My Own Words

If you’re looking for something to distract yourself from the dismal spectacle of the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, you might find solace in My Own Words, a collection of essays, articles and speeches by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My Own Words cover
My Own Words
By Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2016

The material in this book has been accumulated by Ginsburg’s biographers Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. It appears they decided to publish this book first, to be followed by the actual biography at some point in future. They provide detailed biographical notes and commentary to set the scene for each chapter and for many of the individual pieces.

The book covers a lot of ground, from Ginsburg’s earliest writings in her high school newspaper right up to summary remarks about the Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 term. It also contains a couple of speeches about Ginsburg written by her husband Marty, who was a tax lawyer.

The book does not include any of her actual written judgements. You can find those on the Supreme Court’s web site at

I think the most interesting parts of the book are Ginsburg’s bench announcements which she read when she strongly dissented from the Court majority, and a detailed look inside the inner workings of the Court in a piece called Workways of the Supreme Court.

For someone who dedicated her career and her energies so forcefully and persistently to women’s equality, Ginsburg’s writing is restrained, unemotional, and often quite dry. Other Supreme Court justices, notably her friend and ideological opposite Antonin Scalia, wrote with much greater passion and flair.

Nevertheless, Ginsburg’s impact on the law has been immense. I bought this book as a tribute.


Posted in Books, Law and justice | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Socrates Express

How about a little philosophy, just to lighten things up?

Over the last few months I’ve been reading serious books about serious topics: climate change, racism, misogyny, injustice at the US Supreme Court, and autocratic threats to our democracy.

I needed a break. Something a little lighter. And something to take my mind off The Great American Shitshow 2020 Edition. Just reading the news these days makes me feel anxious, helpless and angry.

So I ordered The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner. Maybe some of those dead philosophers could help me out.

It turned out to be just what I was looking for.

Eric Weiner is a journalist, author and speaker. He’s been a foreign correspondent at NPR and a reporter for The New York Times. His books include The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius. The Socrates Express is his latest book.

The Socrates Express coverThe Socrates Express
By Eric Weiner
Avid Reader Press, New York, 2020

Philosophy is about the search for wisdom. Not information or knowledge and certainly not data. Wisdom. About how to act in the world, and above all how to think.  Weiner puts this succinctly in the introduction.

“Philosophy is different from other subjects.  It is not a body of knowledge but a way of thinking – a way of being in the world.  Not a ‘what’ or a ‘why’ but a ‘how’“  [p. xvi]

Weiner takes us with him as he journeys around the world seeking wisdom, exploring the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers from ancient thinkers like Socrates, Epicurus and Confucius, to modern (though still dead) ones like Gandhi, Rousseau and Simone de Beauvoir. He travels by train. He likes the “amniotic” atmosphere on trains. You can think on a train, he says, you can pause and reflect.

Structure of the Book

Every chapter of The Socrates Express opens with a little vignette written aboard a train to set the scene. And each one is devoted to a philosopher and a question; a “how” question that the philosopher’s work can help us answer. The first chapter, for example, is called How to Get Out of Bed Like Marcus Aurelius. “The Great Bed Question”, as Weiner calls it, is more about why we should get out of bed than how.

Weiner give us a brief sketch of Marcus Aurelius’ life and then explains his philosophy clearly and approachably. Aurelius was mainly but not exclusively a Stoic (more on Stoicism in a minute). But like many philosophers he’s also a “wisdom scavenger” picking up bits and pieces from others. Weiner then tries to apply Aurelian philosophy directly to his own present circumstances. We see him wrestle with the ideas, trying to understand them and to rigorously apply them. It’s warm and comfortable under the blanket. Why should he get out of bed? Something to do with duty, apparently.

The rest of the book follows this pattern.

The chapters are loosely threaded together but you can read them in any order you like.

Coping Like a Stoic

The chapter that resonated most for me was How to Cope Like Epictetus. It’s about Stoicism.

Stoicism, as Weiner explains, is about living in harmony with nature. This has nothing to do with environmentalism, at least not directly. It’s more about understanding that large parts of our lives are beyond our control. Stoicism teaches us to change what we can and accept what we can’t.

Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence in recent years and it’s not hard to see why.  As our world has become more integrated and more complex, its problems have become more diffuse and abstract.  Globalization, technological advancement and climate change, to name just three, are powerful forces well beyond our control that profoundly impact our lives.  How do we cope?

At the same time, we also have unprecedented opportunities to act in the world. A teenager like Greta Thunberg can travel the globe and reach millions more through the internet with her powerful messages about climate change.

Yet it turns out that Stoicism is primarily concerned with controlling our inner lives.  As Weiner explains,

“Much of life lies beyond our control, but we command what matters most: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Our mental and emotional life. We all possess Herculean strength, superhero powers, but it is the power to master our interior world.  Do this, the Stoics say, and you will be ‘invincible.’” [p. 229]

“Do what you must, let happen what may,” say the Stoics.

I find some confort here. I can’t control anything I read about in the news. I should stop getting anxious and angry. Instead of feeling helpless I should do what I can – make donations, write letters, and hey! maybe even write book reviews to help people become more aware of the issues I care about. And instead of worrying about external outcomes I should focus on internal goals like doing all that I can to the very best of my abilities.

It’s not a completely satisfying answer because those external outcomes sure seem important. But it’s a start. I may have to learn more about Stoicism.


I was really struck by the common themes that emerge from these vastly different philosophers across centuries and geography. Like walking. Many of them walked long distances every day, not because they had no other means of transportation but because they did their best thinking while walking. Rousseau, Thoreau, Schopenhauer and even Nietzsche were all walkers.

One of the benefits of walking is that it slows you down. It allows you to better perceive the world. This is another theme: the importance of sense perception, of seeing, listening, paying attention, and appreciating the beauty in small things.

In Tokyo, Weiner meets a friend for drinks at a bar featuring a model train running through an exquisitely detailed miniature town.

“I nod and sip my whiskey, delighting in the solidity of the serious glass and the oaky taste and the slightly sweet aroma, all the while gazing at the tiny beautiful world that lay before me.”  [p. 199]

Acceptance is another theme. In the 21st Century we’re all about doing things, achieving things, having impact, “making a dent in the Universe,” as Steve Jobs said. But Weiner shows us that many philosophers, not just the Stoics, are trying to teach us acceptance: acceptance of things we cannot change, of things that don’t really matter, of growing old, even acceptance of dying.

Unsolicited Feedback

I really enjoyed The Socrates Express. Weiner is very open about the personal struggles and demons that drive him along this philosophical journey. He’s also a terrific writer, a skill many philosophers lack. Weiner translates for us, writing with down-to-earth clarity, enthusiasm, and delightfully sardonic humor.

At one point, Weiner is in rural Colorado trying to get back to Denver to catch a flight to Paris.  But overnight snowfall has blocked the road. He’s anxious about missing his flight.

“I turn to Seneca, who promptly pisses all over my immediate predicament – and my life’s work: therapeutic travel.  ‘Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of skills, can be assembled on a journey? Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.’  Roman bastard.”  [p. 241]

And sprinkled throughout the book are little gems like this one about Nietzsche:

“His poor eyesight was a secret blessing. It liberated him from the tyranny of the book. When he couldn’t read, he walked. He walked hours at a stretch, covering great distances. ‘Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement,’ he said. We write with our hands. We write well with our feet.”  [p. 209]

If you’d like to learn how to wonder like Socrates, how to see like Thoreau, fight like Gandhi or grow old like Beauvoir, if you’d like a little help seeking wisdom in these tumultuous times, or if you just want a break from them, you’ll find The Socrates Express rewarding and enjoyable.

