Living in a collapsing democracy

The thing I did not expect was how helpless I would feel during the end of U.S. democracy. I read so many books and articles on what it is like living in a collapsing democracy, but I thought that since we all knew about how that worked now, we’d be able to stop it this time around.

I can’t stop it, and no one else seems to be able to either.

My last specific update on the growth of fascism in the U.S., back in January 2017, was a little hopeful. During the last year and a half, I was often encouraged and heartened by the role the courts played, opposing Trump’s various unconstitutional actions.

Then July 2018 happened.

After a series of horrifying Supreme Court decisions including upholding Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the supposedly moderate Justice Kennedy announced his retirement. The GOP made it abundantly clear they have been the party of power for power’s sake for at least a decade, maybe two, when they refused to authorize federal funding to improve election security while our voting systems are actively being attacked by Russia. Current polls show about a 75% chance the Democrats will take the House, and 25% that they’ll take the Senate – when the Democrats have +7 to +10 advantage on the generic ballot. The second largest political party in the U.S. and the one that currently controls all three branches of government is not just willing but eager to destroy our democracy as long as they can stay in power.

The most helpful book I read in this time is “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (short summary here). Short version: our only chance to retain a functioning democracy in the U.S. is for the Democrats to win the 2018 elections, both House and Senate (there’s a tiny chance a Republican senator or two will caucus with the Democrats to save U.S. democracy but I’m not holding my breath). All of the other routes—mass protests, general strikes, various forms of violence, any funny business around changing constitutions or votes or similar—will just end up with a strongman of one sort or another and the end of democracy in some other way.

The odds of U.S. democracy making it through the next year intact are low and dropping (33% seems optimistic to me). My personal decision is to work hard on winning the 2018 elections. I’ve already donated thousands of dollars to various swing elections, and I’m planning to do phone banking or other forms of volunteering for the same campaigns. I encourage others to do the same.

It seems awfully likely that the 2018 elections will be stolen one way or another, in addition to the already existing systemic biases in districting and representation that give the Democrats such an enormous disadvantage. The simplest way will be to use the technique that the Republicans are already using and that it appears Russia may have adopted as well: stop likely Democratic voters from voting, by purging the voter rolls, voter ID laws, or spreading lies and disinformation. I’ll be thrilled if the Democrats take the House and the Senate, but I am in no way planning on it.

During the rise of Nazi Germany, there was a period of time around 1933 or so when a lot of people who had studied history left Germany voluntarily, years before the really startling violence began. Hannah Arendt, author of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and “Origins of Totalitarianism,” among many other works, was one of them. In 1932, she was imprisoned by the Gestapo for eight days, and in 1933 she left Germany for Switzerland and later France. In 1937, Germany stripped her of citizenship. She escaped an internment camp in France in 1940 and came to the U.S. in 1941, spending a total of 13 years as a stateless Jewish refugee before being granted U.S. citizenship in 1950.

Right now, my best guess is that 2019 will be our 1933. My passport expires in 2019. I’m renewing it next week.

Yesterday’s joke protest sign just became today’s reality

Tomorrow I’m going to a protest against the forcible separation of immigrant children from their families. When I started thinking about what sign to make, I remembered my sign for the first Women’s March protest, the day after Trump took office in January 2017. It said: “Trump hates kids and puppies… for real!!!

trump_hates_puppies
My  protest sign for the 2017 Women’s March

While I expected a lot of terrifying things to happen over the next few years, I never, never thought that Trump would deliberately tear thousands of children away from their families and put them in concentration camps. I knew he hated children; I didn’t know he hated children (specifically, brown children) so much that he’d hold them hostage to force Congress to pass his racist legislation. I did not expect him and his party to try to sell cages full of weeping little boys as future gang members. I did not expect 55% of Republican voters to support splitting up families and putting them in camps. I’m smiling at the cute dog in that photo; now the entire concept of that sign seems impossibly naive and inappropriate, much less my expression in that photo. I apologize for this sign and my joking attitude.

