Economics, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

Marijuana Legalization: Why aren’t Republicans leading the charge?

Once again, marijuana legalization is on the agenda at the Minnesota legislature—a proposal that would end the delaying of the inevitable, and unite Minnesota with fifteen other states in giving the drug full legal status.  However, once again, Minnesota Republicans are promising to stand in the way—a feat they can accomplish thanks to their slim majority in the Senate.  But even though Republican obstruction is hardly surprising on any legislative issue at any level of government, the politics of it still don’t make sense.

On a national level, the Republican Party is a mess.  They’ve just wrapped up losing their fifth presidential election in eight contests, and if we lived in a country where we actually elected the popular vote winner, they would’ve lost two more.  Also, the way that Republicans lost in 2020 is particularly troublesome for the future of the party, with formerly reliable red states like Arizona and Georgia turning blue, and other Republican strongholds like Texas and the Carolinas not trending too far behind.  There might have been reason to believe that Republicans could regroup and regain ground in 2022 or 2024, but that seems more difficult to imagine following the events of January 6th, which exacerbated some already problematic divisions within the party.  And when you’re in a party that represents a significant but—by definition—outnumbered minority of the American public, divisions are not something you can afford.  Even though they represent the “conservative” wing of American politics, the Republican Party needs to find a way to change with the times if they want to remain relevant in future national elections.  In that sense, support for the legalization of marijuana represents an opportunity, and they wouldn’t even need to abandon their principles to take advantage of it. 

It’s hard to identify what Republican values even are following the Trumpist takeover of the party, but the GOP is supposed to be the party of limited government and individual liberty.  So, why does the Republican Party continue to support policies that allow the government to incarcerate individuals for choices they make about what to put in their bodies?  Why shouldn’t people be given the freedom to legally purchase and consume a substance that by almost all measures is less dangerous than alcohol and more healthy than McDonald’s?  And as supporters of free markets and entrepreneurship, why wouldn’t Minnesota Republicans support the legalization of an industry that in five years could generate over a billion dollars in sales, 20,000 jobs, and 300 million dollars in tax revenue?  The creation of a legal market would by definition reduce criminal activity—a perpetual concern of Republican politicians—and they could even paint the revenue as the product of a stoner sin tax that they could use to address other Republican priorities like paying down the deficit and giving tax breaks to millionaires. 

Marijuana legalization would also give Republicans an opportunity to finally be on the right side of an issue in regards to racial justice.  Racism is the main reason that marijuana was criminalized in the first place, and that racist legacy lives on today.  Despite roughly equal usage rates between black and white Americans, black Americans are over three times more likely to be arrested on marijuana related charges, and in Minnesota, that disparity is almost double.  Morality and justice aside, the issue presents a great political opportunity for Republicans to appeal to voters of color.  Shifting demographics means that this country gets more black and brown every day, and if Republicans continue to insist on being the party of white supremacist nostalgia, they have no future in what is destined to be a majority-minority country in the next few decades

To be sure, even if the Republican Party performed an about face and threw its full weight behind state and national legalization efforts in the name of individual liberty and racial justice, Republican candidates would still struggle to earn my vote.  I may have an intellectual respect for libertarian and laissez faire attitudes, but I don’t subscribe to them.  What is more, I don’t smoke weed.  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used marijuana in the last half decade, and half of those times were random joints passed my way during live concerts at crowded music venues, and those don’ t even exist anymore (#COVID-19).  But even though this issue does not affect me directly, it’s clearly an issue that is moving in one direction, and moving that way for good reason.    

I guess what I want more than anything is just a competent second party.  In general, while Democrats have been far more supportive of legalization efforts than Republicans, they have hardly been advocates.  That’s because, politically speaking, there is no need to be.  When the other party is always the party of “no”, there’s no need to be anything other than the party of “maybe”. When the other party is the party of dog whistles, conspiracy theories, and science denialism, there’s no reason to be anything other than the party of anti-racism, truth, and facts—all things that are good to be, but also things that represent a rather low bar for what we should expect from our political parties in the 21st century. 

Aside from being a failing party itself, the other big failure of the Republican Party is its inability to challenge its rivals to be better.  They’re always the party of regress rather than progress, always the party of yesterday rather than tomorrow, and for that reason, the Democratic Party needs to project nothing more than the most minimal competence to maintain its superior status in a two-party system where the other party is so backwards and unreasonable.  The issue of marijuana legalization is an opportunity for Republicans to begin changing that narrative.  But they won’t.  And we’ll all be worse off for it.    

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Politics, USA

Make America Democratic Again – Why Democrats should make democracy their #1 priority

The U.S. is not a pure democracy.  This isn’t Ancient Athens.  We the people don’t take a bus down to D.C. every time a piece of legislation needs an up-or-down vote.  Our representatives do that for us.  That’s what makes us a republic. 

In a republic, democracy has its limits.  Unlike a pure democracy, republics don’t make decisions purely by majority rule.  As James Madison argued in Federalist Paper #10, a system in which the majority always wins means that people of minority groups or opinions—no matter how wise or just their cause—will always be vulnerable to the prejudices of an “unjust and interested majority.”  For this reason, our government employs various measures for the protection of minority rights—like requiring supermajorities for constitutional amendments, or the fact that all legislative decisions are made by a small group of 535 legislators “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country.” 

Also, unlike a pure democracy, our system of federalism ensures protections for the rights of states, particularly by preserving a level of representative equality between states regardless of their population.  This is best reflected in the structure of the Senate, which unlike the House, does not consider population when allocating representation, helping to head off some of the dominance experienced by smaller states at the hands of larger ones.  This also carries over to our Electoral College, and helps to explain how a small state like Wyoming with only 3 electoral votes (1 vote per ≈ 192,920 people) actually has greater proportional representation than a large state like California with 55 (1 vote per ≈ 718,404 people).  

I don’t want a pure democracy.  In a republic, democracy is a question of degree, and for the most part, I think our system has appropriate checks on many of the most harmful impulses of democratic government.  However, I also believe that our republic isn’t democratic enough.  It’s never been democratic enough.  We have never lived in a country where the true voice of the people—ALL the people—has been adequately reflected in our elected leaders.  Which is why I think that with their newfound power, the big-D Democrats in Congress and the White House should make it their most important priority to inject more small-d democracy into our democratic republic.  

For many, this project starts with the Electoral College.  Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections that have taken place this century, but have only won the presidency in three of those elections.  That’s a problem, and if not for less than 50,000 combined votes in the states of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia, it would have happened again in 2020, despite the fact that even in that scenario, Joe Biden would have still won the popular vote by over 7 million.

I wouldn’t protest against the abolition of the Electoral College, but when it comes to potential democratic reforms, it’s not at the top of my list.  One reason for that is I’m not entirely opposed on principle to an electoral system that values some equality between the states.  After all, as a Minnesotan, I actually live in one of the states whose voice is slightly augmented as a result of that system.  Another reason is that due to its need for a constitutional amendment in which ratification requires approval from ¾ of the states, the abolition of the Electoral College seems pretty unlikely.

Instead, what seems more possible is not abolishing the Electoral College, but adjusting the way we use it.  For example, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement that already exists between a significant number of states to reward their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, no matter who wins the vote within those individual states.  If enough states were to sign on to this compact—more than 270 electoral votes worth—it would effectively eliminate the ability of the Electoral College to award the presidency to the popular vote loser. 

Another solution that is probably less practical but to me more appealing is replacing the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College for one that allocates electoral votes proportionately.  This means that rather than all of the electoral votes being allocated to the popular vote winner within a given state, the electoral votes would instead be allocated based on the proportion of the vote that each candidate received.  Rather than being the swing states that decided the presidential election, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia would have split their electoral votes equally between the two candidates (6-5 in Arizona since it has an odd number).  Donald Trump would have won electoral votes in New York, Joe Biden would have won electoral votes in Mississippi, and in states with the largest number of electors like Texas and California, it’s possible that even Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson could have picked up an electoral vote or two.  This system would not eliminate the possibility of the popular vote winner being the Electoral College loser, but it does seem that it would make it less likely, particularly in situations like our two most recent presidential elections in which the Democratic margin of victory was in the millions. 

But regardless of what happens with the Electoral College, there are other more practical and principled measures that Democrats should be pursuing to enhance and protect democratic participation, and that starts with making sure that all people are represented. 

In 2016, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved the measure to turn Washington D.C. into the state of New Columbia, and there is literally no good reason not to grant them that wish.  There are plenty of bullshit reasons that Republicans will certainly espouse should this debate be revisited in Congress, but at the end of the day, the only reason that Republicans don’t want D.C. to become a state is because it will result in three relatively safe Democratic seats in Congress (one in the House, and more importantly, two in the Senate).

But politics aside, granting statehood to D.C. is the democratic thing for a democratic republic to do.  This country was founded on the idea of “no taxation without representation”, a principle not reflected in D.C.’s current arrangement, as their license plates will happily remind you.  What is more, D.C. has a higher population than both Wyoming and Vermont, and in spite of its absurdly high median income, also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, which uncoincidentally corresponds with the fact that its population is nearly 50% black.  I don’t know about you, but if there’s anyone to whom I do feel comfortable denying congressional representation, it’s not poor people from a historically marginalized group.