One caveat: “The Socrates Express” is a catchy title but it’s completely misleading. The book meanders, it ventures down obscure sidings, it stops frequently, it walks. And it never does arrive at a destination.

Of course, that’s the whole point.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday at 87 from metastatic pancreas cancer.

The tributes have been overwhelming, including this New York Times review of her life and career by Linda Greenhouse, and this post by Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSBlog.

Reading through them, I’ve been impressed with two aspects of Ginsburg’s career.

First, she thought and fought strategically, with subtlety and with perseverance. Her work on gender equality at the ACLU in the 1970’s started with cases where men were being treated unfairly. In the 1975 case Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, a man named Paul Wiesenfeld, whose wife had died in childbirth, was denied Social Security survivor benefits because a woman’s income was considered unimportant to the family. Ginsburg’s point, and the basis of her entire strategy, was that discrimination on the basis of sex harms both men and women.

Second, in the early 1960’s Ginsburg worked at Columbia University on a project comparing civil procedure in the US and Sweden. The project required her to learn Swedish and to spend time in Sweden. (She was later awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University.)  At that time, women’s rights in Sweden were far ahead of those in the US. Ginsburg participated in a trial where the presiding judge was a woman eight months pregnant.  Her experience in Sweden was enormously influential, showing her that a country could make different and more equal choices about how to structure society. Since I work in the travel industry, this is also a welcome reminder of the benefits of travel in bringing people together and in broadening our perspectives.

Ginsburg’s death has hit the country hard. And it’s not just because of the inevitable bitter fight over her successor (she cannot be replaced) that has already begun in the middle of a rancorous election.  For progressives, and maybe others too, RBG was a beacon of hope.

Her career, her voice, even her mere presence on the Supreme Court, showed us that a different path was possible. Equality and fairness were not just idealistic pipe dreams for her. They had a firm and rational basis in the law. Even in her dissents, perhaps especially in her dissents, she gave us reasons to hope for progress, for a better, a more equal and a more just country.  In fact, as she said herself, “that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”

Some of that hope has died with her.

It has certainly darkened my outlook, adding to the pandemic, racial injustice, natural disasters, and toxic politics that have made 2020 one of the worst years I can remember.

On a personal level, I think RBG’s death prompts us to examine our own lives. Are we doing something meaningful, something worthy with our time? Are we dissenting when we see something that’s not right? Are we, in her words, fighting for the things we care about, but doing it in a way that will lead others to join us? Are we making the world a better place?  Are we doing all we can, exerting ourselves to the limits of our capabilities?

For me, I have to admit the answers are “partially” and “somewhat” and “not enough” and “I could do more” and above all “not to the same extent as RBG.”

An example and an inspiration.


Posted in Law and justice, Reflections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change

Those tree-hugging liberals over at the Pentagon just don’t get it. They don’t understand that climate change is a hoax and the Trump White House doesn’t want to hear about it. They keep working away, defying Presidential directives, studying and planning and preparing for a hotter world where all hell is breaking loose.

Cover of All Hell Breaking Loose

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change
By Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, New York, 2019

All Hell Breaking Loose, by Michael T. Klare, is a well-researched, crisply written book that details how senior United States military officers are thinking about and responding to the threat of climate change despite current White House policy.

Klare is Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s the author of fourteen books. His articles and essays have appeared in The Nation,, The Guardian, The New York Times and Foreign Affairs.

Before I go any further, l should say I know very little about the military. I grew up in Canada where the armed forces are respected but small. I’ve never served in the military, nor has anyone in my family. And I’ve never been particularly interested in military history.  So one thing I appreciated about this book is that it taught me a little bit about how officers think and plan.

Klare makes it very clear – despite my sarcastic opening – that US military leaders are not concerned about climate change per se. What they care about is the impact of climate change on their ability to fulfill their primary missions: protecting the US homeland and defeating America’s enemies, principally Russia and China. In that context, climate change is a secondary threat to US national security because it makes the military’s job harder and could even make it impossible at some point in the future.

Senior officers understand that in order to succeed in its primary missions, the US military must respond the threat of climate change.

“There is, therefore, a direct clash between current White House doctrine on climate change and the Pentagon’s determination to overcome climate related threats to military preparedness.”  [p. 5]

Threats from Climate Change

The Pentagon perceives climate change as a threat multiplier, Klare says. It increases global chaos. Climate change’s direct impacts – extreme weather events, sea level rise, prolonged drought, wildfires and pandemics – increase tensions and pressures on some of the most vulnerable and volatile places in the world. When the rains don’t come, when crops fail, when forests burn, the results can include water and food scarcity, mass migration, ethnic conflict, civil unrest, state collapse, the emergence of “ungoverned spaces”, and intense competition for scarce resources, especially water, both within and between states.

I like how Klare catalogs the ways climate change threatens the US military.

First, climate change increases the demand for military intervention in locations all around the world in response to climate-related events. These interventions lie along a spectrum that Klare calls the “ladder of escalation.”  They include everything from quick in-and-out deployments to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief, to “stability operations” needed to support failing states, all the way up to great power conflict and war.

Second, the physical territory of the United States is not immune to the impacts of climate change. (As I write this, the air here in the Seattle area is grey and acrid from wildfire smoke.). The military faces increasing demands to help disaster-struck communities within the US. In August and September 2017, for example, hurricane Harvey smashed into Houston, America’s fourth largest city. Then hurricane Irma pummeled the island of Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands. Shortly after that, hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Relief operations for this cluster of catastrophes required tens of thousands of national guard and US Army and Navy personnel, plus ships, vehicles, equipment and supplies. These were not short-term deployments, especially in Puerto Rico.

Finally, the military’s own facilities are impacted by climate change. Sea level rise, storm damage, drought and wildfires affect US bases and installations just as they affect surrounding cities and towns. Klare highlights the impacts of climate change on Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval installation and home to the Atlantic Fleet. By 2100, scientists forecast that 60% of the base will be exposed to regular tidal flooding, and a category 4 hurricane would inundate the land areas under ten feet of water. Nearby Langley Air Force Base can expect daily flooding to cover 90% of its land area by the end of the century.  Of course, long before that, both installations would experience frequent and severe operational disruptions.

Klare sums up the danger succinctly.

“This threat to the Pentagon’s installations at home, combined with an increased tempo of climate disasters abroad, conjures up the military’s worst nightmare: a future in which the armed forces are called upon to overcome multiple emergencies around the globe while many of their bases are out of commission and large numbers of their troops are engaged in domestic relief operations, leaving them ill-equipped to address any major threats at all.”  [p. 37]

Adapting to Climate Change

So what is the Pentagon doing about it?

First, they’re spending tons of money to upgrade bases and other installations to be more resilient to climate-related events.  For starters, $21-billion to shore up Naval Station Norfolk and surrounding facilities.

Next, the military is trying to reduce its climate footprint.  According to this research paper, the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, and therefore the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. So the Pentagon is adopting alternate sources of energy in order to reduce its own contribution to global warming.  It turns out that alternative energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear bring additional benefits:

  • Providing a more reliable and assured supply of energy with less price volatility than fossil fuels.
  • Reducing the energy, effort and casualties involved in transporting fuel in combat zones. Portable solar arrays, for example, reduce the need to deliver fuel to forward operating bases by oil tanker trucks which are susceptible to enemy ambush.

