Storm warning

First, point out to anyone who complains when all of the ballots in Tuesday’s elections have not been counted by their bedtime Tuesday night and says that is evidence of widespread voter fraud that that is pure bull.  All the votes have probably never been counted just a few hours after the polls are closed, certainly not in an era when we encourage everyone to vote and accommodate their exercise of their rights with early voting and voting by mail and voting from overseas and such modern developments.  And second, don’t listen to anyone who argues on election night that there is evidence of widespread voter fraud – especially if they do so on the Fox “News.”  First, it would take a thorough investigation to prove that accusation.  Second, no such investigation has ever proven that fraud pervasive enough to change the results of elections has ever happened.  (OK, retiring the italics now.)

I don’t know what the results of Tuesday’s elections will be, but I feel confident we won’t find that the poisonous political divide across our country has miraculously healed.  The fight for democracy, as some have cast it, won’t be over whenever this week’s votes are finally tallied, because the fight never ends.  “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” said…someone, I guess, but apparently not Mr. Jefferson despite many citations, but it’s a great thought to keep in mind: any system designed to guarantee freedom will face threats from those who find your freedom and mine an impediment to their own power.  (You know who I mean.) So how do we keep our spirits up in the face of that on-going threat?  Dahlia Lithwick has a great prescription in Slate.

It is easy to feel despair. The folks who keep disparaging those who worry about the future of democracy seem uninterested in the fact that one party refuses to accept election results, inflames election violence, admits the entire plan is one-party rule, and brushes off and even jokes about vigilante violence. Those same people have been adept at pushing us into semantic arguments about whether we’re using the right words to describe what we see happening right before our eyes. The problem with wasting our time fighting about whether the best word to use in this particular situation is “authoritarianism,” or “fascism,” or “vigilantism,” or “lawlessness,” is that such things can often only ever be empirically established in retrospect. We can hold the I Told You So Olympics in 10 years. Let’s get that on the books.

Call it whatever you like, but this speedy descent into a world in which people who are fundamentally unethical and unserious hold too many levers of power is not normal and it’s not funny. Even for the people striving to find meaning and purpose in the ugliness, the temptation to cede ground, give up, and go small is alluring. That they want you to cede ground, give up, and go small is in fact the problem we can name right now.

My rabbi recently reminded me of a useful way to think through the fog. Citing another spiritual hero last weekend, Aurora Levins Morales, she reminded me that there is always a difference between the weather and the stars. Morales, teaching in 2017, warned that it is too easy to be buffeted by the changeable weather, and in so doing, to lose sight of the immutable stars. The stars, in this telling, are a “constant to steer by, sometimes hidden by storm clouds, but high above them, untouched by wind or rain.”

The weather is different. Weather, Morales conceded, can be “violent, drenching, harsh.” But it isn’t constant. If we do nothing but chase and feel the weather, she wrote, “we could spin forever from emergency to emergency, shouting no to each new crime—but that would be steering by chasing clouds.”

The weather, and the stars: I think that’s a great way to think about it.  There’s the weather, that which we see every day and which changes day to day and in some cases hour to hour—it seems big and important, but it’s transient within the span of our own observation.  The stars, although not permanent in that firmament, can give each of us something long-lasting to steer by.  Lithwick again:

I spent the week before midterm elections that could help determine the fate of democracy in the United States trying to pick my own way through a careening mess of the world into those buckets: Weather versus star. Elon Musk is weather; so is Marjorie Taylor Greene. Tucker Carlson is weather. Even losing tens and thousands of followers on Twitter is, respectfully, just weather. It all matters, sure, and it’s all painful. But it’s a series of transient states to distract you from what is real.

Stars are the things that don’t ebb and flow with the showy Twitter feuds, or the mutable hourly outrages, or public performances of ghastly daily mediocrity. For some of us, the stars are the upcoming elections and the extraordinary acts of voter registration, postcarding, election protection, and democratic engagement. For some of us the stars are the law, the rule of law, and the efforts to bring accountability for lawbreaking. For some of us the stars are efforts to build a tolerant, pluralist world in the face of rising racial and religious intolerance and xenophobia.

