Tag Archives: book

Speaking Truth To Power–Very Softly

A number of Republicans who reluctantly voted for Donald Trump  in 2016 did so under the assumption that he would compensate for his lack of government knowledge and experience with solid appointments–people familiar with the ins and outs of governance, to whom he would listen and from whom he would learn.

To observe that that didn’t happen would be the understatement of the century.

Initially, Mr. My-gut-already-knows-everything-so-I-don’t-need-any-advice did include a few competent, ethical advisors among the crowd of sycophants, family members, know-nothings and outright gangsters he assembled, but those individuals are all long gone–frustrated by their inability to get through the grandiosity, bluster and mental issues in order to affect policy.

One of the frustrated individuals who departed was Jim Mattis, who has now written a book. Raw Story has a description.

Mattis shared an excerpt from his upcoming book “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” with the Wall Street Journal, which published an essay based on those writings that explains his decision to accept Trump’s offer to lead the Pentagon — and touches on his decision to step down.

“Using every skill I had learned during my decades as a Marine, I did as well as I could for as long as I could,” Mattis wrote. “When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution.”

The retired U.S. Marine Corps general took several veiled shots at the president, his domestic leadership and his understanding of the United States’ role in the world.

“Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither,” he wrote. “Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy.”

The article refers to Mattis’ shots as “veiled,” and that’s accurate. Mattis is clearly reluctant to follow in the path of other ex-employees, several of whom have written tell-alls after departing through the White House’s ever-revolving door. That said, it isn’t necessary to read between the lines in order to locate Mattis’ significant concerns about Trumpian foreign policy (if Trump’s global interactions can be dignified by calling them ‘policies’).

“At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering,” Mattis added. “A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

Mattis warned that Trump’s domestic leadership had ripped apart American unity, and he said that placed democracy itself in danger.

 “Unlike in the past, where we were unified and drew in allies, currently our own commons seems to be breaking apart,” he wrote. “What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness. We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions.”

As I read these excerpts, I couldn’t help thinking how unlikely it is that the subjects of Mattis’ (entirely appropriate) concerns ever cross Trump’s mind.

If Mattis ever does write a tell-all, it will be well worth reading.


A Shameless Plug

If you are a reader who likes this blog, have I got a deal for you!

I have done something I never thought I would do– I have “self-published” a book with Amazon.The paperback is available now, and the ebook (cheaper still) will be available in a couple of days.

Every other book I’ve written–and there have been nine of them–has been issued by either an academic press or a trade publisher. It can be an onerous process; with academic presses, especially, there are usually lengthy times for peer review, changes demanded, etc. This time, for what I’m pretty sure will be my last book, I decided to short-circuit the process–and not so incidentally, keep the book affordable, something few publishers seem to care about.

The book is titled “Living Together: Mending a Fractured America,” and I’m sharing the introduction below. I hope some of you will be motivated to buy it, and–if you like it–tell your friends.

We’ll see how this experiment in self-promotion pans out…..


We—by which I mean humanity, and especially citizens of the United States—find ourselves in the middle of a paradigm shift, a fundamental reconfiguring of the basic assumptions through which we view the world we inhabit. Such shifts are not unprecedented (the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution are arguably an example), but while they are occurring, people on either side of the shift find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with each other; they occupy different realities.

As humanity negotiates and reacts to accelerating change, individuals are faced with a rapidly morphing information environment, a reversion to overt and troubling tribalism, deepening economic inequities, and growing recognition of the inadequacies and corruption of America’s current legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality pose a challenge to previously-held worldviews.

Making this time in human history even more daunting is the fact that, while individuals are trying to make sense of the economic and social challenges they are experiencing, they are also facing the very real possibility that climate change will cause large portions of the planet to become uninhabitable—with consequences that are, for most Americans, unimaginable.

In the United States, the 2016 election and its aftermath have exposed the persistence of significant fault-lines in American society and forced recognition of the extent to which a longtime, steady erosion of the country’s democratic norms has hollowed out and corrupted this country’s governing institutions.

That erosion is one of a number of unprecedented social and economic challenges made more daunting by a splintered and constantly changing media landscape. Changes to journalism driven by the Internet have dramatically exacerbated the problems inherent in democratic decision-making. Actual news based upon verifiable fact is still available but diminishing, especially at the local level. Cable news and the Internet’s “information” environment enable and encourage confirmation bias, and are rife with spin, “fake news” and outright propaganda. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United increased public recognition of—and cynicism about– the disproportionate power wielded by corporate America through lobbying, political contributions and influence-peddling. Together with the enormous and widening gap between the rich and the rest, recognition of the outsized influence of money in America’s political system feeds suspicion of all government decision-making.

