. foreign policy. Recommended.
- Neither: We should put protecting Americans over reassuring others. Conservative POV (but not neoconservative).
- Video of Obama speech on what USA stands for. (28m).
NEXT WEEK: Would gun control really reduce crime?
We have talked about the Constitution many, many times and in many detailed and abstract ways. We have never asked what should the average citizen know about the Constitution, both in terms of what’s in the document and why it matters.
What they do know is not much. The level of public ignorance of our founding document is astounding. Forget bills of attainder, living constitution versus original meaning, and substantive due process. More than one-third of Americans cannot name a single right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and one in six believe Muslims are not entitled to equal constitutional rights and equal protection!
So, or our purposes assume that the average American is a tabula rasa on this stuff. What are the most critical, basic things about the Constitution that they need to know? Do they need to be familiar with anything other than the bare basics of the Bill of Rights and the basic powers of government? What about the history of how and why the Constitution was written and/or a teeny little bit on how judges and SCOTUS interpret it? What do people probably need to unlearn that is wrong? You get the idea.
Below are some optional readings. They include a quiz for YOU to take on basic Constitutional knowledge; discussions of public ignorance and its importance; and links to some old CivCon meetings. You might want to peruse the two meetings that dealt with progressive versus conservative methods of constitutional interpretation if you are not familiar at all with the subject. The one on the liberal POV had the better links.
Also, at Monday’s meeting I will pick which two volunteers will help me pick our next round of topics (March – June). Send me your topic ideas!
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Related CivCon meetings:
- Liberal and conservative constitutional interpretation. Click.
- Sept. 2015: Is public ignorance of basic civics a big problem?
- Nov 2016: What is “cultural literacy?”
Your knowledge of the Constitution –
- Take this quiz. 10 questions, then a harder 50. How did you do?
- Some things that are NOT in the Constitution (at least explicitly)
- FYI: Full text of The Constitution.
What they teach kids about the Constitution –
- In California: What kids learn, by grade.
- There is a “National Constitution Day” every September 17, by law. School kids must spend an hour on it with. DavidG has been a guest speaker in local high school classes.
- California is trying to promote/recognize constitutional and civic knowledge.
- The Simpsons version of Schoolhouse Rock explains it all.
What the public actually knows –
- Almost nothing. Wow.
- Support for the 1st amendment has been eroding and since Trump is crumbling. Vulnerable due to ignorance?
- Yet, civic ignorance is rational, points out this conservative. And, most voters are not stupid.
NEXT WEEK: US foreign policy – How do we know we are the good guys?
This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.
We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.
What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.
- The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
- Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.
For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.
I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The case against the Electoral College. Recommended, or see here for more.
- Why we even have it by a historian of the Constitution. Recommended.
- A conservative says abolish it.
- In defense of the Electoral College:
- National Popular Vote initiative:
- The Republicans’ current structural advantage in American politics. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?
Welcome back from our two week break! It was nice for me to get off of the treadmill for a while. But, given how important this first topic of 2018 is, I’m glad to be back hampstering away.
That the United States has been a victim of foreign interference in the 2016 election it is now pretty much beyond dispute. This is true even if there is no way to know whether Russian actions significantly swayed the outcome, and no matter the degree of collaboration by the Trump campaign the special prosecutor eventually finds. Moreover, the issue of election tampering will intensify over the next few years.
Of course, Russia, the United States, and other countries routinely try to sway politics in other countries, including electoral outcomes. We make key concessions in negotiations to help a friendly government win its next election. We fund the development of civil society institutions overseas and even opposition political parties. During the Cold War, both sides conducted elaborate propaganda and disinformation campaigns. And, yes, we have a sordid record of facilitating regime change, including of democratically-elected governments.
What is new to worry about? From what I read, mainly two things: The tools used to interfere in elections have evolved in dangerous ways, and some of our major adversaries (notably Russia) have a strengthened interest in sewing chaos and public feelings of illegitimacy in Western political systems. In other words, interfering in elections themselves, not just in politics, is becoming easier and it’s being done to us. For the moment craven Republicans in Congress don’t seem to care much. But, people at all levels of American government are working furiously on this problem
Which types of threats should we most worry about, and what can be done to stop them? I think a good start would be to distinguish different types of interference tools and objectives so we can better distinguish the same old same old political meddling from actual attempts to sabotage our electoral institutions and systems. So, on Monday I will open our meeting by trying to do just that. Then we can talk about Trump/Russia, propaganda in an age of social media, and how best to protect our democracy from these news threats.
I don’t see how we can avoid the astonishing specter of the Trump campaign’s collaboration with a foreign power and the GOP’s spineless acquiescence to it. But, I hope we can talk about larger issues, too.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Russia and Trump: What do we know (so far from the public sources)? What remains unknown? Will GOP ever take it seriously? Endgame.
- Types of election “interference?” Overt v. covert. Legal v. illegal. Influence v. sabotage? Campaigns v. electoral systems?