(snip)

As we move through the frightening and destabilizing days to come, the weather will attempt to consume more and more of your time and attention and energy. Fascists will tweet more fascism to try to distract you from the impacts of their fascism. My entirely inadequate advice will remain unchanged: Sit in the foulness of the roiling storm and do your work, whatever that may be, and triangulate by the light of whatever star feels eternal to you. Take care of your family; they need you, and take care of your health. Take care of your community; it needs you, and take care of someone in your community who doesn’t know Twitter is even a thing. Vote. Help others vote. Register voters. Staff voter protection hotlines. Place your own body between someone unkind and someone vulnerable. Read a book. Help a kid. Give someone food and love and respect. Donate something you don’t use. Ask for help. Don’t give your time or attention to anything small enough to diminish you along with it.

We’re in the weather, and the temptation to do nothing but talk about the weather is fierce. But above and beyond there are still fixed and immutable values and principles and we must try as best we can to steer by those things instead.

(snip)

You won’t always be able to see them, but the stars are still there. And we will get through the storms ahead, even if we don’t yet believe it, because the storms are not the story. We are the story. Keep looking up.

Listen for the right alarm

Even in the best of journalism, where the story is at once true and fair, not inflammatory or emotionally manipulative, you still want to catch the attention of the reader/listener/viewer/clicker so that they will read/hear/see your story (and be enriched by the experience).  So don’t think you know all there is to know when the headline on a Pew Research Center poll blares “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be a ‘Christian Nation’” because the truth is less alarming than that.

In the past couple of years I’ve written a few times about the concept of Christian nationalism, and not in an approving way.  By definition,

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity.

Most of the Founding Fathers did profess a belief in a Supreme Being. If they believed that the success of their new creation was inextricably linked to Christianity as it was understood in their day – even IF  that is true – that’s not what it says in the structure for government they wrote.  Historical scholarship has lauded the American experiment that protects the rights of citizens to worship freely while disconnecting the religions from having any governmental authority.  It’s been one step on the still-being-paved path to a free society willing to give everyone a chance to contribute and to reap the rewards of their work.

So the headline roaring that nearly half of us think we should be a “Christian nation” is concerning, but it turns out there’s not so much worry there as one might imagine since the survey also finds that we don’t agree what that phrase even means:

For instance, many supporters of Christian nationhood define the concept in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values. Those who say the United States should not be a Christian nation, on the other hand, are much more inclined to define a Christian nation as one where the laws explicitly enshrine religious teachings.

Overall, six-in-ten U.S. adults – including nearly seven-in-ten Christians – say they believe the founders “originally intended” for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. And 45% of U.S. adults – including about six-in-ten Christians – say they think the country “should be” a Christian nation. A third say the U.S. “is now” a Christian nation.

At the same time, a large majority of the public expresses some reservations about intermingling religion and government. For example, about three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) say that churches and other houses of worship should not endorse candidates for political offices. Two-thirds (67%) say that religious institutions should keep out of political matters rather than expressing their views on day-to-day social or political questions. And the new survey – along with other recent Center research – makes clear that there is far more support for the idea of separation of church and state than opposition to it among Americans overall.

A Washington Post analysis makes clear that this poll hasn’t found a burbling caldron of restive theocrats across the country; in fact, “comfortable majorities want daylight between politics and faith.”

Sixty-seven percent of all adults, for instance, say churches should stay out of politics, while 77% say they should not endorse candidates for elected office.

Among the 45% who want the United States to be a “Christian nation”:

  • 28% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation, while 52% say the government should never declare an official religion
  • 24% say the federal government should promote Christian values, while 52% say it should promote moral values shared by many faiths
  • 39% say the federal government should enforce separation of church and state, while 31% say it should stop enforcing it.

Among all United States adults, 15% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation (69% do not), 13% say the federal government should promote Christian values (63% favor values shared by many faiths), 54% say the government should enforce separation of church and state (19% say it should stop).

So, the percentage of Americans who don’t believe in the separation of their Christian church from state authority is small…but the success of Christian evangelicals in winning political office is undeniable: give them credit for playing the game on its own terms and taking control of the levers of power at a rate beyond their real numbers in the population.  Those people are the ones fighting to make secular society look more like their preferred variety of Christianity.  Here in Texas they are hard-charging to use public tax dollars to fund private religious education for their children and leave the rest of “the little skoolchirrun of Texas” to languish in an underfunded and second-rate (at best) public education system.

