When I was a child, world maps in American school classrooms showed the United States at the center of the world. It always confused me, as I couldn't figure out why those land masses on the far right and left edges of the map were cut off. For better or for worse, the days of centering the United States are over. We are living through the end of the American Century.
I just came across this book review I drafted in early March of this year, which I was going to publish in a local NYC literary journal — and then the pandemic hit with a vengeance, and it didn’t seem that relevant anymore, so I put it aside. I also felt a little bad about piling on criticism against the author, who already suffered more than her fair share of criticism, some of which was deserved, but much of which was really less about her than it was about the U.S. book publishing industry, and its penchant for paying multi-million dollar advances to white authors while barely giving authors of color a platform for their work.
Then Trump told lie after lie about immigration in last week’s debate — including his assertion that the U.S. government is doing everything possible to reunite separated children with the parents from whom the government snatched them, which we know simply isn’t true. Since I wrote this review, the Trump administration has managed to use the COVID-19 pandemic to virtually shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, even to refugees suffering terrible harm while being forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border for months while awaiting a chance to plead their case before a U.S. immigration judge.
So when I stumbled upon a draft of this review when doing some household decluttering this weekend, I decided it was worth dusting it off and putting it out into the world.
The story of the journey Mexican and Central American asylum seekers have been making (and are still making, despite the dangers facing them at the border) in search of safety still needs to be told. This particular book is a flawed vehicle for telling this story, but it did raise the profile of the migrant’s journey among some Americans who might not have been inclined to learn about it otherwise.
The New York Times has a lot to answer for regarding how it covered the 2016 presidential election. Its coverage of Benghazi, and especially of Hillary’s frigging emails, did a lot to sour voters on Hillary Clinton. (Case in point: according to the Columbia Journalism Review, “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”) If this weekend’s editorial extravaganza is a bit too late as a mea culpa, at least the NYT editorial board gave it the old college try.
The New York Times of Sunday, October 19, 2020 included a special editorial section consisting of thirteen separate essays explaining why Trump “is unfit to lead the nation.” Even if you don’t take the time to read every essay, the introductory editorial itself — which begins by saying, “Donald Trump’s re-election campaign poses the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II” — is worth reading in its entirety. It concludes with this: “Mr. Trump is a man of no integrity. He has repeatedly violated his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…. Now, in this moment of peril, it falls to the American people — even those who would prefer a Republican president — to preserve, protect and defend the United States by voting.”
Of course, those among his “base” who could learn the most from this won’t ever read it. Indeed, they have been thoroughly brainwashed into thinking that the press is the enemy of the people, and that the New York Times in particular is some kind of radical, left-wing propaganda machine (spoiler alert: it’s not), run by Antifa, Inc. (which doesn’t exist) or by satanic pedophiles and cannibals (no parenthetical disclaimer needed here, methinks). These are the same people who believed the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign was running a child-trafficking ring out of the back room of a pizza shop.
But the Republican elites are probably ready to accept the truth of what the Times lays out here. They got their tax cuts and their federal judges, but the rest of what Trump has to offer isn’t good for them, either, if it brings down the entire American experiment.
Here’s hoping that many Republicans, when they get into the privacy of the voting booth, will fill in the little bubble next to JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR.
Last night, a neighbor called to say that she had received her absentee ballot in the mail—but when she opened up the envelope, the name on the return envelope was my husband’s, not hers. Hubby and I immediately opened up the ballots we had also received in yesterday’s mail, hoping it was a simple mix-up and that he had received her ballot. No such luck, however. He received the ballot for someone a couple of blocks away from us. I received the ballot for a neighbor living five doors up the block.
It turns out, of course, that we are not the only ones to whom this has happened. There are reports of this happening widely in Brooklyn, though it is not yet clear if it has affected literally all of the absentee ballots sent out in the borough of Brooklyn, or only some of them. Unfortunately, the New York City Board of Elections has a history of mismanaging elections. For example, in 2016 over 100,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls.
The NYC Board of Elections blames the snafu on the Board’s vendor, Phoenix Graphics, a commercial printing company that was hired to send out absentee ballots in Brooklyn and Queens. However, today a BOE executive said the problem was isolated to Brooklyn alone. There is no word yet on whether the vendor is also to blame for the typo that labeled the ballots “Absentee Military Ballot” (instead of Absentee/Military), which is also causing confusion among voters.
