Friday, September 27, 2019

As The Clock Ticks


My next column in The Everett Herald. Things are happening so fast it's nearly impossible to keep up, much less condense it into a weekly column. So, apologies for a jumbled mess:
Remember when Republicans screamed about abuse of power because President Barack Obama’s IRS was making its legally-required determinations of non-profits’ legitimacy? And they mostly turned down liberal ones? Such innocent times. Remembering nostalgia can be painful.  
But now it’s serious. Trump’s childish name calling? Ho hum. Lying all the time? Goes in one ear… Hiring then firing unethical incompetents, not to mention people who won’t kow to his tow? Common as breathing. But the last couple of weeks have been exceptional, even for Trump. Anyone who sees what he’s doing and doesn’t care or, worse, defends it, is complicit in the destruction of constitutional governance. We’re no longer approaching autocratic abuse of power: it’s upon us. In the era of Trump, things that go without saying need saying, over and over; even to people plugging their ears. 
Separation of powers and checks and balances, especially oversight of the executive by Congress, is fundamental to our form of government. It’s not magic, though. It requires willingness of representatives and citizens to buy in. Traffic lights are meaningless if everyone ignores them. (An increasing problem in these parts, but I digress.) 
Those who watched Trump’s campaign manager Lewandowsky’s non-testimony saw an arrogant, condescending, disrespectful creep, who’d not have answered questions whether or not he’d been ordered to stay mum. But there are other witnesses to Trump’s malefactions. Trump and his consigliere Mr. Barr are silencing those people, too; every one of them. Under such conditions, checks bounce. 
The oversight dereliction by national Republicans, and, till now, aimless tut-tutting by Democratic leadership, was not, presumably, what our founders had in mind. They believed they’d built safeguards to prevent exactly the sort of executive overreach we’re seeing from Trump; and they assumed elected officials would commit to protecting the republic. They had put country above personal advantage, so they believed future generations would, too. How wrong they were.  
Which brings us to the roiling whistleblower/Ukraine mess, about which, as details ooze out, we already know enough to recognize behavior grievously inconsistent with original intent.  
If on nothing else, can Republicans agree that an open, democratic society must encourage and protect people willing to call out dangerous and/or illegal governmental actions? That a system allowing fair evaluation of their allegations is vital, and that efforts to prevent it, especially by an accused president, are dangerous? Before taking a position, perhaps Trumpists could pretend we’re talking about Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama. It’s a useful exercise.  
Because Trump has never denied doing things which later were proved true and because we know he’d immediately quash foreign intervention in our elections, Republicans are confident … oh, wait. A conversation was confirmed. Then we learned someone heard something in that conversation which they found alarming; and we know the Inspector General of intelligence operations deemed it a “credible” and “urgent” threat to national security. 
Trump denied pressuring Zelensky to investigate (a fake scandal involving) Joe Biden by withholding US taxpayer funds designated for military aid, although another Ukrainian official, Anton Geraschenko, has confirmed it, and their foreign minister has said they were “totally surprised” when the money was withheld. 
Now there’s a five-page “memorandum” of the thirty-minute call, full of smarmy flattery of Trump, touted as showing no offer of a quid pro quo. There are several intriguing ellipses in the pages, however, and a bit of “nice little country you’ve got there. Be a shame…” Trump now admits withholding those funds. They were released right after the lid blew off. 
Most recently, the actual complaint was released, with, of course, redactions. And, predictable as rain, Trump has called the people involved traitors, with not-so-veiled threats. So far, Republican leaders haven’t called him on it.  
Some combination of Trump, his osculating Attorney General, and “acting” DNI Maguire ordered Inspector General Atkinson to stonewall. Giuliani said it was “the State Department” that asked him to contact Zelensky; the “transcript” shows it was Trump, with AG Barr in the mix. Barr and Pompeo soliciting foreign influence on Trump’s behalf? The IRS “scandal” pales.  
Trump encouraged a foreign government to seek dirt on his political opponent, directly and using departments of justice and state. One would hope for an Inspector General having integrity to report fully, even risking charges. It’s that important. 
There isn’t a Republican anywhere who wouldn’t be screaming for impeachment if this were President Barack Obama, and they know it. Their silence now says everything. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Dear Leader