I remember being terrified during the months between Trump’s election and his inauguration. I couldn’t sleep; I put together a go-bag; I bought three weeks worth of food and water and stored them in the closet. I read a dozen books on fascism and failed democracies. I even built a spreadsheet tracking signs of fascism so I’d know when to leave the country.

I came up with the concept of that sign as a way to increase people’s disgust for Trump; what kind of pathetic low-life creep hates kids AND puppies? But I still didn’t get how bad things truly were; I thought Trump hated kids in the sense that he didn’t want any of them around him and wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. I didn’t understand that he—and many people in his administration—took actual pleasure in knowing they were building camps full of crying, desperate, terrified kids who may never be reunited with their parents. In January 2017, I thought I understood the evil of this administration and of a significant percentage of the people in this country; actually, I way underestimated it.

At that protest, several people asked me if Trump really hated puppies, but not one person asked me if Trump really hated kids. In retrospect, this seems ominous, not funny.

I’m going to think very carefully before creating any more “joke” protest signs. Today’s “joke” could easily be tomorrow’s reality.

Repealing Obamacare will repeal my small business

I emailed this to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee today in response to the weekly Wall-of-Us email call-to-action, and thought it would fit on my blog as well.

Hello,

I am a small business owner with a pre-existing condition who can’t go without health insurance for even one month. The Affordable Care Act made my small business possible. If ACA is repealed or replaced, I will be forced to go out of business.

Two years ago, I started my own business, Frame Shift Consulting, teaching technology companies how to improve diversity and inclusion. I also have a genetic disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. If I take about ten prescription drugs every day, see several medical professionals regularly, and exercise carefully, I can live a semi-normal life and even work full-time if I don’t have to go to an office every day. Without access to prescription drugs and medical care, I would be unable to work full-time or even care for myself, and would have to go on disability, SSDI.

Before the Affordable Care Act, no health insurance company would sell me a policy on the individual market. My only option was to get a salaried job at a company large enough to offer health insurance to their employees. If I lost my job, I could buy one or two coverage options under COBRA or HIPAA, but I was always just one missed payment away from losing my access to health insurance at any price. (I once tried to apply for health insurance on the open market; after two questions about my medical history they told me I’d never get approved.) The ACA let me quit my job and start my own small business free from fear of losing my health insurance and becoming unable to work.

At my new small business, I am doing far more innovative and valuable work than I ever did for a big company. I love being my own boss, and the flexibility I have makes it far easier to cope with the bad days of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I love how high impact my work is, and that I am training other people to do the same work. I could never have done work that changed so many people’s lives for the better while working at any other company.

Every time I hear about a new bill to repeal or replace the ACA, I study it to see whether I would still be able to afford health insurance under the new system. So far, the answer has been a resounding no. Without the individual mandate, coverage for pre-existing conditions, price controls, and minimum coverage requirements that states can’t waive, no health insurance company offer me an individual policy at a price I can afford.

I’m one of the luckier ones; if the ACA is repealed or replaced and I lose my health insurance, I can probably get a salaried job at a big company with health insurance benefits. I don’t expect anyone to care about my personal satisfaction in doing work I love, or having the flexibility to stay home when my Ehlers-Danlos is acting up. But I do expect my elected representatives to care that a cutting edge, high-impact small business would go out of business if they passed Graham-Cassidy or any other repeal or replace bill. The ACA is good for business, good for innovation, and good for people. Instead of replacing it with an inferior system that would cover fewer people for more money, let’s work on improving the ACA and filling in the many gaps in its coverage.

Thank you for your time,

Valerie Aurora
Proud small business owner

What white supremacists don’t want you to know: the Paradox of Tolerance

Mural of a man's face holding his finger to his lips in a
CC BY-SA Luke McKernan

White supremacists are really, really hoping that you don’t keep reading this article. They don’t want you to learn about the Paradox of Tolerance, because then they’d lose a powerful weapon in their fight to make society more racist. Ready to make a white supremacist mad?

Fortunately for us, the Paradox of Tolerance is easy to understand and remember. The “paradox” part makes it sounds complicated and hard, but it’s really just a rule with one exception. It goes like this:

  1. A tolerant society should be tolerant by default,
  2. With one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance itself.