The Daily News is reporting that the 99,477 voters in Brooklyn who received flawed ballots will get a second mailing with the correct ballot, inner envelope and return envelope. That seems like an awfully precise number: how does the DOE know the number?
Possible Impact on the Election
I have been spending a lot of time volunteering to help get out the vote. Among other things, I have been sending out texts on behalf of various nonprofits around the country urging people who are concerned about in-person voting during a pandemic to apply for absentee ballots and to return them promptly.
Many people have expressed skepticism about using absentee ballots, although the grounds for skepticism have tended to differ based on party: Republicans have said voting by mail is inherently fraudulent (“as opposed to voting by absentee ballot” I’ve heard from more people than you’d think, even though voting by mail is the same thing as voting via absentee ballot), while Democrats have been disturbed by reports about how the U.S. Postal Service may be deliberately slowing down mail delivery in an effort to prevent absentee ballots from being counted. But I have tried to allay those fears. Postal Service issues aside, mail-in voting is actually more secure than in-person voting, since there is a paper trail (and bar codes on the ballot or return envelope) that would prevent people from voting twice.
However, in the Brooklyn scenario I see several dangers. The most obvious one, of course, is that people who did not receive their absentee ballots will simply not vote. In the midst of a dangerous pandemic, many people will decide (not unreasonably) that it is not worth putting their lives—or the lives of family members—at risk by voting in person.
But what if someone sends in an absentee ballot without noticing the wrong name on the return envelope? Presumably if that person tries to vote in person, their vote will be invalidated. Moreover, in theory, I could vote twice: once using the absentee ballot in someone else’s name (preventing them from voting later), and once in person in my own name.
This almost looks like a Russian-funded Republican plot to disrupt voting in the largest Democratic city in America, doesn’t it?
I voted via absentee ballot in the primary this year, and obviously was planning to do so in the general election as well. Due to our age and underlying health conditions, both my husband and I would be at risk of an ugly death were we to contract COVID-19. Waiting in line for hours with other humans inside the gym in our local elementary school just doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. There will be early voting available in New York starting on October 24, but even so there are likely to be large crowds.
Even with mail-in voting, I have been concerned about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver completed ballots in time, and I was planning on walking my completed ballot to the Board of Elections and submitting it personally (assuming the BOE has a secure process for receiving ballots). As a Democrat, I also know that my vote is unlikely to change Biden’s inevitable victory in New York. However, I refuse to be disenfranchised! I also think that even in New York, every vote counts in case there are Electoral College shenanigans—it needs to be clear and beyond doubt that Biden won the popular vote (by a landslide, I hope).
What Can You Do?
If you live in Brooklyn and you have also received the incorrect absentee ballot, there are a few things you can do:
Contact the Kings County Board of Elections at Apply4Absentee@boe.nyc, or call 718-797-8800, option 2, and they will send you a new ballot. (Email is better; nobody ever answered when I called the phone number.)
Please also contact Election Protection at (866-OUR-VOTE) and report that you received the wrong ballot. The more reports received, the clearer it will be that this is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed globally by the BOE. Election Protection is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
Both my husband and I were able to deliver the ballots we received to their rightful owners. And just after I initially posted this, a neighbor came by with my ballot. We have heard of other neighbors running around the neighborhood delivering misdirected ballots. How nice that people care enough to do this! It’s a bit of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy election season.
My favorite U.S. political historian and pundit, Heather Cox Richardson, has repeatedly asserted that Fox News is not actually a news station. She mentioned it again today in her weekly Facebook Live video on The History of the Republican Party, when she also made the point that the so-called “liberal media” consists of journalists who believe in reporting news based on facts and verified sources. This, of course, is why the right wing is so critical of the “liberal media”—not so much for its purported bias, but for its reliance on verifiable facts.
In any event, “Fox News” is merely a name, not a description. This goes a long way toward explaining how they get away with presenting lies and distortions as “news”—and how successful they’ve been at fulfilling Roger Ailes’ vision of building a right-wing propaganda machine. But how is this possible? HCR wrote about this in some detail back in June 2018, and it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
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While lots of folks think they are getting news from Fox News, in fact, “Fox News” is not a news channel. It is an entertainment channel whose name is “Fox News Channel,” the way the name of ABC is “American Broadcasting Company” and NBC is “National Broadcasting Company.” “Fox News” is simply the brand name; it is not a description of content.