My next column in The Everett Herald:
First time North Korea’s Kim bowled, he rolled three-hundred. He walked at three weeks old and talked at eight. Golfing for the first time, he got eleven holes-in-one and scored thirty-eight under par. He was born under a double rainbow, at which point a new star appeared in the sky. Also, he invented the hamburger.  
The preceding are claims by North Korea about leaders named Kim. Defectors say citizens believe them. 
Hurricane Dorian was heading straight for Alabama. Climate change is a hoax. Trump’s is “the most pro-science administration, ever.” Democrats will turn America into Venezuela. Trump engineered the biggest economic turnaround in history. Ivanka got her “moral compass” from her father. 
Okay, that last one is obviously true.  
Also, Donald invented the Sharpie.  
Unlike North Koreans, Americans can access real news (which, Kim-like, Trump and Trumpists prefer to call “fake”) and multiple sources by which to evaluate it. Truth, even when denied by our current government and misrepresented by its media mouthpieces, is still obtainable by those wishing to know it. There is, therefore, no reason for a “Dear Leader” cult to exist here. But it does. Cut off from the world, Kim’s believers may be excused for their sad credulity. Not Trump’s. 
For example: when not ignoring it entirely, they dismiss the Dorian/Alabama debacle as amusing. It’s not. Because of what happened after Trump’s baseless tweet, it’s portentously illuminating. His claim that Alabama was in the hurricane’s path needed redress, lest Alabamians take unnecessary, costly actions, including panic. 
Having made a mistake, normal people would admit and correct it. Trump, being Trump, did the opposite. Insisting he was right, Dear Leader clumsily altered an official weather map, and, confident in the slavish loyalty of his excusers, didn’t even bother to make it look convincing. (Or is he so delusional that he thought it was?)  
It’s Trump, so there’s more. Attacking the National Weather Service for its much-needed, factual correction, he threatened their jobs, via the inexcusable Wilbur Ross. Caving, in an unsigned statement, NOAA’s leadership submissively chastised the people who’d issued the corrective. At least it didn’t overtly claim Trump was right; only that, duh, one can’t be one-hundred-percent sure of weather projections. He could have said Dorian would bowl a three-hundred game, in other words, and who’s to say? 
A “president” successfully bullied scientists for political gain: even today’s Republicans ought to recognize the danger. If they were still conservative, they would.  
So fearful are Trump’s swamp-dwellers of resisting his derangements, they pressured international agencies dealing with migration to scrub mention of climate change as a factor. This week, because liberals are serious about climate change, he revoked California’s authority to set its own automobile emissions standards. Why aren’t states-rights, anti-authoritarian “conservatives” outraged? It won’t always be California. 
Other than Trump, whose shaky self-esteem is threatened by President Barack Obama, who benefits from deregulating drinking water? Was he joking when he justified re-enabling energy-gobbling incandescent light because he likes the way it makes him look? 
Responding to the attack on Saudi oil fields, he announced we’re “locked and loaded,” waiting only for Saudi Arabia’s murderous leader to tell us “under what terms we would proceed.” Great. Now Trump takes orders from MBS. Then, after Putin told him to cool it, he said it wasn’t really a threat. 
But Trump stands up to dictators and would never lie us into war. Nor is his unilateral withdrawal from the Iran agreement responsible for Iran’s escalations. Also, Kim is so perfect, he neither defecates nor urinates (actual assertion). 
Too insecure to do otherwise, Trump lies rather than admit a mistake. His flammable vengefulness makes his surroundees afraid to contradict him. Now it appears his acting DNI is suppressing a whistle-blower complaint about his actions, deemed credible and urgent by the department’s Inspector General. These capitulations to a dangerously disordered leader should disturb everyone who understands what has, until now, kept America great. 
Whatever Trump does to intimidate these people, it’s turned 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into North Korea West. But what explains Trump’s cultists outside the Beltway? Perhaps it isn’t swampy cowardice, but a manifestation of the easily-exploitable human weakness that, throughout history, has led people to deify demagogues who blame others for their problems. Might they yet look inward and disenthrall themselves? It’d save them and us, but that’s not how cults work. 
Trump kept his no-golfing promise, though. He was already acing every hole.  
[Image source]