At stateside bases, the military is moving to be a “net zero” consumer of energy, producing 100% of its energy needs by itself, and even “islanding” bases off of the commercial electrical power grid.

“All of a sudden, American military bases became giant laboratories for the large-scale utilization of alternative energy.”  [p. 219]

Finally, the military is collaborating with international allies, helping them develop their own climate-related capabilities and resilience. This strengthens our allies of course, but it also reduces the burden on the US of providing disaster relief and security to these countries.

All very sensible. All done quietly, without fanfare so as not to overtly contradict current White House policy.

Klare concludes the book by noting that the military doesn’t concern itself with threats to wildlife and natural habitats, but rather with the threats posed to human systems like energy infrastructure, transportation and communication networks, hospitals and governments.

“From this perspective, climate change presents its greatest harm not by hastening the extinction of endangered species but by decimating the vital systems upon which our communal life depends.”  [p. 235]

Caves and Caravans

All Hell Breaking Loose provides some additional insights and examples that I found really fascinating.

Did you know that the US has enough battle tanks, artillery pieces and munitions to supply a fighting force of 15,000 for up to 30 days of combat stockpiled in climate-controlled caves near Trondheim, Norway?  Yup, they’ve been there since the early 1980’s.  Could come in handy if there’s ever a war with the Russians in the Arctic.

Speaking of war with the Russians in the Arctic, global warming has caused such a dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice that it’s becoming increasingly accessible for commercial shipping and, more importantly, oil drilling.  Five countries have Arctic Ocean coastlines and the offshore boundaries are far from clear. Competition for undersea resources is likely to cause heightened tensions between them. From the Pentagon’s perspective, the warming Arctic is a “whole new ocean” with complex geostrategic implications.

I sincerely hope humanity is not so brain-dead stupid as to fight a war for control of fossil fuel under the Arctic Ocean which is only accessible because we’ve burned so much fossil fuel we’ve melted the ice cap covering that ocean.

Klare also informs us that senior commanders were not amused to have over 6,000 troops deployed to the southern US border in 2019 to guard against a so-called “invasion” of unarmed Central American migrants, including destitute women and children, who posed not the slightest security threat to the United States. He cites internal memos from officers alarmed at the “unacceptable risks” these border deployments posed to combat readiness.

And what is causing these migrant caravans that Trump rants about?  Prolonged drought from climate change in places like Guatemala and Honduras is one leading cause.  Farmers and their families flee when crops repeatedly fail and they can no longer support thenselves on the land.

Ironic isn’t it: If the Trump Administration adopted aggressive measures to deal with climate change it might actually help slow mass migration from Central America.

The Pentagon is Worried. We Should Be Too

I am impressed with the long-range planning that Klare tells us the Pentagon is grappling with. Although there are lots of scientists and research institutes thinking about very long-range scenarios, I can think of only three organizations on the planet that make plans for themselves over such distant time horizons; the Pentagon, the Communist Party of China and the Vatican. It’s good the Pentagon is thinking about climate change.

Now imagine what could happen if the Pentagon was actually encouraged in these efforts by the White House. Imagine if they shared their expertise with local, regional and state governments. What if there was effective joint civilian-military planning going on across the country? Maybe even a coordinated national strategy on climate change?

And what if, instead of spending countless billions to shore up military bases, we decided to conduct our foreign affairs so that we didn’t need such a gargantuan military and we could just close some of those bases? Yeah, I know: in my dreams.

All Hell Breaking Loose is a timely book well worth reading. Just be aware that even though it was published in November 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, the overall message is still grim. While it’s encouraging to read about the Pentagon’s efforts to plan and adapt, the scenarios described in the book paint a bleak picture of the many ways climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact our world and the global systems we depend on.

If you live in the US, chances are there’s a military base or facility not far from your home. After all, there are more than 3,000 of rhem scattered across the country. And that means your city or town is facing the same climate threats they are.

The Pentagon is worried about climate change. Its leaders are preparing, adapting to a climate-affected world so they can continue to fulfill their mission.

The rest of us should be too.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

“All hell breaking loose”: How the Pentagon in planning for climate change
Vox interview with Michael Klare, February 24, 2020

Pentagon Fuel Use, Carbon Emissions and the Costs of War
Paper by Neta C. Crawford, published by the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, Brown University, June 12, 2019


Posted in Books, Energy, Environment | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America

Supreme Inequality
By Adam Cohen
Penguin Press, New York, 2020

The Supreme Court is not your ally.
The Supreme Court does not protect the weak, the poor, or the downtrodden.
The Supreme Court will not save us from Donald Trump.

Those hard truths struck me as I read Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America by Adam Cohen. Cohen proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the Court’s decisions over the last half century have favored the wealthy, the powerful and the white, dramatically increasing inequality in the United States.

Adam Cohen is a lawyer, journalist and author. He graduated from Harvard Law School and worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.  He’s been a writer for Time magazine and an editor at The New York Times. Cohen is the author of five books. Supreme Inequality is his latest.

Photo of author Adam Cohen

Adam Cohen

The “Nixon Court”

On October 5, 1953, Earl Warren, then Governor of California, was sworn in as chief justice of the US Supreme Court. Over the next fifteen years, the “Warren Court” as it came to be called, was responsible for some of the most progressive legal decisions in US history including Brown v. Board of Education which ended racial segregation in American schools.

That progressive era ended abruptly in 1969 when Richard Nixon became President. In his first three years in office, Nixon appointed four judges to the Supreme Court, including a new chief justice, Warren Burger. Nixon’s appointments moved the Court sharply to the right making it far more conservative.

One of Cohen’s main themes in Supreme Inequality is that we are still living under the “Nixon Court” today.  All the chief justices since Warren – Burger, William Rehnquist and John Roberts – have been conservative.  Conservatives have held a 5-4 majority on the Court for the last fifty years.  Cohen argues that the conservative justices have used their majority to transform American society into one that is more unequal and unjust.

i  When you preside over one of the lower courts, like a district court or even a federal appeals court, you’re called a judge. When you get your appointment to the Supreme Court, you become a justice.

Structure of the Book

The first chapter of Supreme Inequality takes a detailed look at the progressive judgements of the Warren Court, laying out how they increased legal protections for the poor and the under-represented. In each of the remaining seven chapters Cohen examines a particular area of law including education, workers’ rights, criminal justice and campaign finance. He paints a disturbing picture of how the post-Warren courts changed direction across a wide range of legal issues leading to increased economic and political inequality in America.

In each chapter, Cohen walks us through a sequence of important cases showing how the Court’s rulings have developed over time. Cohen explains each case clearly and simply, presenting the issues at stake, the history and events of the case, and the key legal arguments on both sides. He analyzes the Court’s decision and then highlights the consequences; how it influenced future decisions and how it affected people’s lives. Actually, that’s a consistent theme running throughout the book – how the Court’s decisions affect the lives of ordinary people. The justices are not just deciding abstract legal questions. Every decision affects real people, often millions of us, for years and decades to come.

I’m going to summarize just one of these chapters because the topic is so critical right now.

Elections and Voting

In a damning chapter titled Democracy, Cohen argues persuasively that the Supreme Court’s decisions on elections and voting since 2000 have made it more difficult for Americans to vote and made our votes count less equally.