FNC does have some news shows: those are the ones featuring Shep Smith [now with NBC News] and Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. These shows do choose stories and arrange their material to slant to the right, and they do use loaded emotional language to influence viewers, but they also fact-check their stories (although they sometimes ignore evidence that does not support their views) and they identify themselves as journalists.
But this gets even more confusing. FNC is a cable channel, which means it does not have to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission, as ABC and NBC do. The FCC licenses channels that use broadcast frequencies because the airwaves are limited, but since cable is virtually unlimited, there is no similar requirement for it. To get an FCC license, owners of a station have to prove that they contribute to the public good, by airing public announcements, for example. FNC does not have to do that. But local TV stations owned by the parent company of FNC do use the public airwaves and do have to have an FCC license, and they produce news shows that are as real as any other.
Fox News Channel officials appear to deliberately muddy the waters between their different programming. If you google “Fox News news programs,” you get them all jumbled together, and there is no easy way to figure out which are news and which aren’t. But when someone like Sean Hannity, for example, is called out for violating an obvious rule of journalism—like repeatedly attacking the federal raid on Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s office without revealing that Hannity, himself, was implicated in that raid, or by reporting so positively on Donald Trump when the two are personal friends—he claims [he] has no such journalistic responsibility because he is not a journalist.
[In February 2018], Shep Smith explained the difference between the news side of FNC and the entertainment side: “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want. If it’s their opinion. I don’t really watch a lot of opinion programming. I’m busy.”
Watch the opinion programming on FNC if you want, but recognize that it is not informed by facts or real investigations; it is designed purely to hold audiences by ginning up outrage. (Rupert Murdoch, who began FNC, always said it was just a business, and likened it to Dairy Queen.) If someone is repeating a story that seems crazy […] it probably is, and you would be crazy to believe it.
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By the way, have you noticed that the Fox News Channel quietly dropped its slogan, “Fair and Balanced”? They’re not even pretending any more.
Until the rise of talk radio in 1987 and the establishment of the Fox News Channel in 1996, we honored the Enlightenment values on which our government was founded: politicians had to attract voters with fact-based arguments or be voted out of office. But talk radio and FNC pushed a fictional narrative that captivated viewers who felt dispossessed after 1954, as women and people of color began to approach having an equal voice in society. That narrative—of a heroic white man under siege by a government that wants to give his hard-earned money to black and brown people and grasping women—has led us back to where we started in 1776: a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.
As I write this, a ferocious hurricane is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. The damage to life and property in Louisiana and Texas (and elsewhere) is likely to be extensive (though in the news headlines, the storm was overshadowed this week by coverage of the Republican National Convention and another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake). In America, our government and corporate overlords purport to disbelieve that climate change is real—or that things like a global pandemic or newly intense storms could possibly be caused by global warming. Yet the evidence is all around us.
In fact, the powers that be know very well that climate change is real. They are lying to the public to protect their own short-term interests—i.e., their personal wealth and power.
This is not a comprehensive analysis of the subject, but a brief reminder of why addressing climate change is critical, and how the current pandemic should spur us to urgent action. I include some links at the end if you’d like to do some more in-depth reading.
A human population that has quadrupled in the space of one century has also caused people in some parts of the world to eat a wider variety of animals, which may have facilitated the ability of certain germs to jump from animals to human hosts. However, factory farming of animals is also thought to create the risk of deadly pandemics.
Hurricanes are Bigger and Badder Thanks to Global Warming
There is evidence that hurricanes are getting stronger, intensifying more rapidly and even producing more rain as a result of a warming world. It has also been documented that hurricanes have occurred more frequently in the North Atlantic since the 1970s. Typhoons in the Northern Pacific have also been intensifying.
The reason is simple: the oceans take in nearly all of the excess energy created by global warming—having absorbed an estimated 93 percent of the increase in the planet’s energy inventory since 1971. Warmer ocean temperatures help power storms, and increase the atmospheric water vapor content as well. Sea levels are also rising as the oceans warm, and higher sea levels give coastal storm surges a higher starting point when storms approach the shore. Coastal development and growing population density along coastlines makes such storms more dangerous to humans.
Global Migration is Also Spurred by Climate Change
This phenomenon doesn’t get as much attention as it should, but climate change is also a major driver of human migration. Migration from the global south to the global north—whether it be from Latin America to the United States, Southeast Asia to the Middle East, or Africa to Europe—is driven by many factors (including poverty, violence and persecution), but we ignore climate change at our peril.