The situation with Puerto Rican statehood is a bit murkier. While Puerto Rico doesn’t suffer from the same constitutional hang-ups (also bullshit) that D.C. does, I personally would not feel comfortable pushing for Puerto Rican statehood without more democratic input from the people of Puerto Rico.  Puerto Ricans already voted to approve statehood in a 2020 referendum, but participation was extremely low (only 23%), and there’s reason to believe that was due in part to the fact that what Puerto Ricans really want is not statehood, but independence.  Either way, democratic self-determination is the solution, and if it were to become clear that Congress would act on the results of a free and fair election to determine Puerto Rico’s political future, perhaps Puerto Ricans would show up at their polling places to make that decision once and for all.  

Some say that focusing on statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico is a waste of legislative energy, as Senate Republicans would almost certainly use another tool of the minority—the filibuster—to block any action seeking to add another star to the flag.  However, there is an interesting argument that because statehood is not really a legislative matter, the filibuster should not apply.  Ironically, it would be the Republicans themselves who opened this can of worms when they changed the filibuster rules a few years back to push through Trump’s judicial appointments.  Either way Democrats should push the conversation in Congress, because even if Republicans are successful in their endeavors to deny representation to unrepresented Americans, they’re going to look terrible doing it. 

Lastly, in addition to working to extend representation to those who don’t currently have it, it is equally important for Democrats to secure the rights of those who do, particularly their right to choose who represents them.  Voter suppression in this country is as old as the vote itself.  The methods have changed, but the targets—predominately poor people of color—have remained the same.  Literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes have been replaced with things like registration restrictions, voter purges, and felony disenfranchisement—all written in race-neutral language, but all with the same effect (and in many cases intent) of preventing some of the nation’s most marginalized people from being able to vote to change the system that marginalizes them. 

Legislation already exists to address these issues.  The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act proposes a replacement for the recently expired Voting Rights Act of 1965, and would force state and local jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations to seek federal approval for any changes to their voting requirements, particularly if those requirements would effectively result in racial discrimination.  The For the People Act is another example of ready-made legislation geared towards combating some of the modern-day voter suppression tactics mentioned above, and facilitating elections that are fair, equitable, and accessible for all

It is undeniable that when it comes to winning elections and controlling our government, the reforms mentioned above would tip the scales dramatically in favor of the Democratic Party.  Altering or abolishing the Electoral College would eliminate a significant Republican advantage, statehood to D.C. or Puerto would add reliable Democratic seats in both houses of Congress, and protecting or encouraging the vote of the historically disenfranchised would inevitably mean more voters voting for Democratic candidates.  But the reason to do these reforms is not to help the Democratic Party.  The reason to do them is democracy. 

When we look back on significant reforms that extended democratic participation to more people, we don’t mourn the partisan casualties.  We don’t feel sorry for racist politicians after the Civil War who struggled to win support from newly enfranchised black voters, or candidates that lost elections after the ratification of the 19th amendment because they failed to win the votes of enough women.  We celebrate these reforms for the people they empowered.  We celebrate these reforms because they made our republic more democratic.

It won’t be possible to separate these reform attempts from the partisan politics of the day.  Republicans will certainly frame this as a Democratic power-grab, and technically, they won’t be wrong.  But if the Republicans can only win the White House through an Electoral College system that denies victory to the popular vote winner, perhaps they don’t deserve the presidency.  If Republicans can only be competitive for Congressional control through denial of representation, partisan gerrymandering, and modern-day voter suppression tactics, then perhaps Republicans shouldn’t control Congress.  And if securing democratic participation for more people makes it more difficult for Republicans to win elections, perhaps they should consider why their policies struggle to attract the young, the poor, and people of color.  Rather than whining about another partisan power-grab from “radical” Democrats, perhaps Republicans should take a long look in the mirror, and instead figure out a way to win elections in a country that actually takes small-d democracy seriously.    

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Politics, USA

The Insurrection & the Outlook for a Post-Trump America

If there was a silver lining that I hoped would result from last Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it was that FINALLY Congressional Republicans would begin the long overdue process of divorcing themselves from Donald Trump.  It wouldn’t even be a display of courage so much as one of self-preservation.  I mean, the guy already lost them the White House, cost them the Senate, and nearly got the Vice President lynched by a mob that he incited. 

Unfortunately, just like every other time I’ve mustered that hope over the last four years, Republicans have once again confounded me with their befuddling loyalty to a man whose only loyalty is to himself.  Only hours after an insurrection of which they were the targets, over 140 Congressional Republicans still objected to the certification of the Electoral College vote in various states, perpetuating the very lie that had them hiding under their desks in fear earlier that day.  And while Wednesday’s impeachment was the most bipartisan in history with ten Republicans “courageously” voting to impeach a president from their own party, it wasn’t nearly as bipartisan as it should have been. 

The Republican Party sticking with Donald Trump after the insurrection feels like sticking with the Titanic as the last lifeboat is lowered from the deck.  There is clearly no future for a Trump-led Republican Party, but Republican politicians also know that there might not be a future for them either if their Trump-crazy constituents catch them being too critical of their hero.  This also highlights the sad reality that no matter how many Republican leaders in Congress decide to suddenly grow a backbone or a set of principles, the challenge facing both the Republican Party and the nation at large will remain the same—no matter what happens to Donald Trump, a substantial minority of the country will remain committed to him and the warped worldview he helped to cultivate. 

Different people have different reasons for remaining loyal to Trump.  Some are just pure believers in Trump-spun conspiracy theories.  They truly believe that this election was “stolen”, and thanks to years of Trump’s “fake news” campaign against journalists and facts in general, they cannot be shown any evidence that will convince them otherwise.  In their minds, it was not the insurrection that threatened the foundations of American democracy, but the constitutional process of certifying a presidential election that their guy lost.  This is the kind of upside-down thinking that helps to explain how thousands of people can believe that they are committing an act of patriotism by committing an act of treason. 

Others feel that the insurrection was no different or worse than the “leftist” riots that took place over the summer, but that’s a dumb comparison for a lot of reasons.  Violence and destruction should always be condemned, but motives matter, and the very real racial injustice that motivated last summer’s unrest is different than the made-up story about a stolen election that motivated last week’s insurrection.  Also, there’s a distinction worth making between the looting of a Lake Street Target and the armed seizure of the U.S.-fucking-Capitol.  Both are bad, one is worse.   

Others are convinced that all Democrats are “radical socialists” hellbent on creating a police-less police state void of civil liberties and high school sports.  For them, the incoming Biden administration and extreme leftists that control him pose a far greater threat to the country than any right-wing militia.

And this is where they need to be proven wrong.

This train-wreck end to the Trump presidency has left Democrats with a pretty tremendous opportunity.  With control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats have the ability to do something that Donald Trump refused to do for four years—govern, preferably in a way that will help to win some of these people back.

Even though the calls for “healing” and “unity” from Republicans during the impeachment vote were laughably disingenuous, they are right that once Biden is inaugurated, he must make good on his promise to bring Americans together.  Impeachment was necessary, but if the first order of business of the Democrat-controlled Congress is launching an investigation into the illegal activities of the Trump family, I’ll be extremely disappointed.  That’s not to say that Trump and his people should not be held accountable for any crimes they may have committed.  I’m sure there are courts and committees to carry out those types of investigations.  But to make this the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda would only breathe new life into the spirit of a presidency that the American people desperately need to put behind them. 

Instead, Biden and Congressional Democrats need to show that they are the purveyors of policies that make people’s lives better.  They need to show what it looks like to have a government that actually takes the pandemic seriously, listens to medical experts, and can prioritize both saving lives and ensuring people’s and business’s economic well-being.  They need to show how the fight against racial injustice is a fight that benefits all Americans, and how things like progressive taxes, higher minimum wages, and expanded public healthcare options benefit many of the white working-class voters who left the party for Trump.  They might think they hate socialism now, but they’ll find it a lot less terrifying if it increases their paychecks and reduces their medical bills.

Republicans have an important role here, too, because while a Republican Party in disarray might be good for the fortunes of Democratic politicians, it is not good for the country.  We need brave conservative leaders to step up and forge a new Republican Party for the post-Trump era.  A party that is committed to intellectually defensible conservative values like free markets, state’s rights, and fiscal responsibility.  A party that doesn’t use racist or xenophobic dog-whistles in order to earn votes, and instead seeks to build an inclusive platform more attractive to an increasingly diverse electorate.  A party that actually challenges Democrats to be better as opposed to just less bad. 

Even as I write this, it all kind of sounds like a pipedream.  The reality is that the Democratic majority in Congress is slim, and significant reform on many of the issues I mentioned is not super likely.  What is more, a significant rebuild of the Republican Party will take more than a few years, and many of this current collection of Congressional Republicans have already demonstrated their unwillingness to stand up for the good of their party, the good of their country, or just good in general.  I also fear that no matter how much “unity” the country is able to foster over the weeks and months ahead, right wing extremism will continue to be a threat to the health and safety of this country and its citizens well-into the future. 