- History lessons: How common has this sort of thing been – including by USA? Does it work? Morality/backlash issues.
- Vulnerability: How vulnerable are we now and why? Federal? State/local? News media? Social media? The voters?? Why has so little been done?
- Policy: What are best ways to prevent improper interference? Modernizing election systems? Deterrence with offensive capability? Negotiations?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The startling breadth and depth of its 2016 interference. Recommended.
But, no evidence hackers changed any actual votes cast.
- The GOP itself (RNC) may have collaborated.
- Will Trump and the GOP let it all happen again in 2018 and 2020? Recommended.
- History: Election interference during the Cold War.
- The startling breadth and depth of its 2016 interference. Recommended.
- Our current vulnerability:
NEXT WEEK: The Electoral College and a workaround.
In the last decade anxiety has grown about the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of modern capitalism. The financial meltdown and Great Recession of 2008-10, rising material inequality, and the specter of climate catastrophe have focused a lot of minds and some people wonder if systemic change is in order. No one wants early 20th century-style command economies, of course. But, it might be a good time to dust off a debate that was briefly popular after the Cold War ended: Is a “Third Way” possible, a new economic system balanced between capitalism and socialism with characteristics of each?
I tend to think that our worst problems and inability to act are more products of political failures than of any fatal flaw of capitalism. Yet, others say that today’s hyper-globalized, giant corporation-controlled, finance-dominated capitalism is the root cause of many of them, or at least that today’s capitalism never will be able or willing to act on them. Problems such as –
- Climate and environmental damage.
- Soaring economic inequality.
- Financial system instability.
- Concentration of corporate power fewer and fewer hands.
- Loss of interest among economic elites in maintaining high wages and full employment.
- Disruptive technologies on the horizon (like AI) that could render vast numbers of jobs obsolete.
- The existence of seemingly successful but authoritarian models of development, especially China’s.
To these problems you can add political ones, like disappearing social institutions that used to help to constrain concentrated private power, paralyzed governments, and a pissed-off public searching for populist scapegoats.
To be sure, capitalism has always been very adaptive and dynamic. A disruptive and painful “creative destruction” has always been the price we pay for the enormous wealth capitalism creates and the personal freedom it allows. Moreover and as we’ve discussed, there isn’t just one model of capitalism in the world. To simplify somewhat, there is a Nordic model, a German one, an Anglo-Saxon one, and several state-led Asian variants, notably the authoritarian Chinese one. Their freedom to experiment is somewhat limited by international law and trade rules, as is ours to a lesser extent.
It’s almost too big a topic, when you think about it. We might get somewhere on Monday if we ask some of the right questions. Focusing on who should own the means of production, how much government planning is needed, and the merits of the profit motive seems a little archaic to me. IMO it also focuses more on means than ends. Maybe my educational/career background can help here. So, I will open us up with a short introduction that frames the big questions we are going to have to ask in the years ahead regarding capitalism – questions I think will bedevil us regardless of what type of “system” we say we have. Here are a few general questions and some reading ideas.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Socialism: What is/was Socialism? What was/wasn’t socialized and why? Different types?
- Capitalism: How many different models of mixed capitalism exist today? What are the biggest differences between them in term of property ownership; corporate governance; govt planning, tax/spend, regulation; democratic accountability; etc.?
- Successes: What makes an economic system successful? What’s an economy for? Do some economic systems support democracy better than others and vice versa?
- Failures: Is capitalism in crisis? Which models fare best and are best prepared for the future? Is capitalism or politics to blame and can one be in crisis without the other?
- Priorities: What more do we want from our economic system, and what are we willing to give up? (Stability, growth, opportunity, sustainability, social justice, etc.?) Tradeoffs.
- Future: Disruptive technology issues, rise of China/India, climate crisis…
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Types of capitalism –
- Nordic model. (Notice it’s a political system, too.)
In praise of it. A conservative rebuttal. Recommended.
- German model.
- Asian model – Should the West be mimicking it?
- China model – Its appeal is not going away.
Alternative Third Ways –
- 10 alternatives to capitalism, some farfetched.
- Stakeholder capitalism: Change corporations not the whole economic system. Recommended or shorter version here.
- Globalization’s one-size-fit-all approach. Its rules don’t leave enough room for democracy nor permit countries to develop different economic models. Recommended.
- State-owned industries: Maybe sometimes it’s a good idea.
- Conservative POV: Quasi-capitalism cannot work and should not be tried. Very long but fair.
NEXT WEEK: Religiosity – How has its decline affected the USA?
Penny suggested this topic and that we focus on one specific aspect of it: The outsized role that big corporations play in making the American diet unhealthy. CivCon has discussed some related issues in the last two years. In May 2017 we debated how far government should go in encouraging healthy lifestyles and in 2015 we looked at some of the implications of Big Ag itself, with a focus on the industry’s huge political clout and the environmental problems of hyper-concentrated food production. On Monday, we will tackle some of the big health issues surrounding the American diet.