People can become refugees—internally displaced—overnight as a result of cyclones, tsunamis, typhoons and hurricanes. Resource scarcity (including competition for food and water) and desertification of formerly arable parts of the planet also drive migration. The World Bank has estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia together will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.
What Can We Do?
The global COVID-19 pandemic has been a quickly moving preview of how the more slowly moving (but even more urgent) climate change crisis will destroy our human habitat if we do not act quickly and decisively. While the impact of COVID-19 was more sudden, we should not become complacent about a planet that is warming up more quickly than we wish to acknowledge.
I’m no expert and don’t have the answers to how we can stop the upcoming climate change disaster. But there are a few obvious things we can all do now:
Decrease or eliminate our consumption of meat. Large-scale factory farming of animals is not only cruel, it is environmentally destructive.
Re-use and recycle. Let’s buy less and re-use more.
Make climate change a key voting issue. Call, write and text your representatives on environmental issues. Support candidates who put fighting against climate change front and center.
Support organizations whose mission is to influence policymakers to enact sensible climate-focused legislation.
These are easy and obvious. But rather than listening to me, I’d recommend that you seek out experts and advocacy groups that have concrete suggestions about what we can do as individuals (especially those of us privileged enough to live comfortable lives in prosperous countries) and what policymakers need to be encouraged to do before it is too late. Below are links to groups you might want to check out.
Any readers more knowledgeable about the environmental movement should feel free to post additional links in the comments (or concrete suggestions for what individuals can do), and I’ll update this blog post accordingly.
I don’t have to tell my vast reading public (all five of you!) that Dictator Donny is trying to destroy the U.S. Postal Service in order to keep Democrats from voting. After all, he has said so publicly. The USPS even wrote to 46 states in July to warn that mail-in ballots for the presidential election may not be delivered in time to be counted.
The attempt to destroy the ability of the Post Office to function on the eve of the presidential election is just one of Trump’s many blatant, destructive and unconstitutional attempts to destroy democracy and rig the election. (As my 82-year-old mother said to me the other day, there is at least one thing Donny has said that is actually true: that the 2020 presidential election will be the most riggedelection in history—except of course he is the one rigging it.)
There is a lot of information floating around about what people can do to help save the Post Office, and preserve the right to vote by mail, but the information is scattered and difficult to find and to vet. So I am bringing together in one place a list of actions you can take if you think it’s wrong that our own government is deliberately slowing down the mail; deactivating, removing, and disassembling multimillion-dollar mail sorting machines (and perhaps even destroying them, as Rachel Maddow reported on August 14, though I have not been able to confirm that anywhere else); and even removing mailboxes from street corners to keep you from being able to safely vote by mail in the midst of a deadly pandemic (though of course the Trump Administration denies this is the reason, and says that removing underused mailboxes or those in need of repair or subject to theft is simply business as usual).
BREAKING NEWS: Before I could finish this blog post, the Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, announced on August 18 that he would suspend the Postal Service’s so-called “cost-cutting measures” until after the November election. This shows that pressure works! (It doesn’t hurt that a coalition of states was getting ready to file a lawsuit charging that the changes could undermine the election.) Nonetheless, you may still want to let your government representatives know where you stand. After all, this doesn’t mean that DeJoy is going to reverse the damage that has already been done. And there is still the issue of providing governmental funding for the Post Office—which the House is coming out of recess to address, but which the Republican-led Senate and the President are loathe to do.
If you have other information about concrete steps people can take to help save the Post Office or ensure the right to vote, please provide them in the comments. I’ll keep updating this blog as I am made aware of additional relevant resources.
ACTIONS TO TAKE TO SAVE THE POST OFFICE
Contact Your Representative and Senators
Write to your member of the House of Representatives and to your U.S. Senators to register your complaint about what has been happening to the Post Office. This is important even if your Representative or Senator agrees with you. They keep track of constituent messages, and it helps if they are able to say that they have heard from x number of a constituents. If they don’t hear from you, they won’t know you care about this issue.
You can find your Representative here. (When I put in my address, it actually pulled up three possibilities, so the search engine isn’t perfect. If the same thing happens to you, you can look at this Congressional Districts Map to get a more accurate result.) When you get to your Representative’s home page, there should be a contact link. If you prefer to call (also very effective!), you can find phone numbers of every member of the House of Representatives here.
