July 1, 2020

Thoughts on the Department of Justice

The United States of America is a nation of law. Or so we were taught in school. We have a venerable Constitution that defines the overall structure of the Republic and a Congress and president that are responsible for enacting laws. We have a judicial system, including a Supreme Court, that interprets the law and relies on the body of laws and judicial opinions developed over more than two centuries.

Justitia by  Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556
Justitia by
Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556
These institutions and resources, though vitally important, underspecify how the country actually works. For example, the Constitution is silent about political parties, yet our two-party system of private entities has become a seemingly essential component of our governing system.

Additionally, American government adheres to many unwritten rules. Votes are countered honestly, at least most of the time. Presidential candidates disclose their medical and financial records before standing for election. Presidential nominees requiring Senate confirmation get a hearing and a vote by the Senate. Presidents, who occasionally are known to shade the truth, are not expected to lie more often than not. The Department of Justice administers federal laws fairly and without favoritism.

Donald Trump and his Republican allies have defied conventions that may not be enshrined in law but which are essential to the workings of the Republic. He refuses to disclose his tax returns and offers laughable excuses for medical information. He fires competent office-holders and replaces them with temporary lackeys. He lies to the public, often seemingly for the sheer sport of it.

Most distressingly, the convention of a Department of Justice enforcing the rule of law and representing the interests of the United States before the courts has been conspicuously violated. Under President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr has led a Department of Justice intent on protecting the president, his friends, and his personal interests. Readers can easily enumerate the myriad ways in which Mr. Barr has acted as the president’s fixer, rather than an advocate for the rule of law and for the interests of the United States.

One hopes that, in November, President Trump will fail in his re-election bid, and, in January, President Biden will fire Mr. Barr and nominate a more conventional Attorney General. We should ask what we can do to avoid ever having another Attorney General like William Barr.

Assuring the independence of the Department of Justice is difficult. Although it seems as though William Barr is doing everything the president wants him to do, it is not really clear that he is taking his orders from the chief executive. Mr. Barr seems to hold the view that the president can do just about anything, and his interests override those of everyone else and of the country generally. He never should have been confirmed by the Senate.

The view of the presidency held by William Barr is, happily, a minority one. One hopes that the Senate will, in the future, assure that no one with such an anti-democratic view will be approved as Attorney General. (Actually, senators had every reason to expect Mr. Barr to act as he has, despite his less than candid answers before the Senate.)

What is needed (and the best we can do) is a mechanism to assure that justice is administered fairly and without influence by the president.

Ideally, I think, the Department of Justice should become a fourth branch of government, headed by an Attorney General appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Attorney General should have a fixed term, perhaps of 10 years, and be removable for cause only through impeachment by the Congress. The advantages of this organization should be immediately apparent. Although this would be a logical arrangement, it is unlikely to be implemented, as doing so would require a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps a not-too-dissimilar organization would work nearly as well based on something like the Federal Reserve model. Presidents invariably try to influence the Federal Reserve, but usually without success. Of course, the Fed is protected from presidential influence in part because the president does not control who all the decision-makers are. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice could be restructured a largely autonomous body with a fixed-term leader insulated against arbitrary dismissal.

I  don’t have a fully worked-out plan for Justice, but I do think the above ideas should be given some consideration. The rule of law in the United States is under threat, and we need to do something about it.

Note: As it happens, today is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Justice. Most people assume Justice it is much older. Its beginnings and thoughts about its possible future are offered in a Washington Post editorial that can be read here.

June 28, 2020

A 51-Star Flag

I have long been ambivalent about giving statehood to the District of Columbia. Clearly, the District is “different” from the existing 50 states, but the same sort of argument was made against statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. Whereas the last two states added to the Union were non-contiguous with the rest of the country, D.C. is special in other ways. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution grants Congress the power to legislate for a district carved out from other states to be the seat of the government, a parcel “not exceeding ten Miles square.” (The actual area of the District of Columbia is just over 68 square miles, well under the 100 square mile stipulation of the Constitution.)