But to end on a positive note—no matter what challenges the future might hold, I believe there is reason to be hopeful. This has been an ugly end to an ugly four years, but last week I believe that we finally hit rock bottom, and when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. The Trump presidency is coming to an end, and the vaccine distribution is underway. The days are getting longer in Minnesota, and the weather will soon be getting warmer. 2021 thus far feels a lot like 2020, but the year is young, and I’m optimistic that it won’t end that way.  That doesn’t mean it will be a great year, and that the year won’t have its low points and its setbacks. But if Democrats can be competent, and Republicans can be decent, and the American people can gain a reminder and an appreciation for what competence and decency look like, even that would be something worth celebrating.  Even if 2021 doesn’t end with McConnell and Pelosi mask-less and holding hands commemorating a record year for bipartisan legislation, it could at least be the year in which we rebounded from a historically bad pandemic and a historically bad presidency, and made some solid progress on our shared endeavor to…sigh…make America great again.

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Music

The Top 15 Christmas (& anti-Christmas) songs that you’ve never heard of

Looking for some new tunes to spice up your Xmas playlist?  You’ve come to the right place.  While I like the holiday classics as much as the next guy, part of my Christmas tradition is also to blast some songs that don’t traditionally get played at a lot of Christmas gatherings.  Despite their sometimes questionable content, these songs are no less qualified as Christmas music than Die Hard is as a Christmas movie (Full disclosure: I just saw Die Hard for the first time last weekend, but I can nevertheless confirm, it’s a frickin’ Christmas movie #BruceWillis4Santa). 

What follows is a list of some of my personal favorites of lesser-known Christmas (& anti-Christmas) songs that can perhaps provide a soundtrack to your upcoming holiday festivities. And with a week-and-change to go until the big day, there’s still plenty of time to learn the lyrics and impress all your friends and family at your holiday gath…I mean, Google Meet! #COVIDChristmas

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Honorable Mention: Tom Waits – “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”

The title of this tune provides a bit of foreshadowing for the style of songs that you can expect to find on this list—songs about festive, holiday things like a hooker sending an ex-client a Christmas card to notify him of his impending paternity.  But, hey, at least you know this list will be objective.  The song is set in Minneapolis, and it didn’t even crack my top 15! #ObjectiveAnalysis #NotAHomer

Honorable Mention: Billy Squire – “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You”

A song full of holiday cheer that provides the unsolicited response to the rhetorical question, “Who says Christmas songs can’t rock?”  Side note: I once saw Billy Squire perform live as part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, and I rocked out so hard that I made the Star Tribune concert review.  I am the air guitar player in the front row!!! #TrueStory

Honorable Mention: Spinal Tap – “Christmas With The Devil”

Leather-laden elves, rancid sugar plums, and flaming stockings?!?!  Christmas with the devil sounds frickin’ sick!  Like, literally, if you eat those sugar plums…And no invitation necessary!  Your ticket is your SOUL!!!

Honorable Mention: The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine”

Read my past write-up here!!!

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15. Fountains of Wayne – “I Want An Alien For Christmas”

It’s a song about a kid that wants an alien for Christmas.  What more do I need to say?

14. The Band – “Christmas Must Be Tonight”

For those of you that insist on putting the “Christ” in Christmas, this is the best I can do for you.  I’m more of an Xmas guy myself, but it’s the frickin’ Band.  Only they could make the three wise men cool. 

13. Matt Costa – “I Bet On Flying High”

This song would be “high”er on my list if Matt Costa sang about drinking something other than martinis.  How about a gin and tonic or a mezcal margarita?  Or anything that comes in a real glass?  Whatever.  As long as we’re getting wasted, I guess I’m down. 

12. blink-182 – “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”

This song is me summoning my seventh-grade self (#DudeRanch #WhatsMyAgeAgain?).  I actually love most of my relatives, so I can’t relate to the lyrics all that much, but I’m a sucker for immaturity.  And for those of you for whom this song isn’t immature enough (I know you’re out there), allow me to recommend another blink-182 holiday hit, “Happy Holidays, You Bastard”.  

11. Adam Sandler – “The Chanukah Song”

If you don’t want this song on your Christmas playlist, it’s probably because you’re one of those xenophobes that gets pissed off when someone wishes you a “Happy Holiday” rather than a “Merry Christmas”.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, this list isn’t for you.  I hope you have a terrible “holiday” (purposely trolling), and that your Bing Crosby record gets scratched to shit. 

(HOWEVER!  If the reason you don’t want this song on your Christmas playlist is because you’re a former Seattle Supersonics fan and any reference to that team gives you PTSD, then that’s totally fair.)

10. She & Him – “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Sometimes the best deep cut Christmas songs are lesser-known covers of certified holiday classics.  “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has received some fair albeit overblown heat in recent years for its creepy/rapey undertones, but some modern remakes have offered a different spin that could help this catchy tune maintain its popularity in a culture that’s passed it by.  My personal favorite is the She & Him version in which the girl plays the creeper, but for those who can’t stomach these lyrics no matter who’s singing them, allow me to recommend the Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski version which hilariously turns rape culture on its head.

9. Tom Petty – “Christmas All Over Again”

What’s that you say?  You’ve already heard of this song, and therefore do not believe that it belongs on a list of Christmas songs you’ve never heard of?  Well, get bent.  I love Tom Petty and I will put him on any goddamn list I want. 

By the way, if your Christmas playlist doesn’t have every single song from the Home Alone 2 soundtrack—including and especially the theme music—then it’s not a real Christmas playlist.  #JustSayin

8. John Prine – “Christmas In Prison”  

Also a suggestion for your “RIP 2020” playlist, and any playlist that you make for any reason ever.  John Prine is the frickin’ man.  Of the 300,000+ lives that COVID-19 has claimed thus far this year in the U.S. alone, there’s no doubt as to who was the best songwriter.  “Christmas In Prison” is my personal favorite, but “Everything Is Cool” and “Silent Night All Day Long” should make your holiday playlist, too.  It’s Christmas at my house, there’ll be John Prine tonight, your songs are forever, I’ll miss you, goodbye. 

7. Steve Earle – “Christmas In Washington”

Steve Earle had a rough 2020, as well, losing his son Justin Townes Earle to causes you’re probably well aware of it you’ve ever listened to more than a few Justin Townes Earle songs.  But this politically charged Xmas anthem is a great example of why Steve Earle is one half of one of the most underappreciated father-son duos in rock-n-roll history.  The lyrics can cater to the politically disaffected of various ideological leanings, but with references to historical figures like Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, and Malcolm X, the song is primarily directed at socialist sympathizers like myself.  But if you think that means you can’t play this song at holiday gatherings full of your conservative family members, fear not…It’s a country song! Plus, I’m confident that your MAGA hat wearing uncle will have no idea who Emma Goldman is.

6. Weird Al – “The Night Santa Went Crazy”

I go back and forth on Weird Al. Sometimes I think his songs are too dumb. Other times I think his songs are not dumb enough. But in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, Weird Al gets the dumbness recipe just right, and that recipe includes reindeer sausage.  The holidays are all about bringing joy, and there is nothing on my Christmas playlist that brings me more joy than the idea of a drunk and disgruntled St. Nicholas terrorizing the North Pole with an assortment of military grade weapons. In spite of the bloodbath that ensues, the story does have a happy ending. The elves get new jobs, Vixen’s therapy seems to be going well, and psycho Santa has been sent to prison (unless, of course, you’re listening to the “extra gory version”).

5. OutKast – “Player’s Ball”

Even though I’m more of a rock-n-roll guy, I wanted to include at least one rap song on this list, and it also happens to be a song that put one of the most legendary duos in hip hop on the map. OutKast’s “Player’s Ball” doesn’t sound like any Christmas celebration that I’ve ever been a part of, but I can think of worse ways to spend a holiday than rolling around Atlanta in some gangsta-ass rides.  And while there may not be any chimneys in the ghetto on which to hang your stockings, there’s apparently no shortage of smoke.  #WhenInRome

Post script: If you’re looking for a hip hop flavor that’s a little more family friendly, give a listen to these classics by some of the genre’s pioneers:

4. Kacey Musgrave & Willie Nelson – “A Willie Nice Christmas”

How about a great American songwriter who didn’t die this year? At the ripe age of 87, Willie Nelson is still cranking out the hits, including this tropical Christmas carol recorded with Kacey Musgrave in 2016.  For those of you who have found my list thus far to be entertaining but distasteful, this song might be an exception. The Mariah Carey formula suggests that it might not be possible to create an immediate Christmas classic, but a few decades down the road, it would not surprise me in the slightest for this inclusive tune to receive some regular radio play on the KOOL 108 of the future (#LocalRadioReference, #Homer). Maybe Willie will still even be around to witness it.