“Texas, a friend used to say, is hard on women and little things” is how Christopher Hooks started a May article in Texas Monthly that let Texas’ Republican leaders have it (no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994!) over their treatment of children and the public education system:

It is a grotesque and cruel irony that the Republican primary this year, like several years of political activity before it, was dominated by an all-consuming and comically misdirected argument about the protection of children and by a multifront war against long-neglected public schools. There were essentially no contested policy proposals in the GOP primary that would affect the practical and economic circumstances of all Texans. (There rarely are.) There was, however, ceaseless discussion about the well-being of children, their morals, their internal lives.

The most acute panic was over transgender children. In February, [Attorney General Ken] Paxton’s office issued a formal opinion holding that gender-affirming care, such as the prescription of puberty blockers to trans kids, constituted child abuse. Shortly after, [Governor Greg] Abbott tasked the Department of Family and Protective Services, an overworked and underfunded agency he had overseen for close to eight years, with investigating the families of trans kids for such abuse.

The more widespread crisis concerned books. This panic was conjured up by right-wing parents and elected officials in roughly equal measure. The first target was “divisive” material about race. Then, elected officials began to agitate about “pornography” in schools, a category that included mostly literature featuring queer characters. Lawmakers proposed lists of books to be banned. In November, Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to investigate cases of pornography in public schools and prosecute those responsible “to the fullest extent of the law” because, he wrote, it had to be a top priority to “protect” Texas students.
Public school teachers and children’s librarians—members of two professions that offer highly beneficial services to society, for little pay—became villains to activist parents and candidates alike. They were called “groomers” and “pedophiles” on social media. In Granbury, near Fort Worth, two women lodged a criminal complaint in May against the local school’s libraries, prompting a police investigation. At a subsequent school board meeting, one of the women opined that a committee assembled to review troublesome books comprised “too many” librarians instead of “people with good moral standards.”

That’s right: no intersection in this Venn diagram of the universes of “librarians” and “people with good moral standards,” according to this woman.  She’s not alone in that kind of sentiment.  It’s so tiresome.

A year of manufactured outrage about the specter of loose morals in public education had the effect of making all of public education worse—which, for some, seemed to be the goal. Test scores have dropped. Even parents who strongly favor public schooling have begun to search for alternatives. State leaders, including Abbott, who have presided over an education system that spends about 20 percent less than the national average on each student, began to lay the framework for a renewed push to expand school choice and perhaps introduce a voucher system in which taxpayer dollars would be used to fund private schools.

Our right-wing lieutenant governor has been championing vouchers for years, and that came up in a terrific column by Chris Tomlinson in the Houston Chronicle this summer that highlighted the on-going effort by right-wing extremists and their rich Texas patrons to “gut Texas public education.”

Their top priority is helping Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pass a school voucher bill that allows parents to spend state money to send their kids to private, religious schools, effectively defunding public schools. To inspire support for their plan, Patrick and his allies have set public schools up for failure by cutting their budgets.

Texas lawmakers have shrunk state spending per student over the last 15 years. Occasionally, they’ll authorize an increase, only to cut it later. Texas spends $9,900 per student, while the national average is $13,185, the Education Data Initiative reported.

Political vilification, school shooters, and poor compensation have led two-thirds of teachers to consider leaving the profession, the Texas American Federation of Teachers found in polling its members.

Texas already ranks 35th in the nation for pre-K through 12 education, U.S. News and World Report determined. WalletHub ranked the quality of Texas’s education as 33rd in the country. An exodus of experienced teachers will only worsen matters.

Few Texans can afford the $30,000 or more that a top private school charges and most do not want their child enrolled in a fundamentalist indoctrination camp. If we want our children and state to prosper in a competitive global economy, we must defend our public schools from those who would destroy them.

Self-described “conservatives” who demonstrate with their actions (and their money) that they do not believe in the American ideal of a free public education for all, nor do they believe in the separation of church and state or in real freedom of religion.  I can’t say how many of them fall into the 15% of all American adults who want the federal government to declare America a “Christian nation,” but I find it alarming enough to say I will have that in mind on election day.