You can find your Senators here. If you click on the link for a Senator’s name, you’ll arrive at their home page, where there should be a contact link. You can also find contact details for all U.S. Senators here.
Don’t want to call or write? Go to this link and you can easily make a video, post it to social media and tag your representative.
Update: Here is a really easy way to contact your representatives. Text USPS to 50409 (which will put you in touch with RESISTBOT), and it will help you generate a letter to your representatives to demand protection for the US Postal Service. Just follow the prompts! It took me less than two minutes (including some waiting time at the outset—I guess they’re seeing a lot of interest!). Note that you can also use RESISTBOT to contact your representatives about any other issue you like.
Send an Email to the Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. Postal Service is governed by a Board of Governors. Members of the Board are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Governors, in turn, select the Postmaster General (at least in theory—does anyone think Trump had nothing to do with installing DeJoy, who was a major donor to his campaign?).
Let’s flood their email boxes with messages asking them to save the Post Office. This really shouldn’t be a partisan issue—Republicans and Democrats alike should be aghast at what is happening. One acquaintance of mine sent the following message:
Here are the relevant addresses that you can cut and paste into an email:
For several months, as the financial crisis facing the Postal Service has become all the more dire, there have been many calls for people to buy stamps as a way of injecting funds into the USPS. It’s a nice idea, but financially it won’t make a dent in the need.
Part of why the USPS is in such bad shape is that in 2006, Congress passed a law requiring the agency to fund 75 years of retiree health benefits—in essence funding benefits for people who have not yet even been born. However, buying stamps isn’t enough to bail out the Post Office. As one expert has explained, “If Americans were to buy 1 billion first class stamps — about 4 per household — it would constitute a resounding vote of confidence and support. On the other hand, it would generate only about $500 million [in revenue]. Most observers believe the post office needs an immediate injection of $25 billion. Only Congress can make that happen.”
Still, it’s a nice idea, and if nothing else it’s a way to show your support. And precisely because most of us rarely use stamps anymore, it’s nice to have some around the house when you suddenly need one on an urgent basis. You can buy stamps online at USPS.com.
ACTIONS TO TAKE TO ENSURE YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE
Join a Phone Bank or a Texting Platform to Help Get Out The Vote
Texting is an effective way to reach voters these days and there are many organizations that provide platforms that let you send texts from your computer. Phone banks are still around, too, and you can participate from home (though personally I never answer calls anymore unless I recognize the number, and I think that’s true of a lot of people nowadays). There are also organizations that can guide you in engaging in social media campaigns, provide the technology for you to make your own video, or use volunteers in other capacities.
These online and phone “campaigns” aren’t necessarily partisan. In some cases, you may simply be contacting people with neutral reminders to, for example, respond to the census, or register to vote.
Here are just a few organizations to check out:
When We All Vote (nonpartisan organization with a mission to increase participation in voting)
In her speech on the first night of the Democratic convention, Michelle Obama advised people going to the polls on November 3 to plan ahead: wear comfortable shoes, bring a bottle of water, bring a brown bag dinner and maybe even a breakfast.
In other words, whether you vote in person or by mail, voting is not going to be easy this year. Polling places may be closed, understaffed or disorganized; the Postal Service may not deliver ballots in time; and all manner of voter suppression efforts will be in full swing. If you plan to vote by mail, it will be critical to mail in your ballot (or take it to a drop box or to the Board of Elections office) as soon as you possibly can.
For all of these reasons, it will be important to plan how you are going to vote. Will you vote in person? Will you depend on the mail? Will you attempt to drop off your absentee ballot at your local Board of Elections office (and if so, will they be prepared to accept your ballot)?
If You’re Young, Consider Becoming a Poll Worker on November 3.
Approximately 60 percent of the people who work in the polls on Election Day are over 60 years old, which means they are in the highest-risk group for COVID-19. So this year, there are efforts to recruit young people, who are not as susceptible to the virus, to take their place.
If you or a friend or family member are young and would like to help by becoming a poll worker, go to this link to get started. You will be helping to ensure that the polls are well-staffed, and safe for voters.
Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his prospective Vice President has Republicans all in a tizzy because they clearly fear that she will be a very effective running mate. Harris checks so many diversity boxes—female, African American, South Asian, Jamaican, child of immigrants and more—that Republicans are right to be scared of how successfully she is likely to appeal to multiple demographic groups who will identify with her personal story. And this is not even to mention that she is whip-smart, an experienced campaigner, and a skilled former prosecutor who will clearly and effectively lay out the case against four more years of Whiney Donny and Sycophanty Mikey.