Friday, September 13, 2019

My Pal, Cal

My next column in The Everett Herald.
Last month I got an email from an old friend. Its subject was “My plans.”  
Fresh out of residency, I met him when I arrived in Oregon to begin my surgical career. Also a surgeon in town and, therefore, a future competitor, he and his wife nevertheless welcomed me and my wife, invited us to dinner, after which, as easily as if we’d known each other forever, we became pals, the four of us. Laughed, dined, traveled. Had sleepovers, even. 
Judy and I moved to Everett thirty-seven years ago, but we’ve stayed in frequent touch, they visiting here and we there. We attended each of their children’s weddings. Our scheduled trip together to the Oregon coast last winter was scrapped after his wife got into a terrible auto accident. Her recovery was arduous.  
Eleven years older than me, he’d attended college at the arch-rival of mine. The first intercollegiate baseball game, in 1859, was between our two schools. “We” won, 73 – 32. Referred to as “The biggest little game in America,” the football rivalry is the oldest in Division III, fourth-oldest in the US. He captained lacrosse; I played rugby. We were in the same fraternity in our respective schools, laughingly shared the ridiculously complex, secret handshake. We both served as military doctors; he outranked and outlasted me. 
The email arrived on a Thursday. The plan to which its title referred was suicide. Saturday.  
In my surgical practice, I’ve dealt with death, in and out of the OR. On a couple of occasions, I’d been the one to turn off a ventilator; have counseled families when the inevitable was approaching. And I watched the grim, relentless decline of my mother and grandmother as their vibrant humanity was cruelly peeled away, layer by layer, by Alzheimer’s Disease. Along with my family, I sat beside my dad as he died; was with my cousin when her mom breathed her last. 
I’ve told myself that if I knew I was heading to the final station, especially with dementia, I’d jump off the train before it got there. Until now, though, the idea of assisted suicide had been an abstraction. Suddenly, it was immediate, and I had thoughts. Like, what would he (anyone) be thinking at the moment of drinking the potion?  
Next evening, as in better times, we talked on the phone. He sounded good, relaxed. We recalled the fun we’d had, I told him how grateful I was for his friendship, how important it’d had been for me, the young guy, to work with him in the operating room on those rare occasions when it happened. How sorry I was it had come to this, that I respected his decision and considered it courageous. Asked how his wife was doing, he said, “She’s fine. Looking forward to it.” Typical.  
“It’s been a wonderful week,” he said. “Each day, family was here, with tears and laughter. It’s like I got to attend my memorial service. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it this way.” He wrote his own obituary.  
Debilitated and disabled with unrelenting back pain, dependent on supplemental oxygen because of progressive, untreatable lung disease, he’d become unable to get out of bed. Until his intractable spine made it impossible, he, a lover of golf, had a dream job after retiring, traveling the Northwest reviewing golf courses for a magazine.  Now, bedridden and air-hungry even on oxygen, frustration and humiliation were constant. His pain medicines made him feel unlike himself. In hospice care for months, he was tired. And ready. 
On Saturday evening, he and his wife in Oregon, we here, all we could do was drink a toast, and, with sadness and smiles, honor him.  
Last week we had lunch with his wife. He’d waited till the afternoon, she told us, in order to see the kids of friends play their consolation game in the Little League World Series. They watched part of “Forrest Gump.” Prior to the final cocktail, he took two prescribed pills. When he felt he was getting sleepy, his wife mixed the drink, per protocol, handed it to her husband, and climbed into bed next to him. 
As she snuggled into his shoulder, he said “I love you.” Not long after, he stopped breathing. She waited for a while, she said, to be sure. I wondered how she decided it was time to get up, and what it felt like when she did. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Make It Go Away