Wh-wh-wh-what?

I had to go back and read it again: did that story indicate that Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate are in agreement on a bill designed to fight off some future “January 6” effort to steal the results of the election?  Why, yes; yes it did:

Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has endorsed a bipartisan electoral count reform bill in the Senate, giving the legislation a key boost over a similar bill the House passed last week. Both bills seek to prevent future presidents from trying to overturn election results through Congress, and were directly prompted by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win.

The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), would amend the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and reaffirm that the vice president has only a ministerial role at the joint session of Congress to count electoral votes, as well as raise the threshold necessary for members of Congress to object to a state’s electors.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, McConnell said he would “strongly support” the legislation…

(snip)

The Senate and House bills differ chiefly in how much they would change the threshold necessary for members of both chambers to object to a state’s results. Currently only one member each from the House and Senate are required to object to a state’s electors. The House electoral reform bill would raise that threshold to at least one-third of the members of both the House and the Senate, while the Senate version would raise that threshold to at least one-fifth of the members of both the House and the Senate.

I’m not saying this would solve all our problems; I am saying it is heartening (if a little surprising) to see members of both parties taking action to benefit the country instead of pandering to their hard-line supporters.  I could get used to this…

Walking the talk

For starters, they did ask—many times, starting before his term was even over, so don’t give me that “all they had to do was ask” bull.

The federal government tried and failed repeatedly for more than a year and a half to retrieve classified and sensitive documents from former President Donald J. Trump before resorting to a search of his Mar-a-Lago property this month, according to government documents and statements by Mr. Trump’s lawyers. (emphasis added)

The documents, including an unsealed, redacted version of an affidavit from the Justice Department requesting a warrant to conduct the search, make clear the lengths to which the National Archives and the department went before officials pursued a law enforcement action to recover the material.

The FBI knew that Trump had documents at his home in Florida that he was not supposed to have: he had already given them 15 boxes of official material in January of this year, and the FBI and the National Archives suspected there were more documents in Florida that should be returned to the government and that Trump was obstructing their efforts to retrieve them.  Why they thought that is undoubtedly in the redacted parts of the affidavit, parts we haven’t seen but which the federal magistrate judge did read and consider before approving the search warrant.

the affidavit states that the National Archives spent six months in the latter half of 2021 trying to get more documents. And then the FBI got involved. The Post…reported that all this year, Trump resisted handing much of anything over, to the point where his allies feared he was “essentially daring” the FBI to come after them.

Trump was also warned before he even left the White House that taking any official documents with him, let alone national secrets, was illegal under the Presidential Records Act. And even Trump’s attorneys agreed that the former president needed to give the documents back…

(snip)

Included in the paperwork with the affidavit was a formal notice that the redacted memorandum was being released. In it, the Justice Department writes that the redactions are necessary to protect “a broad range of civilian witnesses.”

“This language suggests that people inside Trump’s former administration, or at Mar-a-Lago, are providing information to the FBI,” [former federal prosecutor Barbara] McQuade said.

The redacted affidavit itself suggests that the investigation includes detailed monitoring of Mar-a-Lago to find out how many boxes of official material were still there and where they were being stored.

To be clear: the classified status of some of these documents is only part of the issue.  The laws make clear that no former president is permitted to take control of these types of records—”mere possession of these documents is a crime under some of the statutes cited in the affidavit, whether or not they are classified.”

Trump filed a legal motion this week, arguing that, as president, he had the right to declassify any classified documents and that his continued possession of the material was based on “executive privilege.” A judge should have no problem dismissing both arguments. First, while a president can declassify documents, there is a process for doing so; at the conclusion of the process, the special classified tabs and markings would be removed. Yet the tabs and markings are still on the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. Second, mere possession, much less declassification, of some documents, such as those marked OCORN, must first be approved by the originating agency. That doesn’t seem to have been done either. Third, a president—certainly an ex-president—has no executive privilege to hold documents that properly belong to the National Archives.

If you think about it, Trump’s argument that he had declassified the classified documents…doesn’t help.