In December 2000, the Court decided the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election. Cohen recaps the history of that election and the infamous Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. The election results were very close that year. Whoever won the State of Florida would win the presidency. Voting in Florida was a mess, with voting irregularities and malfunctioning voting machines in several counties around the state. In early December, with Bush leading by about five hundred votes, the Florida State Supreme Court ordered a statewide manual recount of about nine thousand ballots which had not been properly marked or counted by Florida’s faulty voting machines. Bush appealed to the Supreme Court. Two days later the Court, splitting 5-4 on partisan lines, ordered a halt to the recount thereby making Bush president.

The decision was widely criticized and Cohen reviews many of the reasons why. The strongest one in my opinion is that the Court decided whose ballots would be counted and whose would not. The Court disenfranchised thousands of voters when it halted the Florida recount.

In case after case, Cohen details how the Court has upheld voter id laws that make it more difficult to register to vote, and voter roll purges that make it easier for government officials to delete eligible voters – tens of thousands of us – from voter rolls.  These laws are supposedly enacted to prevent voter fraud, such as people voting twice, or people casting the ballots of dead voters, or people voting in places where they don’t live. But despite what Donald Trump says, there is zero evidence of widespread voter fraud. It hardly ever happens. Cohen shows that what these laws actually do is disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, students, and people of color. And that of course is the real purpose of these laws.

Cohen also examines the legal decisions around partisan redistricting. After the census is taken every ten years, State legislatures around the country redraw the boundaries of electoral districts to reflect changes in population size and distribution. Partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering, occurs when one political party draws the district boundaries for its own advantage, ensuring they can win a disproportionate number of seats. Under partisan redistricting, politicians choose their voters and not the other way around. This is one reason why incumbents are so hard to defeat in the US.

Gerrymandering is a bipartisan sin; both Democratic and Republican governments do it.

Cohen tells us the Supreme Court had never taken a firm stand against partisan redistricting preferring to leave these disputes to elected politicians to resolve. Finally in a 2018 case called Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that partisan redistricting is “nonjusticiable”, which means it is not a question the courts can decide.  (This is the legal equivalent of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: you can pass a law but we can’t tell you whether it is valid or not.)

In other words, the majority ducked the question. In doing so, they made it virtually impossible for any future lawsuits about gerrymandering to succeed.  And that means that governing elites have been given a green light to manipulate district boundaries with impunity.

person dropping paper into ballot box

Photo by Element5 Digital on

Finally, Cohen describes how in 2012 the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

The original Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looking on.  The Act was designed to prevent intimidation and other tactics from being used to prevent Blacks from registering and voting.  Section 5 of the Act required certain state and local governments to get approval, in advance, from the Justice Department or a federal court for any potentially discriminatory changes to their voting laws or procedures. This was known as the “preclearance” requirement. Section 4 set out a formula that determined which parts of the country would be subject to preclearance. It covered most of the South and a few other jurisdictions.

In 2012, Shelby County, Alabama sued the Justice Department, arguing that preclearance was unconstitutional. The Court agreed. In Shelby County v. Holder the Court struck down Section 4 of the Act by another 5-4 partisan split.  With no formula for determining where preclearance applied, the major provisions of the Voting Rights Act collapsed.

i  Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority decision in Shelby County has a long history of opposition to the Voting Rights Act.

Cohen takes us through this case in detail and dissects, eviscerates really, the majority’s reasoning, which among other things claimed that times had changed and voter suppression was no longer a problem. Predictably, the decision opened the floodgates to a new wave of voter suppression laws, rules and procedural changes, mostly in southern Republican-controlled states.

The net impact of all these cases has been to weaken American democracy; making it more difficult for people to register to vote, to cast their ballots, to have their votes counted and to have them count equally.

Most of these cases have been decided by 5-4 votes along ideological lines.  Cohen argues that while the Court could have taken a different approach,

“Instead the Court has taken an approach to election law that defers to the decisions of elites about which voters should be allowed to participate in democracy and whose votes should count.”  [p. 192]

Consistently Conservative

Why have conservatives dominated the Supreme Court for so long?  Cohen maintains it’s because Republicans want it more than Democrats. Republican presidential candidates routinely pledge to appoint only conservative judges to the Court. Donald Trump went so far as to publish his list of potential nominees during the 2016 campaign. Democrats have not done this.

Republicans have also been more strategic about keeping control of the Court. Cohen describes how Nixon forced liberal Justice Abe Fortus off the bench in 1969, opening the way for his conservative makeover of the Court.  And the Trump Administration enticed Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing vote” on the Court, to retire, appointing the reliably conservative Brett Kavanaugh to succeed him.

By contrast, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not retire early in President Obama’s term when she could have been replaced by a younger liberal judge.

Cover of Supreme Inequality

Cohen concludes the book with observations about the role and long-term impact of the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court is more than a legal tribunal ruling on disputes between parties—it is also an architect. The Court’s interpretations of the Constitution and other laws become blueprints for the nation, helping to determine what form it will take and how it will continue to rise. For the past half century, the Court has been drawing up plans for a more economically unequal nation, and that is the America that is now being built.”   [p. 317]

It could have been so much different, Cohen argues, if the progressive views of the Warren Court had continued to hold sway. A Court in the Warren tradition would have laid down different blueprints.

“That different set of blueprints would have built a different society. For the past five decades, all families could have been lifted above the poverty line. All children could have attended schools that were adequately funded and racially integrated. There could have been elections that were decided by the most persuasive arguments to the electorate, not by special-interest money, and a government that put the public’s interest ahead of the billionaires’. There could have been workplaces with less discrimination and more unions, and prisons with fewer inmates.“  [p. 318]

We could have had a much different America.

Unsolicited Feedback

It’s hard not to be outraged after reading Supreme Inequality. Cohen argues clearly and passionately for a more progressive, equal and just America, and shows how the Court has thwarted that vision for the last fifty years. There have been a few exceptions, such as abortion rights and same sex marriage, but Cohen warns that even those decisions shouldn’t be taken as carved in stone.

Cohen does a great job showing how the Court’s thinking evolves along a line of cases, sometimes stretching back decades.  In the process we see the strategic – dare I say, political? – way the judges work to advance their beliefs.  They’ll write comments or footnotes in one case that they refer to years later in another. Most of the time they take an incremental approach, chipping away at previously decided cases, limiting their scope or narrowing their applicability. They wait for particularly favorable cases to come along before taking bigger, bolder steps. It’s slow motion chess. Or a slow motion train wreck depending on your point of view.

I have two concerns with the book. The first is that Supreme Inequality contains a lot of hypotheticals. If the Court had made Al Gore president in 2000 and if Gore had been reelected in 2004 then he would have appointed a liberal Chief Justice to succeed William Rehnquist in 2005. There are many examples like this throughout the book. They paint an enticing picture of an alternate America, but it’s really impossible to predict the full chain of consequence that might follow any of these hypothetical events. If Gore had won in 2000 and 2004, maybe a Republican would have won in 2008 and not Barack Obama, in which case Justices Kagan and Sotomayor would not have been appointed to the Court.

Similarly, if the Court had made more progressive decisions on labor or employment law, maybe there would have been a conservative backlash in subsequent elections resulting in more inequitable legislation getting passed.