To give a specific example, a tolerant society should tolerate protest marches in general, but it shouldn’t tolerate a white supremacist march advocating for the oppression and killing of people of color – like the march in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 that ended with white supremacists beating and killing people who were opposed to their message of intolerance.

So that’s one form of tolerance: tolerance of everything except intolerance itself. But the version of tolerance that white supremacists really want you to believe is this one: you should not only tolerate their march to advocate removing human rights from people of color, but you, as a tolerant person, should even fight to protect their right to march – in the name of tolerance! The specific idea here is that a tolerant society should tolerate all intolerant speech – including protests, marches, and assemblies – as long as it falls short of the established legal limits of free speech in the United States (which are many and include incitement to violence, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, defamation, child pornography, etc.).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes in protecting intolerant speech right up to the U.S. legal limit. That’s why the local branch of the ACLU went to court to force the Charlottesville government to grant a permit for the march to take place in a location the white supremacists chose for its potential for intimidation and violence. The ACLU’s reasoning? People marching to increase tolerance (e.g., civil rights marches) could be blocked by intolerant local governments if intolerant people planned to attack them – which was a real problem during the civil rights era in the U.S.

What the ACLU discounted is that a white supremacist march differs from a civil rights march because allowing it to go forward would reduce free speech overall by intimidating and silencing people of color and their advocates. Our worst fears came true during this march: when a white supremacist protester killed Heather Heyer, he took away her right to speech (and life) forever. The Paradox of Tolerance acknowledges that some speech should not be protected precisely because allowing it to go forward promotes the destruction of the basis of free speech – in this case, it normalizes the idea that people of color should have fewer rights than white people. [Updated 2017-08-17: On August 16, 2017, three California branches of the ACLU issued a statement saying they believe armed white supremacist marches are not protected speech. Progress! Updated 2017-09-01: On August 21, 2017, the director of the ACLU said they would no longer defend marchers with firearms.]

To many people, the Paradox of Tolerance may seem like heresy! Especially if you’re a U.S. progressive, you’ve probably been taught your whole life that tolerance is paramount, free speech must be protected regardless of its content, and the ACLU is always on the right side of history. Yet your heart is crying out that the Charlottesville march was wrong, that it should have been prevented, and that it left our society less free and fair.

A light painting of a heart on a background of a wood at sunset
CC BY Oscar E.

Your heart is right. It’s the people teaching you that you must always tolerate intolerance who are wrong.

Here’s another way to think about the Paradox of Tolerance: a tolerant society must protect its own existence if tolerance is to exist in the world. If tolerating intolerance results in the destruction and disappearance of tolerant society, then that tolerant society has a right to self-protection – in the form of refusing to tolerate intolerance. The Paradox of Tolerance suggests that we should view advocacy of intolerance and persecution as a criminal behavior in and of itself. Many European countries do have specific laws making advocacy of white supremacy illegal, in contrast to the United States.

Consider World War II: The more intolerant fascist Axis powers wanted to destroy more tolerant societies completely, and the Allied powers had to fight back – be intolerant – in order for more tolerant societies to exist today. In fact, the Paradox of Tolerance was formulated and named in 1945, as World War II was winding down. The effects of fascism, including World War II, were much more devastating in many European countries, which may be one reason free speech laws in European countries tend to specifically outlaw marches by neo-Nazis and similar forms of pro-fascist speech, in line with the Paradox of Tolerance.

To be clear, the Paradox of Tolerance doesn’t imply that we should completely suppress or silence every single intolerant opinion. If expressing an intolerant opinion is unlikely to endanger the existence of a tolerant society, the more everyday forms of defense such as criticism, disgust, and natural consequences are a better way of protecting tolerance. It’s when society is favorable to bigoted and intolerant ideas – such as when an openly white supremacist president who was elected with 46% of the vote is using presidential power to enforce racist government policies in a country with a long record of white supremacy – that we should stop speech that threatens to tip our entire society into a vast increase in intolerance.