In order for democracy to function, there must be widespread trust in the integrity of electoral contests. The fundamental democratic idea is a fair fight, a contest of competing ideas, with the winners legitimized and authorized to carry out their agendas. Increasingly, however, those democratic contests have been marred by disinformation, as well as by bare-knuckled power plays and numerous mechanisms—including gerrymandering and vote suppression—through which partisans game the system. As a result, citizens’ trust in government and other social institutions has dangerously diminished. Without that trust—without a widespread belief in an American “we,” an overarching polity to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens, as does the gap between various “elites” and others. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction are exacerbated by the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and the “Other.”

Making matters worse, in the midst of these wrenching changes, Americans (accidentally, to be sure) elected a President incapable of recognizing, understanding or dealing with them.

Citizens in 21st Century America are facing a globalized, technocratic, increasingly complex world that poses unprecedented challenges to the goal of e pluribus unum (not to mention human understanding and survival). The existential question we face is: Can government policies create a genuine “us” out of so many different/diverse “I’s” and “we’s”? Can policymakers use law and legislative processes to create a supportive, nourishing culture that remains true to the Enlightenment’s essential insights, while modifying or discarding those that are no longer so essential? If so, how? How does this nation overcome the escalating assaults on science, reality and the rule of law and create a functioning, trustworthy democratic system?

This book was written to suggest that we can answer those questions in the affirmative, if we can muster the political will, and to suggest policies that would allow that to be accomplished.

The challenges America faces tend to fall into three (interrelated and sometimes overlapping) categories: Ignorance (defined as lack of essential information, not stupidity); Inequality (poverty, civic inequality, power and informational asymmetries among others) and Tribalism (“us versus them”—racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, the urban/rural divide, and political identity.)

An old lawyer once told me that there is really only one legal or political question: “what do we do?” How do we fashion concrete and politically tenable answers to the multitude of questions raised by social and technological change? How do we live together in what should be our brave new world?

That is the fundamental question explored in this book.

As Part I will set out in much more detail, our cultural assumptions and social institutions are in the process of being upended, and issues we’ve dealt with more or less adequately (or swept under various rugs) have suddenly become much more salient and disruptive. We face anew the age-old question: how should humans govern themselves? What institutional arrangements are most likely to be perceived as fair and just by most people, even when those people have very different desires, abilities, beliefs and needs? What sorts of governance and institutional arrangements are most likely to promote what Aristotle called “human flourishing?”

In the 18thCentury, Enlightenment philosophers answered that question by proposing a social contract based upon the issues and understandings of their times.  Those philosophers and scientists challenged longtime assumptions about how a society should be constructed, how it should be governed and what it should value. In the United States, the nation’s Founders built a legal and constitutional system based upon Enlightenment insights and values and the belief that human flourishing could best be facilitated by a limited-authority government that allowed individuals to exercise personal autonomy to the greatest extent compatible with an overarching order.

That original vision and approach to governance has never been uncontested or fully realized, but it has provided the framework—the paradigm—that shaped subsequent policy argumentation. That liberal democratic framework, as it has evolved to the present, rests upon a (necessarily limited) respect for self-determination-the ability of individuals, cultures and states to determine and pursue their own ends, their own telos. Respect for the right of individuals or groups to determine their own life choices requires rejection of many legally-imposed uniformities and recognition of the fact that human diversity is both inevitable and socially desirable.

The principles that emerged from the Enlightenment and were embraced by America’s founders are not now and never have been universally held. Furthermore, even among people who do accept the general framework and stated values that undergird America’s Constitution, there are significant differences of opinion about what individual liberty should mean and when government authority may be properly exercised. Ongoing tensions between the majoritarian “popular passions” that so worried the architects of America’s constitution and Enlightenment ideas about the importance of individual autonomy have spawned a long line of academic studies and a significant body of constitutional jurisprudence.

