Saturday, August 19, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A History Lesson

There are two aspects to how we understand history.

One is history’s facts, especially those facts which can be
established by physical evidence such as photographs, tapes,
and recordings, films and videos, and written evidence. Most
of history beginning in the second half of the 19th century
can be so supported. Before that, physical evidence is usually
partial or incomplete. First-hand accounts are often very
helpful, but sometimes they are incomplete or biased.

The second aspect of how we view and understand history
comes from the interpretation of history’s facts, either
contemporaneous or, as is often the case, by historians and
other interpreters after the facts --- sometimes long after the
events.

The U.S. Civil war was one of the world’s earliest heavily
recorded events --- this due to the then recent availability of
photography and the telegraph.

The nation today is currently going through an orgy of trying
to reinterpret history --- despite overwhelming evidence and
facts that rebuke efforts to manipulate public opinion, primarily
through an uncritical media and mob tactics.

I will address here just one case in point.

Robert E. Lee was a career U.S. army officer who distinguished
himself over decades of service in early U.S. armed conflicts.
There is no dispute about this. In early 1861, with civil war
looming, the elderly Winfield Scott, then the top commander of
the U.S. army, told President Abraham Lincoln that he wished
that Robert E. Lee, a 32-year veteran of the army and former
superintendent of West Point (from which he had earlier
graduated second in his class), to take command of the Union
army. In March, Mr. Lee accepted the rank of colonel. He then
ignored offers of a command from Confederate officials in the
states that had already seceded.  Colonel Lee’s views opposing
secession were widely known. On April 18, Lincoln offered Lee
command of the Union army. On April 21, Virginia, Lee’s home
state, seceded from the Union, and Lee declined Lincoln’s offer,
saying that his highest loyalty was to his home state of Virginia.
He soon accepted a role as advisor to the new president of the
Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and in 1862, he was made
commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, a post
he held until his surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at
Appomattox in April, 1865.

During the Civil War, General Lee distinguished himself in
numerous battles and campaigns, although he made some major
mistakes and lost some major battles. He is generally regarded by
most military historians as an illustrious commander, although he
fought for a losing cause. During and after the Civil War, he was
the most admired man in the South.

His father, General Henry “Lighhorse” Lee had been one of the
heroes of the U.S. Revolutionary War.

His father-in-law owned slaves on their Virginia estate before the
Civil War, but late in life decided to set his slaves free. When he
died in 1858, his family (including Robert E. Lee) decided to honor
his request to set all of the family slaves free in five year’s time. In
a letter to the New York Times that year, Lee confirmed his and the
family decision to set the slaves free in 1863. There is a controversy
about the timing of this emancipation --- some say that on his death
bed, Lee’s father-in-law said the slaves should be set free
immediately. Lee said this wasn’t true.

Robert E. Lee personally opposed slavery, and letters to his wife
written before the Civil War, attest to this. On the other hand, he
did not ever publicly denounce slavery, as several prominent
southerners did do. In the end, of course, he took the side of those
who wanted to preserve this human evil.

Because he did fight for the South, which was considered at that
time an illegal and treasonous act, many then considered Lee a
traitor. Many do so today, although others contend that he was
guided by his stated principle that he was first a Virginian.
The Civil War settled that question once and for all, but in 1861
there were many Americans, citing states rights in the U.S.
constitution, who felt that state identity was equal to or higher
than federal identity. (The only reason he was not hanged as a
traitor, however, was because of the magnanimity of President
Lincoln and General Grant. He then lived in declining health as
the head of a small Virginia college, and died at age 63 in 1870.)

Those are the facts.

Robert E. Lee was wrong about the greatest issue of his day. 
His failure to publicly renounce slavery, though he personally
opposed it, was also a wrong choice. Moreover, his failure to
emancipate his father-in-law's slaves (of which he was now
part-owner) was by today’s standards a mistake --- and I will go
further --- even by the standards of his own time, inexcusable.

Like virtually every prominent figure in history, Robert E. Lee
was a flawed individual. His flaws, I think, also led to the tragedy
of a life that appeared headed to greatness --- and almost surely
would have concluded in greatness if he had accepted President
Lincoln’s offer. Instead, he died ultimately in failure.

However, to suggest that Robert E. Lee was not a great general,
and not adored by troops, and not an iconic figure of that tragic
national occasion known as the U.S. Civil War, is simply an effort
to erase history.

Those persons, for example, who deny the Nazi Holocaust of
World War II, or those who deny the barbarity of Soviet dictator
Josef Stalin, also want to erase history.

History cannot be erased without dangerous consequences.

Whether or not there should be statues of Confederate figures,
or other memorials through the use of their names, is a question
to be decided by the community where they exist. The idea that
small, unelected and extremist mobs (and egged on by some
in the media) should determine what we can remember is
unacceptable in our Republic, and no matter if one is a Democrat,
a Republican, an independent a liberal a conservative or a centrist,
any American should be offended when a mob, on the far right or
the far left, presumes to take away our rights and freedom.