3. The Killers – “Don’t Shoot Me Santa”

Back to the distasteful. It’s hard to imagine a Christmas song more quintessentially American than one that so seamlessly intertwines our national love affair with both Santa Claus and gun violence. This is not a repeat of the cartoonish massacre depicted by Weird Al, but instead a much more (unfortunately) believable narrative of a young victim of bullying who has reached his breaking point and decided to seek revenge on his antagonists. But in spite of his attempts to justify his violent behavior, the actions of this tortured soul have also landed him on Santa’s naughty/hit list, hence the title of the song. Weird Al is silly. The Killers are art.

2. Rockford Mules – “Merry Christmas South Dakota”

This song hits deep. There’s a big part of me that wanted to put it at #1, but I’ve begrudgingly accepted it as the runner-up. I know very little about the Rockford Mules (I mean, they don’t even have a Wikipedia page), other than the fact that they’re from Minneapolis (#DefinitelyAHomer), and that they wrote one of the most sadly relatable and sentimentally powerful Christmas songs of all time. Everybody has lost somebody, and as much as we love being around our loved ones during the holiday season, we also feel the absence of those who are missing. A good Christmas playlist should reflect the spirit of the holiday. It should be celebratory, cheerful, and fun.  But it’s important and therapeutic to create moments to honor that longing for those no longer with us. “Merry Christmas South Dakota” gives us that space. It’s four-and-a-half minutes of soulful, southern rock in which we can wish a “rest in peace” to those passed on, and pray a silent night for all of us still here. We wish you were here, too.

  1. The Kinks – “Father Christmas”

This song always makes me think of the scorching criticism I’ve received over the years from friends and family regarding the decision I’ve made not to subject my own kids to the charade that is Santa Claus (if you’re reading an air of superiority into the way that I wrote that previous sentence, then you can probably empathize with their hostility). “How can you be so selfish and cruel,” they say, “robbing your children of the magic of Christmas just to give some comfort to your own unbearable ego?!” (#FairPoint) My defense is always something to tune of the billions of children and families around the world who don’t even celebrate Christmas (cause they’re not Christians), let alone get a visit from Santa, and they seem to be doing just fine (cue *eye roll*). Also, even for many Christians that do celebrate Christmas, Santa might not visit their households if they live in a poor neighborhood (cue *even bigger eye roll*). And while by this point in the conversation my adversary is too annoyed with me to even continue, I take solace in knowing that the Kinks have my back.

“Father Christmas” is a reminder that there are a lot of boys and girls in the world who “Santa” will not visit this year. What is more, it’s a reminder that if Santa were to visit those households, toys would not be the first thing on their Christmas lists. They would want money for their impoverished families. They would want a stable job for their daddy, whose got a lot of mouths to feed.

But aside from allowing me to preach from my anti-Santa soapbox, the main reason that “Father Christmas” takes the place of top song on this list—other than the fact that it frickin’ rocks—is its ability to speak to the true meaning of the holiday (at least for the secular), that being the spirit of giving.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the commercialization of Christmas (and I’m confident that I could do it with the utmost condescension), but underneath the exchange of those gift-wrapped material goods lies an earnest desire to make others happy.  No one should have to apologize for having the economic means to earn a visit from Santa that puts a smile on the faces of their children. Even a Scrooge like me can admit that opening presents on Christmas morning created some of the fondest memories of my childhood.  But in the spirit of “Father Christmas”, what if those gifts also carried with them something for the families so often forgotten? What if every toy gifted to our children was paired with a donation to a charity for the boys and girls of the world who aren’t quite so fortunate? What a great lesson to teach to our kids. What if every Amazon Prime purchase for an adult family member or friend was accompanied by a contribution to their favorite nonprofit? What a great way to fulfill the spirit of giving for those people on Earth who are truly in need. 

I don’t think that the Kinks intended “Father Christmas” to be read into as a serious song, particularly with the pretentiousness that I’m employing here. The song is fun, funny, and ironically festive. However, the sad truth remains that there are many children/families who won’t have what they want or need this holiday season, unless some kind of “Santa” steps in. What a better holiday it would be if we could all use the Kinks as an inspiration to be somebody’s “Father Christmas”.  But remember, if you’re going to donate this holiday season, don’t mess around with those silly toys. That’s not what the poor kids need most. Instead, give ‘em some money. Or they’ll beat you up. #MerryChristmas

Click here to access my ever-evolving Xmas playlist in its entirety

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Politics, USA

A Guide to the Rigged Election

What follows, as best as I can imagine, is a list of the beliefs that a person would need to hold in order to believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by Democrats in order to produce a Biden victory:

  • First, I suppose you’d need to believe that a majority of the American electorate truly supports Donald Trump.  I guess it wouldn’t need to be a majority.  It wasn’t in 2016.  But nevertheless, you’d need to believe that support for the president is significantly greater than what the reported election results currently suggest.
  • This would mean that you’d need to believe that the polls were wrong.  Which they were.  Once again, the polls seem to have dramatically miscalculated Donald Trump’s popularity.  So, I suppose you’d need to believe that the Democrats successfully rigged the polls, too, but then failed to rig the election results in a way that would reflect the fake polls that they created.
  • What is more, while successfully rigging the presidential election, you’d need to believe that Democrats were for some reason not as successful at rigging important races for the House and Senate, which would’ve actually allowed Biden to carry out his presidential agenda.  You’d also need to believe this in spite of the fact that those Congressional elections, in theory, should’ve been easier to rig.
  • Or, perhaps you believe that Democrats purposefully allowed Republicans to pick up seats in Congress to throw people off the scent of their rigging of the presidency.  Quite the sophisticated plan.
  • But also, the plan couldn’t have been that sophisticated, as Democrats also forgot to tell their ballot-filler-inners not to fill in their fake ballots on camera, and to tell their late-night-illegal-ballot-truck-drivers not to deliver all 130,000 illegal ballots at the same time!  Maybe somebody else was in charge of that part of the plan.
  • But again, there must have been some level of sophistication to organize all that rigging in states that literally have thousands of polling places that employ tens-of-thousands of election judges.  As well as to coordinate the rigging effort between states since there is no one swing state that could flip the electoral college back in Trump’s favor.
  • Perhaps you believe that coordination took place amongst the “Blue Wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, considering their proximity to one another.  These states would’ve given Trump the presidency, and he only lost them by about 200,000 combined votes, which really isn’t that many.
  • But this might be difficult to reconcile with the fact that you didn’t have similar concerns when Trump won these states back in 2016 by only 77,000 votes—states which are historically difficult to win for Republican candidates, hence the name “Blue Wall”.
  • Of course, your focus is on Pennsylvania, which would’ve been impossible for Joe Biden to win (even though that’s the state of his birth) if not for the cheating of the Democrat-controlled city of Philadelphia.
  • This is because you believe that for some reason only Democrats are capable of cheating, even though the Republican Party has spent decades trying to make it more difficult for Americans to vote (it’s not cheating if you make the rules).
  • But you also must believe that a significant number of Republicans are in on the rigging, too, especially in Republican-controlled states like Georgia and Arizona. 
  • And don’t forget Fox News!  They were the first ones to call Arizona for Biden!
  • Or maybe you’re just against mail-in voting, or question the legitimacy of states counting ballots received after election day, even if those ballots were postmarked by election day.
  • But this would also complicate your belief that the majority of the country is actually for Trump, since it would basically mean that your guy’s election victory would depend on depriving countless Americans of what, according to the rules at the time, were supposed to be legally cast ballots.
  • But what everyone seems to agree on is that Trump has a right to bring evidence of election irregularities to the courts—a fairly normal procedure in the aftermath of a close election.
  • But if the judges were to rule against him, that would mean they must also be in on the rigging, despite the fact that one of the most important accomplishments of Trump’s presidency was his record-setting appointments of conservative judges to the federal judiciary.

This, to me, seems to be at minimum what a person would need to believe in order to believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged by Democrats to produce a Biden victory.  That and that most of our political and journalistic institutions at a local, state, and national level are so thoroughly corrupted that, no matter who’s president, our democracy is beyond saving. 

The only other alternative is to believe that Donald Trump—one of the most controversial and divisive presidents in history—narrowly lost a democratic election, fair and square, to a Democratic candidate who was slightly better than the Democratic candidate that Trump narrowly defeated four years ago, fair and square.  And that, obviously, sounds impossible.

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Politics, USA

Election 2020: Reacting to the Results

Let’s start with the most important thing—Trump lost.  They may not have officially called it yet at the time of this post, but they will.  And that’s huge.  For many voters, that was their #1 issue.  Certainly, that was the #1 issue for me.  I have friends who said the Senate was more important.  I disagree.  Trump’s presidency was too toxic and too dangerous, and I’m so relieved that it’s soon to be over.

But I’m also disappointed.  Not because I thought this was going to be the second coming of the Blue Wave.  I was skeptical about Florida, doubtful about Iowa and Ohio, and never really believed that Democrats were poised to flip Texas this time around.  But I did expect Florida to be closer, and I didn’t expect Michigan and Wisconsin to be close.  I may not have expected a Biden landslide, but I did expect a more definitive Biden win. 

