Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Donald Trump?

My God.  It can happen here.  And now it has.  Why will be debated for decades. How did Donald Trump easily win the Republican Party nomination for president and garner enough of the popular vote (48%) in the right combination of states to pull off an Electoral College victory against Hillary Clinton?

We’d better come up with an answer fast, because already we are seeing the normalization of Trump by political and Media elites. In a way, what else can they do?  Trump is now the president-elect, chosen in a constitutionally-legitimate election. Yet, history will ask us how, in 2016, we elected the presidential candidate that ran on a platform of using governmental power to ethnically cleanse the country, jail his enemies, retaliate against the press, blackmail our allies, and literally wall us off from the rest of the world – and not the candidate that violated administrative procedures in her government email account.

Before it hardens into conventional wisdom that Donald Trump lies within the normal range of American political and Constitutional norms, I think we owe it to our children to ask who bears the most responsibility for all that is to come.  To me, the comforting answer – “a mere 4% of the voters [compared to Obama’s 2012 performance] plus the antique Electoral College” – is inadequate.

We also must avoid other easy answers.  In a razor close election, any single factor can be cited as being “the” reason for the outcome.  If only 5,000 people in Ohio had voted for Nixon instead of Kennedy, or 600 in Florida for Gore, etc.  I’m talking about something larger.  What made 50+ million Americans desparate enough to take such a gamble on Trump, and to ignore his obvious odious unfitness for office?  Below are some articles,  some pre-election, some post, that takes stabs at explaining it.

ALSO: I am not inclined to continue my participation in Civilized Conversation in the future. The very name is now a mockery of what our country is soon to become – and maybe what it has been all along. I don’t think I can bear having to prepare every week to review the latest developments in our self-destruction. Also, it’s been 10 years for me now, which is a long time to do what I do in this group 50 times per year.

I will open the meeting on Monday with a discussion of where, if anywhere, CivCon should go next.  Then, on to greater horrors.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Monday’s Mtg: Feminism’s Successes, Failures, and Next Steps.

Am I crazy or has this election become a referendum on misogyny and sexism?  Maybe it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.  Maybe his ugly rhetoric and antics don’t represent anything larger in our society or tell us anything important about the state of gender equality or the obstacles arrayed against further progress.  He might be wildly popular for other reasons, and it is easy to think the huge gains made over decades cannot be reversed and that history will just keep on edging us forward on equal rights for everyone.

And yet.  Political movements in democracies tend to get the leaders that best express what their adherents stand for. Close to 80% of self-identified conservative Republicans say Trump stands for conservative values and principles. Does resentment of gender equality belong on that list, or is the volcano of hate Trump drilled down into more aimed at Hillary Clinton personally and/or the ideologically left-wing bent of modern feminism?

I don’t know. But, either way Monday will be a good day to discuss the successes, failures, and unfinished business of the feminist movement. We can also vent a little about the election. I’m here for you. I don’t read much on feminism and am not well-versed on the priorities and projects that animate the movement these days. So, I will give a brief opening on Monday that focuses on Hillary’s explicitly pro-feminist rhetoric and policy agenda.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 14): Donald Trump: Who is to blame?

Monday’s Mtg: “Trans-Humanism” – Will/should science reinvent the human species?

If you’ve never heard of Monday’s Halloween-appropriate topic, missing our meeting to trick or treat won’t spare you forever. Science and technology cannot yet enhance human capabilities so radically that any of us could transcend humanity’s natural limits and become Trans-human.

But as the articles below describe, we’re getting there. Major advances are being made in key areas, like genetic engineering, pharmacology, and wearable/implantable technologies for the body and brain. Debates over the bioethics of human enhancement technologies have been raging for years already. There has been at least one Presidential blue ribbon commission on bioethics (GWB’s “Cloning Commission”), and an international Trans-humanist movement that has sprung up. The call is coming from inside the house.

Panning Trans-humanists types as over-the-top techno-optimists is easy and fun. But, I think Aaron’s topic ideas is a great one. The ethical, religious, and political implications of it are fascinating, IMO. I’ll be at the meeting. But Aaron will introduce the topic and preside and I look forward to a very interesting discussion of our possible Gattaca-like, Brave New World.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 7): Hillary Clinton and feminism’s successes, failures, and future.

Monday’s Mtg: 20 Years of Fox News – What Is Its Legacy?

It all began with Fox News, 20 years ago this month.

At least that’s my view. Yes, even before FNN launched in 1996, Rush Limbaugh had been on the air for several years and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had reinvented a much harder-edged Republican Party. Still, I think that Fox made everything we are seeing today possible, from movement conservatism’s takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s, to the conspiracy theory-driven mutation of the Obama years, straight through to the madness f 2016.