Residents of the District cannot vote for president and vice president, and they have neither senators nor voting representatives in the House. Yet, there are more than700,000 such souls, and they have long called for their being fully-enabled citizens of these United States. The population of the District exceeds that of Wyoming and Vermont. At this moment, when the country seems to be realizing that black lives do indeed matter, statehood has become especially pressing, as more than 45% of the residents of Washington are black. The Republican-led Senate will surely oppose statehood for the federal district, but a Democratic Senate, House, and White House, come 2021, almost certainly will enact it.

In fact, the House of Representatives passed a statehood bill, H.R. 51, on June 19. It would maintain a federal district mandated by the Constitution consisting only of federal buildings and monuments. The rest of the present District of Columbia would become Washington, Douglas Commonwealth, named for Frederick Douglass, the long-dead abolitionist whom Donald Trump opined has “done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.” (Douglas spent the last 17 years of his life, which ended in 1895, in Washington.) It is unclear how we will speak of the federal government should the District be given statehood. “Washington” will refer to the current District of Columbia less government property.  Will be speak instead of “D.C”? “Columbia” refers, of course, to Columbus, whose star has lost its luster of late, so I don’t know how long “District of Columbia” is viable in a woke U.S. Time will tell.

The proposed name is a bit odd, of course, but needs to be distinguished from the other Washington on the Pacific coast. The proposed state would not be alone in having a long name. Rhode Island is technically the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a name legislators are newly attempting to shorten. Whereas “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” can easily and unambiguously become “Rhode Island,” Washington, Douglas Commonwealth, cannot so simply be abbreviated without ambiguity. However, we speak of “Washington” all the time, and context indicates which Washington is intended. “Washington, Douglas Commonwealth,” allows “Washington, D.C.,” to continue to be proper nomenclature, albeit not, technically, for the seat of government of the United States. Were that not an advantage of the House proposal, perhaps East Washington could have been the name of the new state, analogous to the names of the Carolinas and Dakotas.

Republicans, of course, are unconcerned with democracy or the proper treatment of downtrodden minorities. They are only concerned with the fact that Washington, D.C., is largely Democratic and that statehood will likely add two Democratic senators and a Democratic representative to Congress. Given that other features of the Constitution that help Republicans by giving unrepresentative power to rural domains are unlikely to be changed any time soon, the addition of Washington, Douglas Commonwealth, will go a little way toward making Congress and the White House more truly representative.

I have worried about the state of our flag should another state be added to the Union. Admittedly, although 48 stars seemed perfect, the 49-star flag is acceptable. Perhaps it is even improved aesthetically by being a little less regimented. I really had not considered how to fit 51 stars onto the flag, but others have. Here is the most promising design, one most in keeping with recent versions of the U.S. flag:

The above design is courtesy of the Flag Institute. It looks pretty good, no?

June 27, 2020

Shirley Jackson Day 2020

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson
“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Thus begins the most famous story written by Shirley Hardie Jackson (1916–1965), “The Lottery.” The short story was published in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker and is infamous for the angry letters and canceled subscriptions it provoked.

“The Lottery” was my introduction to Jackson, who is known mostly for her horror and mystery works. Her well-crafted and shocking story led me to read her two best-known novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve also read her humorous memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, the savages and demons in question being her four children. Jackson was a prolific writer, and I have many more of her works on my reading list.

Jackson spent much of her life in North Bennington, Vermont, a town that she reputedly had in mind when writing “The Lottery.” Nevertheless, North Bennington has celebrated Shirley Jackson Day in recent years every June 27. As a result of the current pandemic, Shirley Jackson Day is to be a virtual event in 2020. For those of us who do not live in Vermont, this is an unexpected blessing, as we can experience readings from her works on the Internet. Details of the event can be found here. The celebration begins at 7 pm EDT.

June 15, 2020

Our Honored Confederate Generals

President Trump has been adamant in his opposition to renaming military installations carrying the names of generals of the Confederate States of America. He justified the continued memorialization of these traitors to the American Republic via Twitter:
It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!
As usual, our president is tone-deaf and obsessed with displaying his manhood.

Sign at Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Bases were named after Confederate generals as a sop to the South. More than a century and a half after the conclusion of the Civil War, however, it is time to celebrate the Union and to consign the Confederacy and its champions to the graveyard of morally corrupt ideas. If a base is renamed, its history, however storied, does not disappear, but only its association with the cause of slavery

Some will assert that base names don’t matter. I freely admit that, during my brief Army career, it never occurred to me to ask after whom the bases to which I was assigned were named. Having recently become an issue brought to light through the continuing racism revealed in police murders of black citizens, racism clearly not obliterated by Union victory in the Civil War, the celebration of military traitors can no longer be ignored. Among the bases named for those who led troops against the United States are some very substantial installations. The bases are:
  • Fort Hood, Texas, named for General John Bell Hood
  • Fort Lee, Virginia, named for General Robert E. Lee
  • Fort Bragg, North Carolina, named for General Braxton Bragg
  • Fort A.P. Hill, named for Lieutenant General A.P. Hill
  • Fort Pickett, Virginia, named for the hapless Major General George Pickett
  • Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, named for General P.G.T. Beauregard
  • Fort Gordon, Georgia, named for Major General John Brown Gordon
  • Fort Polk, Louisiana, named for Major General Leonidas Polk, a former Episcopal bishop
  • Fort Rucker, Alabama, named for General Edmund Rucker
  • Fort Benning, Georgia, named for Brigadier General Henry L. Benning
Naming installations after enemies of the nation is ridiculous on its face. Apparently, it seemed to make sense at one time. If we are to accept this self-flagellatory process, why stop at celebrating Confederate generals? Here is a short list of names for President Trump to consider:
  • Fort Benedict Arnold
  • Fort Aaron Burr
  • Port Aldrish Ames
  • Julius & Ethel Rosenberg National Laboratory
  • Camp John Brown (admittedly somewhat ambiguous)
Of course, the president will neither use these names nor assent to changing the names of bases named for Confederate generals. The military or Congress may do the job for him, if not soon, then once a new president is in office. Perhaps a promise to do so should be in the Democratic platform this year.

June 4, 2020

Trump Really Doesn’t Seek to Divide Americans

It is often said that Donald Trump seeks to divide Americans rather than unite them. His actions certainly have that effect. Nevertheless, I don’t think that division of Americans is really Trump’s objective.

Donald J. Trump
Donald Trump knows in his heart that he is a minority president, that most people dislike him and everything he stands for. But he is who he is, and Mr. Trump is not about to pander to the majority, which frankly hates his guts. Instead, everything he does is intended to please his base, those folks who think like him and, in most cases, adore him. He is terrified of losing any of these people because he has no talent or inclination to win over Americans who are not already devoted to him.

Dividing Americans is not really a good political strategy, either for winning elections or for governing. But Donald Trump has discovered, probably much to his surprise, that, with a devoted following and substantial help from our undemocratic electoral system, he can win a national election. In 2020, however, the voters disdained by the president are more strongly motivated than they were in 2016.

Let us hope that Mr. Trump’s perverse strategy doesn’t work twice.

May 27, 2020

A Son’s Tribute

When his mother and my former wife, Betty Deimel, died, my son, Geoffrey August Deimel, wrote a tribute to his mother on Facebook the next day. With permission and minor editing, I have reproduced his essay below. My own tribute to Betty can be found here.
Many of you—particularly those who knew me in my Pittsburgh or Annapolis days—knew my mother, Betty Deimel. After battling an infection (not COVID) for the last several weeks, she succumbed to her illness late last night [May 21], dying in a hospital here in the Finger Lakes.

Her last few years were difficult. She had been quite sick for a very long time with a complex of conditions that became progressively more debilitating ever since she suffered an embolism in 2006.  I don’t think she ever felt truly herself again after that incident.

As much as my final years with her made an impression—and left their scars—I can already tell that they will fade. Instead, I will remember her as the mother I knew when I was growing up. The one who was so dynamic and hopeful.  The activist and rabble-rouser.  The social justice warrior. The political operator who organized for the ERA and marched with Dr. King. My mom gave me my confidence, my politics, and many of my ways of engaging with the world. She was a great parent, always doting and loving. She always had time for me despite a hectic career and dealing with her own considerable difficulties.

The picture below is from a book on the Women’s Movement.  There’s my mom on the right side.  And that’s my little head, in the snuggly on her chest. That’s the mom I’ll remember, the one I’ll forever miss.

Betty at march for the ERA

Betty Deimel (May 6, 1948–May 21, 2020)

Betty Deimel, the former Betty Elaine Lovell, died in a hospital in Canandaigua, New York last Thursday. She apparently died of a bacterial infection and was not a COVID-19 victim. Our son, Geoffrey August Deimel, and his wife, Sara Marie Wagner, were in attendance when the end came. I had visited the day before, when a family friend, the Rev. Vicki Wesen, led Ministration at the Time of Death via Zoom. Betty was unresponsive for our visits, and, until Wednesday afternoon, had been on a ventilator.

Betty had been rushed to F.F. Thompson Hospital when she could not be roused for breakfast May 9 at the Ontario Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, where she had been living. She had suffered various medical problems for some time. Problems became increasingly serious in 2006, and she became unable to work. Her son and daughter-in-law had brought her to the Finger Lakes from the Chicago area to offer her better care.

Betty with son August
Betty with son August
Geneva, New York, August 2018
Betty and I met at the University of Chicago, where she was an English major a year behind me. We got to know one another at my Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house. She was dating a fraternity brother a year ahead of me. Like me, he was a physics major. When Boyfriend-Number-One graduated, Betty and I began to see more of one another and became square dance partners. (Square dancing was not mainstream at Chicago.) After my graduation, we wrote to one another and had a few opportunities to meet. Two-and-a-half years later, we were married on the Chicago campus, by which time, I was in the Army fighting the Vietnam War with my clarinet.

Betty had wanted to be a children’s librarian and earned her library degree from the University of Hawaii while I was stationed in Honolulu. After we moved to Atlanta to allow me to continue my graduate studies, Betty landed a temporary position at Emory University as a reference librarian. She loved the job, but her failure to be offered a permanent position changed the direction of her career. She earned a second master’s degree, in public administration, at Georgia State University. In Raleigh, North Carolina, she held an administrative position with the National Association of Attorneys General before becoming an owner and worker at a startup canvas works. She also became a mother in Raleigh. Later, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, she worked in the development office of Allegheny College.

In 1987, Betty joined the technical staff of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. (I joined the SEI a few months later.) She stayed at that job for a decade before forming her own consulting firm, Gateway Associates, to continue the work she had been doing at the SEI. Her work was directed at software process improvement and involved a good deal of travel, including several stints in Australia.

Betty and Lionel at the wedding of August and Sara
Betty and me at the wedding of August and Sara
Annapolis, Maryland, June 2008
So much for the obvious facts. Who was Betty? I’m sure many of her friends would call her a people person. She was a sensitive, caring extrovert, and many mutual friends were surprised when she married me, who was, at least at the time, a not-very-sensitive (if slightly romantic) introvert. Moreover, I was an intellectual and academic, and she was mildly disdainful of those things. She was a person who remembered birthdays and sought out gifts she could give for no obvious reason.