On top of which, the whole “I raised my magic hand and the documents were declassified” argument has a distinctly “what excuse do they have today” air about it.

These actions by the FBI and the Department of Justice are reassuring: federal law enforcement is walking the talk about no one being above the law.  And to those who’ve been clutching their pearls for almost three weeks now at the audacity of the government for having the nerve to search the home of a former president, I think the best and easiest response is to say, we’ve never had any reason to believe that any other former president had ever committed acts that would call for government action like this.  But this guy has.  And if you’re straining to keep up with all the other investigations involving the former guy, here’s some help.

Bubba

I found out this morning that a friend I’ve had since high school died yesterday.

Martin Cattoni was almost five months past his 65th birthday.  He retired about a year and a half ago after figuring out he had enough money to cover him the rest of his life, since the men in his family died relatively young.

He was in good health, it seemed: not fat like some of his friends, and he had discovered a new passion for bicycling…in fact, he had planned a biking trip to Paris later this year.

I’m told he went for a ride yesterday, did something like 40 miles before stopping to do his Pilates, then got back on the bike and rode home.  At home he felt chest pains, so he took himself to the hospital…where they could not save him.  Don’t know any more details yet.

We met in 19740400 Martin George Mike Pat Timhomeroom the day we showed up at high school, two 14-year-olds coming in from different junior highs.  We hit it off, the way some kids do.  Over the years we became better friends as we shared more classes in school and discovered common interests.

(Martin, George, Mike, Pat, Tim)

In music.

In sports.  (Both playing and watching)

In girls.  (Same)

Martin knew lots of girls, and he wasn’t afraid of them like001-stornant-1969-dodge-charger-driving-alt-2.JPG some of the rest of us were.  He introduced me to some really great girls.  We’d become good enough friends that we double-dated to the Senior Prom in his red 1969 Dodge Charger just a couple of months after we’d agreed to be roommates at college.

The day we packed our cars to drive off to Austin and whatever fortune awaited us, my father chauffeured our mothers as they each sent their first child off to college; Martin’s father had died, at age 58, during a family vacation to Paraguay when Martincito was 16.  It seems to me now that it took only a few minutes for us to carry all of our stuff from our cars on the street up to the second floor of the dorm and drop it on the floor; our moms wanted to help us unpack and put things away, an operation that they might have stretched out for hours.  But my dad stepped in: he suggested to them that we didn’t look like we needed any help…and after final hugs and kisses the three parents headed back to Houston and the two of us went looking for trouble.  (Yes we did, and yes, we did.)

We lived together those first three semesters of college: next door to two other friends from high school (Mike and Tim), directly across the hall from the communal bathroom, up the hill from Memorial Stadium and next door to the Texas Tavern, down the street from the dorm where we took meals and the gym where we played intramurals, three blocks from Scholz Garten and not much further than that to The Drag on the other side of campus.  I thought we couldn’t have had a sweeter setup.

My parents wanted me to concentrate on school during freshman year so I didthumbnail_IMG_2215n’t get a job right away, but Martin parlayed his substantial grocery store experience into a gig at a nearby Safeway within a week of us arriving.  He brought home two large plastic glasses that he thought we’d find useful, one in orange and the other in light green.  I still have mine.

Nothing lasts forever: in the middle of sophomore year Martin decided to transfer to school back in Houston.  We kept in touch, but it wasn’t the same.  He carved a new life with new interests and new friends.  We were together for his going away party when he left Houston in 1989 to work for a gas company in the East, on what turned out to be the day I quit my dream job in radio in Houston—we were, each of us, off on truly new, and separate, paths.

I still saw him occasionally when he’d come to Houston to visit his brother and sister.  The last time was this 20130300 Cattoni Ryan Piazzapast January, for a short midday lunch with another couple of our friends.  That’s where he told us about his biking, and told the story about having figured out he’d be OK to retire early, that he wouldn’t outlive his money.  He was right.  Dammit.

(Pascal, Tom, Martin, Pat)

It was a pleasant visit, and when we left we said goodbye in the way we had for years.  Handshake, pulling into a quick hug, and waving goodbye using the names we’d been given by our dormmates more than 45 years ago.

See you later, Bubba…