New Trier Democrats’ Posts

Just Sharing A Few Thoughts

This NTD News commentary is simply some recent thoughts I had on some unrelated subjects. — N.H.

This past week, the tragic betrayal of our Kurdish allies in Syria has been painful to watch. Some observers have speculated that what we are seeing is simply a “wag the dog” tactic by Trump and perhaps a few of his team, designed to divert attention from news stories about his impeachment inquiry. And, based on Trump’s lifelong history of betraying associates, contractors, rivals, wives, et al, it sounds quite likely to me.

The Kurds fought side-by-side with our American troops to crush ISIS forces. Then our nation’s president, without warning, removed our military from the area, giving Turkey’s President Erdogan a tacit okay to immediately begin an invasion.

And did this tactic to divert our attention work? There’s little doubt that news stories about this new Syrian chaos will stick around for awhile. But it is a certainty that the stream of sordid revelations further justifying Donald Trump’s impeachment will not slow down at all.

So, here is what Trump’s Middle East maneuver really “accomplished”: Kurd villages have been obliterated, Kurdish men randomly slaughtered and thousands of families are now desperate refugees. The suffering will be far reaching. The regional repercussions will be felt for years.

This is just the latest example of Trump’s historic incompetence as president. His impulsive, ill-conceived actions continue to gravely damage the international position of the United States. — Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Another thought I wanted to share, was the result of reading about the Fort Worth, Texas woman who was shot by a policeman through a window of her home. He was dispatched to check on the house because its front door was open late at night. He saw a woman (or her silhouette) in a window with its blind down, and literally a split second after yelling a command from outside the house, he killed her. The encounter, recorded on the police officer’s uniform camera sounded like this: “Put up your hands! Put of your hands! BANG!” The time between his first word of warning and the deadly gunshot was about as long as the time it took you to read the words I just typed. And that is not the way a warning should work. A “warning” means “do what I say because if you don’t I will take action.” Enough time must be given to start heeding those words. — The police officer was removed from his job and has since been charged with murder. 

I’m not mentioning this incident as one more condemnation of lax police training. Instead it started me thinking about why this kind of virtually instant “I felt endangered” shooting by a police officer seems to be occurring more often than ever. —- I think it is the proliferation of guns, especially in certain cities and regions. With guns so prevalent in our strange country, it is understandable that police have become increasingly on guard with every interaction. There is a real possibility that any person they encounter for any reason has the potential to shoot them. If I were a cop, that thought would always be with me. 

Of course the Fort Worth policeman was terribly wrong. Perhaps he was poorly trained. Or maybe he was inclined toward violence. I don’t know. But, what I’m pointing out here is that today’s universally threatening gun environment has not always existed across America, and it can still be returned to a saner level.

The NRA’s mantra that if everyone was armed, we’d all be safer is a fallacy. Just ask almost any police officer.

When satire become reality, we know we’re in trouble. Years ago, I saw the standup comic Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) deliver a tongue in cheek patriotic spiel about America’s international greatness. He said: “When Vietnam had their civil war, we sent thousands of soldiers over there to help them – but when we had our Civil War, how many Vietnamese came here to help us? You tella me!” 

Ludicrous satire, right? Then a few days ago, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters and presented some of the thinking behind his abandonment of our Kurdish allies. “They didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us at Normandy.” — In fact, back then there was no Kurdish government in existence, although some Kurds did fight the Nazis as Soviet soldiers.

When Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State he was reported to have summed up one of his meetings with President Trump with these immortal words: ”What a (blank)ing moron!” — You got that right, Rex.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

P.S. See you at the NTD Annual Dinner this Sunday, October 20? Hope so.

Living In Interesting Times

Most of you are probably familiar with the ironically worded curse credited to the ancient Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” And boy, do we live in interesting times.

Having a president in the White House as dangerously weird as Donald Trump is reason enough to feel that our times are far from stable — Even during the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was a major geopolitical consideration, the ultimate decision makers were, thankfully, rational men.

