Saturday, June 25, 2016

Unwarranted luck and short bursts of vigor

I've finished the book Danubia by Simon Winder. It is a history of the Habsburg Dynasty that lead the Austrian Empire and served as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1452 to 1918. The title comes from the Danube River the main river flowing through the empire.

I found the book during my trip to DC at the end of April (didn't start reading it until the end of May). It caught my attention because I studied German history in high school and lived in Germany for two years. In that class I learned about the two great powers in German history, the Hohenzollerns with their capital in Berlin and the Habsburgs in Vienna ruling an area from modern Austria to what is now western Ukraine and southern Poland to northern Serbia.

Winder is not a typical historian. He definitely doesn't just recount events. He talks to the reader and shares stories of his own travels to the various towns and cities in Central Europe. He includes descriptions of artwork that relates to the topic at hand (I didn't sit at the computer as I read and search for images of what he was describing – he could have added either more photos or an index of the art so I could do that now). He does a lot more explaining than recounting. He also has a skeptical view of his subjects, the Emperors. His take on them is most were incompetent or worse. From the introduction (I like his style):
The Habsburg's influence across Europe was overwhelming, but often the 'great events' of the continent's history were generated as much by their uselessness or apparent prostration as by any actual family initiative. Indeed it is quite striking how baffled or inadequate many of the Emperors were, and yet an almost uncountable heap of would-be carnivorous rivals ended up in the dustbin while the Habsburgs just kept plodding along. Through unwarranted luck, short bursts of vigor, and events way outside their control they held on until their defeat by Napoleon. Moving fast, they then cunningly switched the title of Emperor so it referred to what could now be called 'the Habsburg Empire', meaning just the family's personal holdings, itself still the second largest European state after Russia. They kept going for a further, rather battered century, until final catastrophe as one of the defeated Central Powers in the First World War.

Winder cautions us not to look at the grand sweep of history and interpret it to mean what came before as driving toward what we have today. History isn't that purposeful. Since this family stayed in power more than 450 years it could be said, especially in the middle of this time, that this empire was what history was driving towards, the high point, the culmination.

A great deal of this story is about the ethnic strife in Europe. The southeast area of this empire was the battle ground between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans (also Russians to the northeast, Germans to the northwest, and Italians to the south). When one side or the other swept through and captured an area whole towns would be razed with entire populations massacred or sold into slavery. The winning side would have to repopulate the towns – hey, free land and extra privileges, though you'll need to watch for marauding armies. That meant there were German-speaking settlements throughout the area, interspersed with local Silesians, Bohemians, Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Ruthians, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbians, Croats, and Slovenes, to name a few. Various groups would start an uprising, to be (mostly) put down by the emperor and his army.

The empire existed for so long because it could (mostly) balance these ethnic tensions. It could tell restive groups they were better off under Habsburgs rather than under the Ottomans or Russians. But with the collapse of the empire in 1918 those tensions exploded. Many times in the 20th Century whole towns were dislodged and relocated because they were not of the right ethnicity – if they weren't killed. These tensions only began to die down around 1990 (though with Britain leaving the EU there are signs they aren't gone).

A political Court

I'm a fan of the radio program Radiolab heard on NPR, though I listen to it through the internet. Today I heard an episode of a series titled More Perfect, stories of the Supreme Court. This episode featured the case Baker v. Carr of 1961-62. The audio is about 50 minutes.

The state of Tennessee (and others in the South) hadn't redrawn its congressional district maps for 60 years. But population had shifted from the countryside to the cities. Things had gotten so out of whack that city districts had 23 times more people than rural districts. The reason for this system was simple: racism and Jim Crow. Cities tended to be more liberal and tended to have a more mixed race population. Legislative leaders knew the current districts supported their power and redistricting would change that power which, in their eyes, was not for the better.

City voters sued, saying the rural focus of the legislature hurt the infrastructure of cities.

The main characters on the court were:

Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Justice William Douglas on the left, and quite the bully.

Justice Felix Frankfurter on the right, and even more of a bully.

In between was Justice Charles Whittaker, the swing vote.

The main idea from Frankfurter was that how states draw their political maps is a political issue and the Court should not get involved. Yes, the situation in Tennessee is vile. But taking this case means the Court will have to decide all sorts of political spats. We shouldn't go there.

Douglas responded by saying if the Court doesn't tackle this political injustice it cannot be fixed. Tennessee has rigged it so those in power benefit from this injustice and have no intention of undermining their own power.

