The Trump Chronicles, Volume 93: We Have Betrayed the Kurds Again

From the middle of the 20th Century we’ve seen conflict in the Middle East. As Americans we’ve often looked through the lens of Israel and their Arab neighbors. But the Middle East is more complex.

Eight years ago, in 2011, a civil war broke out in Syria. Any conflict in this part of the world complicates easy answers and I wrote about this conflict here.

I described the war as having three sides: President Assad, revolutionary Syrians, and Isis. The United States supported Syrians who wanted to overthrow Assad and we allied ourselves with the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East.

The end of World War I redrew the map of Eastern Europe and the Middle East and the Kurds hoped they would be recognized as the nation of Kurdistan. Unfortunately that didn’t happen (and if you want to read an excellent book on this I recommend Paris 1919). The Kurds found themselves living in parts of Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, and Western Iran, and Western Iraq.

In 1991 the United States invaded Iraq to counter Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Then President George H.W. Bush encouraged Iraq’s population to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Kurds in northern Iraq did just that. But once the United States forces liberated Kuwait we pulled out, and Saddam Huessin turned his guns on those who followed President Bush’s encouragement. Saddam Hussein used poison gas to slaughter the Kurds.

Fast forward to Syria. When the United States decided to support Syrians who wanted to overthrow Assad we also decided to support the Kurds who populated Northern Syria and opposed Assad. This troubled Turkey because the Kurdish population in Eastern Turkey have wanted independence since 1919. Some of the Kurds formed a terrorist group called the PKK in the 1970s. Since then Turkey has viewed all Kurds as possible members of the PKK.

So here’s the question: Is there overlap between the PKK and the Kurds in Syria who wish to overthrow Assad? Turkey is clear: these aren’t two groups, but one. Allow the Syrian Kurds any encouragement and they will use their power to fight against Turkey. Frankly, I haven’t found proof of this, and not for lack of trying.

And now enter President Trump. On October 7th he tweeted that we are pulling our troops out of Syria. I imagine he thought this would be seen as a good thing as he has often promised to keep out people safe.

It didn’t happen like he thought. The Kurds have (once again) been good allies. In addition to fighting against Assad’s troops they have also successfully rounded up and imprisoned members of Isis. But now the Kurds need to pull out of guarding the members of Isis and fight the Turks.

The freeing of Isis fighters makes us less secure, but it also reminds the Kurds that the United States is not trustworthy.

Going forward the Middle East will continue to be a volatile place. I don’t think it’s in our best interest to become an isolationist nation and pretend that what happens in other parts of the world don’t matter (and I hope that 9/11 makes my point). Our retreat from Syria does nothing more than make us less safe and tell the Kurds that only idiots believe promises made by the United States.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 89: Cokie Roberts is Praying For You (and I’m Trying)

Yesterday I posted about the death of Cokie Roberts (1943-2019). As you can imagine people from around the world have posted remembrances and condolences.

President Obama said this: “Michelle and I are sad to hear about the passing of Cokie Roberts. She was a trailblazing figure; a role model to young women at a time when the profession was still dominated by men; a constant over forty years of a shifting media landscape and changing world, informing voters about the issues of our time and mentoring young journalists every step of the way. She will be missed ― and we send our condolences to her family.”

President George W. Bush said this: “We are deeply saddened that Cokie Roberts is no longer with us. She covered us for decades as a talented, tough, and fair reporter. We respected her drive and appreciated her humor. She became a friend. We know Steve, their children, and grandchildren are heartbroken. They have our sincere sympathies.”

Meanwhile, our current President (who must not be named) said this: “I never met her. She never treated me nicely. But I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals. I respect you guys a lot, you people a lot. She was a real professional,”

Way to make it about you.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 130: You Should Read This Book

I just finished Daniel Okrent’s book The Guarded Gate. Here’s what I’ve learned:

This was not an easy book to read, particularly to those of us who follow the news. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species that found that plants and animals change and develop to adapt to a changing world. In the decades that followed, many people asked the question as to whether humans do the same.

It’s a decent question and we’ve found that skin color has changed incrementally over millennia based on our distance from the equator and sunlight. We all began in Africa with dark skin because of the sun: we needed dark skin to block skin cancer. But as a species we migrated to areas where the sun was not as intense, areas that we now know as Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Those migrants needed lighter skin because they needed the Vitamin D that the sun provided. And over thousands of years they developed exactly that. The different skin colors between Africans and Scandinavians had everything to do with the sun and nothing to do with anything else.

But in the decades after Darwin this debate took a horrifying turn: a number of Americans took Darwin’s theory to argue that people from certain countries were “good” and some were “bad” based on skin color and where they were born.

