Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: Is Worldwide Democracy Inevitable?

It’s kind of a holiday weekend. But, I really like this topic idea of Aaron’s asking whether universal democracy should still be considered a kind of “Manifest Destiny” for the 21st century.  Yes, it has been conventional wisdom for more than a decade that democracy around the world is in retreat. Authoritarianism has descended on country after country. The Arab Spring was stillborn and Iraq and Syria flew apart. Eastern Europe’s promising “color revolutions” petered out with help from a newly-aggressive Russia. Chinese democracy is still a no-show and the country has entered a new period of repression. In the West, right-wing political parties are surging all over the EU and we elected Donald Trump.  So much for the end of history and all of that post-Cold War democratic triumphalism, maybe.

Or, maybe not.  History is rarely a painless and quickly-triumphant march of progress, is it?  There was bound to be a backlash to the post-Cold War spasm of democratic reforms in fragile countries, wasn’t there?  And the 2008 financial collapse and growing economic inequality had to at least postpone the party, didn’t it?

FWIW, I think the relationship between economic and social change and democracy is really complicated. For example, globalization can either spur democratic and liberal reforms or a backlash against them. Religion often gets in the way of democratization, but it also binds societies together.  I also try to take a long view. I think developing countries are going through the same highly-disruptive, painful struggle the West endured in its century of rapid industrialization and cultural change during 1848-1945. Like we did, the non-West will evolve its own forms of popular governance and institutions to empower and contain government. Results are going to vary a lot country to country and region to region.

Anyway, here are a small number of readings on the topic of the “democratic recession” we are currently experiencing and some speculation as to why and what might happen next. They are all general (not country-specific), but a few are long and/or a bit complicated.  We don’t need lectures on basic stuff in this group.  So, I will give open us up by highlighting a few of the tensions inherent between rapid econ/social/cultural change and emergence of/persistence of democracy.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. West: What is the Western model of democracy and how does it vary?
  2. Rest:  Have other democratic models emerged outside of the West?  Why?
  3. Retreat: Why has democracy been in retreat lately? Which causes are specific to countries/regions and which any common causes?
  4. Complexity: What tensions exist between: Democracy and liberalism? Democratic rule and individual rights? Globalization and democracy? Transnational governance and national/local control? Religion and democracy?
  5. Future:  How will we all deal with all these tensions in the future?  What’s the future of democracy worldwide?
  6. Our Role: Is USA leadership necessary, or is our absence? Doing what, exactly?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What is progressive religion?

Monday’s Mtg: The Future of the News Media

In CivCon we deal with a lot of fast-moving topics and issues. But, I can’t think of any more in flux than the future of the news media. Nor as vital. A healthy press is one of the linchpins of our democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and countless others since have said. Yet, even before the rise of Donald Trump and the unprecedented challenges he presents to the institutions and underlying conventions of journalism, the mainstream media (MSM) was in crisis.

As is common knowledge, the century-old basic business model of journalism (especially print but also other formats) has collapsed. The Internet drained away news companies’ advertising revenue and new competitors emerged to razzle-dazzle away the public’s attention and dim its desire (and willingness to pay) for hard news. The big MSM companies reacted by massively consolidating and moving into cyberspace as best they could. But, it hasn’t been enough to halt the downward slide of the industry. Pre-Trump and depending on who you asked, the big issues that threatened the news media’s future included:

  • The basic 20 year-old failed business model problem.
  • Concentration of Media ownership (now AT&T wants to merge with Time Warner).
  • Print journalism’s dim future, especially newspapers.
  • Fragmentation of the news audience.
  • Rise of social media and personalized news feeds, which have turned passive news consumers into active distributors and producers of news.
  • Shift to and concentration of power away from traditional content providers (like TV networks & newspapers) to new “platform oligopolies” (like Facebook, Google, and Twitter).
  • Next generation issues, like those associated with the “Internet of Things,” wearable devices, and other future transformative technological change.

Now, of course, we can add at least two more problems arising from our last (so to speak) election:  President Trump and fake news. In the campaign, Trump played the MSM like a fiddle, garnering virtually 24-hour a day coverage. Nobody had ever hacked the Media like this.  And, he routinely threatened reporters and media companies.  Trump is all but sure to use govt power to bend the news media to his will. There is even talk that “Trump TV” will be created despite his victory, so we may soon have a news network that’s literally loyal only to the President! More broadly, Trump’s presidency poses unprecedented challenges to long-established MSM conventions of neutral reporting of a shared objective reality.

Second, we have the emerging problem of fake news.  Fake news is outright false propaganda disseminated by groups hiding their true identities and allegiances.  Its purpose is to undermine public confidence in any and all other news. From Breitbart and Info Wars to Russian government news trolls, this poison has always been around, but its impact might be very large in a socially networked world.

Gee, where to start? Fortunately for our discussion, I think many of these problems are related. The MSM is consolidating because even the biggest players need to control content, distribution, and users’ personal information to survive. They’re easy to manipulate because they are financially unstable. Fake news works so well because social media let anybody be their own producer and distributor of news. Etc.

Here are some readings on some of these big, crosscutting problems in journalism these days and some musings on what the future holds.  On Monday I will take the first five minutes or so to connect a few of these dots so that maybe we can focus right off on the fundamental problems. We have several journalists in the group, so I will then ask them for their thoughts to start the general discussion. I’ll see you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

The crisis today –

The rise of fake news –

Journalism in the Age of Trump –

The Future of news –

NEXT WEEK:  Is worldwide democracy inevitable?

Monday’s Mtg: Is This the “Asian Century?”