And what has been almost as disturbing as our president’s conduct, is the behavior of so many of his Republican Party enablers. His defenders in every level of government, his media cheerleaders, his staunchly loyal voter block, all continue to appear oblivious to the long-term harm he is doing to our nation, and the world. They remain unmindful of the repercussions of his behavior, and uncaring about who or how many are hurt by his ego-driven and self-serving whims.

How does he keep getting away with conduct that that would destroy the careers of more conventional political figures?

First of all, it’s wrong to assume you can lump Trump’s supporters into a few general categories to explain their loyalty. (I’ll let you fill in what you think those categories might be.) I’ve concluded that if you scratch the surface of a Trump supporter to see what keeps them loyal you won’t find some blanket mental state, but instead a single issue that they believe Donald Trump is defending for them. Trumpsters are willing to look the other way or remain willfully ignorant of facts, no matter what Trump does, as long as he continues to give lip service to their specific “cause” while thumbing his nose at anything said or done that is “against their cause.”

It’s an effective strategy that has been used to control groups for centuries. So is the United States inevitably destined to be cripplingly divided? — As George Carlin said when asking if we should care about the length of his hair, “au contraire, mon frere.” Things may change for the better sooner than we might expect.

The signs that a growing majority of Americans want to walk away from our “interesting times” grow stronger each day. In 2018, when Democratic voters got their act together to take back control of the U.S. House, Donald Trump’s behavior was their motivation. — Here in Illinois, progressive voters had the added incentive of candidate Bruce Rauner to drive them to action.

Since that important Democratic victory, President Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior is stimulating even more movement toward progressive policies and candidates. Even as Executive Branch operatives stonewall against a co-equal government branch and millions of dollars of propaganda have begun to fill the airwaves, a national poll released yesterday found that 58% of Americans approve of a House impeachment inquiry. 

This is not the direction Trump and his shadowy backers had hoped for. The more Donald Trump reveals of his hollow self, the less attractive he is finally becoming to more people across the country.

And what of the single issues that have held the loyalty of the voters Republicans need in 2020? Well, Democrats are championing issues with the power to win some of those voters. Notably climate change, which can no longer be ignored, despite Trump’s denial of its existence. 

So, we really shouldn’t be pessimistic about the direction of things to come. And here’s one more reason for optimism. At last weekend’s DPOE Dinner, State Senator Laura Fine and our State Reps Robyn Gabel and Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz reported on an impressive list of new legislation they introduced or supported that will make life better for Illinois residents. — I hope you visit each of their websites to learn what has been accomplished in the first year since Rauner’s removal. You’ll be proud of their work.

Yes, these are indeed “interesting times.” But scroll down this newsletter and you’ll find a number of opportunities that will make 2020 and beyond ‘interesting” in a much more positive way.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

How Did We Get Trump?

In another, more calm time in our United States, I might have observed today’s gray October skies and falling temperatures and found myself writing about the arrival of autumn – looking ahead to the blazing fall colors, cozy wool pullovers and warm holiday gatherings. Somewhere in my musings I probably would have woven in some sort of liberal political spin. However, I would have enjoyed my pleasant break from the complicated and combative world of today’s politics. 

But it’s not gonna happen this week. And that pleasant break we’d all love to take may not come for a long time. As long as Donald J. Trump remains in the White House, the possibility for America (and the world) to experience any weeks that aren’t chaotic is quite unlikely.  

Could impeachment remove him from office? Right now, the odds are better than fifty-fifty that Donald Trump will not be impeached by the Republican controlled Senate and will complete his first term as president. If that is the case, the prospect that Trump could be reelected is not out of the question. Some unexpected twist of fate, a disastrous screw-up by the Democratic nominee or his/her campaign, or worst of all, nefarious activities by unknown players, could hand Trump a second term. 

I’m sure that none of us enjoy thinking about Donald Trump virtually every day of the week. But when you have a narcissistic sociopath holding the most powerful office in the world, it is difficult for that situation to not remain top-of-mind. 

The man demands daily attention. That has been his modus operandi throughout his adult life. (Probably earlier than that.) In his younger years he depended on self-generated public relations for his self-promotion. Then along came Twitter, a communications vehicle ideal for a person driven by whim, untethered by facts, unbothered by lies, and obsessed with staying in the spotlight. 