From the late 16th Century much of what we now call America saw a huge influx Western Europeans. In 1776 we declared ourselves independent from Europe (England) and opened our shores to all who wanted to come, not thinking much about skin color (except for the slaves we brought here in chains but that’s grist for another post). This lasted until 1882 when we decided that we didn’t want to include people from China.

Shortly after this descendants of Western European immigrants feared they would lose their wealth and their identity because of current Eastern and Southern European immigrants. With calls of “Keep America for the Americans” they decided that some immigrants were good and should be welcomed and some were bad and should be banned. They claimed science on their side and named their belief “eugenics.”

Daniel’s book documents this belief that Europeans could be divided into three groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans.” With no evidence they claimed a hierarchy: Nordics were good, Alpines were suspicious, and Mediterraneans were inferior. In no small part they recognized that Nordics had fair skin and fair hair while Mediterraneans had olive skin and dark hair.

In 1924 Congress passed (and President Coolidge signed) a law that placed horrific quotas on immigration from different nations of Europe. I encourage you to read the book but basically they wrote this law that set up immigration quotas from each nation. Those from Northern Europe and Scandinavians enjoyed generous quotas (including, by the way, President Trump’s mother who came from Scotland in 1930) while those from Italy, Austria, and the Balkans were essentially shut out.

The horror of this law wasn’t realized until the 1930s when Jews from Europe frantically attempted to flee Nazi Germany and were turned away from our shores because of their misfortune to come after their quota had already been met. Thousands were turned back where they perished in concentration camps. If you don’t think this has real consequences, read about the St. Louis.

Today, day after day, we see that men, women and children come to our borders. They are desperate to flee because of the same fear that Jews faced in the 1930s. They don’t face antisemitism but instead face death threats. Their fathers, brothers, sons, and grandsons face threats from local gangs who demand that these young men join their gang or face death.

They don’t want to join gangs and they began a long and dangerous journey in the hope of a place of safety: the United States. They want what our ancestors wanted. But when they arrive at our border they are seen as “invaders” who want to “take our stuff.”

In 2019 we cannot condemn xenophobia in the 1920s and defend xenophobia today.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 128: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un

After World War II the Korean peninsula was divided into North Korea and South Korea. During the Cold War North Korea aligned with the Soviet Union and South Korea aligned with the United States. Five years after the end of World War II the Korean Peninsula became the first flashpoint of the Cold War when North Korea and its ally the People’s Republic of China invaded South Korea.

The United States and several other United Nations countries fought back. Nobody won the war and on July 27, 1953 both sides signed an agreement to stop fighting. Technically, the Korean War never ended.

Since 1953 North and South Korea have lived an uneasy peace. The border between their nations soon became the DMZ or “demilitarized zone.” The DMZ has famously become the most heavily armed border in the world. Both nations faced the fear of an invasion from the other side.

This uneasy balance was upset in 2005 when North Korea announced it had developed nuclear weapons. The United States developed the nuclear bomb during World War II and used it to force the Japanese to surrender in World War II. A few years later the Soviet Union developed similar nuclear capabilities. For the next three decades most of the world accepted the fact that these two superpowers had the capability to destroy the world and prayed they wouldn’t.

But other nations also worked to join the “nuclear club.” We’re not entirely certain who belongs to this club, but North Korea’s announcement ushered in a new concern. North Korea did well after the Korean War under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, but when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991 it was no longer able to support North Korea (or Cuba, or Poland, or, well, you get the idea).

Famously they suffered a famine in the 1990s caused by a combination of lack of Soviet support and unusually high rain levels in 1995 and 1996. North Korea also insisted they didn’t need help. There’s no way to know how many North Koreans starved but it’s agreed it was substantial.

By that time the first ruler of North Korea, Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) had died and he was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il (1941-2011) who oversaw the nuclear program while refusing international aid to feed his people.

This caused a great deal of concern with the rest of the world as North Korea was seen as both unstable and dangerous. Anyone who develops nuclear weaponry can use it. It was generally assumed that Kim Jong Il desperately wanted respect and “a seat at the nuclear table,” and it was not given. He was treated by most of the rest of the world not as an adult but as a nut case. We feared this unstable leader would use his nuclear power as a lethal temper tantrum.

But in 2011 Kim Jong Il died and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un (b.1983). He was incredibly young and inexperienced and we all held our breath. At the time the United States was led by President Barack Obama. Like his predecessors President Obama worked hard to encourage a stable North Korean government.