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps there is not such a straight line to be drawn from that first Fox News broadcast on October 7, 1996, to today’s Trumpian GOP. Many other forces are at work.  Either way though, I still think the launch of the mother ship that is Fox News was a watershed event in American history.

Or, maybe Fox News will change its ways. The network is in great turmoil now, as you no doubt have heard. Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder and ideological commissar, is gone after being fired for sexual harassment. Owner Rupert Murdoch named two of his sons as replacements, and they may be more moderate politically than the ex-Nixon aid Ailes. Fox feuded with Donald Trump initially, but lately has backed him to the hilt. So, FNN will be in the crosshairs when The Great Reckoning begins in earnest starting November 9. Maybe chastised and under new management Fox can evolve into something more responsible.

Our first post-election meeting, on November 14, will be “Who is to Blame for Donald Trump?” Obviously, a single TV network watched by only 3 million people in prime time does not bear all of the blame for what we’re seeing. Nonetheless, to me Fox News is so central to the success of movement conservatism that it deserves its own meeting.

I know it is difficult to talk about anything other than Donald Trump personally these days. But, the conditions that allowed someone like him to capture control of the Republican Party were a long time building, and they will remain after the dust settles. I think we need to understand the crucial incubating and magnifying role played by FNN if we want to grasp why and how this happened. Good people who are conservative Americans – not to mention the rest of us – deserve better.

I will give some kind of brief opening remarks on Monday night to frame our discussion, then throw it open for discussion.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

[UpdateThis is your best explanation of the Fox phenomenon and right-wing media may be heading.  It was not written yet at the time of our mtg.]

Fox News’s Impact –

Donald Trump and Fox News –

The Future of Fox News –

Next Week (10/31):  Franken-future: Will/should we genetically enhance our species?

Monday’s Mtg: Understanding All Those Nov. 2016 CA Ballot Propositions

This election’s 17 (pause for laughter) state propositions cover a huge range of issues. We did the 2 death penalty ones (62, 66) last week, leaving 15. I grouped them into four subject areas. I propose we cover them in the following order, aided by Linda, Carl, and John M., who are researching and will present on some of them. If I have any time over the weekend I may do separate posts on some of the prominent props.

A.   Criminal Justice:

  • 57: Criminal sentencing. (Linda)
  • 64: Marijuana legalization. (David)
  • 63: Gun (actually ammunition) control.
  • [Skip 62 + 66 death penalty we did last week.]

B.   Health Care and Environment:

  • 52: Medi-Cal hospital fee. (Carl)
  • 61: State prescription drug purchase costs. (Carl)
  • 65: + 67: Plastic grocery bag ban. (David)
  • 60: Condom use in porn. (David)
  • 56: Cigarette tax hike. (Linda)

C.    Taxes, borrowing, good government.

  • 55: Extends a previous high-income tax increase. (John M.)
  • 53: Requires voter approval for big state revenue bonds. (David)
  • 54: Publishing of CA legislature’s draft bills and proceedings.
  • 59: Citizens United – Non-binding declaration to reverse it.

D.   Education:

  • 58: English language proficiency, local control of it.
  • 51: School bonds ($9b) for K-12 and JC’s.

The ones with names assigned I think are the more important ones. The others we can cover briefly.  I’ll just quickly describe them and the issue they address, unless people want otherwise. But, remember: 15 props in 2 hours = 8 minutes each unless we keep some really short.

QUESTIONS FOR EACH PROPOSITION:

  1. Who is behind it and its opposition?
  2. Why did they put it on the ballot? Did they try and fail previously, or fail in the legislature? Who/what big powers are they trying to bypass?
  3. What would the proposition do? Is that in dispute? How is it intended to fix/repeal/change current law/policy?
  4. Major substantive pros and cons.
  5. Major stupid/deceptive pros and cons being used to sell/defeat it.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 24):  Fox News, age 20: Impact and Future.

Mtg on Propositions on Monday

I propose we discuss the 15 propositions (17 minus the 2 death penalty ones we did last week) by subject areas.  Here’s the order I think might work, starting each area with the most important/controversial ones.  (Red) shows people that have volunteered to research and present specific props.  If you want to do one, just let me know.   I’ll do the usual linkfest post in a few days.