There are a lot of them. It is well known that over the last few decades Americans have grown much more reliant on heavily-processed food, especially fast food. Many of these products are chock full of unhealthy or at least nutritionally-questionable ingredients such as sugar, salt, corn, and chemical additives. A lot of people blame this new American diet for the recent large rise in obesity and related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Some go farther.
Like many of our topics, this is not an area I am very familiar with. However, here are some articles that explore the idea that our diet is being manipulated by big companies and several defenses of industrial agriculture.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The Way We Eat Now: Our modern diet does not fit with our ancient bodies. Recommended.
- How big corporations cashed in on the obesity epidemic.
- Pollan and Schlosser: America is a still a “fast food nation” and a land of “unhappy meals.” Recommended
- Why corn is in practically everything we eat. Recommended.
- Trump has appointed foxes to guard the regulatory henhouses, including at all food-related agencies.
- OTOH POV:
NEXT WEEK: Does the “paranoid style” control American politics now?
Fifty years ago 485,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam, and in November, 1967, alone almost 500 died there (sources 1 2). Since 1968 began our long, cruel exit from that place, we will be inundated with anniversaries over the next few years. Also, many of us saw at least some of the 15-part Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war that ran last month. I thought it would be a good time to discuss an age-old topic: What should we have learned from the Vietnam War, and did we learn it?
Candidates for lesson-hood are many. Off the top of my head, possible ones include (in no particular order ideological or otherwise) the following.
- Don’t take over other countries civil wars.
- Distinguish vital national interests from peripheral ones – and be willing to live with the consequence.
- Don’t abandon an ally after you spend a decade fighting the enemy to a standstill (Congress cut off military aid in 1973).
- Cutting losses beats compounding them forever just to preserve “America credibility.”
- Counter-insurgency is a different kind of warfare – and easy to lose.
- Carpet bombing cities cannot break an enemy’s will.
- Americans can be as brutal in war as anybody else.
- Don’t assume all U.S. adversaries worldwide are united against us (USSR/China/N. Vietnam; Al Qaeda/ISIS/Hezbollah).
- Anti-war protests can – or cannot – stop a war.
- Protests rarely are popular, especially if the most anti-American elements get out in front.
- Military power alone can’t win wars.
- U.S. wars require broad public support or at least “silent majority’s acquiescence.
- Poor Americans shouldn’t bear all the burden of the fighting.
- Huge wars cause huge refugee flows and we need to have a plan.
- The government sometimes tell big, whopping lies.
- The Best and the Brightest often are neither.
- Domino theories are stupid. Or: Sometimes they come true.
- The USA is an imperialist power. Or: No, the Left just thinks we are.
- Journalists reporting war’s ugly details saps public support.
- We shouldn’t let our troops fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.”
- Americans hate to lose so much we create myths when it happens (like one hand behind or stab in the back).
I could list these all night. You probably can, too, since most of us in Civilized Conversation were alive and/or adults during the Vietnam War era and several of us were there. I doubt you need much background material, either. Here are a few timelines and summaries of the conflict, along with some “lessons learned/unlearned” retrospectives. I’m egregiously adding a few readings on the parallels between Vietnam and the wars on terror, Iraq, etc.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Timelines: Basis timeline major stuff only. More detailed.
- U.S. military:
- Our troops did NOT fight with one hand behind their backs.
- It was a war on civilians. Recommended.
- Lessons learned according to General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s Natl Security advisor. Recommended.
- U.S. anti-war movement – All recommended:
- Ken burns series:
- Conservative POVs:
- Lessons for our current wars:
NEXT WEEK: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel.
Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.
First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?
- A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
- Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
- Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
- Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
- Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
- Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?
That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.
A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.
I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.
To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.
Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?
I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?
A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
How Democratic is the USA –
- Two big expert surveys said we’re doing pretty well but some reasons to worry – especially with Trump’s election. Recommended.
- Wrong. We are an oligarchy, another study said (in 2014!)
- Our political system has become biased against one major party and that’s bad in a democracy.
- Important: Healthy civic institutions matter more than just having elections.
Do we have too much democracy?
- USA has too much democracy and it may destroy us. , center-right author Andrew Sullivan. Related: The voters are the problem; ignorant, erratic, etc.
Recommended to read one.
- Conservative POV: Too much democracy + unconstitutional expansion of govt are the real problems.
Threats to US democracy –
- Three big threats: Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and Big Money in politics. Recommended;
by a Republican. More on the GOPs assault on voting rights.
- Economic inequality, because it reinforces political inequality. Recommended.
- Our Constitutional system was not built for this level of economic inequality. Interesting.
- Protest is being criminalized by GOP governments.
- How to deepen U.S. democracy.
- Obama’s farewell entreaty to protect our democracy from what is coming.
NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.