How in the world, did we end up with such a bizarre character as our nation’s “leader?” In my opinion, Donald Trump’s path to the Oval Office began decades ago. Here are just some of the events that have provided him with a highly receptive voter base:  

– Nation-changing civil rights legislation leading to the Republican Party’s polarizing “Southern Strategy” 

– The lost war in Vietnam and a feeling of lost national pride

– The view presented by President Ronald Reagan that government cannot be trusted

– President Reagan’s anti-union stance and subsequent worker wage stagnation

– The widening wealth gap

 – President Clinton’s loosening of financial industry rules 

– The reckless financial practices continuing during the Bush Administration, bringing us the Great Recession of 2008

– Millions of average Americans losing jobs, life savings and homes as a result of the 2008 crash

– Economic globalization with manufacturing and jobs moving overseas

– The growth of automation and robotics reducing the need for physical “manpower”

– A growing awareness of the dangers of carbon fuels and the resulting erosion of jobs

– The 9/11 attack and resulting fear of “outsiders”

– The election of an African-American president (an “outsider”)

– The growth of women’s, LGBTQ and transgender rights, disrupting “the way things have always been”

– The rise of angry conservatives with their view that any political compromise is a sign of weakness

Everything in my list (and it could have been longer) helped build the platform for Trump’s successful demagoguery. 

Of course, during the years represented above, our democracy had a legislative structure in place to address many of those situations. The rebuilding of our national infrastructure could have been initiated with bi-partisan support, creating new job opportunities for millions. The growth of good paying jobs in the frontiers of technology could have been encouraged. Education and skills training in those fields could have been given a much higher priority. — Congressional gridlock stood in the way. 

The Democrats competing for their party’s nomination in 2020 have a promising perspective on the direction our next president must take (some more than others). They’ve all witnessed the avoidable mistakes made by the Democratic Party and candidate in 2016.  

One year from today when I look out my window, the presidential election will be only weeks away. I imagine my thoughts will all be about that event. But I deeply hope that my musings on the Wednesday after Election Day will be positive expectations for the years ahead under a Democratic President — with occasional calm breaks away from the natural competition that is essential for our two party system.

Nels Howard, NTD Member since 1973

Have You Met Greta Thunberg?

On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres assembled a climate summit. His goal was to reinvigorate the Paris climate agreement, originally adopted in 2015 by 174 nations plus the European Union. – President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2017. — And now, sixty-six countries have responded to Mr. Guterres’ call to renew their focus on this crisis, vowing to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. (You might notice that’s a potentially-disaster-filled 30 long years from now.)  

Yesterday, I watched a video of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, speaking to attendees of the U.N. summit. And all I can say is, what a remarkable young woman! As I viewed her impassioned upbraiding of that roomful of eminent adults, it was impossible for me to be unmoved. Everything she said was indisputably true and unarguably urgent. (If you haven’t yet seen Greta’s brief speech, you can Google: ‘How dare you?’: Greta Thunberg slams world leaders at UN climate summit. ) 

So what happened after she spoke? Well as you would expect, the right wing immediately belittled her. Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham compared Greta to a character from the Stephen King horror film “Children of the Corn.” Trump mockingly tweeted: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see.” 

But despite the push back from our nation’s Bully in Chief and those Fox practitioners of Goebbels-style Journalism, Ms. Thunberg’s words resonated around the world. And — if we were living in a less dysfunctional nation — I think over the coming days they might have resonated much more in our U.S.A. too. 

With thousands of people presently being flooded out of their homes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts (ironically, often Trump-friendly areas), Greta’s words might have started a national conversation and a demand for serious, non-partisan action to address the changing climate. 

Unfortunately, within hours of her U.N. speech, America’s attention turned to a brand new subject, the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. And this time it appears the U.S. House will seriously pursue drawing up those articles of impeachment. This means that in the coming months, along with all the news coverage of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, our country will be further politically polarized. 

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sad page in our history is that the Trump impeachment proceedings, although decidedly called for, will take up valuable time that could have been spent focusing on issues that desperately need the attention of the public and our lawmakers. You know the issues, but among them climate change, the existential threat to all future generations and in fact to life on earth, must be given the highest priority. 