A.   Criminal Justice:

  • 57: Criminal sentencing. (Linda)
  • 64: Marijuana legalization. (David)
  • 63: Gun (actually ammo) control. (David)

B.    Health Care and Environment:

  • 52: Medi-Cal hospital fee. (Carl)
  • 61: State prescription drug purchase costs. (Carl)
  • 65: + 67: Plastic grocery bag ban. (David)
  • 60: Condom use in porn. (David)
  • 56: Cigarette tax hike. (Linda)

C.   Taxes, borrowing, good government.

  • 55: Extends a previous high-income tax increase. (John M.)
  • 53: Requires voter approval for big state revenue bonds.
  • 54: Publishing of CA legislature’s draft bills and proceedings.
  • 59: Citizens United – Non-binding declaration to reverse it.

D.    Education:

  • 58: English language proficiency.
  • 51: School bonds ($9b) for K-12 and JC’s.

 

Monday’s Mtg: Will America’s Death Penalty Fade Away? (inc. Props. 62 and 66)

On November 8, Californians may abolish the state’s death penalty. Proposition 62 would ban capital punishment outright, including retroactively by converting all 746 prisoners on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If Prop. 62 passes, we would become the 21th state to ban capital punishment outright. Four other states have governor-issued moratoria on executions.

But, it’s not a done deal in CA. I have not checked how 62 is polling yet.  But, a similar proposition failed in 2012, although by just a 52-48 margin. Also, death penalty proponents thought of a clever tactic this time around. They qualified a rival proposition, Prop. 66, to address the worst procedural problems in our state’s death penalty process. By increasing the number of defense lawyers eligible to represent death row inmates and reducing the number of permissible appeals to help speed up the decades-long (and thus arguably cruel and unusual) process, Prop. 66’s backers hope to split the queasy-about-it-all vote and stop repeal.

How big a deal would death penalty abolition be in California? Yeah, it’s the Left Coast. But, some serious people are starting to argue that the USA is near a tipping point on the death penalty. The number of U.S. executions has been declining for years (only 28 in 2015). Botched ones keep making big news. The 2016 national Democratic Party platform called for outright abolition for the first time. Nebraska just became the first red state in modern times to end the death penalty. One major recent poll showed nationwide public support for the death penalty has fallen below 50% for the first time.

On the other hand, 51% does not magically change policy (okay, except on the ballot in CA). I’ve read that the Supreme Court has never had more than two justices willing to declare that capital punishment inherently violates the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. Absent such a ruling, abolition will remain a state-by-state issue, guaranteeing the death penalty’s survival for a long, long time, at least in deep red states.

So, what will happen? Here are some questions we might want to get into on Monday evening, plus some background readings that focus on the chances of abolition. (We did a meeting on whether capital punishment should be abolished in 2014.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Props: Discuss merits of Propositions 62 and 66.
  2. Arguments: Why do people support death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)?   Why oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)?  Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons? What would it take to change people’s minds? Your mind?
  3. Public & politicians: Why has public opinion changed? Will it keep moving against the death penalty? What might it take to reverse or accelerate that trend? What incentives do lawmakers have to take risks versus avoid this issue?
  4. Courts: Will SCOTUS ever ban the death penalty outright? On what basis? Or, will it keep slowly restricting its use (minors, intellectually-disabled, murders only, etc.)?
  5. Alternatives: Can the “machinery of death” (Justice Blackman’s phrase) ever be reformed enough to eliminate its inequities? Regardless, would either side ever be satisfied?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 24): The other 15 ballot propositions, or maybe we’ll just read War and Peace instead.

Monday’s Mtg: What should U.S. school children be taught about history?

I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.

History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on California’s (900-page!) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days have a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.

Second and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.

Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.

But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them.  Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.

Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.

So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.

I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.

Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?

Monday’s Mtg: Which Of President Obama’s Achievements Will Endure?

Between now and next January a lot of retrospectives on the Obama Administration will be penned. I thought it would be helpful for us to get a head start on the debate, since Obama has achieved so much (for good or ill, YMMV) and since Hillary Clinton must run on his record and, if elected, govern with its consequences.

As we’ve discussed in meetings on other presidents (e.g., LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Wilson), it can take decades for a president’s true legacy to become fully visible. Even then, reputations are colored by the politics of whoever is doing the judging and wax and wane as new events shed new light on old decisions. I think our assessment of Obama has to be especially tentative because so much of what he accomplished has been incremental. At practically every juncture (health care, financial reform), Obama chose to achieve what he could, rather than go down in a blaze of ideological purity. Many of his accomplishments also were done via executive actions (immigration, civil rights enforcement), so they are easily reversible by a Republican president.