Nonetheless, Cohen’s fundamental argument stands: the decisions of the Court follow a consistent long-term pattern dictated by the ideology of the majority of the justices. The justices are not just umpires “calling balls and strikes” as John Roberts claimed during his Senate confirmation hearings. They’re human beings just like the rest of us. They come to the Court with experiences, opinions and biases. They are not neutral.

That leads to my second concern.  Supreme Inequality focuses on the last fifty years of Supreme Court decisions.  But there is plenty of evidence that the Court has been leaning conservative for a long, long time. After all the Supreme Court has quite a checkered history when it comes to upholding civil rights.  In 1857, the Court ruled in the Dredd Scott case that people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not US citizens and had no rights to sue in US courts. In 1896, the Court upheld racial segregation laws in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1944, in Korematsu v. United States, the Court upheld the exclusion of Japanese Americans from areas of the US west coast during World War II. And in case you might think those are just extreme examples of the Court’s behavior from decades past, the Court upheld the Muslim travel ban in Trump v. Hawaii in 2018.  (You can read my review of that case here.)

I understand Adam Cohen is trying to draw a sharp distinction between the progressive rights-oriented Warren Court and all the Courts that followed. I think it’s likely his argument applies to the Courts that preceded Warren too.

 * * *

OK, this has been a very long review, but the book has got me thinking about the future of the Supreme Court. I want to add one more thought.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 86 years old and battling cancer. Justice Stephen Breyer in 82. The next US president will most likely appoint their successors.  If Trump is re-elected in November, he will appoint conservative justices and there will be a 7-2 conservative majority on the Court.

Do you think the US needs to address the problems of racial and economic inequality? What about universal health care?  Do you care about preserving abortion rights?  Do you support reasonable gun control laws?  Want an end to qualified immunity for police officers?  Do you want to preserve and extend minority rights?  How about a decent and compassionate immigration and refugee system?  Should there be limits on the power of the Executive Branch?

None of this will happen with a 7-2 Court.

If you care about any of these things, please vote this November!

Thanks so much for reading.

Related Links

Republicans have a strong message on the courts. Democrats need one too.
Washington Post opinion by Melissa Murray, Professor of Law at NYU School of Law
August 20, 2020

Strict Scrutiny Podcast
“A podcast by three women about the Supreme Court and the legal culture that surrounds it.”  Adam Cohen has been a guest on this podcast.

Posted in Books, Law and justice, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
By Kate Manne
Oxford University Press, New York, 2018

On August 11, 2020, Joe Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris to be his 2020 running mate. Within minutes, Trump and other Republicans launched misogynist and racist attacks calling her “nasty”, “angry”, and “horrible” and questioning her eligibility to be Vice President.

I’ve read a number of books about racism recently, which I’ve reviewed here and here, but nothing about misogyny. It’s important to understand and confront this form of discrimination because it harms not just prominent female politicians but virtually every woman on the planet.

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne gave me a deeper understanding.

Originally from Melbourne, Manne is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University where she works on moral, feminist and social philosophy.

Down Girl is a deep and complex book. In this review I’ll summarize the ideas I found most important.

Cover of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

Defining Misogyny

Misogyny is most often defined as a characteristic of individuals, usually men, but not always, who feel hatred or hostility towards women simply because they are women.  According to this definition, misogyny is a psychological disorder like claustrophobia.

Manne calls this the naïve definition of misogyny and she rejects it. It’s true there are some people who have this psychological problem, but its occurrence is too rare to account for the widespread hostility that so many women encounter throughout their lives. No, the naïve definition of misogyny is simply too narrow.

Manne proposes a more sophisticated definition.  She argues that,

“… misogyny ought to be understood as the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.” [p. 33]

In other words, misogyny is systemic. It’s political not psychological. Contrary to the naïve conception where misogyny is directed at women in general, under Manne’s definition, misogyny is targeted particularly at women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations.

Patriarchal Norms and Expectations

So what exactly are the patriarchal norms and expectations that misogyny is designed to enforce?

Actually, before we get to that, what is “patriarchy”? It’s narrowly defined as a social system in which the father or eldest male is the head of each family.  More broadly, patriarchy is a social and political system where men dominate, and women are subordinated and oppressed.

Our society, like almost all societies throughout human history, is patriarchal. And yes, it’s still patriarchal despite widespread advances in women’s rights over the last hundred years.

In a patriarchal system, Manne says, women are expected to provide “feminine-coded goods and services” including attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children as well as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort. And men are entitled to receive them.

Men in a patriarchy are also entitled to receive “masculine-coded perks and privileges” such as power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, “face”, respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love and devotion.  [p. 130]

Manne states that most cases of misogyny fall under two

“… complimentary social norms for women:

  1. She is obligated to give feminine-coded services to someone or other, preferably one man who is her social equal or better (by the lights of racist, classist, as well as heteronormative values, in many contexts), at least insofar as he wants such goods and services from her.
  2. She is prohibited from having or taking masculine-coded goods away from dominant men (at a minimum, and perhaps from others as well), insofar as he wants or aspires to receive or retain then.” [p. 130]

Those passages from page 130 are the crux of the whole book. Women are expected to be “human givers” and in a patriarchy a woman’s full humanity is only recognized when she “properly” fulfills that role. When a woman tries to take power or prestige or when she withholds affection, sex or nurturing, she violates these norms.  She is met with criticism, hostility, harassment, and sometimes even assault and murder from misogynists seeking to enforce these norms and to preserve or restore male dominance. This is true in private households and also in the public sphere where it is more visible.

“And the victims of misogyny hence tend to include women entering positions of power and authority over men, and women eschewing or opting out of male-oriented service roles.”  [p. 51]

Manne explains that it is possible for misogynists to love their mothers, wives and daughters and still treat other women with hostility.  Unless of course those family members challenge the misogynist’s dominance, in which case they may be subject to the full range of misogynistic retribution.

Misogyny is intersectional.  It frequently combines with racism when directed at women of color who challenge the dominance of white men.

How do we diagnose misogyny? When you hear someone, a family member or a colleague or the President of the United States, making a critical comment about a woman, is it misogyny or is it “fair game”?

Manne offers a simple guide.

  1. It’s misogyny if a man in a comparable social position (same age, class, race, sexual orientation, etc.) would not be subject to the same kind and intensity of hostility as a woman, or
  2. It’s misogyny if a person in a world without patriarchal norms and expectations would not be subject to similar hostility.

As a practical matter, we don’t live in a world without patriarchal norms and expectations, so (2) seems mostly hypothetical to me.  (1) is sufficient

Sexism & Misogyny

Manne makes it clear that sexism and misogyny are different.

“I propose taking sexism to be the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny as the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations.”  [p. 20]

Here’s an example from my own field that illustrates the difference. In 2017, a Google engineer named James Damore posted a memo on an internal company website where he argued that the under-representation of women in the tech industry was at least partly due to biological differences between the sexes. In other words, women can’t code as well as men. That’s sexism.

Damore went on to recommend that Google abandon or roll back certain company policies and initiatives that were intended to increase female representation at the company. Since women can’t code as well as men, it is counter-productive to try to increase their representation. Oh, and it also threatens their male co-workers.  That’s misogyny.

Damore was subsequently fired.

It’s possible, Manne argues, for someone to be misogynistic without being sexist. Even someone like Donald Trump, she says, is not obviously sexist in his views about the abilities of the women around him. His misogyny is beyond doubt, but it’s targeted at specific women, like Hilary Clinton and Kamala Harris, who challenge him or threaten him.

