Archive for November, 2019

Abuse of Power

The way the impeachment hearings are going, it appears likely that the House of Representatives will impeach Trump on a largely party-line vote, and the Senate will refuse to convict him of the charges, and 35-40% of the electorate will declare their boy vindicated. As Trump himself declared years ago, he could kill someone and get away with it, and his supporters are so angry with the “elite establishment” that they will excuse any and all abuses of power on his part.

Trump’s latest abuse, however, is another, and different, example of the unraveling of law, order, and the structure of government. Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive but convicted of posing with the corpse while in Iraq. As a result of the court martial, Gallagher was demoted from chief petty officer to a first class petty officer. Trump unilaterally overruled the judicial proceeding and restored Gallagher’s rank this month.

Gallagher also faced a Naval SEAL review board to determine whether he should remain in the elite force. Trump then tweeted that he would not allow the Navy to strip Gallagher of his SEAL status. In response, the Secretary of the Navy declared that a tweet was not an order. Abruptly, the Secretary of Defense requested the resignation of the Navy Secretary and stated that Gallagher would be allowed to retire almost immediately as a chief petty officer and as a SEAL, exactly what Trump wanted.

Speaking as a former Naval officer, I’m quite confident that Gallagher was guilty as charged, and quite possibly in fact did some of what he was charged with and acquitted of. Senior military officers are incredibly reluctant to bring charges against service members, especially members of elite units, unless the evidence is overwhelmingly convincing.

But not only did Trump interfere in the Gallagher case, but he also pardoned Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans and Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges for a similar crime.

Former Marine Corps Commandant, retired General Charles Krulak, stated that Trump’s actions amounted to circumventing the military legal system and that the president’s intervention “relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground. Disregard for the law undermines our national security by reducing combat effectiveness, increasing the risks to our troops, hindering cooperation with allies, alienating populations whose support the United States needs in the struggle against terrorism, and providing a propaganda tool for extremists who wish to do us harm.” [Military Times, 11/21/2019]

Trump’s interference in the military justice system for a political end is just another example of how Trump will trash anything, including the law, that interferes with his desires and political ambitions. Interfering in the workings of the law, whether military or civilian, is definitely a high crime, but I doubt that Republicans will see it that way, although I am certain that, had Barrack Obama done something like that, he would have been impeached in a Republican minute.

What ever happened to that Republican emphasis on law and order? Or does it only apply to women and minorities?

Freedoms and Rights

What almost no political figure will say publicly is something that should be as self-evident as the “inalienable rights” so beloved by the Founding Fathers: Not all freedoms are the same.

There are, in theory, two general categories of freedoms. The first category holds those freedoms or rights whose expression physically and economically harms no others, provided one doesn’t carry them to extremes. The second category includes those rights whose exercise can and often does harm others.

The problem is that, as with anything, human beings are good at carrying things to extremes.

Your belief and worship of a different god, or no god, harms no one [if you use belief to justify harm to others, it’s a different story]. What gender or sexual or non-sexual self-identity you express harms no one. What clothes you wear harms no one [provided those clothes are not designed to physically harm others]. What opinions you express harm no one [but using those opinions to put others out of business, incite riots, or public uprisings goes beyond the freedom of speech and self-expression].

Your freedom to fire a gun can in fact harm others. So can dumping sewage into the stream that runs through your property. Your freedom to smoke in enclosed spaces definitely harms others. Your right to drive or fly aircraft or use heavy equipment is limited because you can definitely harm or kill others.

In more lands than not throughout history, freedom of religion or freedom from religion did not exist. All too often, there was, in effect, a mandate of what religion was or was not allowed. More than a few countries, until recently, effectively had sumptuary customs or laws that limited who could wear what garb. And censorship in some form exists in all too many lands.

Part of the freedom problem is, as noted above, that all too many human beings carry their freedoms to extremes. They not only want to worship as they please, but also want to force others to worship in the same way, “for their own good,” as well as to enshrine their religious values in law. They tell lies and partial truths for their own benefit, claiming that they should be able to do so because they have freedom of speech. Men have historically generally claimed that their rights superseded those of women, and that women did not have the right to sexual and reproductive freedom – and men used, and often still do, the law to restrict that freedom, while effectively granting themselves rights women did and do not have.

The other part of the freedom problem is that to function societies need sets of rules that people will abide by, because without accepted laws, societies disintegrate into anarchy. Those in power in society always structure those laws in a way that reflects their beliefs, usually maximizes their freedoms, and restricts the freedoms of others – even those freedoms that seldom harm others.

Representative governments were designed to come up with laws acceptable to all, but that structure is fraying across the world as people use technology to associate with just those who share the same values. The more they do so, the more each group rejects the others, and demonizes not only “the other,” but also the diminishing number of moderates, and the more they struggle to impose their values on others.

And that may well be how our vaunted technology destroys us… and our freedoms.

If Trump Is So Innocent…

Why is he keeping everyone he can from testifying? Why is he threatening and denigrating lifetime federal employees and decorated military officers with impeccable and honorable records? Why is he trying to keep his tax records out of the hands of public prosecutors?

The Republicans are trying to claim that Democrats don’t have testimony from enough people with “first-hand” contact with Trump, but at the same time, Trump is doing everything possible to keep as many of those individuals as possible from testifying before Congress.

What’s occurring on the Republican side doesn’t look like honorable individuals trying to get the truth out. It looks like a Mafia gangster using every stratagem possible in the law book, and some that are anything but legal [threatening witnesses, directly or indirectly, is a crime], to keep the truth from coming out.

Supposedly, if one is innocent, truth is the best defense, yet while Trump complains and calls the impeachment hearings a hoax and claims he’s innocent, he’s doing everything possible to keep whatever happened from coming out or being investigated.

What amazes me is how many people, particularly his supporters, don’t see this, and don’t want to. Their attitude is similar to an old sculpture my grandmother had with three monkeys in a row. Under the monkeys was the inscription: Hear No Evil; See No Evil; Speak No Evil. The first monkey has his hands over his eyes; the second over his eyes, the third over his mouth.

And, in a perverse way, that seems to fit Trump and the Republicans at this point. They don’t want to hear, see, or speak of Trump’s evil.

If There’s No Crime…

In the latest issue of Time, the attorney Robert Ray argues that President Trump should not be impeached and convicted on the grounds that Trump committed no crime. This is already the basis of some Republicans’ defense of Trump. Ray’s argument rests on two bases. First, that the “quid pro quo” offered by various Trump appointees and subordinates was not a “corrupt arrangement” under the law because the law requires a specific benefit and because an investigation of the Bidens by Ukraine would have provided only a “nebulous” benefit. Second, that because the Office of Management and Budget had no authority to permanently withhold the aid appropriated and authorized for Ukraine and because the aid was finally released [after newspaper reports of withholding surfaced] no harm was done. Therefore, there was no crime.

The first contention is an incredibly ingenuous argument, and one that a great number of convicted criminals would like to be able to use. “Because I didn’t know what I might get, it wasn’t a crime.” And law, in fact, recognizes this problem because we have penalties for attempted crimes that were never completed. In addition, even Trump’s attempt to ask for such a favor has damaged the future credibility of the United States as well as pointed out that Trump will do anything for his personal gain, regardless of the impact on the U.S. national interest, and suborning the national interest to personal interest is in fact a form of treason.

The second base ignores the fact that the White House did in fact freeze the aid. The fact that it didn’t have the authority to do so is immaterial to the fact that the freeze was ordered. Also, there’s no basis to assert that no harm was done… or could have been done. Ukraine may well have been able to use that aid against the Russians, for which that aid was intended. Even the slowing of that aid harmed Ukraine and benefited Russia, which, again, is an act against the national interest.

Then Ray goes on to argue that, in any case, it was only a case of bad judgment. In the case of most criminals, it usually is. Trump’s no different, but because he’s a white Republican [for the moment] male, the white male Republican Senate may well use a different [and far more lenient] standard for him.

Think about it.

Big Voices

The other day, my wife, the professor of voice and opera at the local university, took her students to a collegiate state-level voice competition. When she returned, I asked her how it went. She said that it had gone close to what she expected, although she was initially surprised that one of her very best students hadn’t placed. I asked why, and her response was that, as sometimes happens, the judges in that division hadn’t seemed to judge the contestants so much on technique, diction, and musicality as on the size of their voices. For whatever reason, some judges highly reward the size of the voice, the sheer volume and projection, even if it results in impaired diction and a lesser degree of musicality than presented by other singers. In short, some supposed professionals reward volume over everything else.

I got to thinking, but only for a few instants, before it struck me that a certain segment of our electorate reacts in the same way. They like big-voiced and strident politicians, so much so that they ignore facts, context, unpleasant character traits, and outright lying. These people seem to think that volume equates to truth, that shouting makes something true, even when it’s not.

But it doesn’t stop with politicians. It’s why so often television commercials run at louder volume than the programs that they’re interrupting. It’s why men so often talk over and shout down women, especially those with whom they disagree… and why women often have difficulties in getting heard in political debates. It’s why companies place large advertisements in magazines or online.

The fact that so many human beings react favorably to volume, even in the world of classical vocal music, suggests the trait is at least partly hard-wired, at least in Caucasians, but I have to say that this response troubles me, especially at a time when we need to pay more attention to facts and quiet reason and not to loud appeals to emotional prejudice.

Awards Season

Last week was the World Fantasy Convention, which I attended, as I usually do, and I couldn’t help but reflect on book awards. No matter what anyone says, book awards are essentially popularity contests. The award may reflect the popularity of books among a large number of readers, as in the case of Goodreads awards, or the popularity among a small number of judges, as with the Pulitzer Prize, or by some combination, as in the case of the World Fantasy Awards. Now… judges of more prestigious awards may protest mightily, and cite various criteria, but the bottom line is whether they like it… and that’s popularity.

Sometimes a book wins awards, and after all the furor, it vanishes, like Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer. And sometimes a book that’s ignored by every critic and award giver hangs on… and is eventually recognized… like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was seen as mere light reading and critically panned for almost a century.

And sometimes, the controversies aren’t about the books, but the awards.

For the last two years, the Nobel Prize for Literature has also been plagued with scandal. In 2018, a series of sexual assault charges against the author husband of one of the Literature Committee members resulted in such disruption that no prize was awarded in 2018. Then, this year the 2019 Prize was awarded to Peter Handke, an Austrian writer and firebrand “infamous for his Serbian nationalist sympathies.” In 1996 Handke published two essays that blamed the media for presenting Serbs as the “evil” party in the Yugoslav Wars and Muslims “as the usual good guy,” despite the fact that Serb forces killed an estimated 100,000 Croatian civilians and Bosnian Muslims. Handke even spoke at the funeral of Serbia’s President Slobodan Milošević (Nickname: “Butcher of the Balkans”), who had died before his trial for genocide and war crimes was completed.

F&SF has had its own “award” dramas. The World Fantasy Convention had for years presented its annual awards in the form of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, a noted U.S. fantasy author who died in 1937. With the rise of a more diverse community of fantasy writers who became increasingly vocal about an award depicting a writer known not only for horrifying fantasy, but for stridently racist and xenophobic views, in 2015, the WFC announced it would replace the “Lovecraft” award statuette with another trophy, and in 2017 a “fantasy tree” award was adopted. Now, there’s a controversy about the John W. Campbell Award (for best new writer) given at the World Science Fiction because of Campbell’s anti-Semitic and misogynistic views.

In the meantime, the awards go on, and sometimes great books are often ignored, and sometimes fair but wildly popular books win awards… and, in the end, the fact that a book won an award, or didn’t, is lost, and the book has to stand or fall on its own.

Body Count?

Every so often I get a comment, either from a reviewer or a reader, about how my seemingly “nice” or honest protagonist is either really ruthless or kills too many people… or words to that effect. I understand that such readers want the “ideal” protagonist to accomplish his goals, or even just effect his survival, neatly, and with a minimum of bodies lying around. But real life and realistic fantasy and SF are often messy. Even so, I have to admit that, in some of my SF books, if one looks closely, my protagonists have left body counts that dwarf Game of Thrones. Some have wiped out whole planets, and in one case, essentially sterilized an entire solar system.

Human history has been replete with arguments about ends and means and to what degree the particular means to an end effectively negates the end, including the idea that waging massively lethal wars as a method to ensure subsequent peace never seems to work out that way. And there’s a great appeal to that argument.

The problem in real life and in realistic novels, however, is that each individual and each culture has a different idea about what the “right” way of doing things happens to be, and this makes life difficult for whoever doesn’t fit the mold. Add to this the fact that there are always zealots, who really do believe that they’d rather be dead than change or allow any compromise… and when such zealots have great power, someone who has a different view usually only has three choices: (1) agree/surrender; (2) flee; or (3) fight. Given the mindset of zealots, often agreement is impossible, particularly if the zealot believes, for example, that blue-eyed redheads are the tools of evil and must be exterminated… and you happen to be a blue-eyed redhead. As with the mass migrations we’re seeing now, flight is sometimes possible… at least until the countries to which one can flee close their borders. Which means that, more often than we’d like, the only choice left is to fight.

And if one fights, it’s because one wants to stay alive and hopefully to protect one’s family and community… and in such cases, the individual either breaks a great number of laws and rules or fights, if not both, and whether the individual or protagonist wins or loses, there’s going to be a body count.

After that, should the individual [or character] feel great remorse? My feeling is that some regret is necessary that people were killed, but that great self-flagellation is not required. If the survivor isn’t all that good a person, he or she won’t feel great regret anyway, and if the character or person is otherwise [besides having to kill to survive] a decent being, in most cases, regret is wasted on those who set out to exterminate or conquer others.

Life, of course, is never quite that clear-cut, but when an individual or character or a people is chased and persecuted to the point of death, largely for merely existing, or for being an impediment to the ambitions or beliefs of others. I have to question the need for regret or great hand-wringing over the deaths of the chasers and persecutors.

But then, there’s always the question of why someone is chased or “persecuted” and whether such claims are valid… but that’s another story, perhaps similar to one on the front pages.