People all over the world have long anticipated that the 21st century will be “Asia’s century.” According to this point of view, long-term demographic and economic trends already have begun to shift the dynamic center of the global economy from the West to the East. China will keep rising and become Asia’s main hegemon, perhaps challenged by India and other emerging Asian powers. The West will slowly (or maybe rapidly) decline, at least in relative terms, and a new global order will emerge that is anchored in the East, not in Europe or in North America.

CivCon member Aaron (The Younger) asks an important question: Is it all true, or is it just the latest wave of Western declinism? China’s government and people sure believe it, spurred along by the global but U.S.-based 2008-09 financial crisis, from which China was basically immune. President Obama believes it, or at least he has attempted to “re-pivot” American foreign policy towards East Asia and away from our endless preoccupation with the Middle East and a declining Russia.

I have a few questions of my own, as shown below. Here are some of them, and some links on the basic idea of an Asian-centered 21st Century, obstacles to it, and different ways the United States might respond.

With Donald Trump still forming his administration – and his recent bizarre, disturbing phone calls to world leaders, some in direct contravention of longstanding U.S. policy – it’s hard to guess what U.S. policy might be the next four years. Still, global politics tends to follow its own internal logic, plus (the main point of this topic, IMO) is that many things lie beyond U.S. control. So, all of these questions will stay relevant pretty much no matter how badly our foreign relations are screwed up in the near future.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Which major trends presage an emerging Asian century?
  2. What evidence of a shift to the East have we seen so far: Economic/financial activity? Political and diplomatic? “Hard power” military and alliance shifts?
  3. What could Asian powers do to screw it up for themselves?
  4. Specific Countries:
    1. New/old leaders: China? India/South Asia? Japan? SE Asia?
    2. Bad actors: Russia? North Korea?  Iran?
  5. How would a huge shift to Asia harm the USA? Could it benefit us?
  6. How should we and the West react: Bilaterally? Alliances? Militarily? Reforming global institutions?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Have we jumped the gun?

China and India –

Trump and Asia –

Asian-Americans and our future –

Next Week (Nov 28):  What future does the news media have?

Monday’s Mtg: A Progressive Constitution?

This one was Bruce idea, as a kind of follow-up to our 2015 meeting on the Founders’ view of government powers and in expectation that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. Now, of course, President Trump will fill the Supreme Court seat that congressional Republicans stole by refusing to fill Justice Scalia’s vacant seat for a year. Funny, but I can’t find the passage in the Constitution that allows the Party of strict constructionists and originalism to do this.

At any rate, no shift away from the long, conservative arc of constitutional law is going to happen in the next decade. Quite the opposite. That list of possible SCOTUS appointees that Trump issued during the campaign came straight from the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. An ultra-conservative constitutional restoration is on the launching pad, in the lower courts as well as SCOTUS.

Nevertheless, understanding progressive views (there are more than one) of constitutional interpretation is still relevant, for several reasons. First, presidents usually find a way to appoint federal judges that share their highest constitutional priorities. For example, the liberal Obama appointed judges that agreed with his expansive view of executive power in anti-terrorism matters. Donald Trump is an authoritarian figure unmatched in American history and he might try to stack the judiciary with cronies that place loyalty to him above ell else. If Trump does this and the GOP refuses to stand up to him, progressives and their living Constitutionalism will have to bear the full weight of opposition.

Second, being in the wilderness sharpens the mind. Over the next four years the Democrats must decide whether and how to revamp their message. A lot of people feel that the New Coke must include a version of constitutional interpretation that can compete with the simplistic but effective “original intent” and “obey the written Constitution” marketing slogan of the Right. Lastly, esoteric matters of law aside, the public is on progressives’ side on most major constitutional issues. They do not believe that Medicare, federal aid to education, and Social Security are unconstitutional. They don’t want Roe overturned or the last limits on corporate campaign contributions to be swept away.

Unfortunately, the progressive POV on constitutional law does not easily fit on a bumper sticker. The Left views the Constitution as a “living document,” one that laid down timeless principles but that still must be interpreted non-mechanically in order to apply it to the today’s real world. But, beyond that commonality, progressive experts differ on specific methods and priorities. There are competing camps with catchy names like “ordered liberty,” “progressive originalism,” “democratic constitutionalism,” and others.

I’m not qualified nor interested enough to explain these nuances. But, I do know a bit. I will open our meeting on Monday with the basic ideas behind progressive constitutional interpretation as I understand them. Then, we can talk.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Originalism: Why do progressives consider it unworkable and even kind of fraudulent?
  2. Basic liberal stance: Why do progressives say the Founders intended the Constitution to be a “living document” that must be interpreted for modern times?
  3. Rules for deciding: Okay, but how? What rules/priorities do progressives think we should use for interpretation? Original meaning, precedent, societal consensus, modern values, outcomes? Can these add up to a coherent philosophy?
  4. Differences/Labels: What are the biggest disagreements among progressives on this stuff and how do they end up as “democratic constitutionalism, “ordered liberty,” “New Textualism,” etc.
  5. Future: How will progressive react to the coming conservative constitutional revolution?  Will they find any common ground with (some) Republicans?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Who cares?

What might have been and what will be –

Critique of Conservative Methods –

Progressive constitutional interpretation –

NEXT WEEK: Are we living in the “Asian Century?”

Monday’s Mtg: What does “cultural literacy” mean?

Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy.  Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.

Oopsie.

It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.

We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history.  I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.

Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).

Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
  2. What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
  3. Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
  4. Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
  5. What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 28):  How do progressives interpret the Constitution?

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.