One more thing: we’re in no danger of impoverishing the “marketplace of ideas” – the majority of bigoted and intolerant opinions already get plenty of exposure. They are the opinions we have heard over and over again from people in power throughout history. We don’t need to fight to amplify the voices of the already powerful.

Your heart knows when unlimited tolerance is the wrong answer. Listen to your heart. And then memorize the Paradox of Tolerance, so your head and your heart can act in concert.

Thank you to several anonymous activists who contributed to this article.

Further reading:

Paradox of Tolerance in English Wikipedia
Introduction: Pluralistic and Multicultural Reexaminations of Tolerance/Toleration by John Zijiang Ding
Toleration in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper

Miss Marple investigates Trump/Russia

Miss Marple is an Agatha Christie character, a charming older English lady who investigates crimes while knitting and making amiable small talk. Miss Marple’s schtick is that she solves crimes by noticing similarities in the personalities of the people in the case and the people she knows in her tiny English town, and using that to figure out who committed the crime. A typical Miss Marple moment looks something like, “Well, you see, the look on his face reminded me of the butcher’s boy Pennyworth, who was let go after the butcher caught him substituting eye of round for sirloin, so I started looking for clues that he was the one who put the fake diamonds in the safe.” Case closed!

This morning I had a Miss Marple moment when I saw the photos of Donald Trump meeting with the foreign minister of Russia, mere hours after firing the man investigating his campaign for collusion with Russia. Some time ago, I worked with someone whom we will call Leslie (obviously not their real name). I often found myself confused when talking to Leslie, but for several months managed to rationalize whatever strange thing they had just said into something that made sense. Eventually, it became inescapably clear that they weren’t actually competent at their job. Their superiors went to work on getting them to leave the company with a minimum of damage to their mutual reputations.

At some point during this process, I realized that Leslie was so incompetent that no one could predict what action they would take. The company would head into a negotiation with Leslie and after several rounds of back and forth, Leslie would… ask for something that helped the company and hurt Leslie. ??? The company couldn’t make and stick to a plan of action because it couldn’t rely on Leslie to act in their own self-interest because Leslie couldn’t recognize what was in their own self-interest. The company had to improvise its way through what should have been a totally standard process of negotiating a resignation letter, final day, severance, etc.

Trump shaking hands with a Russian official reminds me of Leslie in that negotiation, and that makes me feel hopeful. Part of why I was terrified after the election is that, like many others, I was afraid that Trump (or his staff) merely seemed incompetent but was actually “playing eleven-dimensional chess” under the surface. Now it seems clear that Trump is incompetent in general, but good at some very specific skills (marketing, lying, and shameless opportunism, mainly). He was also supported by a hostile nation-state (Russia).

This collection of skills and support was good enough to get Trump elected, but probably won’t be good enough to keep him in office. In particular, if Russia has a plan to help Trump to become dictator for life, they can’t count on Trump acting in any predictable way and will constantly have to adjust and update their plan.

Similarly, my old co-worker also had the right skills to get the job, but not to hold on to it. It took determination and hard work by a lot of different people to get them out of the company, and it took longer than it would have if we’d been working with a more competent person, but in the end it worked out for the best. I feel hopeful that we will see the same thing with Trump and the majority of the U.S. government and people.

Of course, it’s a ridiculous to compare a billionaire president of the world’s most powerful country to some ordinary middle-of-the-road co-worker of mine. But that never stopped Miss Marple. Who am I to claim I’m better than a fictional detective?

HOWTO make easy readable protest signs

trump_hates_puppiesRumor has it that the remix of the Muslim ban is about to drop, and I’m betting a lot of you protesters want to get your march on this week. Here for your protesting enjoyment are three sign designs I’ve personally created and tested in the rain and wind of the San Francisco Bay Area: the Extremely Portable, the Reusable Whiteboard, and the Enormous Billboard.

But remember, the first rule of Protest Club is: You don’t need a sign to protest!!! You can just show up with your own bad self and that makes you a protester. Sometimes protests have more signs than people to hold them, so don’t feel weird about showing up empty-handed!