I expected that because of the polls, which once again, proved to be garbage.  And I don’t want to hear about “margins of error” or how even an 89% probability of a Biden win—as projected by 538—leaves an 11% chance for a Trump victory that didn’t even happen anyway so technically the polls were right!  Wrong.  Just like in 2016, the polls grossly misled Americans on what we were to expect from the 2020 election, and in doing so, again helped to validate the misleading narrative propagated by Trump that otherwise credible journalistic institutions are purveyors of “fake news” and not to be trusted.  I should also add that I have no idea what’s wrong with the polls or how to fix them.  But it’s not my job to know that.  It’s the pollsters’ job, and their bad at it. 

Like many Americans watching on election night, I began to feel that this was 2016 all over again—hope flaring up and then slowly burning out in swing state after swing state as polls closed across the country.  Safe to say that when I passed out drunk and despondent on my couch a little before midnight, I was terrified that I would awake to four more years of Trump’s America.

In hindsight, I should have been more patient.  After all, I can’t even count the number of times in the weeks leading up to the election that I was told that we probably wouldn’t have a clear winner on election night, and that those early results might be skewed towards Trump due to the politics around mail-in voting.  But when you combine the terrible polling, my 2016 PTSD, and the fact that I’ve been anxiously anticipating this election for a few days short of four years, it was kind of hard to be chill.

So, while Biden’s next-day emergence did eliminate the realization of my worst nightmare, a significant part of me is still really disappointed with what are now mostly the final results.  Here’s why:

Donald Trump may have been defeated, but Trumpism was not.  My hopefulness that this election would result in a resounding rejection of the toxic ideology of which Trump is both a cause and a symptom, proved to be overly-optimistic.  Barring a sudden surge of integrity from the Republican Party, Trumpism is probably here to stay, if not as the dominant ideology of the modern American right, certainly as a powerful and influential strand.

The razor-thin margins in so many states also enabled Trump to carry out what is potentially the most destructive outcome of this election—the further subversion of public faith in our democratic institutions.  Trump’s Thursday night press conference was despicable, but it was hardly surprising.  He’s been transparently laying the groundwork of this ploy for months, calling into question the validity of mail-in voting, particularly in the “Democrat-run” cities that would predictably turn out against him.  He is now seeking to reap the benefits of his own propaganda, and unfortunately, his supporters are buying into it, and establishment Republicans are shamefully going along with it.  A sad irony from a man who kicked off his presidency under the slogan “American First”, and is now selfishly doing everything in his power to leave the country cripplingly divided in his wake.

It’s also worth noting that the antics we’re seeing from Trump and his supporters are different and much more damaging than anything we saw from Democrats after Trump’s 2016 victory.  Democrats certainly weren’t happy with the results of that election, and remain frustrated with a system that continues to give the electoral advantage to their political opponents, but they did not conspiratorially question the system that produced those results.  The electoral college may be bullshit, but it’s the system we got, and Trump won it fair and square.  Most Democrats could admit that.  And while the impeachment and attempted removal of Donald Trump was perhaps a bit more conspiratorial, evidence-based allegations against an individual president and his campaign team are not nearly as unprecedented or dangerous as Trump’s evidence-less indictment of our entire democratic process (For the record, I never supported the Trump impeachment.  I always preferred to remove Trump from office the same way he got in—democratically).

Speaking of democratic institutions, it brings up what I think is one of the biggest questions that we as a country need to answer following this election—do we want to be a real democracy yet, or what?  If we truly believe that the right to vote is so goddamn important, are we ready to start treating it that way?  I’m not even talking about the electoral college.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to get rid of it, and based on some of the demographic shifts we’re starting to see in states like Arizona, Texas, and Georgia, perhaps Republicans should be considering getting rid of it, too.  

But what I’m talking about is making voting easier and more accessible for all. Mail-in voting should not be controversial.  It has been and continues to be a convenient and reliable way to extend greater opportunity to vote to more of the American electorate.  That is not to say that we shouldn’t work hard to ensure its authenticity and security.  We should, and despite the president’s baseless claims of widescale fraud, we do.

And how is Election Day not a federal holiday?!?!?  What a joke.  That legislation should pass Congress tomorrow without so much as a combative blink.  I mean, how can we call ourselves the world’s greatest democracy when people still need to rush to the polls over their lunch break?  Unless, of course, those people can instead vote early.  Or by mail…

And this one is on Republicans.  That’s not a partisan take—it’s just a fact.  Republicans want to make this country less democratic (small “d”), which, to be fair, can be a defensible position.  I for one am not one of those, “no matter what, make sure you vote” people.  I want you to vote if you think like I do, but if you don’t, I’m perfectly happy to let you stay home.  I’m also not a fan of uninformed voting.  If you don’t feel qualified to vote in a particular election or on a particular race, then maybe you shouldn’t?  Like, if I don’t know anything about the two people running for judge in District Random Number-Random Letter, then I probably shouldn’t put my thumb on the scale.  Yet, how many local races were swung this year by uninformed voters randomly circling the names of candidates due to some misguided sense of civic responsibility?

But Republicans are antidemocratic for all the wrong reasons.  They know that the poor and underprivileged are less likely to vote for them, so they purposefully make it more difficult for those people to vote, mostly by exploiting the fact that they’re poor and underprivileged.  Again, how can we call ourselves the world’s greatest democracy when the people most screwed by the system are the same people who experience the most obstacles in casting a vote to change that system?

Unfortunately, opportunities for electoral reform—or any other Democratic initiatives—may be limited due to the underwhelming performance of Democrats in down-ballot races.  And while I’ll maintain that the presidency was the most important prize for Democrats in this election, their probable inability to flip the Senate dramatically limits what they can do with that prize (still holding out hope, Georgia!!!)

But I want to end on a positive note—something that’s got lost midst all the noise of rollercoaster results and Trump temper tantrums.  That something is Kamala Harris.  Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrants.  Kamala Harris is a woman of color.  And Kamala Harris is the first female vice president in the history of the United States of America.  That deserves to be celebrated.

If nothing else, I hope we can all recognize that.  That just for a moment, we can take off our partisan hats, collectively rise to our feet, and give that American accomplishment the standing ovation it deserves.  No matter what you think of Kamala the politician, she represents progress for this country.   She represents the long overdue culmination of a decades-long effort by both parties to put a woman on a successful presidential ticket.  For millions of young girls across the country and the globe, and especially for young black and brown girls, she represents a transcendence of what is even possible.  You can oppose Kamala’s agenda tomorrow, but tonight, you should celebrate her.  If we’re able to do that, especially for people who did not vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, perhaps we can begin the work of healing this country after an incredibly divisive end to an incredibly divisive presidency.  It’s my sincere hope that a significant slice of the 69 million voters and counting that went for Trump can demonstrate that ability.  But if not, things might get uglier before they get better. 

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Economics, Immigration, Politics, Religion, USA

Don’t Vote For Trump: A Final Plea to Potential Republican Voters

This blog post is not a Biden commercial.  I mean, if you’re asking me who I think you should vote for in the upcoming presidential election, I think it’s Joe Biden.  But I also realize that if you’re a lifelong Republican voter, a Biden vote might not be something you’re considering.

But that’s okay!  I’m not here to convince you to vote for Joe Biden.  Vote for Independent candidate Brock Pierce!  Vote for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen!  Vote for Kanye West!  Write in Mickey Mouse!  Leave all the bubbles in the presidential part of your ballot blank!  But, please, just please, don’t vote to re-elect Donald Trump.

I write this post only because I have faith in most conservative people.  I firmly believe that Trump’s 2016 electoral victory couldn’t have happened without the support of a significant number of kind-hearted, rational-minded conservatives who—in spite of their skepticism towards Trump—voted for him because he was the only Republican on the ballot.  My hope is that after the disaster that was the last four years and the potential reclamation opportunity that lies ahead in the post-Trump Republican Party, those people are willing to consider doing something different in 2020.

I should mention here that if you’re considering voting for Donald Trump not in spite of his racist dog-whistling but because of it, then this blog post isn’t for you.  If you truly believe that this country is being destroyed by Mexicans, Muslims, and urban blacks hellbent on burning down suburbia, then give your vote to Trump.  He’s certainly worked hard for it.

But if you’re one of the conservatives that’s more representative of the conservatives that I know and respect in my life—the conservatives who believe in things like traditional Christian values and limited government—then I’m here to tell you that Donald Trump not only is not the lesser of two evils, but is instead the gravest threat to the ideals you hold most dear. 

I’m not a Christian myself, but I have a lot of Christians in my life, most of whom are better people than I am.  They’re kind, compassionate, and committed to living a life modeled on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  But knowing what I know about Jesus, it’s hard for me to understand how any self-proclaimed Christian can vote for a candidate like Trump. 