When the justices went into conference (in which the room is closed to all but the justices) both Douglas and Frankfurter harangued Whittaker in hopes of getting his vote. Whittaker was distraught over the decision. Before the case was decided Whittaker had a nervous breakdown and soon resigned.

Other justices ended up supporting Douglas and the case was decided 6-2 in favor of intervening in Tennessee. Shortly after that Frankfurter had a bad stroke and also resigned. President Kennedy filled the two vacancies with a moderate and a liberal – forming the famous Warren Court that was so interventionist in the '60s.

The defeat of the idea that the Court should stay out of politics led to many wonderful decisions, including "one person, one vote." It also led to … Bush v. Gore.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Up on care and fairness

Brian Dickerson, editorial columnist for the Detroit Free Press, is well aware of the size of the political chasm in America. He encounters it every time he writes an opinion piece and lots of readers call and write to tell him how wrong he is. Though he is good at defending his position he is pretty sure he hasn't changed any minds.

Since dealing with this chasm is important (see: state of roads, schools, and gov't institutions) Dickerson is now exploring why we're so antagonistic. He says he'll explore that idea over the summer perhaps with "moral psychologists" as guides.

This first article takes a look at The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Through his studies Haidt has found five foundations to moral systems that are pretty consistent in cultures around the world. These are:

The Care/Harm Foundation. For us to survive as a species we must protect the youngest and most helpless. That became the idea we have a duty to protect each other from death and injury. We admire those who are generous and condemn those who are cruel.

The Fairness/Cheating Foundation. Groups that collaborate have an advantage over those who don't. Problems arise when some either do extra work or reap extra rewards. That became the idea we encourage cooperation and discourage exploitation.

The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation. Those same collaborative groups can be enhanced through loyalty and damaged through betrayal. This becomes loyalty to family, country, political party, and religion. Betrayal can be treated harshly.

The Authority/Subversion Foundation. Collaborative groups have leaders and develop a social hierarchy. The group works better when that hierarchy has clear lines of authority that are respected.

The Sanctity/Degredation Foundation. Defining one food as sanctified and another is degraded is an easy way to keep our early ancestors from eating toxic food. Defining a behavior as degraded can help avoid incest. The catalog of which food/behavior is good and which is not can lead to the sanctification of that catalog – such as the Bible or Bill of Rights.

Haidt explains out political divide by noting the different weights progressives and conservatives place on each of these five foundations. Progressives emphasize care and fairness. Conservatives emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

What happens when a person doesn't quite fit? That's a situation many LGBT people encounter. Here's a milder example: What to do with a child who colors the sky green? Praise the child for creativity? Punish the child for defying authority? Experiences like that teach a child which of the five foundations will guide his morals.

Dickerson suggests heading to the Your Morals site to see where you fit in. Warning: once you register there are two dozen different surveys you can take. The one that matches Haidt's book is the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. It rated me high (higher than progressives) in Care/Harm and Fairness. It rated me low (lower than progressives) in Loyalty, Authority, and Purity (Sanctity). My rating in Purity is quite low – all of that driven by what church people say about LGBT people. Yeah, in my opinion their purity codes – Would you avoid doing something "unnatural"? – are a lot of bunk.

Democrats with spine

Yesterday I mentioned that Democrats were occupying the US House floor to demand a vote on gun reforms. I had just a snippet of the news yesterday. I have a much fuller report now.

The leader of the effort is Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. In the 1960s he was one of those beaten at the start of the march to Montgomery. He's been a stalwart defender of civil rights his whole life.

The sit-in started about 11:30 am. yesterday. The Speaker controls the CSPAN cameras, so those were turned off. The House was supposed to be called into session long enough to go on its July 4 break. The Dems sitting in the well of the floor chanted, "no bill, no break."

Senator Chris Murphy, the one who led the filibuster in the Senate and who got the Senate to take a vote (which failed), joined the crowd in the House floor. As did many other senators, even Harry Reid.

In addition to turning off the TV cameras the Seargeant at Arms has refused to allow the public into the galleries and has ordered House members to stop sharing photos and video from the House floor. That demand was ignored. Dems held a press conference outside the House chamber. This isn't controlled by the Speaker so C-SPAN covered it.

C-SPAN didn't like Speaker Ryan's refusal to allow them to film the sit-in. Rep. Scott Peters (CA) streamed video onto Periscope. C-SPAN tapped into that Periscope feed to show action in the House chamber.

Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) tweeted:
Calling this a sit-in is a disgrace to Woolworth's. That sit-in was for rights. Dems are "sitting-in" to strip them away.
Joe Meldelson responded:
John Lewis would probably be happy to educate you on sit-ins. Perhaps you could ask him?
Here's a bit of background on Lewis:
Rep. Walker appears to be unaware that former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis, Freedom Rider, man who spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the day King gave his I Have a Dream speech, man whose skull was fractured by police beatings on Bloody Sunday, may know a little something about what the civil rights sit-ins were about.
A meeting between Lewis and Walker might provide a bit of quality television.

Speaker Ryan tried to break the sit-in by bringing up another bill for a vote. That meant the cameras were on showing a chaotic chamber. Ryan can't be heard over the chanting by Dems and those in the Gallery. Even so, the vote proceeded.

Whoever chose this bill as the one to attempt to break the sit-in must be completely tone-deaf. This vote was to repeal a fiduciary rule, one that says investment advisers must give advice in the best interest of their clients, not on whatever product gives the adviser the best kick-back. Meaning it's a bill to allow Wall Street to swindle seniors. The nature of the bill meant a 2/3 approval was necessary. Didn't happen.

A huge crowd gathered outside the House chamber chanting, "Do your job!"

The Dem sit-in continued overnight. As for Republicans... they decided it would be a real good idea to start their July 4 break on June 23 and fled.

On to the analysis. Why go through all this effort knowing Ryan won't allow a vote and if he did the vote would fail? Isn't this contributing to Congressional dysfunction or violating the sanctity of parliamentary process?

Why the effort? Because political theater, especially with the public on your side, is very powerful. It shows the obstruction, as of now, is solely on the GOP side. If the Dems retake the Senate (possible) and House (a much longer shot) then they can get stuff done – such as these gun bills. For this bit of theater the Dems are keeping the message quite focused. The GOP refused to allow a vote on this.

Accusing Dems of adding to the Dysfunction? After years of what the GOP has been doing?

More analysis: Ryan is screwed. Can you imagine the storm if he ordered Lewis to be physically removed? The GOP has no good out. And the story overshadowed Trump's latest attempt at a speech – in which fact-checkers found 30 gigantic lies in a 40 minute speech.

And more: Ryan said the sit-in is nothing but a "publicity stunt" about "trying to get attention." Well, yes it is, which isn't a bad thing. And the attention they're trying to get is yours. They want you to see the vast majority (90%) of voters want meaningful action on guns.

The sit-in has ended. For now. It will likely resume after the July4 recess.

I have a blog tag, used to categorize posts, that says "Democrat Wimps." I'm not using it today.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Direct line to Trump's ear

I mentioned yesterday that Trump was meeting with 900 top conservative Evangelicals. After that meeting Trump announced the formation of an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board. Over 20 of the top homophobes will have a direct line to Trump's ear. Strange that those on this board don't actually have to endorse Trump

Not all of the attendees think the Donald is wonderful. Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association (theirs, not yours) said:
He did say he is for religious freedom, but I don’t think he really understands that issue. Either he doesn’t understand it or he doesn’t agree with us and he doesn’t want to tell us that. I think that’s his weakness.

… I think his strength is on judges, which is very, very important. He said his judges will be screened by the Federalist Society, [which is] a bona fide constitutional, conservative group. So if they put their seal of approval on a candidate, then you can go with it.
So, yeah, Wildmon is saying Trump will nominate judges that have the approval of the Federalist Society, an extremely conservative group. That seems like all they want from Trump anyway.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. posed for a photo with Trump in what must be Trump's office. One tiny problem. The May 1990 issue of Playboy is clearly visible on the wall behind them. It is there because that issue contains an article featuring Trump.

House filibuster

About 40 Democrats of the US House, led by Civil Rights veteran John Lewis, have occupied the House floor, about as close as they can get to the equivalent of a Senate filibuster. They are there to force a vote on gun bills.

Their timing is a bit off... the House is on break (thus the sit-in isn't being televised, and Speaker Ryan could let them sit there until the end of the break).

It is also true those bills have also been voted down in the Senate. But the goal here is also to prove to voters who is obstructing gun control and get their votes on record.

Yesterday I wrote that the GOP is pleasing their corporate masters by voting against sensible reforms. Another way to say that is the NRA is holding the GOP hostage. Cartoonist Keith Knight takes that idea literally.