In the 21st Century, the increasingly frenetic pace of technological, economic and cultural change has dramatically intensified the conflict between the individual’s right to self-determination and societies’ need for social cohesion and has tested the country’s purported commitments to equality and respect for human difference. Previously marginalized populations have entered both the workforce and the political arena, contending for equal social and civic status. Demographic change threatens previously entrenched social privilege, and feeds the white nationalist movement that has emerged with such ferocity in parts of Europe and the United States. That movement, together with certain strains of populism, appeals especially to people disdainful of diversity and the claims of previously marginalized groups—and for that matter, Enlightenment values—finding them not simply offensive, but existentially threatening.

The dramatic rise of economic inequality has not only exacerbated group tensions, but—as Part One will describe in much more detail–has challenged what is essentially our 18th Century understanding of the nature of both liberty and equality.

To belabor the obvious, contemporary Americans live in a rapidly changing social and economic environment. We find ourselves in a very different, and infinitely more complex and interrelated country and world than the one most of us were born into.  As a result, the potential for a wide variety of conflicts has increased. Regulatory activity, both national and supra-national, has grown, due to recognition that many of today’s issues are national or global in scope and aren’t amenable to state or local remedies. National and international authorities will continue to be established, and to grow, in order to deal with environmental threats, trade issues, immigration, humanitarian crises and power conflicts; their effectiveness in mediating conflict will depend upon whether they are perceived as legitimate and fair by those over whom they assert jurisdiction.

As this is being written, fundamental and acrimonious disputes about immigration, racial equity, women’s rights, global alliances and the rule of law are being further inflamed by the daily tweets of an authoritarian President who is widely seen as corrupt, incompetent and mentally unstable. The legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been compromised by its growing politicization, and most recently by legislative tactics that allowed the unprecedented “theft” of a seat that President Obama should have filled. People are increasingly taking to the streets in protest, convinced that their grievances will not be addressed by a system they see as fatally flawed. It is not possible to predict the duration, severity or consequences of the widespread and growing civil unrest that seems likely to get much worse before it gets better.

Assuming—as hopeful people must—that a reformed democratic order will eventually emerge from the chaos and hostility we are experiencing, we urgently need to revisit our basic assumptions about governance and the social contract. We need to critically assess what has gone wrong, move to safeguard those elements that have proved their ongoing utility, and revise others. We need to learn from the country’s mistakes if we are to facilitate the building of a better, fairer and more durable society.

The questions are eternal: What do humans owe each other? What is the nature of liberty? Of equality? What is the proper role of government? What should the rules be, who should make those rules, and how should they be enforced?

The questions may be eternal, but the answers are not.

In the pages that follow, I will describe what seem to me to be among the most daunting challenges we face as a country. I will refer to and build upon current research that identifies and describes those challenges, and I will argue that they are interrelated in multiple and often convoluted ways. Indeed, those inextricable inter-relationships pose one of the thorniest of the challenges we face– how to recognize the ways in which policies interact, in order to avoid the negative, unintended consequences that so often follow well-meaning policy change.

Part One of this book will detail the threat posed by contemporary manifestations of tribalism and civic polarization; by the dramatic, accelerating changes in the economy and the nature of work; by the “brokenness” and corruption of a current American government that cronyism while rejecting science, evidence and longstanding understandings of what constitutes fair play.  Chapters will also address the dangers posed by attacks on public education, by propaganda that has become ubiquitous in the age of the Internet, and by refusal to recognize the extent to which all of these challenges are likely to be dwarfed by the effects of climate change.

In Part Two, I will propose policy changes prompted by these analyses—policy changes that, taken together, would amount to the creation of a new, more expansive social contract appropriate to the age in which we live; a set of policies that would address our growing inequality and operate to moderate the hostilities that characterize current debates among America’s quarrelsome tribes. Policy changes that would facilitate our ability to live together peacefully and productively.

I am not naïve enough to expect current policymakers to embrace these proposals; certainly, a sizable number of the people serving in Congress as I write this have demonstrated neither an interest in advancing the common good nor the capacity to understand the problems America currently faces. However, if (as I hope) the increase in civic awareness and participation that followed the 2016 election and the various public demonstrations and political movements generated by the so-called “resistance” result in the election of a more thoughtful, responsive and ethical set of policymakers, perhaps some of the arguments that follow will provide grist for discussion, debate and corrective action.

If America is, as I think, on the cusp of a broad upheaval triggered by dramatic social, economic and technological changes aggravated by the broken-ness of our current governing institutions, this country’s “best and brightest” will need to explore a variety of potential changes to our governmental, economic and social systems.

This book is my contribution to those explorations, and I hope it will be useful.