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “What would Jesus do?” the answer is, “the opposite of Trump.”  Can you imagine Jesus doling out mean nicknames on Twitter?  Can you imagine Jesus demonizing the frightened human beings seeking refuge at our borders or the non-violent activists crusading for social justice?  Can you imagine Jesus interrupting Joe Biden’s tribute to his dead son in order to mock his other son’s past struggles with substance abuse?  Jesus was a humble servant of the poor and the oppressed. Donald Trump is a self-absorbed narcissist who has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to empathize with the plight of the less fortunate.

I mean, do we even believe Trump is really a “Christian”?  He mocks evangelicals behind their backs, he can’t quote a single Bible verse, and when it comes to perhaps the most important issue to many devout Christians—the issue of abortion—Trump used to be pro-choice!

But even if he has “evolved” to a more staunchly anti-abortion stance, Donald Trump is not pro-life—not for struggling Americans, not for desperate refugees, and not for the unnecessary victims that have died from COVID-19 under Trump’s abysmal leadership during the pandemic.  Donald Trump will say what he thinks he needs to say and do what he thinks he needs to do in order to win votes—whether that’s throwing red meat to his racist supporters or tear-gassing protestors to clear the way for a photo op in front of a church that he doesn’t attend.  But for these reasons, even if Donald Trump does believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, his words and actions still make him one sorry excuse for a Christian.

But not all Republican voters are devoutly religious.  Many are motivated by a secular ideology based on free markets, fiscal responsibility, and limited government.  Once again, I’m here to tell you that while Joe Biden may not be your guy (unless you want him to be 😉), Trump is not your guy either. 

Trump can’t go a day without screaming about the “radical socialists” that he believes to be in control of the Democratic Party, but the truth is that the size and scope of government has only expanded under Trump.  After three years in office, Trump had already ran up nearly double the deficits of second-term Obama, and that was before he signed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill—the largest economic aid package in American history.  Just the other day, Trump tweeted his support for anothergo big or go home” stimulus package that could be just as sizable as the first.

To be fair, I support both of these stimulus packages, and I’m glad our president does, too.  But I’m not a fiscal conservative, and clearly, neither is Trump. 

Donald Trump’s demonization of “socialism” is also comical considering that he has more authoritarian tendencies than any president in modern history.  Remember the days when Congressional Republicans used to excoriate Barack Obama for signing treaties with Iran or shaking hands with Raúl Castro?  Where the fuck were they when Trump was sucking up to Vladimir Putin or exchanging love letters with Kim Jong Un

Trump’s expressed admiration for dictators abroad and constitutional abuses at home are far more dangerous than anything coming from the “radical left”.  I mean, I have a certain respect for libertarian ideology, but honestly, when it comes to the things threatening our liberty, what should we be more afraid of—Biden using tax dollars to give healthcare to poor people or Trump ordering unsolicited federal troops to invade American cities?  As Joe Biden would say, “C’mon!”

And all this stuff barely cracks the surface of the deep trench of terrible that is Donald Trump.  I haven’t even got into his incessant lying, his baffling ignorance, his promulgation of conspiracy theories, and his subversive attacks on journalists, scientists, and soldiers.  And even though I think most sensible conservatives agree that at the very least Donald Trump has moved the Republican Party in an undesirable direction, I still fear that too many of them will hold their noses for another Trump vote in 2020.

And that would be a huge mistake.

A vote for Donald Trump would solidify the Trumpist takeover of the Republican Party, launching them further down the terrifying path of authoritarian populism and dog-whistle politics.  It would also be a potentially lethal blow to the Republican reclamation project that would almost certainly take place in the event of a Biden victory—a project aimed at returning the party to a more honorable brand of politics like those practiced by small-government libertarians and compassionate Christian conservatives.  It would be a heck of an opportunity, too, considering the likelihood that Joe Biden would only be a one-term president

And I would be so happy to see the return of that Republican Party.  Not because it would turn me into a regular Republican voter—I’m too big of a “libtard” for that—but because I’d be so happy to return to the days in which both of the dominant parties can at least occasionally feign legitimacy.  The days in which, in spite of my differing opinions on certain issues, I can at least claim to have an intellectual and philosophical respect for the leading voices on the other side of the proverbial aisle.  But that cannot happen without first getting rid of the man whose illegitimacy makes that impossible. 

A third-party candidate or a blank section on a ballot is not a wasted vote—it’s a protest vote. It’s sending a message to the two dominant parties that if they want to earn your support in the future, they need to nominate candidates that better reflect your values.  The Republican Party needs to hear that message this year, and they need to hear it from their own.  They need to hear it from you.  The stronger the disavowal of Trumpism, the more swiftly the Republican reclamation project can begin.  I’m going to use my vote to help make that happen, and whether it’s Biden, Brock, Mickey, or Kanye, I hope that Republicans will, too. 

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Minnesota, Politics, USA

Why I’m voting for Joe Biden

For people who know me, it might surprise them to learn that in the four presidential elections in which I’ve participated, I’ve never voted for the Democratic candidate.  I’ve voted for a lot of Democrats for other political offices, but when it comes to the presidency, I’ve always had a reason to cast my vote differently.

In 2004, my reason was that I was an idiot.  I was less than one month removed from celebrating my eighteenth year on this planet, and was equipped with a set of provincial attitudes that characterize the worldviews (or lack thereof) of a lot of teenage boys from outer-ring suburbs.  I cast my inaugural ballot that year by filling in the bubble next to the name of Republican incumbent George W. Bush.

By 2008, I had been thoroughly liberalized by my college education, and even though I was very much hoping for a Barack Obama victory in both that year and his subsequent reelection campaign in 2012, I never voted for him.  Accompanying my dramatic swing to the political left was another quintessential ideological development for a college-aged kid—a growing disillusionment with the establishment.  I decided to use my voice to cast a vote of dissent towards the two-party system, voting for Ralph Nader and the Green Party in 2008, and some guy from the Socialist Workers Party in 2012.  I obviously knew these candidates had no shot at winning, but hoped that a vote for a progressive candidate could signal to the Democratic Party that, if they wanted my vote in the future, they would need to embrace a more progressive agenda.

I used a similar rationale in 2016 when I cast my vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.  Once again, this vote was less of an expression of my desire of who I actually wanted to win the presidency, and more of an effort to use my voice to help influence a political shift.  To be clear, my politics had not swung back to the right.  The emergence of Donald Trump had me more convinced than ever that right wing politics in America had gone off the deep end.  I was, however, convinced that Donald Trump was going to lose the election, and thought that as the Republican Party sought to rebuild after such a train wreck of a presidential candidate, I’d prefer that party to move in the direction of libertarianism rather than further in the direction of whatever the fuck they had come to stand for under Trump.

But Trump didn’t lose. 

And while Trump’s electoral college victory shook me as a person, it’s not what shook me as a voter.  What shook me as a voter was how close Trump came to winning the electoral votes from my home state of Minnesota.

Minnesota has the longest running streak in the nation when it comes to electoral votes cast for the Democratic candidate for president.  There’s a bit of an asterisk next to that streak, as Minnesota was the ONLY state to send its votes to the Democrat in the 1984 Reagan landslide, undoubtedly because the Democratic candidate was Minnesota’s own, Walter Mondale, and voting for someone simply because they’re from our home state is the most Minnesota thing ever.  Nevertheless, the Republican Party has not won the electoral votes in this state since Richard Nixon did it in 1972.

But Trump came damn close.  He lost Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points, or just over 40,000 votes in 2016.  And if a few more Minnesota voters would have played with electoral fire like I did, he might have won the state.

Which is why I won’t be playing with fire in 2020.

Part of my rationale for the third-party vote has always been that, regardless of how I vote, Minnesota is a safe blue state.  I could use my vote to influence other changes that I want to see in politics and still feel confident that my state would be sending all ten of its electoral votes to my preferred candidate.  That’s not the case anymore.

President Trump’s frequent visits to Minnesota this election season have not been for the hotdish.  Minnesota is now a certified swing state, and that should change how we Minnesotans approach the polls.  Our votes are now objectively more important than those of voters from safe blue states like New York and California, or safe red states like South Dakota and Arkansas, and with that added importance comes increased responsibility.

And I’m feeling the weight of that responsibility. 

In a different scenario, Joe Biden would be EXACTLY the kind of candidate that would push me towards a third-party vote.  He’s too moderate, too old, too establishment, and has a political history that includes too many offensive comments and just enough disturbing allegations. 

But in this election, the stakes are too high.  Minnesota is in play and the alternative isn’t John McCain or Mitt Romney.  It’s a person that, I believe, is far and away the most hateful, incompetent, and dangerous person to occupy the Oval Office in modern U.S. history.  And even if that guy manages to squeak out another electoral victory, I won’t be one of the voters that lets him win my state on my watch.

So, I’m voting for Joe Biden.  I don’t even view it as a choice between the lesser of two evils.  I view it as a choice between one guy that’s evil and one guy that’s not.  Joe Biden is a flawed and frustrating candidate for a lot of reasons, but deep down, I really do believe that he’s a good person.  A person with morals and integrity and compassion.  A person who meets the standards of #MinnesotaNice.  A person who’s said and done bad things, but should not be defined by them.  I hardly feel the same about Donald Trump. 