Manne suggests another way of looking at this distinction:  Sexism discriminates between men and women. Misogyny discriminates between “good women” and “bad women”, as defined by patriarchal norms and expectations.

Examples of Misogyny

Let’s look at some examples.

Let’s start with abortion.  Why do abortion rights arouse such fierce anger and resentment from some people?  Even in cases of rape or incest? Manne argues it’s because in seeking abortion rights, women are claiming the right to withhold a whole swath of feminine-coded goods and services including child-rearing, nurture, affection, and comfort. Abortion rights represent the wholesale rejection of patriarchal norms and expectations. Likewise for birth control.

How about rape?  Why are the victims of rape so often blamed or not believed?  Manne says that when a woman accuses a man of rape, she threatens his power, prestige and livelihood. And she asserts her right to withhold sex.

Why was Hilary Clinton so vilified by conservatives during the 2016 election?  According to Manne, it’s because Clinton was an ambitious woman competing for the most powerful office in the world.  Threatening to wrest that power away from a man. After choosing a career in politics rather than staying at home raising children.

Manne is deeply pessimistic about raising awareness of misogyny let alone making progress against it.  From children’s stories that socialize our kids into patriarchal norms to the election of Donald Trump, it’s clear that patriarchy and misogyny are deeply entrenched.

Unsolicited Feedback

Down Girl is quite brilliant but it’s not easy reading.

I think the book is written mainly for an academic audience.  There are passages throughout the book dealing with philosophical and feminist issues that may be important from the perspective of academic rigor but they’re far less interesting to a general audience.

I also found that Manne’s writing frequently gets in the way of her message.  She keeps interrupting herself, injecting qualifiers and caveats (often bracketed) that sometimes make it hard to know what she is really saying.  Here’s an example:

“A crucial complication in all of this, which the cases of Rodger and Limbaugh both bring out, is that there may be no particular woman to claim their supposedly rightful due from, or to blame for trying to cheat them out of it (again, according to the twisted logic their misogyny). Instead, they each fashioned a narrative that draws a hazy circuitous connection either between themselves (in Rodger’s case) or on behalf of his listeners (in Limbaugh’s). The end of the connection—and the story–is a representative woman to serve as a scapegoat for the resented absence. (Or, indeed, a double absence, for Rodger: a sin of omission committed by nobody in particular.)” [p. 108]

Manne was clearly dismayed by Donald Trump’s election in 2016. She deeply analyzes the misogyny faced by Hilary Clinton in the later chapters of the book. This worthwhile analysis details the discrimination that women still face when they seek positions of power and authority.

The book does not mention the #metoo movement which really took off in 2017, perhaps too late to be included.  The fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court and the sexual assault accusations against him by Christine Blassey Ford took place in 2018, after Down Girl was published.  Likewise, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.  These events have all exposed just how prevalent and disturbing the problem of misogyny really is.  I wonder if this exposure has made Manne more or less pessimistic.

I was hoping Down Girl would contain recommendations for things we could do to make progress against misogyny, either as individuals or through political or legal activism. Unfortunately, the book contains none of this.  I can’t tell if that’s because of Manne’s focus on philosophical analysis or her pessimism.

All that said, the book provides deep insights into the nature and operation of misogyny.  And it gives what I always appreciate, a framework for thinking about misogyny and for recognizing it.

I do think there is room for more books on this subject, particularly if they are aimed at a general audience, and propose concrete actions.  I’d also like to know more about misogyny in non-Western cultures.

Have you read Down Girl?  What did you think of it?  Are there any other books on this topic you would recommend?  Comments welcome.

Thanks for reading.

Posted in Books, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Burning

A Burning
By Megha Majumdar
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2020

Faced with a difficult moral choice, would you do the right thing?  What if doing the right thing might cost you your job or the chance of a promotion?   Would you do the right thing for someone you didn’t know very well?  What if their life was at stake?

A Burning, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, tells the story of three people in contemporary Kolkata whose lives are braided together by chance, by the choices they make and by events beyond their control.

All three are trying to get ahead in life.  Jivan, a Muslim girl from the slums wants to make it into the middle class.  PT Sir, a physical education teacher, has discovered politics and is working his way up the ranks of a local political party.  And Lovely, possessing a vibrant personality and “half half” gender, takes acting classes and dreams of becoming a movie star.

Jivan is arrested and charged with terrorism due to a careless comment she makes on Facebook.  The other two are called upon to testify as character witnesses in her defense.  They’re reluctant to get involved, reluctant to engage with a notoriously corrupt justice system.  Will they do the right thing?  Even if it costs them their shot at power and stardom?

It’s summertime and I’ve taken a short break from non-fiction to read this novel.  I really enjoyed the writing in A Burning.  It’s well-paced and suspnseful. Majumdar has done a great job giving each of her characters clear and distinct voices.  You also get a vivid sense of the oppressive poverty, corruption, and discrimination they live under. I imagine Majumdar has drawn on her own experiences growing up in Kolkata. And that’s one reason it’s not exactly light reading.

For me the real impact of A Burning is that it calls on us to ask ourselves how we would act in similar situations.  Would we act at all?  Could we resist the pressures and the temptations?  Would we?

Hopefully, we’re not tested with life or death choices like the characters in the novel but even in small ways at school, at work, and in our communities, we have choices to make.  A Burning remidns us that our choices have consequences.

Have you read A Burning?  What did you think of it?  Any recommendations for similar books?

Thanks for reading.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Homeland Security Was Destined To Become A Secret Police Force


Masha Gessen, author of Surviving Autocracy (my review), writing about the Portland protests in The Nee Yorker on July 25, says,

“… we are watching the perfect and perhaps inevitable combination of a domestic-security superagency and a President who rejects all mechanisms of accountability, including the Senate confirmation process. “

He says it’s inevitable that the agency formed after 9/11 to hunt for individuals who might pose terrorist threats to the US is resorting to the tactics we’re seeing on display in Portland right now:

“These men represent a government agency born of fear. Their tactics are designed to engender an equal amount of fear in the people they see as their enemies. The secret police is always a terror-production machine.”

Full article at:

Posted in Law and justice, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surviving Autocracy: Can American democracy survive Trump’s autocratic transformation?

Surviving Autocracy
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, New York, 2020

Most people in the US today have never lived under a dictatorship. Maybe we’ve heard stories from our parents or grandparents who immigrated from such places, but we don’t have personal experience with autocratic rulers. This is truly one of the blessings of liberty.

It also means we don’t always recognize autocratic behavior when it happens around us.

Russian-born author and activist Masha Gessen (they/them) does recognize autocratic behavior. They worked for over twenty years as a journalist and editor in Moscow, writing about the rise and reign of Vladimir Putin. They have been a vocal critic of both Putin and Donald Trump. Gessen has published eleven books. They’ve been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2017.

Surviving Autocracy is their latest book.  It’s a stark warning about Trump’s autocratic actions and ambitions.  Published in April 2020, it couldn’t be timelier.

Photo of Masha Gessen

Photo © Lena Di

An Autocratic Transformation

The central idea of the book is that Donald Trump is attempting to transform American democracy into an autocracy. He has come closer to achieving autocratic rule in his first three years in office than many people would have thought possible. Gessen examines how Trump has done this, and how we might still escape.

Gessen cites the work of Hungarian sociologist and politician Bálint Magyar who coined the term “mafia state” to describe Hungary’s post-communist government.  Magyar says that an autocratic transformation occurs in three stages: attempt, breakthrough and then consolidation.