And it all changed on January 20, 2017. Donald Trump entered the White House and decided he was the man to “fix” North Korea. And that’s fine except instead of negotiating with Kim Jong Un, he craved North Korea’s approval. In fairness he did once refer to Kim as “Little Rocket Man” in 2017 (and leaving himself open to be called Honky Cat) but hasn’t done that since.

Instead he now speaks about how they “fell in love.” Last year I wrote about this and explained that Kim gave away nothing and Trump cancelled joint exercises with South Korea to prepare for a possible North Korean invasion.

This has to stop. Kim has figured out that he doesn’t need to give up his nuclear status while at the same time ensuring that the United States won’t confront him on anything substantial.

Meanwhile he has turned his back on our allies. A year ago he called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dishonest and weak. The next month he turned on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying Germany has made itself a captive to Russia. And most recently he called Britain’s Prime Minister Teresa May foolish.

Let’s face it: we have a president who craves the approval of dictators and turns his back on our allies. The 2020 election can’t happen soon enough.

The Cult of Martyrs and Schools in the 21st Century

Christians all over the world, in all of our history, have revered martyrs. People of faith, they gave their lives in defense of their faith, or for a greater cause. In John’s Gospel (John 15:12) Jesus tells his disciples that “[n]o one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Once again, we woke up today to learn about another school shooting, and again in Colorado. I won’t bore you with the details but we’ve learned a great deal since the 1995 shootings at Columbine High School. Virtually every school (from kindergarten to 12th grade) now does active shooter drills and virtually all students, teachers, and other school staff think about what they would do when confronted by an active shooter.

Kendrick Castillo, an 18 year old student (along with several other students) faced that reality and ran toward the shooter. Kendrick was shot and killed. By all accounts he and the others stopped the shooter and prevented more carnage.

Last week, when murder visited the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Riley Howell also took a bullet to protect others.

Kendrick and Riley gave their lives to save their classmates and we should honor their courage and pray for those whose lives they saved.

But we should also express anger that they needed to do what they did. Columbine High School, Sandy Hook, and countess other schools should be sanctuaries, places of safety. Chabad of Poway and other places of worship should be sanctuaries. We shouldn’t have to teach our children how to respond to active shooters and we shouldn’t have to hire armed security to make our places of prayer and fellowship safe.

If you think I need to be lectured on the 2nd Amendment please don’t waste your breath or my time. Our neighbors and our children shouldn’t be thought of as acceptable collateral damage and your desire to shoot assault weapons shouldn’t be an acceptable alternative when Viagra no longer works.

I pray for Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell and their families. But I also pray for a place where they could have grown up, married, and raised families who would have benefited from their bravery and integrity.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 120: Your Shutdown Appears to Hurt Everyone But You

As I write this we approach the 26th day of the partial government shutdown. We’ve had shutdowns before but this is our longest.

This shutdown does not affect all federal employees and is called a “partial shutdown.” But that’s little comfort to those are not being paid. And those who are not being paid are divided into two groups: essential and non-essential.

The non-essential federal employees cannot work and are not being paid. Essential employees must work and are not being paid. So what’s the difference? Good question.

I believe that all federal employees are essential because they serve all of us. In the past few days I’ve suggested that we abandon essential and non-essential and instead use the words safety related and non safety related. This made some sense because safety related employees guard our safety (e.g. the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Security Administration) and we can’t function without them. But other agencies provide essential services that don’t endanger our safety.

But here’s where it get complicated for our President: as the shutdown continues we’re finding that his base may suffer from his unwillingness to care about the work that our federal employees do. As a candidate he promised to improve the lives of American farmers and by overwhelming numbers they voted for him. But his protectionist policies make their lives more difficult because other nations reduce how much they purchase from us. We can see soybean farmers as an example.

In response to this Mr. Trump allocated subsidies to soybean farmers. Some of them grumbled that they chose farming to grow crops, not to cash checks but I haven’t heard of anyone who refused to cash the checks.

But the government shutdown has meant that farmers aren’t getting their checks.

Today we received word that 2500 federal employees were ordered back to work to ensure these farmers get their checks.

In other words, 2500 federal employees who haven’t been paid since the government shut down are now ordered back to work without pay so that the President can ensure that the minority of Americans who voted for him will continue to receive checks for not farming.

It’s hard to imagine that anything will make him care for the people who work for him and stop pandering to his base.

How Low Will They Go? At This Point We Still Don’t Know

As I write this it’s been six weeks since fourteen children and three adults were murdered at Stoneman Douglas High School; you can see a list of them here.

This week is Holy Week in the Christian tradition and Spring Break for many students. This past weekend many survivors of the massacre traveled to Washington D.C. to call for an end to gun violence in schools (President Trump, meanwhile, spent the weekend at Mar a Lago).

I was proud of the job they did. Most teenagers fear public speaking but we heard voices that make us hopeful of the future. Well, not all of us.

Several “adults” in our nation used this event to bully these courageous Americans. Emma Gonzalez has come under particular criticism. For reasons she need not explain she wears her hair short. Two weeks ago she was called a skinhead lesbian by a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in Maine. In fairness, this candidate withdrew from the race.

During her speech on Saturday Emma ripped up a paper target. But a conservative website photoshopped it and replaced the target with a copy of the Constitution, implying that she was un-American.

Emma was born here but her father was born in Cuba and the jacket she wore had a Cuban flag sown on her shirt. Republican Steve King of Iowa said this: “This is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense.” Mr. King ignored her trauma, her determination, her travel, and her words. Instead he focused on a patch on her shirt that honored her ancestors.

For what it’s worth the Cuban flag was designed in 1848 or 1849 and adopted as the official flag in 1902. It bears no connection with Communism or Fidel Castro. Let me draw an analogy: My maternal grandfather was born in Boston, Massachusetts but his parents were born in Ireland. Like many Americans I’m proud of my heritage and while I don’t wear an Irish flag on my sleeve, I know I can. But if I did and someone saw my patch and accused me of supporting the Irish Republican Army I would not answer well. I’d accuse that person of caring not at all for me or those I love. I’d accuse that person of lying to silence me.

That’s what Emma’s bullies have done. While she speaks truth or power, they speak power to truth. They hope that their power will so intimidate her that she will cower into the shadows.

I haven’t met Emma, but I pray her truth will win out. I see her as a brave young woman who did not choose this path, but when confronted with her role, she grabbed it. I feel certain that while this weekend showed us our first glimpse of a young woman who makes us proud, it won’t be our last.

Vaccines: They Have Your Back (and Your Childrens' Back Too)

National Infant Immunization Week Blog-a-thon with woman holding baby. #ivax2protect

This week we celebrate National Infant Immunization Week, sponsored by the CDC, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I’ve filed this post under both “celebrating” and “ranting” and with good reason. Two hundred and twenty one years ago Edward Jenner (1749-1823) began to explore smallpox, a virus that devastated populations at that time. Thirty percent of those who came down with the disease died of it and many of those who didn’t were scarred for life. Mr. Jenner noticed that those who suffered from a much milder disease, cowpox, appeared to be immune to smallpox. He suggested that if he could give people cowpox (which was virtually never fatal) he could ensure that they would not be in danger of contracting the much more dangerous smallpox.

He was right. And more to the point, he gave birth to the vaccine movement. Today we see vaccines as a treatment, a way to introduce something into our bodies that will protect us from dangerous diseases.

Vaccines stimulate our immune systems to protect us from dangerous diseases. You can find the list of these diseases here.

That’s why I’m celebrating. But I’m also ranting because in 1998 Dr. Andrew Wakefield published and article in The Lancet that claimed there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism.

As you can imagine this created incredible anxiety among parents of infants. Nothing frightens parents more than the idea that they are doing something that will harm their children.

In the immediate aftermath of Wakefield’s article, the percentage of children who received vaccinations plummeted.

But on further observation it became clear that Wakefield lied. Other doctors replicated his experiment and none of them replicated his results. The Lancet withdrew its support as did everyone who partnered with him and in 2010 he lost his license to practice medicine.

I’d like to tell you that Mr. Wakefield’s fraudulent claims had no traction and that parents once again vaccinated their children, but this is simply not true. The combination of Mr. Wakefield’s lies, his influence on American celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, and the general belief in health conspiracies leave us with the reality that thousands of our children are not properly protected from easily avoidable diseases.

Some of these parents mean well and are overwhelmed by bad information from sources who capitalize on their ignorance. Others find misinformation an easy way to punish the other parent in custody disputes.

Regardless, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children place them in needless harm’s way. They claim that vaccines are “poison” that will harm their child when in reality vaccines make their bodies work better. Vaccines have our backs in the sense that they make us stronger.

This week, if you’re the parent of an infant or know someone who is, please encourage them to keep up with their vaccine schedule. When these infants are old enough to talk they will thank you (and so will I). While I didn’t like getting shots as an infant, toddler, or child, I’m grateful to my parents that they protected me.

We live in a time of “alternative facts” and conspiracies, where bloggers and (so called) journalists find an income stream in lying. I don’t begrudge their income stream, but I do wish to call out plan to put children in danger to make a buck.

Don’t believe them. Vaccinate your children.

Expertise Needs Our Support

From my earliest memories I’ve recognized truth does not depend on our opinions or desires. Facts are facts, even when they’re inconvenient.

I’ve been blessed to have born into a time and place where knowledge was valued and the smartest people in the room should be heard and respected. Good leaders told the truth and journalists reported factually.

But in the last few decades we’ve seen this model challenged. The 24 Hour News Cycle recognized that they didn’t need their viewers to be informed, but instead they needed their viewers to stay tuned. On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Air Flight 370 disappeared and we still don’t know what happened. In the days and weeks after its disappearance CNN and other news outlets learned that as long as they covered Flight 370 they claimed high ratings. Their ratings plummeted when they left this coverage for other stories. And so they continued to cover Flight 370 long after they had anything to report.

On March 19th, 11 days after the disappearance, CNN reporter Don Lemon suggested that the plane was sucked into a black hole. I don’t think anyone believed this, but after 11 days he was running out of things to talk about.

We see countless more examples, but in the early 21st Century we need to recognize we are consumers who increasingly want to be told what we want to hear more than we want to be told the truth.

And that’s a bad thing. This doesn’t serve us well. We need to hear uncomfortable truths because that’s how we grow and learn.

As I child I was told about Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, and other events from the Bible. As an adult I learned that many of these stories were myths. They were true but not factual. But today I’m surrounded by fundamentalists who believe that every animal alive today entered Noah’s Ark in the year 1656 BCE and emerged 40 days later when a dove flew off and returned with an olive branch that spontaneously appeared after all the plants and trees were drowned in the flood. In a Gallup Poll from 2014, 42% of Americans identify as Creationists (ie, the world was created 6,000 years ago over the span of 6 days).

I’ve been thinking about this because a few days ago I heard an excellent essay from Tom Nichols, the author of The Death of Expertise. You can watch him here and I suggest you do.

In case you don’t, let me take some excerpts:

A few years ago a mischievous group of pollsters asked American voters whether they would support bombing the country of Agrabah. As you might expect, Republicans tended to support military action while Democrats were more reluctant. There’s only one problem: Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s from the animated Disney film Aladdin. Only about half the people surveyed figured this out.

Increasingly…laypeople don’t care about expert views. Instead many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.

How did this happen? How is it that people now not only doubt expert advice, but believe themselves to be as smart, or even smarter, than experienced professionals? Parents who refuse to vaccinate a child, for example, aren’t really questioning their doctors. They’re replacing their doctors. They have decided that attending the University of Google, as one anti-vaccine activist put it, is the same as going to medical school.

We need to find our way back from this ego driven wilderness. Historically, all people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble or distress. We’re all willing to argue with our doctors until our fever is out of control. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But that’s where we’re headed. And unless we start accepting the limitations of our own knowledge, then each of us is failing in our obligation to participate in our democracy as involved, but informed citizens.

Well put Mr. Nichols.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 28: We Should All Be Concerned About the Holman Rule

The last few months I’ve written extensively on President Elect Trump out of a concern over where our nation is heading. I’ve also wanted to chronicle his Presidency for future reference; I got the idea from James Fallows who wrote The Daily Trump.

But in the last few days I’ve come across something that concerns me and it comes from the House of Representatives, something called The Holman Rule.

In 1876 the House passed a resolution (the Holman Rule) that allows individual members of Congress to target individual federal employees and reduce their pay to $1.00 per year (effectively firing them). On January 3rd this Congress voted to bring it back. Proponents claim this will allow the firing of dishonest, ineffective or lazy federal workers.

My fear, and the fear of others is that individual members of Congress will use this rule as a way of settling scores.

Career federal employees are often tasked with delivering bad news to elected officials. In it’s January 10th edition, The Washington Post spoke about Arthur Katz, who worked for FEMA, testified before a Senate subcommittee. He said: “I testified before a Senate subcommittee regarding the gross mismanagement of FEMA, including our lack of preparedness for natural disasters. My bosses weren’t at all pleased, but my civil service and union protection meant that I couldn’t just be fired. A few months later, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, and my warnings about FEMA’s problems were proved correct. I kept my job and continued in federal service until my retirement.” Imagine if his bosses at FEMA were able to ask Congress to have him fired?

The General Accountability Office (or GAO) is tasked with overseeing that federal monies are spent properly. Since their job is essentially telling Congress when money isn’t being spent properly, can we imagine any scenario where they will feel their job is secure?

Can anyone feel they can speak truth to power when power has shown its eagerness to stop them?