To those who have similar feelings towards Trump but will vote third-party anyway, I did not write this piece to shame you.  Voting is a deeply complicated and personal thing, and as a regular third-party voter myself, I fully understand the reasons one might hesitate to lend their support to the Democratic Party or the candidate they’ve nominated.  But I also know that if Trump were to win Minnesota and I had not done everything in my power to prevent that from happening, I’d feel regretfully complicit.  If you think you might feel the same, then perhaps a vote for Joe Biden is worth your consideration, too. 

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Education, Politics, USA

How To Brainwash a Student Trump Supporter

It was pretty clear after the first few days of school that a Trump Shop had opened up in the town where I teach.  From “Keep America Great!” hats and swim trunks to “Trump 2020” sweatshirts and COVID masks, dozens of students arrived to school decked out in election-year gear, undoubtedly hoping to trigger the snowflake teachers that run most of their classrooms.  Credit to the Trump team, I guess, for building a brand that’s hip, with it, and wow amongst a certain population of teenager trendsetters.  And while it’s true I’m dismayed by the fondness so many of my students have of our current president, I’ve also commented to colleagues that it makes it easier for me to identify the kids I need to target for political conversion. 

Much like the title of this write-up, the last line of the above paragraph is a joke. I don’t want to brainwash students.  I want to teach students to think for themselves.  If a kid chooses to believe something simply because he presumes that it’s what I believe, then I’m not doing my job. 

However, like a lot of good jokes, there is some truth to it—not in a political, “vote for Joe Biden or you fail my class!” kind of way, but in the way that so much of the essence of Donald Trump conflicts with the values that school buildings everywhere are seeking to cultivate.  There is no curricular conspiracy against Trump the president, but when it comes to many of the beliefs and behaviors that make up Trump the man, they are alarmingly antithetical to the values we want to instill in our young people. 

Kindness

Donald Trump is hardly the first president capable of being less than kind, but he is also uniquely capable of being mean.  The Twitter wars that have consumed so much of Trump’s time and energy during his presidency go beyond political mudslinging.  They represent the kind of mean-spirited name-calling that we have been discouraging in our children since pre-school. 

Well before “Sleepy” Joe Biden, Trump has employed a laundry list of nicknames to mock his political opponents.  They’re “creepy”, “crooked”, “wacky”, “deranged”, “shifty”, “heartless”, “phony”, and “slimeballs” just to name a few.  He’s made fun of men for their small stature (“Little” Marco and “Mini” Mike Bloomberg), questioned the intelligence and mental stability of women (“Crazy/Low IQ” Maxine Waters and Gretchen “Half-Whitmer”), and continually insulted indigenous Americans with his use of the name “Pocahontas” to mock Elizabeth Warren.  They have a name for this kind of stuff in elementary school—it’s called bullying.

To be sure, Trump is also the recipient of his fair share of mean-spirited mockery, which should be discouraged, as well.  Especially those insults that have no place in politics like disparaging Trump for his physical appearance.  However, while cheap insults are to be expected from liberal comedians and late-night talk show hosts, they should not be the norm for the occupant of the Oval Office.  And in a school setting where we work hard to help students resolve their differences civilly, it’s not helpful that the conflict resolution modelled by a president whom so many students look up to is mostly made up of language that would land him in the principal’s office.

Leadership

Leadership is important in our schools on many levels.  It is important for teachers to show students what it means to be an adult and a professional. It is important for older students and student leaders to be good role models for younger students and impressionable peers.  And it often involves carrying yourself in a certain way in a public setting that might differ slightly from how you carry yourself in a private one. 

The current pandemic is a great example.  Like most Americans, I’m pretty imperfect when it comes to the practice of mask-wearing and social distancing in my personal life.  And while I’m a firm believer in the gravity of this virus and the necessity of these measures to limit its spread, I’m sure that in a school building of hundreds of professionals, there are those who are more skeptical.

Nevertheless, when it comes to our collective time on the clock, I have seen nothing but the utmost professionalism from my colleagues.  Mask-wearing, social distancing, and regular cleaning of hands and surfaces are employed in every corner of the building per the mandates and guidance provided by the state.  Even the students have been remarkable in their compliance with procedures that many of them question and none of them enjoy.  Sure, I’ve had to occasionally tell students to please pull up their masks, but overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with the willingness of young people to do their part to help keep our school opened during the pandemic. 

Which is more than I can say for our president.  It took the president months to explicitly endorse mask-wearing—an endorsement largely undermined by all the skepticism he had already sewn about the pandemic’s severity.  While schools like mine are working hard to provide the safe, in-person learning that the president said he desired, the president is holding indoor rallies that violate state COVID-19 restrictions and have little-to-no enforcement in regards to social distancing and mask-wearing.  With that kind of leadership, it’s little wonder why the U.S. is the leading the world in both cases and deaths and why so many people in the U.S. are resistant to pandemic-related precautions. 

Which is not to say that Trump’s task is an easy one.  The pandemic has left political leaders with the unenviable, lose-lose decision of either shutting down schools and businesses or risking the further spread of a virus that has already proven to be immensely lethal, especially to society’s most vulnerable. But when it comes to what many consider to be the president’s most important job, protecting the health and safety of the American people, and doing the bare minimum like encouraging mask-wearing, social distancing, and heeding the advice of medical professionals, Trump’s leadership has been abysmal. 

Thoughtfulness

One of the main skills I seek to cultivate in my Social Studies classroom is encouraging students to be thoughtful.  I want students to ditch their black-and-white worldviews and see the varying shades of gray—to interpret a complicated and complex world with the nuance it deserves.  Donald Trump is incapable of that. 

Aside from colorful and creative insults, there are only a handful of adjectives that Trump uses with any regularity.  Everything is the “best” or the “most” or the “worst” or the “least”.  Things are either “good” or “bad”, “great” or “horrible”, with little room for a more measured in between.

There was a lot to be appalled by in Donald Trump’s early-August interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios.  People were rightly offended by his ineptitude surrounding the virus and his childish unwillingness to recognize the legacy of John Lewis.  But for me, the part of the interview that had my head most violently shaking in disbelief was when the subject turned to foreign policy (approximately 16:26-22:22).  The vagueness and imprecision in Trump’s language, his name dropping of countries like India and China, the boasting about his reading ability and meeting attendance—all of it left me with a complete lack of faith that this man understands the world complexly. 

Which isn’t to say that I do.  I couldn’t begin to tell you about the religious and ethnic tensions that complicate the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, or the geopolitical forces that drive policy decisions about South and East Asia.  But I don’t think the current president can either. 

And when you combine that with Trump’s complete and total lack of humility, that’s kind of scary.  Thankfully, the president almost certainly has a team of advisors that understand the world with far more complexity than he does, but it’s still pretty disturbing that the man ultimately making the final decisions has a worldview that appears so incomplete and simplistic.

Presidents should be intellectuals.  Even if we disagree with them politically, presidents should provide a model of what it means to be intelligent—to possess vast knowledge about the world, its issues, and its people, and what it means to be a perceptive and thoughtful person.  Once again, as this kind of role model, Donald Trump leaves plenty to be desired. 

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  It’s being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspectives and experiences, even if they don’t reflect your own.  It is an essential skill that students need in order to make evaluative moral judgments about things like justice both in history and in the present time.  And while empathy won’t always lead us to change our beliefs, it still has the power to strengthen and refine them. 

It’s hard to imagine a less empathetic political figure than Donald Trump.  On the contrary, Trump seems unable to make any issue he comes into contact with about anything other than himself.  Just the other night at a town hall, Trump was asked whether or not he believes that there’s a “race problem” in America.  His response: “I hope there’s not a race problem.  I can tell you there’s none with me.” 

Empathy and conservative politics do not have to be mutually exclusive.  It is possible to recognize the tragic plight of refugees while still advocating for a secure border.  It is possible to acknowledge the racism and inequities still experienced by black people in the United States while also questioning some of the goals and tactics of groups like Black Lives Matter.  But that’s not what Trump does.  Instead, Trump seeks to demonize, divide, and desperately cling to the disgusting blend of fear-mongering and racist dog-whistling that he hopes will scare enough white voters into giving him a second term. 

I teach a lot about empathy in my U.S. History class.  We are constantly seeking out multiple perspectives in an effort to understand how experience and identity shape the way that people perceive history.  We look at the American Revolution through the eyes of the powerful, the disenfranchised, and the enslaved.  Manifest Destiny through the eyes of white settlers, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants.  The Vietnam War through the eyes of the president and the public, the soldiers and the parents, hawks and doves in Congress, the Vietnamese in the North and the South, and the Hmong. 

Studying these perspectives not only helps my students to understand history, it helps them to understand each other. It helps them to understand the different ways that we all perceive the history we are living right now due to the varying intersections of our experiences, our identities, and our current seat (or lack thereof) at the proverbial table.  Empathy is among the most important virtues we seek to instill in our students.  It’s just so sad that we have to work against the White House in order to do it.

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I don’t think that it’s possible for education to be apolitical.  While objectivity is something to strive for, teaching as a profession is just too personal and too tied up in our values to ever be completely void of bias.  Even if it were possible to teach a curriculum with complete neutrality, the decisions about what to include in and exclude from that curriculum are also value judgements that are not neutral at all.

However, what I can say is that when it comes to American politics, my teaching does not and should not have any desired political outcomes.  The goal of education is not to turn students into Democrats or Republicans—it is to help them become good people. 

Neither liberal nor conservative ideology has a monopoly on what it means to be a good person.  At my school, there are students from across the ideological spectrum that have the potential to be the kind, thoughtful, empathetic people we need to lead the next generation.  Unfortunately, teaching them that skillset also implicitly means teaching students to be very unlike the man whose name is emblazoned on so much of their merchandise.  If that’s brainwashing, so be it.

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Economics, History, Race, USA

Reparations for Racist Plunder: Addressing the Racial Economic Divide

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“When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.” ­– Ta-Nehisi Coates

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There is no panacea for American racism—no single policy or protest or legislative proposal that can cure the ills of this deep-seated, multi-layered disease. The killing of George Floyd, and many others before him, has our national attention focused on the issue of police brutality.  Calls to defund the police are ringing out in cities across the country.

To this cause, I’m both sympathetic and skeptical.  I’m supportive of communities of color who wish to defund or dismantle an institution that has all too often done the opposite of “protect and serve” them, but I also question the ability of such an initiative to make progress towards true racial justice.

Everything is and should be on the table, and reforms to the way we do policing are undoubtedly worth considering.  But when it comes to appropriating our limited energy and resources, I think there is an issue that deserves a bigger slice of that pie—an issue that should seize centerstage in this moment of national urgency towards addressing racial injustice.  That issue is the enormous economic gulf that divides black and white America.

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Real solutions come from addressing root causes, and economic oppression is a root cause of a lot of problems in black communities, police brutality included.  Black people are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and while the caricature of the “black ghetto” is problematic, impoverished communities are more likely to experience crime, and therefore, more likely to experience encounters with police that have the potential to turn violent.

Economic inequality also helps respond to one of the favorite refrains of those who question the Black Lives Matter agenda, “Why are we so worried about blue-on-black crime when the real problem is black-on-black crime?”  There is no excuse for police brutality, but black-on-black crime is a problem that plagues many black communities, and makes policing those communities a difficult and dangerous job.  But, once again, it’s important to consider root causes.  Why are levels of black-on-black crime so disproportionately high?  Is it due to the fact that people born with black skin are innately more likely to exhibit violent behavior?  If you believe that, you are literally a “racist”.  But assuming you don’t, then there needs to be another explanation, something that stems less from biology and more from socialization.  That explanation lies within the impoverished communities that black people are more likely to be born into—communities in which socioeconomic conditions leave people more susceptible to participation in criminal activity.

And those conditions are 400 years in the making.

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The black poverty of today did not fall from the sky.  It’s a construction of American history that took centuries to build.  That history begins with slavery.

The enslavement of black people on American soil is older than the country itself, and it is the starting point for the black-white wealth gap that has never went away.  For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, black slaves occupied the unusual economic position of being mostly unable to accumulate wealth while simultaneously representing wealth as the property of their white owners.  They also generated enormous amounts of wealth through their labor, even though they didn’t share in any of the profits.  In the seven cotton producing states in the antebellum South, it is estimated that one third of all white income was derived from slavery.  By 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere else in the country.  That wealth has been passed down through generations of white families, even though it was literally built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the brief period of Reconstruction offered a glimmer of hope to newly freed blacks that measures would be taken to reduce their economic deprivation. Forty acres and a mule was part of the initial promise made by the American government to help former slaves begin their new lives as free people.  It’s amazing to think where our country might be today if this promise had been fulfilled.  But it wasn’t.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and rescinded the order, returning all the land set aside for freed slaves to the white southern planters who had owned it originally, and who had attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve their “right” to force slaves to work it.

Black people remained free from state-sanctioned bondage, but their undesirable situation showed that freedom without economic security is no freedom at all.  They had lost their chains, but what did they have to start their new lives as free people?  Without money, without skills, without formal education, what was a free black man to do upon his release from the plantation in a country that, despite his legally recognized humanity, still saw him as something to be disdained?  Many ended up back on plantations working as sharecroppers for the same families who owned them in previous decades, and became a part of a system that many historians have referred to as “slavery by another name.”

When Reconstruction came to a close, the South rapidly returned to the project of constructing a society steeped in white supremacy.  Legalized segregation, voter suppression, and violent intimidation all collaborated to deny blacks political and economic opportunity. Even when black people were able to overcome all odds and achieve economic prosperity, incidents like the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 showed how quickly that wealth could be wiped away.

In an attempt to flee the horrors of the Jim Crow South, many blacks headed North in hopes of finding something better.  Unfortunately, better was still bad.  Discrimination in employment left blacks with few pathways to upward economic mobility.  Those able to succeed still found themselves unwelcomed in emerging wealthy, white suburbs.  Instead, black families with wealth were pushed towards poor, black neighborhoods where predatory mortgages torpedoed them back into poverty.  This practice, known as redlining, is one of the primary forces that led to the formation of the black ghettos we see across the urban North today.

 

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made some pretty historic progress towards racial equality, but few of those achievements were centered around economics.  Decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went a long way towards gaining black Americans political equality, but economic equality still remained elusive.  While most remember Martin Luther King as the guy with a “Dream” in 1963, not many are aware that, towards the end of his life, King had shifted his focus to much more “radical” causes, including economics.  It’s worth quoting from one of his last major interviews at length:

“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil…America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality…to get started on.   At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base.  And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.  And so, emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore, was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression, and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

This is the reason that King was in Memphis in the Spring of 1968.  He was there to support striking sanitation workers who were staging a protest against unequal wages and working conditions.  King did not leave Memphis alive.

 

Fast-forward to today.  Millions of black Americans are still “bootless”.  The wage gap between blacks and whites has been widening in recent decades, and the gap in homeownership is as large as it was on the day King was assassinated. When it comes to net worth white households on average possess about ten times the wealth of black households, creating cradle-to-grave security or cradle-to-grave poverty depending on which side of those statistics you’re on.  These inequities are magnified during the current pandemic.  Black people make up 13% of the country’s total population but have made up 23% of Covid-19 deaths, a stat no doubt bolstered by the fact that black people are almost twice as likely to lack health insurance compared to whites.  At every turn, the lingering economic inequality that began the day the first African slave was imported to Jamestown is still hampering the crusade for racial justice dozens of generations later.

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So, what do we do about?

The most powerful piece that I read in preparing this essay was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”—a must-read for any American that cares about racial justice and even more of a must-read for any American that doesn’t.  In the article, Coates outlines a thorough history on many of the historic injustices that I’ve more briefly discussed here, and his belief that black Americans today must be financially compensated for the wealth that was robbed from their ancestors, and by consequence, them.

There are many forms that these restorative payments could take.  They could be checks sent out to individual African-Americans who can demonstrate a legacy of slavery in their lineage.  They could be, as Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree suggests, targeted investments in things like job training and public works that operate under the mission of racial justice, but indirectly assist the poor of all races.

What makes the idea of reparations most attractive to me is that they are a systemic response to a systemic problem.  The racial economic divide that exists in present day America is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Americans carefully and intentionally created it.  They created it through slavery, segregation, violence, discrimination, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression, sharecropping, and the scientifically disprovable belief that skin color determines the superiority or inferiority of persons, or if they are even persons at all.  It’s an outcome created by a system, and it will take a system to destroy it.

Reparations are about “repairing”—repairing the economic damage done to black communities throughout the course of American history.  But they’re also more than that.  They’re also a step towards healing—healing an enormous wound in the flesh of racial harmony that’s led to so much mutual hatred and mistrust between the “races” that we’ve created.  As Coates puts it:

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

Perhaps defunding the police could play a role.  Redirecting police department dollars towards an investment in a struggling community of color could be an important step both practically and symbolically.  But that’s not enough.  Not even close.

Reparations would be a colossal project, but one of the many lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that if we deem a project to be sufficiently important, we’re willing to commit as many dollars as that project needs.  The federal government has already invested trillions of dollars in Covid-19 relief spending, and it’s possible that there are trillions more to come.  But as devastating as this pandemic has been for the American economy, it pales in comparison to the economic devastation wrought on black communities over centuries of subjugation.

Reparations don’t need to happen in one fell swoop, but it’s time for the economic divide to take center stage in the national dialogue on racial justice.  It’s time for H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—to receive serious consideration from our elected leaders.  The problem of American racism is much too complicated to be solved simply by throwing money at it, and certainly there is no amount of money that can truly “make up” for the gross injustices of the past.  But when racial inequities of all kinds are so deeply rooted in economics, and in a country where financial security is so closely linked to the experience of true freedom, money is a good start.

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