Getting Human Rights Wrong

Last week, America’s foreign policy shifted in a startling way. Our nation went from home of the free and the brave, to a potential Airbnb stay for oppressive dictators. Donald Trump is courting foreign leaders who have been likened to Hannibal Lector, and is opening the floodgates to negative possibilities by meeting one of the world champs of human right’s violations.

To the uninformed, inviting Rodrigo Duterte to the White House doesn’t seem that extreme or worrisome – foreign leaders are called to Washington on a regular basis. It’s common, expected diplomatic behavior. That this head of state, specifically, was invited is alarming, because a quick Google search turns up a number of 7,000 civilians killed due to his war on drugs in the Philippines (as of March 2017). Other evidence of his disregard for human rights can be found in additional returned searches. Legal experts assert that if Duterte were not President of the Philippines, he wouldn’t be allowed into the U.S due to these violations. But these are not normal times. There are certain similarities between Duterte and Donald Trump. The current egoist occupying the Oval Office would apparently love the opportunity to speak to himself through a fun-house mirror.

Combine Trump’s curious condoning of Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, with the recent designation of Kim Jong-Un as a “Smart Cookie.” Add in his ongoing obsession with Russia’s Vladmir Putin, and we’re looking at a bleak future for human rights. This is a president easily swayed by flattery who quickly absorbs problematic ideas. He shouldn’t be left alone unsupervised. All three of these foreign powers (The Philippines, North Kora, Russia) sit high on the Human Rights Watch violations list, with regressive policies against free speech and mounting (state controlled and sponsored) paranoia of the west, specifically the United States.

The truly terrifying take away from a potential visit with Duterte isn’t what could happen in the future, should The Donald develop a strong relationship with the leader. The real horrors are the shades of dictatorial political systems and regimes that have already infiltrated America. There are more examples than space in this column to provide, but you don’t have to look far to see escalated aggression against any group defined as “other” (read: non-white, poor, homosexual, religion other than Christianity). The divisive rhetoric from world leaders such as Duterte, Putin, Jong-Un and Trump creates a muscled environment for hateful propaganda to flourish. It encourages divisive hostility, supporting an “us vs them” narrative (looking at you, Breitbart, with your glowing “special report” of the first 100 Days of the Trump disaster) that  supporters embrace.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order (his 35th in just over 100 days in office- this list summarizes the first 29 and six more have been produced since) promoting “religious freedom,” which allows tax-exempt churches to advocate for and endorse political entities. This is another dangerous muddling of the lines between separation of church and state (The Constitution only mentions Congress in Amendment I). Many readers (myself included) interpret this as a blank check, allowing Indianans to refuse to bake me a cake if I decide to tie the knot. We all know how that turns out.

That’s just one tame example of authoritarian, dogmatic creepage. But right now, we have a President who’s achieved his definition of “winning” almost entirely through executive orders. He’s resentful of the press (no-showing at the Annual Correspondents Dinner) and prefers to create “alternative facts” while decrying reason and established journalism as “fake news.” We’re looking at the early stages of a dictatorship with a self-generating propaganda machine. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the arrest for laughing during confirmed racist’s Jeff Session’s Confirmation Hearing,  the same week that Alton Sterling’s highly publicized death resulted in no charges for the officers who shot him.

While all of these are technically separate events and occurrences, together they point to a narrowing notion of freedom in America – one where racism is rewarded, undue aggression is allowed a free pass if the victim isn’t a cisgendered white male, specific religious beliefs Trump (pun intended) others, and unrepentant murderers receive invites to the White House. The closing window of life and liberty also expanded last week to shut out the poor and unlucky further. The House passed a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, expanding the definition of pre-existing conditions to absurdly discriminatory levels (pregnancy is now apparently a pre-existing condition, whereas erectile dysfunction is not).

Detractors might say that coddling up to a man like Duterte could help promote a growing relationship with China. An increasingly hostile North Korea faced together and all that. I’m going to go however with a less is more approach. Given their records, Duterte and Trump should never be in a room together. America can’t risk it.

Polar Vortex Underscores Frozen Congressional Activity (January 23, 2014)

Deep Freeze Washington

Oh the weather outside is frightful this winter, and this year there are very few places to hide. Last weekend as I boarded a flight to Nashville, visions of 50-degree temperatures danced in my head. The normal January range in the Music City is between 28 and 47 degrees, infinitely more tolerable than the climate in my hometown of Chicago. Alas, I deplaned in a disappointingly similar environment, where the thermometer struggled to reach the freezing point. Mother Nature is bitter and unforgiving all over.

Maybe she’s taking her cues from the inert members of Congress, who at the close of 2013 dared to make us consider the possibility of action. Briefly scared straight by the public backlash over the fall’s disastrous and ill-reasoned government shutdown, intransigent Republicans in the Senate (and to a lesser degree, the House) suddenly seemed in the mood to get things done. This led to the production of a bipartisan budget agreement, followed by feckless House Speaker John Boehner’s better-late-than never repudiation of right wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which have egregiously encouraged GOP games of chicken over the last six years. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally found the political courage to change the broken chamber’s filibuster rules so that an enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments could begin to be cleared. It was a heady time when actual work once again seemed possible.

But the spirit of compromise didn’t last. Early into the New Year, thousands of long-term job seekers were cut off from sorely needed unemployment insurance benefits. No sooner did the holiday bills and winter’s cruelty roll in than the Republican Party doubled down on the suffering of the jobless. Despite the fact that respondents to a Fox News poll (!!!!) overwhelmingly favor the extension of benefits, to the tune of 69 percent, Congressional Republicans have continued to ignore the will of the people. Washington Post writer Aaron Blake rather charitably reports that “Congress is deadlocked over whether and how to continue funding unemployment insurance beyond that 26-week period.”

I would offer that there’s no deadlock about it. Democrats maintain some human empathy for the Great Recession-ravaged unemployed while Republican Party standard bearers like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul leverage pretzel logic to avoid helping that wretched 47 percent of “takers.” Paul famously said, “the longer you have it [unemployment insurance], that it provides some disincentive to work, and that there are many studies that indicate this.”

I am betting that these “many studies” were conducted by conservative research groups. As someone who has been on the layoff dole more than once in the course of a relatively short career, I can safely say that six months of roughly 30 percent the usual take home pay did not result in leisurely champagne and caviar consumption.

Only the party that brought us two budget and deficit busting wars, tax cuts and an unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit under the Bush II regime could have the absolute, unmitigated gall to demand fiscal responsibility when it comes to helping suffering workers. And naturally, the GOP has brushed aside numerous credible reports that extending the benefits actually creates jobs and saves the government money in the long run.

But let me not consume the entire column railing against Republican opposition to helping once hardworking Americans survive. As the great Gail Collins of The New York Times wrote today on her end of “The Conversation” with David Brooks: “to be honest, if the president told a reporter that he had great confidence this would be the year we’d see immigration reform, better gun control, tax reform and a hike in the minimum wage, I’d probably be less excited than worried about his mental health.”

Anyone who believed that late fall’s sudden flurry of activity would extend past the New Year, or counted upon the Republican obsession with opposition to die along with the party’s shutdown approval rating, is discovering that the polar vortex is both metaphorically and literally in charge.