Also, Betty was a liberal, and I was a conservative Republican from New Orleans. We were both interested in politics but seldom let our differences get in the way of our relationship. Betty did convince me not to vote for Nixon in 1968, and I eventually became a committed liberal pretty much on my own. Betty became a feminist, a development that didn’t trouble me, but we clashed over the Equal Rights Amendment. She marched for the ERA; I wrote a letter to the editor against it. Betty was right, and she simply indulged me at the time. Betty also helped elect the first female mayor of Raleigh,

When I was on the faculty at North Carolina State University, we met Don and Vicki Wesen. Don was in animal science and worked with cows. Vicki volunteered as librarian at her Episcopal church. She became good friends with Betty and enlisted her help in organizing the church library. Perhaps not surprisingly, their conversation eventually turned to religion. Vicki was surprised to learn that her friend was not a Christian, having grown up nominally Unitarian. “But you’re the most Christian person I know,” Vicki remarked, presumably based on Betty’s demeanor. As a birthday president, Vicki arranged for Betty to have talks with her priest. This eventually led to both Betty and Geoffrey being baptized. Betty and I were later confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I discovered that the Episcopal Church was the church I had been looking for.

It always seemed surprising that Betty had such success at the SEI and later in her post-SEI career. She had been working with computers since her Georgia State days and was comfortable with computers, having used SPSS and assorted administrative software. I suppose that being married to me also gave her some useful familiarity with technical people. Anyway, she joked about helping software engineers get in touch with their feelings. Mostly, she taught them to be disciplined, something that often doesn’t come naturally to programmers. It was Betty’s communication and interpersonal skills that made her successful in an area far removed from library science.

Most especially, Betty was a planner and a doer. She built a career by making the most of unexpected developments. She led a troop of blind Brownies in Raleigh. She planned the renovation of the kitchen in our newly purchased Mt. Lebanon home. She planned parties and vacations, and she planned psychological exercises for use by our church. She helped individuals by administering and interpreting their Myers–Briggs inventory, an activity for which she actually had credentials. She arranged for Geoffrey to attend a prestigious Anglican boarding school in Australia for a term. She planned how we could finance our son’s college expenses.

We never did return to square dancing, and our dalliance with ballroom dancing was fleeting. We did some hiking in Hawaii, but that was more my thing than hers. We both were movie buffs. Betty was on the board of film society in Raleigh, and we even attended an AFI event in Williamsburg, Virginia. Besides parenting, music probably brought us together more than anything. In Pittsburgh, we enjoyed the symphony, ballet, and opera. We also sang together for many years in the chancel choir of St. Paul‘s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon. Betty took some piano lessons but didn’t stick with it.

For reasons I never completely understood, Betty wanted to live near water and wanted to sail. That and her concern that I would not be able to deal with her medical problems led to our separation and eventual divorce. She planned even that to be as minimally disruptive as possible to everyone’s life. Betty moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and bought a house within shouting distance of a cove that opened into Chesapeake Bay. Alas, her health never allowed her to fully realize her dream, and her life near the water was short-lived.

Her final years were a constant struggle simply to muddle through. Betty moved back to the Chicago area but never achieved a stable living situation. She never lost hope for better times, but she could not overcome her infirmities. In the Finger Lakes, she experienced stability if not happiness. We have remained friends, and I will miss her.

Rest in peace, Betty Deimel, and rise in glory.

May 15, 2020

What Republicans Believe

Trump supporters do not think like the rest of us. They share many odd and dysfunctional views. Although they are not uniform in their opinions, even those ideas not universally held are nonetheless widely believed. Because Donald Trump has effectively reshaped the Republican Party in his own image, characterizing Trump supporters characterizes the GOP itself.

It’s important that we understand what Republicans stand for. Those who see no difference between Democrats and Republicans are fooling themselves. Republicans intend to destroy the United States that came of age in the decades following World War II.

Below, I have created a list of the notions widely held among Republicans. I may have exaggerated a bit, but not a lot. This list was not difficult to construct, but I cannot claim that it’s comprehensive. If your view of the world includes most of the ideas enumerated, you are, or should be, a Republican. If you reject most of these ideas, you are, or should be, something else, most likely a Democrat.

A caveat: Republican officeholders often act in self-serving ways that may not be consistent with their stated opinions. (Remember what Lord Acton said.)