It is difficult to know exactly when a country moves from one stage to the next, and there might not be one decisive event that signals a transition. The point is to resist such movement, and to reverse it whenever possible.

This idea of autocratic transformation forms the foundation of Surviving Autocracy.  Right now, Gessen says, Trump is in the attempt stage. The book traces how frighteningly far Trump has progressed, and how resistance has proved largely ineffective so far.

Contempt and Disdain

Trump shares many characteristics with autocrats like Putin, starting with contempt for government.

It’s very common for political candidates to campaign as outsiders, railing against the corruption or the incompetence of those in power, and vowing change. Trump was different, Gessen says. He campaigned on contempt for government itself, and that contempt continued even after he took office.

“Contempt for the government and its work is a component of the disdain for elites, and a rhetorical trope shared by the current crop of the world’s antipolitical leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. They campaign on voters’ resentment of elites for ruining their lives, and they continue to traffic in this resentment even after they take office—as though someone else, someone sinister and apparently all powerful, were still in charge, as though they were still insurgents. The very institutions of government—their own government now—are the enemy.”  [pp. 17-18]

Casting government as the enemy enables the aspiring autocrat to justify ruling without the constraints and inconveniences of rules, procedures, traditions, and eventually laws.

Along with contempt for government comes disdain for excellence. If you are opposed to properly functioning government, why would you staff it with skilled and knowledgeable people?  Just look at the Cabinet Trump appointed, Gessen points out.  Many of them are completely unqualified for the positions they hold, and quite a few are opposed to the function and even the very existence of their departments.

But there’s a price to pay for Trump’s anti-intellectual disdain and his glorification of ignorance. There are times when we need people in government who are competent experts — such as during a pandemic.

“Trump had campaigned on insulting the government, and he himself was an insult to the presidency. But could someone so absurd, so evidently incompetent, be a true danger? … We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal.”  [pp. 30-31]

Assault on Truth

It’s not news to anyone that Trump lies continuously, comprehensively and shamelessly.  He even lies about the weather. Why?

Americans were given the answer just a few days after Trump’s inauguration when his counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed by Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press. It was during that fateful interview that Conway introduced us to the term “alternative facts”.

Gessen says,

“’Alternative facts’ was not a phrase concocted to justify or whitewash a lie—it was a declaration that the new administration reserved the right to lie.”  [p. 103]

Conway, as a surrogate for Trump, was asserting that holding power gave them the right to lie.

“Conway was defending a liar’s right to lie. There were no facts in her universe, and no issue of trust. There was power. Power demanded respect. Power conferred the right to speak and not be challenged. Being right was a question of power, not evidence. Conway was outraged that Todd would violate this compact by calling the president’s statements ridiculous.” [p. 105]

Gessen points out that Trump’s lies are different than ordinary lies that you and I might tell on occasion and which can easily be refuted with evidence, with truth.

“The Trumpian lie is different. It is the power lie, or the bully lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it—while denying that he took it. There is no defense against this lie because the point of the lie is to assert power, to show ‘I can say what I want when want to.’” [p. 106]

We might not have recognized it at the time, but this interview marked the emergence of two realities; a fact-based reality where truth and trust matter, and an alternate reality where alternative facts hold sway and only power matters.

“[NBC’s] Todd was arguing that the president had a responsibility to the public to tell the truth; she was asserting that the president can say whatever he wants because he is president.“ [p. 108]

These two competing realities create tension and anxiety. Who should we believe and why?  Whose facts do we check and how?  How long can we keep this up?  Gessen says,

“In effect, it means that the two realities—Trumpian and fact-based—come to exist side by side, on equal ground. The tension is draining. The need to pay constant attention to the lies is exhausting, and it is compounded by the feeling of helplessness in the face of the ridiculous and repeated lies. … One way out of that anxiety is to relieve the mind of stress by accepting Trumpian reality. Another—and this too is an option often exercised by people living under totalitarianism—is to stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere. Both approaches are victories for Trump in his attack on politics.”  [pp. 110-111]

I think this is another reason Trump and autocrats like him despise experts. Their credibility and their truth help to sustain fact-based reality and to refute the alternate reality created by Trump and his enablers.  This explains recent attacks by Trump aids against Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. It’s no coincidence that these attacks started soon after polls showed that Fauci was the most trusted person in America on Covid-19, far more trusted than Trump.

In general the importance of language and the terms we use to describe politics and political actors is an important theme of the book.

Unfortunately, traditional media have not helped much, Gessen complains.  Mainstream media outlets continue to insist on adhering to journalistic precepts like neutrality and objectivity, both of which are completely unsuitable for the Trump era.  They single out The New York Times for particular criticism:

“By choosing to act as though in the war on reality it was possible not to choose sides, the Times—and with it, the American media mainstream—became, reluctantly though not unwittingly, the president’s accomplices.”  [p. 151]

Narrowing “Us”

Trump is a white supremacist president and he has been remarkably consistent in pursuing policies that seek to redefine “American” to include only people like him, Gessen says.  It started with the Muslim travel ban – though it took him three tries and a little help from the Supreme Court in Trump v. Hawaii. Then followed the ban on transgender people serving in the military, the cruel and inhumane treatment of refugees on the southern border, and ever-tightening restrictions on legal immigration and asylum seekers.

As Gessen puts it:

‘Trump, who in other areas had a way of lashing out, flailing, and withdrawing, was pursuing a sustained and consistent strategy on immigration. It had probably been articulated by someone else—someone actually capable of articulating a policy agenda—but it fit Trump’s spontaneously expressed desires and his instincts. It fit his concept of America. In it, a part of the population – native-born straight men of white European descent, like Trump himself—were the nation. Everyone else was an interloper.” [p. 174]

The result: we don’t even pretend to be a “nation of immigrants” anymore.

“In less than three years, the crudeness of the tweets, the speed of the news cycle, the blatant quality of the lies, and the brutality of official rhetoric had dulled American senses so much that Trump has successfully reframed America, stripping it of its ideals, dumbing it down, and reducing it to a nation at war against people who want to join it.”  [p. 161]

The Need for Moral Politics

Gessen notes that Trump has made some of his harshest attacks against people who hold some amount of moral authority or who criticize him on moral grounds. This includes veterans of the civil rights movement like representatives John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, and newly elected representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayana Presley who called for Trump’s impeachment months before Nancy Pelosi agreed to it.

That’s because,

“Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.“ [pp. 201-202].

Moral principles are anathema to an autocrat like Trump because they represent a standard by which they can be judged and potentially found wanting.  No autocrat would willingly allow themselves to be judged or held to account or expected to meet any standard.  Like expertise, principles and the people who embody them represent a competing reality, and in fact a competing source of power.

I think this helps explain why Trump recently commuted the jail sentence of his longtime friend and political operative Roger Stone, and helped defeat Jeff Sessions, his first Attorney General, in the Republican senate primary in Alabama. Stone has been consistently loyal to Trump while Sessions placed legal principle above loyalty and recused himself from the Russia investigation.

People like Representative John Lewis who talk about morality in politics are aiming for “a higher note”, says Gessen.