Caveats:

  • These designs are too expensive for some folks. I personally have more money than time, but you can substitute other materials if that works better for you.
  • San Francisco police don’t seem to consider sign poles as potential weapons but other police departments (notably the NYPD) do. Check your local ordinances and substitute cardboard tubes if necessary, or use the Extremely Portable sign design which doesn’t have a pole.
  • I include links to order stuff on Amazon, but some people are boycotting Amazon because it sells Trump-family related products. You can also buy the materials for MUCH CHEAPER at hardware stores, art supply stores, office supply stores, and big box retailers.

The Extremely Portable

portable_signIt used to be that many protests were planned weeks and months in advance, on a regularly spaced schedule. No more! Thanks to our exciting and unpredictable executive branch, we often have protests organized with just a few hours notice, several times a week. The modern protestor may wish to be equipped with a sign small and sleek enough to carry everywhere, in a purse or a laptop bag. San Francisco Bay Area tip: you can text “RESIST” to 41411 to get text notifications of local protests – you might even see me at one with this sign!

Materials:

Unfold the sunshade. Trace your message using the yardstick and pencil on the silver side, keeping in mind that you need thick letters if you want your sign to be readable from a distance. I suggest a fairly generic message, like “RESIST” or “Trump” with a ban symbol over it.

folded_signOnce you’re happy with your design, fill it in with marker. You’re done! Fold that sign up and keep it next to your laptop or in your purse or in your trunk or in your desk at work – anywhere you might suddenly learn of a protest and want to go join it.

The Reusable Whiteboard

whiteboard_actionMany protests have specific purposes, and my tiny apartment started filling up with out-of-date signs I couldn’t use again. I created this sign so I could have an on-point message at any protest without a lot of time or cost, and improve and update my sign as I got feedback during the protest.

Materials:

About 1/2 of the way from the bottom of the eraserboard, use the yardstick to find the center of the sign. Make a mark with your pencil about 3/8 inch on either side of the center (the distance between the marks should be about 60% of the width of your sign pole). Do this again but about an inch or two from the bottom of the sign. Do this in the same place for each eraserboard.

whiteboard_bottomThis sign has a problem with the wind catching between the eraserboards and ripping them loose, so we will use zip ties to attach the four corners of the marker board to each other. Repeat the marking process you just did but in each of the corners of the eraserboard: make two marks about an inch apart, aligned in a way so that the zip tie will interfere the least with your sign’s contents.

Once you have all your marks made, place the eraserboard over something that it will be okay if a nail comes through the eraserboard (cardboard, scrap wood, etc.). Place the nail on the pencil mark you just made and use the hammer to drive it through quickly. Do this for each of the marks on each eraserboard.

whiteboard_cornerNow take a minute to figure out how your zip ties work – which side has the nubbly bits, which way the tail goes, etc. Sacrifice a zip tie or two if necessary to be sure. Put one eraserboard face down on the floor, put the pole between the holes you just made, and put the other eraserboard on top, face up. Now thread a zip tie through the hole in one board, into the matching hole on the other board, and back through again, with the pole in the middle of the zip tie – but don’t tighten it yet. Do this for the second set of holes too. Now you can tighten the zip ties. Crank them down so the sign doesn’t slip or spin around, but be careful not to rip the eraserboard too much. Do the same for the holes in the 4 corners, though you don’t need to crank them so much – just enough that the edges of each eraserboard touch each other.

You are now done until you have a protest you want to go to. I often wait until I arrive at the protest to create my sign, bringing the markers and a paper towel to erase with (though I often just erase with my glove). I found that the standard dry erase markers are waterproof except for the black color, which washes off with water if you recently applied it. Don’t forget to erase your sign right after the protest – the longer the marker stays on the dry erase board, the harder it is to erase.

The Enormous Billboard

puppies_signThis design is visible from a long way away but heavy and relatively expensive. If you spend a few days workshopping your message, or investing in some quality art, reporters are more likely to talk to you and help you get your message out to a wider audience. Spend some time thinking about who your audience is, what your goal is, and how you can best reach them. (Yes, Trump does hate puppies.)