Keep this list in mind when you vote in November.
  • Donald Trump is a very stable genius.
  • Fox News is the most reliable source of information.
  • The United States spends too much money on the defense of other nations.
  • The world is not getting warmer.
  • Deaths from the coronavirus are much exaggerated.
  • The crowd that attended Trump’s inauguration was the largest in history.
  • Public schools expose children to government propaganda.
  • Democrats are in the pocket of Wall Street.
  • U.S. elections are rife with voter fraud.
  • People on welfare should have to work to receive benefits.
  • Wind turbines cause cancer.
  • Widespread possession of guns makes everyone safer.
  • Republicans are the guardians of fiscal responsibility.
  • Russia is a friendly nation.
  • The FBI is corrupt.
  • The U.S. was founded as a Christian nation.
  • Trump was elected despite an illegal plot by Obama to undermine his campaign.
  • The United States should not be the world’s policeman.
  • Illegal immigrants commit crimes and drain public resources.
  • Saudi Arabia is a strong ally and a valuable business customer.
  • Obamacare threatens our freedom.
  • Congress has no legitimate power over the president or his administration.
  • Abortions cause depression in women who have them.
  • Our nation is properly led by white people.
  • Vaccines cause autism.
  • Even legal immigration is a threat to our nation.
  • Donald Trump is our greatest president since George Washington.
  • Recovery from a coronavirus infection confers lifetime immunity.
  • Minimum-wage laws cause unemployment and pay some people more than they’re worth.
  • Fetuses should have the same rights as everyone else.
  • Bill Barr is our greatest attorney general.
  • Religious schools deserve as much public support as public schools.
  • Unions are inimical to free enterprise.
  • Government regulations depress our economy.
  • Israel needs to control all of Palestine to secure its safety from the terrorists who surround it.
  • Journalists are enemies of the people.
  • Muslims are terrorists.
  • Democrats exaggerated the coronavirus pandemic to harm Donald Trump.
  • Senators and Representatives of the president’s party are obliged to support their president.
  • The “real” U.S. is rural and agrarian, not urban.
  • The supply of fossil fuels is virtually inexhaustible. 
  • The Democratic Party is effectively a socialist party.
  • Military spending benefits everyone.
  • Government officials are poorly paid and should use their positions to make money on the side.
  • No president has endured as much undeserved criticism as Donald Trump.
  • The United States Postal Service unfairly competes with services such as FedEx and UPS.
  • Illegal aliens should be deported irrespective of how long they have been in the country.
  • Supporting the United Nations is largely a waste of money.
  • The coronavirus threat has been neutralized through widespread quarantining.
  • U.S. intelligence services are incompetent.
  • The country is too accepting of perverts.
  • Democrats have a visceral and unjustified hatred of Donald Trump.
  • Taxes should be reduced to discourage government overreach.
  • Drug users deserve to be in jail.
  • The government should not subsidize the “arts.”
  • Kim Jong-un only seems hostile because North Korea has not been treated well by the U.S.
  • Too many people escape criminal punishment on technicalities.
  • Free trade invariably harms U.S. interests.
  • Blacks commit most of the crime in this country.
  • Donald Trump always speaks the truth.
  • The United States is the greatest country on earth.
  • People should take responsibility for their own health care.
  • Churches and corporations should be allowed to endorse political candidates.
  • The CDC is particularly hostile to President Trump.
  • Government workers are an impediment to needed change.
  • The #MeToo movement gets too much attention.
  • Building the wall on our southern border should be completed at all costs.
  • God, in his munificence, made Trump president.
  • The Federal Reserve should be controlled by the president.
  • Freedom to act on one’s religious beliefs is our most important civil right. (Well, maybe not quite as important as the right to bear arms.)
  • Many universities undermine our nation’s ideals.
  • Bilateral trade agreements allow us to impose our interests on other countries.
  • Jared Kushner is a multitalented genius.
  • The WHO favors China as opposed to the United States.
  • The moon landing was faked.
  • The world is flat.