So naturally, Republicans are questioning both the legitimacy of Harris’ claim to be African American, and even whether she is a “natural-born citizen” (or even a citizen at all!) who is eligible to be Vice President. Because after all … what else they got besides racism?
So let’s set the record straight.
Is Kamala Harris African American?
In immediate response to the announcement of her selection as Biden’s running mate, the right-wing blogosphere went crazy with suggestions that Harris is somehow falsely assuming the identity of African American because her Black father was born in Jamaica, not in the United States.
Nowhere has it been decreed to my knowledge that to be African American you must be a direct descendant of persons held in chattel slavery in the United States. (Okay, there is an American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement that advocates for a narrower, lineage-based identity based on the experience of having descended from Africans who were enslaved in the United States, but Harris has never claimed to be ADOS.) You may recall that Barack Obama, too, was sometimes criticized (by both Blacks and whites) for not being “black enough.” But let’s get real. We still operate under the “one-drop rule” in the United States. Harris is at least partially descended on her father’s side from people who originated in Africa, and she is an American. If she herself has decided that this makes her an African American, then that’s the end of the story.
Interestingly, Harris wrote in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, that her Indian mother (who basically raised Kamala and her sister alone after her parents divorced when Kamala was eight years old) “understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”
For this reason, her mother made a point of embedding herself and her daughters in the Black community in the East Bay area of California where they lived in the 1960s and early 1970s, including participating in civil rights marches, attending a Black Baptist church in Oakland, and being active members in local community organizations in the predominantly Black neighborhood where they lived. When it came time to choose a college, Harris decided to attend Howard University, the famous historically Black university in Washington, D.C. So to the extent that being African American is also a cultural identity, there is no doubt that this is where Harris has always lived. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.”
What if Harris is a Descendant of Slave Owners?
Critics have also sought to undercut Harris’ African American bona fides by claiming that she is a descendent of “Jamaican slave owners.” Specifically, the infamous Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian-born, far-right political provocateur, said on Fox News on August 11, 2020 that “Kamala Harris seems to be descended less from the legacy of, let’s say, Frederick Douglass, than she is from the legacy of the plantation itself.”
Seriously? Let’s take a closer look.
In 2018, Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, wrote an article in 2018 for Jamaica Global (a website for the global Jamaican diaspora) in which he disclosed that he was descended from a prominent slave owner in Jamaica. Though it has not been definitively confirmed, there is indeed evidence to suggest that Kamala Harris had an Irish great-great-great-great-great grandfather named Hamilton Brown who owned slaves in Jamaica. Harris’ father wrote about his roots going back, in his lifetime, to his paternal grandmother, Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown) and his maternal grandmother, Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan).
It is bitterly ironic that anyone could believe that this somehow “discredits” Harris’ claim to self-identify as African American. (Whose permission does she need, anyway?) I’m not sure what the Irishman Hamilton Brown looked like, but I’m guessing his complexion was somewhat fairer than those of Harris’ two great-grandmothers on her father’s side, who both appear to be of mixed African and European ancestry. Did Republicans miss the memo about white slave owners routinely fathering mixed race children through coerced sex with enslaved African women? Have they not heard of Sally Hemings?
This ridiculous argument doesn’t deserve another second’s attention.
Birtherism Again? Really?
As an immigration lawyer whose day job is spent interpreting, arguing and applying U.S. immigration and nationality laws, the “birtherism” argument waged against Barack Obama (largely by none other than Donald Trump) would get me especially incensed. Well, birtherism is raising its ugly head again, this time wielded against Kamala Harris.
In an opinion piece published in Newsweek on August 12, 2020, John C. Eastman, a California law professor who really should know better, raised the question of whether Kamala Harris is a “natural born citizen” (a requirement for holding the position of either President or Vice President) since her parents were both immigrants, and it was unclear whether they had naturalized as U.S. citizens before she was born. For the record: their immigration status at the time she was born on U.S. soil is irrelevant, unless they were diplomats who were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. government. (Spoiler alert: they were not diplomats. Her mother was a cancer researcher and her father is an economist.)
Newsweek subsequently published an “Editor’s Note” in response to readers having complained about this apparent attempt to ignite a racist conspiracy theory, writing, “Dr. Eastman was focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate about the precise meaning of the phrase ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’ the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya.” No, of course it doesn’t.