Materials:

billboard_signUse the yardstick and the pencil to trace out your message on the foamcore posterboard, drawing lightly so it is easy to erase major mistakes (don’t bother erasing all the pencil lines, no one can see them). Make your letters thick and easy to read from 30 feet away – on many signs, the letters are too thin to read. You can test readability by taking a photo of your sign on your phone and holding it at arm’s length: can you read it? Use as few words as possible. Once you are happy with the pencil tracing, fill in with the marker.

Do this for both posterboards – you will get tired of spinning your sign around so people can see your message from the opposite direction. If you put different signs on each side, you can A/B test which messages are the most effective (by counting how many people want to take photos of each side). (Note for painters: use acrylic paint and mix with a lot of non-translucent white such as titanium white.)

Close up of overlapping tape
Close up of overlapping tape
If you expect rain, cover the posterboard with clear packing tape, overlapping the strips by about 1/4 of an inch. Don’t be fussy about it, just tape quickly and avoid gaps between the tape. You don’t necessarily have to tape both sides.

Now you are ready to attach the posterboards to the wooden dowel – the pole. You are about to mark where the zip ties will go, so move them around so they fit between the words on your sign. About 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the posterboard, use the yardstick to find the center of the sign. Make a mark about 3/8 inch on either side of the center (the distance between the marks should be about 60% of the width of your sign pole). Do this again but about an inch or two from the bottom of the sign. Do this in the same place for each posterboard.

Place the posterboard over something that it will be okay if a nail comes through the posterboard (cardboard, scrap wood, etc.). Place the nail on the pencil mark you just made and use the hammer to drive it through quickly. Do this for each of the 4 marks on each posterboard.

Now take a minute to figure out how your zip ties work – which side has the nubbly bits, which way the tail goes, etc. Sacrifice a zip tie or two if necessary to be sure. Put one posterboard face down on the floor, put the pole between the holes you just made, and put the other posterboard on top, face up. Now thread a zip tie through the hole in one board, into the matching hole on the other board, and back through again, with the pole in the middle of the zip tie – but don’t tighten it yet. Do this for the second set of holes too. Now you can tighten the zip ties. Crank them down so the sign doesn’t slip or spin around, but be careful not to rip the posterboard too much.

nonslip_ziptieNow tape the sides of the posterboards together – this prevents the wind from snapping them around and ripping the holes the zip ties go through. All you need is a strip of packing tape around the top, bottom, and middle of the signs. If the sign tends to slide around on the pole too much, add two more zip ties on the pole just underneath the bottom zip tie that threads through the sign. It should stop it from sliding down, but still make it possible to pull the pole out of the sign if necessary.

That’s it! Happy protesting, whether or not you have a sign!

Yes, Trump does hate puppies

Yesterday, I marched in protests with a sign that reads “Trump hates kids and puppies… for real!!!” A lot of people asked me, “Does Trump really hate puppies?” (Funny, no one questioned that he hates kids.) The answer is, yes! Here is why:

  1. Trump is the first U.S. president in 150 years who does not have a pet.
  2. Trump frequently uses “like a dog” as an insult in bizarre and weird ways.
  3. Trump picked two supporters of puppy mills and opponents of the Humane Society to lead part of his transition team and be on a cabinet appointment short list.

Actually, that last one is even weirder than I could fit into a bullet point – the two people are Forrest Lucas and Brian Klippenstein, who are respectively the founder and executive director of the misleadingly named Protect the Harvest non-profit. As Mother Jones puts it, “Protect the Harvest seems to exist mainly to troll the Humane Society of the United States.” And yes, even Protect the Harvest’s own web site shows their support for puppy mills. Oh yeah, Forrest Lucas is… you guessed it, an oil millionaire.

This kind of creepy sadism seems to be a requirement to join Trump’s administration. Hating kids and puppies may seem like a small thing to some people, but it’s just one symptom of Trump’s overall governing philosophy. This sign makes people laugh, stop, and ask a question. They come away with a clearer understand of Trump’s inner hatred and complete lack of empathy. And that’s why I’m marching with this sign.

I hope to see you at the Women’s March in San Francisco today! And at many more protests to come!