Robert E. Lee is no hero of mine. He fought for the wrong cause,
and he shared in the responsibility of the deaths of thousands of
his countrymen. My heroes in the Civil War were Mr. Lincoln and
Mr. Grant. They, too, had flaws; they, too, shared the burdens of
responsibility, but they chose the right principle.

We should remember that when making judgments about our
own leaders.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Mitch McConnell Is Right About Being Wrong

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely correct
when he says that President Donald Trump does not
understand how the U.S. senate works. The problem for the
top GOP senator is that the way the U.S. senate works in the
past decade (under the leadership of both parties, it must be
noted) is not to do its work. The record of the senate, and of
the whole Congress, is almost entirely about stalemate and
inaction in the face of  so many very clear and present
national problems.

The U.S. senate has a strong tradition of not being the U.S.
house of representatives, the”people’s representatives” in
a body that number 435, and are elected from individual
districts across the nation. From 1789 to 1913, many
senators were not even popularly elected, but appointed by
the individual states. Their number is only 100, and their
terms are three times longer than U.S. house members. The
nation’s founders intended the senate to act as a check on
the “people’s” house, and so it has mostly (but not always)
functioned for two centuries. Over that time, the senate
adopted a myriad of rules which initially functioned as
intended, but over the years have become arcane obstacles to
the functions of the legislative branch, especially when one
party does not have a very large majority.

Both parties have taken advantage of these rules, but it was
then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who
exploited their technicalities so as to bring the work of the
senate effectively to a halt after Republicans retook control of
the U.S. house in 2010. He constrained debate on proposed
laws, and made it almost impossible to make amendments
he opposed. When Republicans regained control of the senate
in 2014, and kept control of the house, they faced certain vetoes
from the Democratic president.

In 2016, Republicans not only kept control of the Congress, they
won back the White House. To attract voters, they made certain
promises to repeal Obamacare, replace it, and pass legislation
concerning major issues of tax reform, renewing infrastructure,
immigration, restoring our military defense and education to
name a few.

Except for a much-needed overhaul of how the nation treats its
veterans, very little has been done that requires congressional
action (the veterans reform was bipartisan).

The U.S. house, after initially faltering, did pass Obamacare
repeal with modest replacement. The senate has now failed
twice to do even that. We are also told that there are not enough
GOP votes to pass tax reform, much less deal with the budget.
A single senator can prevent a presidential nomination to the
federal judiciary from even coming to a vote. No, longer valid
rules exist that can hold up presidential appointments almost
indefinitely.

To be fair, Republicans often did this to President Obama,
especially later in his second term.

That, it seems, is how Washington works.

Mitch McConnell is an honorable and able man, and usually
agrees with President Trump on what should be done. He did
almost pass Obamacare in the senate, but was thwarted by one
last-minute grandstanding vote change.

Donald Trump was elected, however, to shake up the stalemate
in the nation’s capital, and apparently he won’t take “no” for
an answer. Whether or not he “understands” how Washington
works is not the point. The point is that the voters want action
--- and if it is necessary to change how Washington works to
bring about action, THAT is the point. Mr. McConnell’s job, Mr.
Trump contends, is to make things  happen in the senate, not to
complain that the senate cannot do it because “it’s not how the
senate works.”

Some might not agree with what President Trump wants to do.
In fact, it is the duty of the opposition party to “oppose” when
it disagrees. Fair enough. But this issue is not about the
Democratic Party. It is about the Republican Party, the party
now in control of the federal government and most state
governments.

No more excuses. No more complaints, Mr. McConnell.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reerved.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Doing Division

It is by now a commonplace that the nation’s voters are
acutely divided on ideological lines. One party temporarily
controls the federal government and most of the state
governments, but the other party controls the largest cities
and most of the largest states. The party now in power is
considered the “conservative” party; the other party is
considered the “liberal” party.

This circumstance has occurred with some regularity in
our political history. At the very outset, there was a strong
difference between the views of Thomas Jefferson and
Alexander Hamilton --- although the first two major parties
did not appear formally for more than a decade. The divide
between North and South then festered until the Civil War.
In the depression years before World War II, the contrasting
political philosophies hardened, and during the Viet Nam
War and its aftermath, the major parties once again felt
a greater divide between them.

Of course, each political era has its own character and its
own issues.   In the national campaign of 2016, forces
within each party arose to attempt to direct public opinion
to new thinking on the populist left and the populist right.
The outcome of that election, following years of stalemate
under presidents of both parties signaled the genesis of a
political transition to directions which are not yet clear, but
the accompanying public discourse has seemed especially
bitter and polarizing, reverberating with an intensity
reminiscent of earlier periods in the 19th and 20th centuries
already mentioned.

The notion, however, that the nation and its voters are
somehow divided in an unprecedented way is simply a media
and academic fabrication. Polar opinions about presidents
and political parties is a permanent condition of American
public life. The names change, the issues change, but the
division goes on and on.

We hear today pompous assertions that the current president
is “unfit” to hold the office. The very same word and meaning
was used against such presidents as Andrew Jackson,
Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman,
Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Somehow, despite those ominous contemporary judgments,
the republic survived their tenures. Most of them, in fact, left
an indelible political mark.

Bipartisanship is usually a good thing, but it is always
provisional and limited. At key moments, bipartisanship might
be necessary to pass legislation or make social change, but it is
always followed by a resumption of the timeless political
arguments which run through the history of any democratic
republic --- and especially ours.

We should not be fearful of admitting to, or participating in,
differences of opinion, political arguments, and divided
partisanship. They are as natural as breathing; they are the
aspiration and respiration of freedom.

It’s time to stop being obsessed with the mere fact that we
have disagreements. Instead it’s time to use our debates to
solve our problems, meet our challenges, and adapt to the
remarkable changes taking place all around us.

Vive les differences!

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 4, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: What Does The Party Switch By The West Virginia Governor Mean?

The announcement by Democratic West Virginia Governor
Jim Justice that he is now a Republican does not likely
portend a sudden series of prominent party switches, but
it does tell us something about the contemporary U.S.
political environment.

First of all, party switches are quite rare, and usually, when
they do occur, they are responses to very local circumstances.
West Virginia in the past decade has gone from being a
reliably liberal Democratic state to being a conservative one.
Except for Mr. Justice and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, there
were no other truly prominent Democrats holding office in the
state. Mr. Manchin, it should be noted, is probably the most
conservative Democrat in the U.S. senate, and has frequently
himself been mentioned as someone who could switch
parties.

Liberal Democratic Party policies precipitated West Virginia
political transformation from a blue state to a red state.
The Obama administration effort to replace coal and coal
mining was the most obvious factor in this coal mining
state, but a whole range of social and economic liberal issues
contributed as well. West Virginia was an early warning sign
of this trend which climaxed in the upset election of Donald
Trump in 2016 when he swept most of the hitherto Democratic
rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and
Wisconsin.

But GOP gains in urban rust belt areas, and rural areas,
were offset by Democratic gains in the urban coastal areas
and states. Just as Senator Manchin and his Democratic
colleague North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp serve as
conservatives mavericks in otherwise Republican states,
Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins serves as probably
the most liberal GOP in the senate, and along with Senator
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, often fails to vote with the GOP
majority on key issues.

Although it was not crucial to the presidential election,
there was a larger Democratic than Republican popular vote
in 2016.

It is not just that the nation has been divided politically; the
evidence from West Virginia is that this division will continue.

Not only that, but President Trump’s base is holding, even as
his political problems and challenges mount. Governor
Justice would not have made his announcement at a Trump
rally if that were not the case.

That does not mean this circumstance cannot change. Mr.
Trump obviously has repair work to do at the White House,
and both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential
election are ahead. But, as I have pointed out repeatedly,
writing off this president has so far been just wrong. The
primary reason, as I have also suggested, is that Mr. Trump
(notwithstanding his foibles) is also the agent for a major
political transformation that is slowly but persistently taking
place.

Governor Justice’s party switch in West Virginia was his
recognition of this political fact on the ground.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Would This be A Brilliant Move By President Trump?

We now live in a time when almost anything is possible in
the imagination of journalists. As someone whose
undergraduate university degree was in creative writing
(with honors no less), I don’t want to be left out of this new
media sport.

So I have come up, during lunch with a friend, with an idea
that, as far as I know, no one else has publicly suggested (I
would stand corrected if I’m wrong about that).

Since good writing often has some ambiguity, I’ll let the
reader decide how serious I am about this.

Here is my idea:

In the face of published reports that Jane Sanders, wife of
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (and very serious 2016
Democratic presidential candidate), is being investigated by
the FBI for her actions as president of Burlington College in
Vermont circa 2010, I suggest that President Donald Trump
pardon Mrs. Sanders before any investigation goes any further.
Inasmuch as Senator Sanders himself could be involved in this
matter, President Trump could pardon Bernie as well.

This would, of course, end any further investigations in this
matter. Since everyone is innocent until proven otherwise, and
no indictments have been made, I want to make it clear that I
am not suggesting that either Senator or Mrs. Sanders are
guilty of anything, But an FBI investigation does indicate that
something is awry, especially after the media reports it. Just
look at all the investigations and allegations about Mr. Trump
and his family --- without yet any hard evidence of wrongdoing.

President Trump, after pardoning Jane Sanders (and Bernie)
would hailed for his political magnanimity, and his popularity
among the populist left wing of the Democratic Party could
soar (although his favorability in his own party might take a
hit).

Oh well, there is always a trade-off in politics when you take
a bold action.

It would have the effect of enabling Mr. Sanders to freely
pursue the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, an
outcome GOP strategists might favor. It might also have the
effect of totally confusing the massive effort of the establishment
media to ruin Mr. Trump’s presidency.

I say, Mr. President, go for it.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.