Mayor Pete And The Long Shot

My husband keeps telling me he’s not falling in love with any of the Democratic candidates for President until the field is narrowed. I know he’s right–and I also know that no matter who emerges at the top of the Democratic ticket, I’m going to work my you-know-what off to get that candidate elected.

I’d vote for my cat if it was running against Donald Trump–and I don’t have a cat.

That said, I’ve been blown away by Indiana’s own Mayor Pete Buttigieg. I was first impressed by him several years ago, when I attended a South Bend hearing on the addition of sexual orientation to the city’s human rights ordinance, and heard his eloquent, off-the-cuff testimony. I’ve been even more impressed by his recent performances on CNN and in various interviews.

And I just finished his book: Shortest Way Home. 

Most books by politically ambitious politicians are predictable “PR” efforts. Here’s why you should vote for me; here’s why I’m a good guy/gal. Here are my somewhat-fudged-in-order-not-to-piss-people-off policy positions. See my somewhat forced smile on the book’s cover?

Mayor Pete’s book isn’t like that. (For one thing, it’s readable and enjoyable–I finished it in less than two days.)

Not only is the book extremely well-written (wouldn’t it be nice to have a President who actually is familiar with the English language? the other seven languages Mayor Pete speaks are just icing on that cake), but it avoids both the typical “look at me” approach of such books, as well as the equally common phony modesty. It is basically the story of a learning curve, as he recounts lessons learned through his academic life, business and military experience, and personal tests.

Because I once was part of a city administration, I particularly liked the discussions of the challenges and rewards of his years as South Bend’s mayor, and the growth in his understanding of both the technical, data-driven aspects of the job and the  symbolic value of appearances that he had initially viewed as time-wasters. In large part, the book is the story of his success revitalizing a city that had been left behind by previous economic trends, with plenty of examples that other struggling urban areas might adopt. (Smart sewers, anyone?)

In fact, the book is a chronological story through which Mayor Pete shares life lessons–including forthright acknowledgments of what he learned from mistakes made and losses experienced.

If the book was written with his current Presidential campaign in mind, it doesn’t show.

I know that Mayor Pete is the longest of long shots for the nomination. But I’m so hungry for authenticity, for intellect, for someone who is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and human enough to demonstrate compassion and self-awareness. It helps that I agree with every forthright (non-fudged) policy position I’ve heard him take. It helps that he understands the issues of urban governance and the conservative Midwest. It helps that he so clearly understands the complexities of policy. It helps that his book reflects a thoughtfulness, emotional maturity and value structure that is so obviously missing, not just from Trump, but from most members of the current political class.

I know my husband is right–that it is too early to fall in love with a candidate. But I’ve certainly fallen in passionate like with this one….

Buy This Book!

I think I may be in love with Al Franken. In fact, I think he’d be a great President! (Of course, next to the one we have, my cat would be a great President–and I don’t have a cat. Still…)

I just finished reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. I recommend it highly–and not only for its humor. (But the humor is great.)

The book tells the story of Franken’s improbable voyage from Saturday Night Live (and other venues for less than decorous humor) to the U.S. Senate, and it is more informative than most textbooks if you want to learn about the political process, the operation of the United States Senate, the day to day job description of a Senator, and the pros and cons of a variety of thorny political issues.

As the flyleaf says, “it’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.” It’s also “a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.”

The book is a testament to democratic decision-making and public service, written by a mensch. (Google it.) Franken’s self-deprecating storytelling, his willingness to credit his staff and his family and even his constituents for his accomplishments, is particularly refreshing at a time when America’s Commander-in-Chief insists on taking personal credit for any event that is even remotely positive, whether he had anything to do with it or not. (Any day now, I fully expect him to take credit for the sun rising in the morning.)

If the real Al Franken is the same person who comes across in this book, he’s a great guy–down to earth, level-headed, self-aware–with a great sense of humor. (Genuine humor, when you think about it, requires a sense of proportion and an appreciation of reality.) Evidently, you can speak truth to power without being an asshole; you can be a committed progressive and still get along with equally committed conservatives; and you can take seriously your obligation to represent the people who live in your state without being a sanctimonious prig.

You can also learn how to be an effective “insider” without getting co-opted by “the system.”

The best thing about this book? It restored my faith in the possibilities of democracy. (Note the word “possibilities.”) Given Franken’s candid reporting on the current state of our nation, democracy is far from being realized, but it does remain a (tantalizing) possibility.

Buy the damn book.