“That higher note is a necessary condition of vision. [Czechoslovak dissident Václav] Havel, who conceptualized the “power of the powerless” as an entirely novel form of resistance, lived to lead his country. So did Mandela. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future.” [p. 204]

We’re in the middle of an autocratic attempt by Trump. The impeachment trial failed to reverse it.  Our next opportunity will be the November 2020 election. But even if Trump is defeated, we can’t just go back to a pre-Trump normal.

“Still, there will come a day when the Trump era is over. In the best-case scenario, it is ended by the voters at the ballot box. In the worst-case scenario, it lasts more than four years. In either case, the first three years have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding. Worse than that, they have shown that an autocratic attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of American government: on the concentration of power in the executive branch, and on the marriage of money and politics. Recovery from Trumpism–a process that will be necessary whenever Trumpism ends—will not be a process of returning to government as it used to be, a fictional state of pre-Trump normalcy. Recovery will be possible only as reinvention: of institutions, of what politics means to us, and of what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.”  [pp. 81-82]

Gessen ends the book by asking whether we will choose to re-elect Trump in November, forfeiting more of our freedoms to an autocrat and accepting greater inequality, or will we choose reinvention?

Cover of Surviving Autocracy

Unsolicited Feedback

Without a doubt, Surviving Autocracy is the most important book I’ve read this year.

The book is a clarifying lens through which we can make some sense of the last three and a half years. We should not expect a single book to explain everything. Yet even so, Surviving Autocracy provides compelling insights and a clear warning.

Gessen is not the first person to call attention to Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies.  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Trump “the first anti-democratic President in modern US history” in her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning which I reviewed here.  But Gessen’s twenty years of experience covering Vladimir Putin from Moscow uniquely qualifies them to call out the disturbing parallels between Trump and Putin and to understand the autocratic trajectory of the Trump Administration.

Plus, anyone who quotes Václav Havel gets an almost automatic thumbs up from me.

I admit at first, I was a little disappointed by the book. It seemed to be just another rehash of Trump’s cruel, stupid and corrupt actions. But then every so often, Gessen summed up a section or a chapter with a comment that shifted my perception and clarified the world.  It’s like looking at a photograph that doesn’t makes sense, and then someone tells you you’re holding it upside-down.

For example, like many people, I’ve tried to make sense of Trump’s pervasive lying.  I’d come to the conclusion that he just doesn’t care about truth or accuracy or facts. I still think that’s true.  But Gessen’s chapter titled The Power Lie brought this into focus. Trump lies are power lies. He tells them because he thinks being president gives him the right to lie.

The cumulative impact of these insights – and I’ve only touched on a few of them in this review – left me frightened at that degree to which Trump has succeeded in his autocratic attempt.

There is one question Gessen does not fully answer:  Given his arrogance, narcissism and incompetence, how has Trump succeeded in getting this far? Is it because his gut instincts lead him to bulldoze his way towards autocracy? Is he taking advantage of the weaknesses in our political system? Is he just a “useful idiot” for people around him who do possess clear policy agendas?  Gessen touches on some of these factors but does not completely resolve the paradox.

America has strong institutions, diverse media and a vibrant civil society. The country is also a federal system where States hold a lot of power. Yet none of these have succeeded in turning back much of Trump’s autocratic agenda. Impeachment failed. The Muslim travel ban stands.  Transgender people still cannot serve in the military. Yes, Trump has suffered some setbacks, but overall his autocratic attempt is making dangerous progress.  How far will he get?

Please read this book.  Before November.

* * *

Sincere thanks to What’s Nonfiction? for posting this review of Surviving Autocracy. I might have missed it otherwise!

Related Links

Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary
By Bálint Magyar

Posted in Books, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

White Fragility

White Fragility
By Robin DiAngelo
Beacon Press, Boston, 2018

“White Fragility” sounds like a paradox. How can whites be fragile when we’re supposed to be the largest and smost dominant segment of US society?

As author Robin DiAngelo explains it, whenever whites are confronted with racism, we become very uncomfortable and defensive. We resort to a whole set of emotions and behaviors like anger, fear, silence, and withdrawal that,

“… work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.” [p. 2]

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism is DiAngelo’s highly acclaimed examination of this insidious method of social control and what we must do about it to make progress on racial justice.

Robin DiAngelo is an author, lecturer and Affiliate Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.  She’s been a consultant and educator on racial and social justice issues for over twenty years. Throughout the book she draws on her experiences working with government, corporate and non-profit organizations.

Photo of Robin DiAngelo

DiAngelo says that white people don’t see ourselves in racial terms.  We’re “just human.”  Everyone else belongs to a race.  And we like it that way. It means we’re dominant, we define the standards, we get all the advantages and privileges.  But it also means that most of us don’t understand racism at all.  We have a simplistic view that racism consists of individual actions by not-nice people, when in fact racism is a system.

DiAngelo quotes African American scholar and filmmaker Omowale Akintunde who says,

“For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them.”  [p. 72]

Most of us see racism in personal, good/bad binary terms, like this:  Racism is bad. I am a good person therefore I cannot be racist.  Accusing me of racist behavior is a direct attack on my moral character. It’s upsetting!  It’s intolerable!

And that reaction triggers the defenses of white fragility and shuts down all discussion.

But to understand racism as a system, and to understand how we benefit from it and are complicit in it, we have to see racism as something larger than individual behavior or character.

“The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief. “  [p. 73]

Early in the book, DiAngelo provides a set of useful definitions that I think are worth repeating here because they frame the rest of the book and lead us to a deeper and more systemic understanding of racism.

Prejudice: “Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs. Prejudice consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group.” [p. 19]

We all have prejudices.  They’re unavoidable.  And they tend to be shared by the people in our social groups,.

Discrimination: “Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence.”  [p. 20]

Racism: “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.” [p. 20]

Laws and institutions turn prejudice into systemic racism.

White supremacy: “… the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption. White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination. Again, racism is a structure, not an event.” [p. 28]

DiAngelo explores how white fragility reinforces white supremacy by closing off uncomfortable conversations and rendering change impossible.  She describes one powerful example of this in a chapter called White Women’s Tears.

“Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed.” [p. 134]

The self-reinforcing mechanisms of white fragility strike me as a daunting, even depressing, obstacle to progress.  How can we address issues of racism when even just talking about it triggers defenses that make change impossible?

The final chapter of the book contains strategies for having open and productive conversations about race without triggering white fragility.

Cover of White Fragility

This is the third book about racism I’ve read in the past year. The other two are How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (my review here) and So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo (my review here).

I learned different things from each of these books. Kendi focuses on the need to reform racist policies.  DiAngelo talks about how whites are socialized into both white supremacy and white fragility. And Oluo give guidance on how to engage in uncomfortable conversations about race.

However, they all have one message in common: Racism is a system of oppression; a web of laws, policies, socialization and discrimination.  It’s not just nasty people saying the n-word.  To understand the system deeply and to make progress in changing it, we must learn how to participate in those uncomfortable conversations.  That means accepting the fact that even though we may do our very best not to commit individual acts of racism, we white people still benefit from the system of white supremacy and we have the responsibility for changing it.

Yes, it’s important to speak up against individual racist actions, but as DiAngelo says,

“… we must also be careful not to use them to keep ourselves on the “good” side of a false binary. I have found it much more useful to think of myself as on a continuum. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it. I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a. given time.”  [p. 87]

Whites, myself included, need to help transform the protests of the current moment into lasting progress on racial justice.  But that requires us to move along the continuum to understand and confront our own roles in reinforcing systemic racism.



Posted in Books, Law and justice, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment