The President Speaks

It has been widely reported that the president privately told some members of Congress that the U.S. should limit immigration from countries he referred to as “shitholes”.

A few facts:

He really did say it. The only Democrat in the room reported what the president said and at least one Republican senator (Lindsey Graham) confirmed the story. Shortly after the meeting, White House staff defended the president’s statement, and even suggested that his “base” would approve of what he said.

It’s unlikely that we would have heard about this if there hadn’t been a Democrat in the room, which should make us wonder what other opinions the president is privately expressing.

What he said is consistent with other stupid, racist remarks he’s made (for example, all Haitians have AIDS and Nigerians mainly live in huts) and actions he’s taken as president (such as ending protections for immigrants and their children and trying to prohibit Muslims from traveling here).

The president’s defenders are trying to make this a story about mere “locker room” or “kitchen table” talk, just like they did when the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was made public.

They’re also trying to make it a story about the quality of life in these countries (“The president was just being honest. Would you liberals be willing to live in Haiti or Somalia? Why do people want to leave those countries?”).

The fact that the president used vulgar language has resulted in this story getting more attention than it otherwise would have received.

But the most important part of this story isn’t that he swore at a meeting in the White House. It’s that he vehemently believes that people from some countries would make better Americans than people from other countries. That’s been a popular view in some quarters since the 19th century. But it should be anathema to anyone who understands what it means to be an American and what the promise of America has meant to struggling people around the world.

Our first president wrote this in a letter in 1788:

I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong…

Our current president is beneath contempt and needs to go.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

The “Second American Revolution” in the title refers to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Before that, during most of the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a loose arrangement that Ellis compares to the European Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen colonies operated as separate nations. They cooperated in order to defeat the British, but few of the colonists expected to become one nation after the British left.

Ellis focuses on the four men he thinks did the most to convince their fellow colonists that the United States needed a real central government. They were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay and George Washington. Ellis writes well and tells a fast-moving, almost suspenseful story, which is divided about equally between describing the histories and psychologies of his four Founding Fathers (and a few others) and the issues that confronted them.

From his conclusion:

Perhaps the best way to describe their achievement … is to argued that they maximized the historical possibilities of their transitory moment. They were comfortable and unembarrassed in their role as a political elite, in part because their leadership role depended on their revolutionary credentials… They were unapologetic in their skepticism about unfettered democracy, because that skepticism was rooted in their recent experiences ass soldiers and statesmen…

They straddled an aristocratic world that was dying and a democratic world that was just emerging… The Constitution they created and bequeathed to us was necessarily a product of that bimodal moment and mentality, and most of the men featured in this story would be astonished to learn that it abides, with amendments, over two centuries later…

Their genius was to answer the political challenges of their own moment decisively, meaning that the confederation must be replaced by the nation, but also to provide a political platform wide enough to allow for considerable latitude within which future generations could make their own decisions. 

Ellis concludes with the words of Thomas Jefferson, written decades later, not because Jefferson played much of a role in creating the Constitution (he was Ambassador to France at the time) but because he wrote so well:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered … institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

PS: Anyone who reads this book will understand that the Founders would have expected the Electoral College to reject a demagogue like the current President; and that they intended the 2nd Amendment to make sure we would be protected by a well-regulated militia, not a standing army, and not to guarantee everyone the right to own the weapon(s) of their choice.

Filling in the February Gap

One thing leads to another, especially in the Age of the Internet, so I recently learned a few things about America’s official national holidays.

First: Even though some states celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it’s never been an official national holiday (blame the South). I thought it was, because when I was growing up in California, we got the day off from school. Now, unfortunately, it’s only a holiday in four states. California isn’t one of them.

Second: The lame national holiday widely known as Presidents Day, which I thought commemorated Presidents Washington and Lincoln, isn’t actually called “Presidents Day”. As far as the federal government is concerned, it’s Washington’s Birthday. Even though it never falls on the day Washington was born.

Third: This means we only have four national holidays devoted to individuals: George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus of Nazareth.

I’ve always been especially good at remembering Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday because they both come along in the middle of February. That’s when my father was born. It’s also when there’s another family anniversary that’s best kept private. 

So here’s the mid-February lineup:

February 12th is Lincoln’s birthday, the 16th was my father’s, the 18th is that other important anniversary, and the 22nd is Washington’s. And of course the 14th is (Saint) Valentine’s Day. That’s the 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 22nd.

But, as you can see, I’ve got nothing for February 20th!

Until now?

Further research revealed that all of this happened on the 20th of February:

1673 – The first recorded wine auction in London
1792 – The United States Postal Service was created
1872 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City
1927 – Golfers were arrested in South Carolina for violating the Sabbath (the South again!)
1962 – John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth
1974 – Cher filed for separation from her husband Sonny Bono
1975 – Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party

Rather slim pickings, as we used to say. I’ve never been a fan of Sonny or Cher, and I always preferred Alan Shepherd (the first American in space) to John Glenn. And Margaret Thatcher is simply out of the question. Sadly, the past has let me down.

But there’s always the future.