Each year, more of our planet’s living things are brought closer to extinction, more arable land brought closer to becoming desert, more millions of people brought closer to being displaced, more extreme weather events becoming the norm. We cannot accept the path we are on as unavoidable. For the sake of our children and every future generation we must establish continuous and uncompromising policies that will slow down and eventually halt this disastrous process. 

I know we have legislators at the state and national level as well as officals in local offices that have been championing legislation to deal with this crisis. — We must encourage them to continue their work with increased ferocity.  

Greta Thunberg’s message wasn’t just addressing her U.N. audience. Her fiery words were aimed at every one of us and at every person we have helped to elect in every level of government — even the most enlightened, energetic and dedicated among us. We must ask ourselves and ask the office holders representing us, what more can we do?  

It’s good to know that long after Donald Trump and his enablers are no longer present in a world they clearly care so little about, Greta Thunberg and hundreds of thousands of others inspired by her will be around. We must do all we can to make the world they inherit better than they expect.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

An Eye For Irony

The other day, a news item that struck me as especially absurd reminded me of one my favorite Bob Newhart “man on the telephone” routines. It’s set in the early 1600’s. One of King James’ staff is receiving a phone call from Sir Walter Raleigh, calling from America.  

It went something like this: “Hello, Walter. How’s your exploration going?”… “It’s going great? That’s good to hear.” … “Have you found any gold, yet?”… “You haven’t….but you’ve found something that going to be big — worth a fortune”.… “What’s that Walter?… It’s called tobacco? What’s tobacco?”… “It’s a leaf? — Ahh, Walter, we have leaves in England.”… “But this is a special leaf? — What makes it special?”… “You roll it up and put it in your mouth?”… “And then what do you do?”… “Your set it on fire!”… “Walter, I don’t think that’s going to be big…” 

Newhart’s routine pointed out how ridiculous the smoking habit really is. (I can speak to this with authority, having been a smoker for 25 of my younger years.) You put a paper tube filled with dried leaves in your mouth, set fire to it and breath in the smoke. …Seriously!?  

And yet this completely counterintuitive, self-destructive activity has made billions of dollars for tobacco corporations like Altria (Marlboro). And now as profits from cigarettes in the western world have fallen they are pursuing new avenues to profits. Altria’s Juul vaping devices are being marketed to deliver nicotine to nicotine addicts in a “healthier way” while helping them break their unhealthy cigarette habit. Of course Altria’s Philip Morris Co. will continue marketing cigarettes to smokers around the world while Juul users are being saved from the worst evils of nicotine addiction. — Talk about a “win win” situation! — It’s a scenario that could have been written by Joseph Heller or Jonathan Swift. 

And here’s what disturbs me the most. This surreal balancing act is being presented in Juul advertising, in serious business articles and in the mainstream news without a hint of the irony it represents. — At least I haven’t seen any comments on it. 

Why isn’t such irony being recognized? Perhaps in these convulsive times the American public has simply become inured to language and behavior that contradicts itself.  

In some states we have public safety spokespersons recommending that the solution for reducing gun violence is a greater distribution of guns. We have our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency stopping California from enacting stricter clean air standards. We have a Secretary of Education, responsible for our public education system, vocal in her support for private education systems. And yesterday, President Trump nominated a man to lead U.S. human rights policy who was a proponent for torture under George W. Bush. 

Early in its operation, Trump’s White House introduced the practice of presenting “alternative facts,” repeatedly leaning on that concept. Since then, with the endless barrage of tweeted lies coming from our President, I’m starting to wonder if such Orwellian “double speak,” combined with a complete indifference to the appearance of ironic behavior, is becoming accepted by the pubic as normal. 

We know that critical thinking is no longer emphasized in many school curriculums. And when it is absent, recognizing irony is much less likely. Having that ability, as we critique the language and behavior of political figures, has always been a valuable tool for voters. — And by they way, such scrutiny should include the Democratic presidential candidates we are now in the process of choosing for 2020. 