In any case, the damage was done. In fact, a few days earlier, a Facebook post along the same lines had already gone viral.
Facebook did not take the false claim down, but it did add links to a number of fact-checking articles to clarify that there is no truth to the claim that the fact of having foreign-born parents disqualifies Harris from serving as Vice President or President (since the VP’s first job is to be ready to serve as President if the President dies or is incapacitated).
To be clear: the United States recognizes two forms of birthright citizenship: jus soli (Latin for “right of the land”), meaning citizenship by right conferred on anyone born on U.S. soil, and jus sanguinis (“right of the blood”), or citizenship by descent, i.e., by virtue of the U.S. citizenship of one’s mother or father, regardless of one’s place of birth. Even if Harris’ parents were not yet naturalized citizens at the time of her birth, she was born on U.S. soil—in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964—and was thus a U.S. citizen at birth.
Barack Obama, of course, was relentlessly attacked by the right wing on “birtherism” grounds, even though he, too, was born in the United States and was therefore a U.S. citizen at birth, end of story. (See the Fourteenth Amendment.) The idea was to suggest that our first Black president was somehow an “illegitimate” president—and these similar attacks against Harris reveal a similar discomfort (no, a better word is rage) among some white people at the fact that a person who is not white can ascend to the highest office in the land. It’s despicable and it’s racist.
On a final note, I’ll just mention that the closer call when Obama was running against John McCain in 2008 was always McCain himself, who due to an odd gap in the law was actually not a U.S. citizen at birth, but acquired U.S. citizenship retroactively thanks to Congressional action granting citizenship to certain children born of U.S. citizen parents in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone before it was an official U.S. territory. I actually think this was part of the genesis of the birther movement against Obama: it was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from McCain’s potential ineligibility for the presidency by pointing to the Black guy with the Muslim middle name and the Kenyan father.
On Saturday, August 8, Donald Trump signed four new executive orders (actually, threeseparatememoranda and one order) by which he purports to solve the Congressional deadlock on extending COVID-19-related relief. He claims he can do so by, unilaterally, providing executive authority for extended supplementary unemployment payments, an eviction moratorium, a further suspension of student loan payments and, while he is at it, a suspension of the payroll tax for certain taxpayers.
Trump asserts that, as president, he has the authority to do these things simply through the power of the Sharpie. But these orders are (1) evil, and (2) little more than political theater designed to shore up his support in the upcoming election. In other words, it’s all another big lie, dressed up in the pomp and circumstance of a presidential signing ceremony.
Let’s start with my second contention. I say that this is all nothing but political theater because Trump doesn’t actually have the authority to do what he is pretending to do.
Under the U.S. Constitution, only the House of Representatives has the power to tax and spend money for the federal government. (We know the president hasn’t read the Constitution, but you should. See Article I, Section 7, Clause 1: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.”) Similarly, the president is not permitted to draw money from the Treasury unless Congress has specifically passed a law allowing him to do so for a specific purpose. (See Article I, Section 9, Clause 7, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”)
The House of Representatives actually has tried to appropriate funds that would, among other things, extend the $600 supplemental unemployment payment. Way back in May (seems like a lifetime ago), the House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would have provided billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief, but Mitch McConnell has not allowed the Senate to consider it, much less to vote on it.
This gave Trump the opportunity to swoop in and appear to show that—in the infamous words he uttered in his Republican nomination acceptance speech in July 2016—“I alone can fix it.” Moreover, in doing so he and the Republicans are trying to convince the public that executive action was needed because “Congress” didn’t act to help suffering Americans, when in fact the Democratically-controlled House did act, while the Republican-controlled Senate decided to go on vacation.
One of the other memos extends the deferment of student loan payments through December 31, which is a good thing, as far as it goes (the CARES Act deferment would have expired on September 30). As for evictions, Trump issued an executive order which basically says, yeah, the relevant federal agencies should see what they can do to help. Which is probably nothing.
Why Are These Actions Evil?
So how does Trump say he will pay for all these things? This is where the evil comes in.
Trump proposes to use his emergency powers to divert $70 billion from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) to provide unemployed workers with $300 per week on top of what they receive from the state in which they live. But for expenditures from the DRF, states are required by law to contribute 25%, so he is depending on already cash-strapped states to find that money. States also have to provide an additional $100 per week from the money they already received pursuant to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, assuming it has not been spent already. (Note that even in the unlikely event all of these stars were to align, the total would only be $400, as opposed to the $600 per week the unemployed received under the CARES Act.)