My next column in The Everett Herald:
Concerned for fellow Americans, I was relieved to see people lining the shores of Florida, praying Hurricane Dorian away. It seems their god or gods (the photo didn’t specify) heard the prayers and changed his/her/their/its mind/minds. Kept the worst of the storm hovering over the Bahamas, where it seems to have killed or ruined the lives of mostly black people. So, thanks. Good job.  
I wish I had the power to get God to rethink His plans, too. I’m not sure how many congregated down there, but I doubt I could gather much of a crowd. Plus, I’m pretty sure any god that put Trump in office wouldn’t be interested in hearing from me. “How dareth you assume I have no plan,” He’d say. “Or that I wouldst change it for such as you? Only my children who loveth Trump as do they Me may so beseech. Also, why all your caring for the needy?” Is my guess.  
But as long as we’re speculating about what God wants, the true, exclusive understanding of which is given only to Trumpists, I found it enlightening to have been informed by Tony Perkins, among Trump’s most ardent Evangelical supporters, that teaching evolution is what’s causing America’s mass murders. (By consensus of his similars, hurricanes are on gays.) He seemed stumped when asked why countries with far fewer believers than ours, or those whose people believe in different gods and theories of how we got here, don’t have mass murders. 
But he’s not the only one who’s borne that witness. As a biology major, learning more and more about the evidence for evolution and the inherent beauty of how it works, I couldn’t wait to start killing people. The science lab had a stock of loaner ARs, as I recall. It was a while ago; I might be misremembering.  
Weirdly, the Pope isn’t an evolution-denier. But how could the view from the throne first occupied by Saint Peter be as clear as that of Mr. Perkins, et. al? Ex-cathedra, shmex-cathedra, right? If he doesn’t get stuck in an elevator again, maybe Papa Francesco will defend his love of science in an upcoming balcony appearance. 
But I don’t need his blessing to affirm that medical school was a constant stream of amazements, as the beauty and intricate secrets of the human body were revealed. No less than staring at the heavens, it imparted a daily sense of wonder. If conditions in our tiny corner of the universe happened to be perfect for the sparking and evolution of life, why should that negate belief? Why the fear of teaching what’s more of a miracle than many that are claimed? 
If there’s a creator, I figured, he/she/it’s brilliant, if careless. I could ignore the problem of how something as complex as a creator could exist without a creator, just as I could make myself not dwell on all the imperfections that seem to have slipped by. I was learning to repair many of them, after all. Such enlightenment made me grateful and satisfied to be here, now; in the demonstrable, interconnected beauty of it, I found wonderment enough. 
There’s spiritual delight in that, which can be experienced by people of any belief or lack thereof. Arguing to keep that joy of discovery from our children, thinking one’s particular belief-choice, or preferred translation among many, of one book among many, is superior to all others, and to demand universal acceptance at the expense of knowledge, is born of arrogance and fear. Plus, as we just saw, it seems to lead people to pray, wittingly or not, for harm to others rather than themselves. 
Whatever happened to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?” If Tony Perkins and Donald Trump are exemplars of justice, mercy, and humility, it’s hard to see how teaching their professed beliefs would end mass murder. Besides, Trump’s is transparently phony, and who knows what Perkins is really about? 
For years, climate scientists have been predicting increasingly powerful hurricanes. Trump said he’d never heard of Category 5 till now, though during his reign of error there’ve been four others. When not golfing, he kept warning Alabama, even after the NWS corrected him. Then, pure Trump, unable to admit error, he altered their map with a Sharpie. Breathtaking, even for him.  
“Presidential” ignorance. Pray away hurricanes. Stop teaching evolution. Excuses for doing nothing, when times demand the opposite.
[Image source]

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