When irony is presented on the stage of Second City, it can be great entertainment. But when you spot it on the political stage (or in the business world), you should weigh what you see very seriously.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

Where Were You On 9/11?

Do you remember where you were 18 years ago today? If you’re in your mid-twenties or older, I’ll bet you do. — September 11, 2001 was one of those landmark dates in history when the trajectory of a nation’s future is abruptly changed. Or perhaps in the case of 9/11, I should say “abruptly accelerated.” 

That September morning, soon after the attack, I heard a radio bulletin about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center’s towers. I switched on the TV and saw the entire horrible scene unfold as another plane slammed into the second tower and both buildings collapsed. At that moment I imagine most of you, like me, sensed that things would never quite be the same again. Terrorism from a foreign source had succeeded within our boundaries in a big way.  

Immediately, new and more stringent security procedures were established both in the public areas and in the business buildings of our cities. In many cases those measures are still in place today. And we’ve gotten used to them. — Now, we think nothing of being asked to open our business bag or purse for inspection. We accept such intrusions in our privacy as necessary for our safety. (In recent years, the increasing occurrences of mass shootings have also played a big role in our acceptance of such inspections.) 

9/11 made Americans a bit less secure, and a lot more open to whatever steps our government declared were needed to protect us. As we now know, those “necessary steps” eventually included the military invasion of two countries.  

Realistically, it could be presumed that before 9/11 our nation’s international trajectory was already headed toward armed involvement in the Middle East. For several years, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, two bored cold warriors with no Cold War left to fight, had been touting their “Project for a New American Century.”  

This vision for our future saw the United States establishing a “benevolent global hegemony.” (I guess that would mean we would call the shots for all the other nations on earth — but in a warm, friendly way.) To do this, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their fellow hawks believed we should perpetually maintain the United States as the world’s preeminent power. – Incidentally that sort of dream for America would also be a dreamy situation for government contractors like Halliburton, a company close to Dick Cheney’s heart. — Back then it actually was his heart.  

So with the arrival of 9/11/2001, a lot of pieces were already in place for what came next. Of course at that moment in time we had no idea what lay ahead. But we now know that the attack in New York led to our invasion of Afghanistan, a military involvement that has become the longest war is our nation’s history, 18 years long!  

From the start there was some debate about whether the actions of a group of Al Qaeda fanatics should be dealt with as if they were an enemy nation. Should we use military forces to attack them in the country where they were hiding? Or should we, and our allies, deal with them as international criminals, using spies, informants, drone surveillance, all the tools of espionage to track down the terrorists and eliminate them? We chose military boots on the ground. Since then, there have been many casualties – American and Afghani. Would a different path have been a better choice? We’ll never know. 

Our involvement in Iraq began in 2003. Unlike Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was sheltered, the Iraqi government and its people had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. However, much of the American public remained angry and open to punishing any Middle Eastern country that might have aided terrorist activities.  

The Iraqis were, in fact, enemies of Al Qaeda, but that fact didn’t get in the way of the hawks in the White House. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and President George W. Bush all pushed for intelligence results that would justify an invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  

They got their wish, although the intelligence reports they cited were mostly bogus. 16 years later, thousands of American military have been wounded or killed and tens of thousands of Iraqi’s have died. Also, many billions of tax dollars have been spent. Beyond that, the destabilization of Iraq created a power vacuum that allowed the rise of ISIS, resulting in thousands more dead and displaced. And the chaos created by the rise and eventual fall of ISIS has led to thousands of people fleeing Syria and Iraq; creating new problems for Western Europe to the delight of Russia’s Putin.  

On 9/11 as we watched the live TV coverage of the World Trade Center’s towers fall, we couldn’t see where things would lead. But there were people in our nation’s capital who could see where they wanted things to go. These were the cold war hawks who continue to believe that brute power trumps any other approach to international relations. Ironically, today’s news also included a fellow, like them, who never saw a war he didn’t admire, John Bolton. Thankfully, he just lost his White House job. Inexplicably, he still has admirers in high places. 