Whether this will actually result in any additional payments to the unemployed is an open question. Many states, which are losing tax revenues and are precluded by law from running deficits like the federal government can, may simply be unable to come up with the money. (Or perhaps this is the Senate’s evil plan, since McConnell has floated the idea of allowing states to file for bankruptcy, presumably because he assumes this would affect mostly blue states.)
Trump is also directing the Secretary of the Treasury to defer payroll taxes as of September 1 on taxpayers making less than $104,000 per year. Though not stated explicitly in the memo, this is clearly meant to put more money in the pockets of those lucky enough to have jobs. (To make this clear: this does nothing for the more than 50 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since March.) The Secretary is also ordered to “explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred pursuant to the implementation of this memorandum.” In other words, though payroll taxes are only being “deferred” for now, the medium-term plan is to eliminate the requirement that such deferred taxes ever be paid. (See below for the long-term plan.)
Why are these presidential acts evil? First, because they set the stage for what Trump hopes to do in his second term.* One major goal is to get rid of the payroll tax altogether. Remember, the Social Security system is funded by the payroll tax! Those are your tax dollars (plus tax payments from employers) that are supposedly being put away for future retirement. It has long been a Republican goal to get rid of Social Security. This is a step toward achieving that long-term plan. Moreover, Medicare is partially funded by payroll taxes as well. Would you like to have reasonably affordable health insurance once you’re retired? Then you might want Medicare to survive a few more years.
I would also contend that diverting disaster funding is foolhardy, especially during hurricane season in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
The real danger—the real evil—lies precisely in the political theater surrounding these “orders.” The White House surely knows that all of these directives will be challenged in the courts. As such, they are unlikely to have any practical impact. The real impact, to my mind, is the fact that Trump issued these orders at all. By doing so, he is going well beyond the “unitary executive” theory so beloved by Attorney General William Barr, under which the president has expansive powers to control all aspects of the Executive Branch. Here, he is also seeking to extend his power over a key function of the legislative branch, which is to make laws deciding how our tax dollars are to be spent. This is a dangerous, perhaps unprecedented, power grab. Don’t forget: Trump has (falsely) said that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want”.
If you read the actual documents, they are replete with rhetoric about how the virus that is the cause of all this trouble began in China (which is relevant to … what, exactly?), and how the Trump administration has been such a raging success in every way. But they do little to accomplish the goals Trump claims to be solving with the flick of a pen. All they do is take us one step further down the road of autocracy.
As always, I recommend the informative daily newsletter by historian Heather Cox Richardson for more depth and detail (available on Facebook, on BillMoyers.com or via email subscription). She wrote about these presidential orders in her newsletter of August 8, 2020.
* But please, dear god—no, I should say “dear voters”—don’t let Trump win a second term!
It has long been understood that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—which is an important part of the college application process in America—is culturally, socioeconomically and racially biased. But I, too, was literally “today years old” when I learned that the SAT was created by a eugenicist, Carl Brigham, whose purpose was to demonstrate that whites were naturally intellectually superior beings.
The SAT, like the similar American College Testing (ACT) test and other so-called “standardized tests,” purports to measure innate intellectual ability—aptitude rather than knowledge per se. Because all college applicants take the same test, the idea is that test scores should be more objective than, say, high school grades, since an “A” in one high school may be easier or more difficult to obtain than an “A” in another high school. But standardized test questions are anything but objective. To give just one example, research has shown that some of the SAT’s verbal questions favor white students because they reflect cultural expressions commonly used in dominant (white) society, so that white students have an advantage simply by virtue of growing up around white people.
Otherresearch has demonstrated a clear correlation between family income and SAT scores, with students from wealthier families scoring higher. This is generally attributed to test preparation, which makes a demonstrable difference in test scores but can be out of reach of low-income families. Students from high-income families also typically have access to better educational opportunities, including better-financed public schools, not to mention private schools or expensive extracurricular educational experiences.
Why has it taken American colleges—many of which are just now dropping standardized test scores as an admissions requirement—so long to get the memo?
Imagine if, instead—as historian Ibram X. Kendi has put it—“we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment: how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and nonverbal vocabularies of their everyday life? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we measured intellect by how open an individual’s mind is to self-critique and new ideas?”