Still, when taken together, Obama’s eight years of incremental and contingent changes have added up to…a big f***ing deal, as VP Biden likes to say. No matter your political POV, the scale and breadth of the sum of those achievements are simply stunning. Obama entered office with a collapsing economy, two failing wars, and a political opposition dedicated to his destruction. Yet, he managed to affect major changes in almost every area of national government policy, including in

  • heath care;
  • energy, climate, and environmental policy;
  • education (K-12 + college);
  • financial market regulation and consumer protection;
  • labor law and civil rights enforcement;
  • immigration;
  • criminal justice reform; and
  • tax policy.

His foreign policy was not as, let’s say, action-packed and transformational as his immediate predecessor’s. But, Obama

  • continued the struggle against Al Qaeda;
  • wound down the Iraq and Afghan wars (and now shares responsibility for their aftermath);
  • negotiated a global climate treaty, historic nuclear agreements with Iran and India, and several major trade agreements; and
  • pivoted (kind of) U.S. foreign policy towards Asia.

Shocking disclosure: I’m a big fan.

So, are we just going to spend Monday evening listing our most (or least) favorite Obama accomplishment?  No, I hope not. In my opening I will briefly remind us of some of, IMO, Obama’s most important but less well-known accomplishments, like in energy and climate actions, education, and civil rights enforcement. But, with Republicans are committed to what they have told their supporters for almost a decade: All of Obama’s policies are disasters and they will reverse as many of them as they can, as soon as they get the chance.  So, my real idea behind this meeting is for us to explore this question:

  • What is it that makes a president’s achievements endure rather than be reversed and forgotten?

Do the policies have to “work;” i.e., solve the problems they’re intended to solve? Must they be popular? When do future leaders feel free to roll back what a predecessors did and when do they feel constrained?

Anyway, enough rambling. I don’t have time to add a lot of links this week. But, here are some assessments of the Obama presidency and related matters. I’ll keep my opening remarks short, especially if we have a big crowd like last week’s 22 souls.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Lists of accomplishments –

Assessments –

Conservative POV –

Next Week:   Are science and religion inherently in conflict?

Monday’s Mtg: Do Government Anti-Poverty Programs Work?

This month marks the 20th anniversary of federal welfare reform. The 1996 law drastically limited assistance under the U.S. govt’s largest welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Since then, a lot of other changes have been made to our anti-poverty safety net. Yes, TANF was gutted, but other programs have been created or expanded to make up the slack, and the whole system is now better targeted to incentive work and to reach the truly needy.

Still, perhaps welfare reform’s main accomplishment was political. It de-weaponized welfare as a high-profile, partisan issue in American politics. Rising poverty and inequality levels may bring it back, but it hasn’t yet. And if it ever does, most Americans will be just as easy to manipulate as before because few of us know anything at all about this part of government. For example, did you know that

  • The biggest and most effective ant-poverty programs by far are Social Security and Medicare?
  • Govt spending per poor American has gone up in recent years – not down as most progressives think?
  • Benefit levels are pretty paltry, and the biggest poverty programs do incentive work – contrary to what most conservatives think?

Given these and many more public misconceptions, I thought it might behoove us to devote an evening to taking a big picture look at how the government combats poverty in America and how effective it is.

I am a bit pressed for time this week (inc. finding you good, analytical links). Here are some discussion questions I will use to guide our meeting on Monday, and some background readings on anti-poverty programs and their effectiveness. My opening remarks will describe the largest federal and state govt anti-poverty programs and make a few points on the issue of effectiveness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the main federal/state anti-poverty programs? How much do they spend and who gets benefits?
  2. What is their purpose? How is aid targeted and conditioned? Temporary v. permanent help? Cash v. non-cash benefits?   “Making work pay” v. helping non-working poor?
  3. (BTW: Why are there so many poor Americans, anyway?)
  4. Effectiveness at…
    1. Reducing poverty and helping the helpless?
    2. Targeting the “right” people.
    3. Incentivizing work?
    4. Keeping social cohesion.
  5. Problems with…
    1. High program costs.
    2. Dis-incentivizing work.
    3. Subsidizing low-wage employers, like Wal-Mart.
    4. Minimizing fraud and abuse.
  6. Past and future:
    1. Did welfare reform “work?” For whom?
    2. Future alternatives to / expansions of poverty programs.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

How much do we actually spend reducing poverty?

  • It depends what you count as “welfare” and exaggeration is common. Recommended.
  • A conservative group counts up the total.
  • [Update: Is entitlement spending for lazy people growing out of control?  No, it is not: 91% of entitlement spending goes to the elderly (50%), the disabled (20%), or the working poor (20%).  Only 9% goes to non-working, non-disabled adults.]

Impact of anti-poverty programs –

Conservative POV –

20 years after welfare reform:

Worldwide Poverty –

Next Week (Sept 5):  Will President Obama’s Achievements Endure?