The national trajectory that September 11 kicked into gear has yet to reach its end point.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

2020 Is Already Here

Last night, the New Trier Dems’ Executive Committee held its monthly meeting. Although it wasn’t officially designated as the kickoff meeting of the 2020 Campaign year, the September date made it just that. Summer vacations are now behind us, the kids (and grandkids) are back in school and the weather is starting to remind us that autumn will soon be here.  

Politically speaking, this means the season for focusing on grassroots political activity has arrived. Local office holders and office seekers have started passing petitions to get themselves on next year’s primary ballots. U.S. congressional Democrats in several nearby Illinois districts are preparing to do battle with heavily funded challengers, already beginning their attacks. “Boots on the ground” actions are being organized to add new Democratic voters in neighboring battle ground states – particularly Wisconsin. Periodically, there may even be volunteer activities in our area to help Democrats in more distant states where vulnerable Republicans can be thrown out of office. (These days that’s always a good thing.) 

So with all that said, what’s happening right now in New Trier? Well, I suppose I should first mention that a larger NTD kickoff for the 2020 campaign year will occur in 10 days, on Saturday, September 14, in Wilmette’s Gillson Park. It’s our Annual NTD Membership Meeting followed by a lakeside picnic open to everyone. (Details are in “events” below.) It’s an afternoon that will give everybody a chance to get psychologically energized for the fourteen months between now and Election Day, 2020. — That’s right, folks. Fourteen months is all the time we have to halt the disastrous spiral our nation is in. 

Along those lines, last night the Exec Committee had a special guest. We were visited by Nancy Bruski, an activist from Evanston who has been working on an extremely valuable project just across our northern border. It’s a project that could actually win Wisconsin for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2020. — No doubt you remember how, in 2016, Donald Trump became President of the United States because of a 27,000-vote margin when too many Wisconsin Democrats either stayed home or stayed unregistered. 

Wisconsin still has a Republican controlled legislature that continues to maintain voting barriers against unregistered Wisconsin residents who have profiles that make them likely Democratic voters. Wisconsin residents can register at polling places on Election Day but they most possess a Wisconsin voter ID. For some voters, the process of getting that ID can be confusing or a hassle. We know that many potential Democrats in that state still haven’t acquired their IDs. Ms. Bruski, working with Evanston’s Indivisible organization, has been having success changing that. – We’ll have more detailed info on all this at the Annual Meeting and Picnic on the 14th. 

I know this litany of volunteer possibilities may sound intimidating. But it’s not a matter of doing all of them – just some of them — or perhaps just one of them, whatever your time allows. And by the way, there will certainly be more volunteer opportunities you might choose as 2020 heats up. Stay tuned. 

One last thought: Why are we talking about grassroots volunteer efforts when actual elections are still many months away? – It’s because we have a man in the White House who is quite possibly the worst president in the history of the United States. He is ill equipped to be president in many, many ways. He is mentally and morally flawed — deeply. He increasingly shows the symptoms of a malignant narcissist; a sociopath in arguably the most powerful position on earth.  

Beyond all that, in the years since Trump’s election it has become quite clear that nearly all Republicans in office, for reasons that are difficult to fathom, are willing to go along with whatever this dangerous man desires, no matter how much damage this may be doing to our country. 

Next year is not just about making sure Donald Trump does not return to the White House in 2021. It’s also about working to remove his Republican enablers and apologists from the positions of power they have disgraced.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

P.S. You may notice that Indivisible’s Wisconsin Voter ID initiative is listed below among the Upcoming Events. Unfortunately, the scheduling of the NTD Annual Meeting and Picnic at Gillson Park is on the same day as the next Wisconsin Voter ID canvass. But don’t worry, there is another foray into Wisconsin in early October that we can all join. 

So, for all of you reading this who are members and friends of the New Trier Democrats, we hope you’ll join us on the lake at Gillson on September 14, and then make plans to travel to Wisconsin a few weeks later. And if you’re a reader who is already part of Indivisible’s Wisconsin project, have a great, successful trip.

A Prescription For Justice

Today I read a couple news stories that reminded me of how disappointed I am that certain aspects of our justice system fall short of delivering true justice. The stories were about separate lawsuits targeting two well-known pharmaceutical firms.  

One of the stories was about the state of Oklahoma suing Johnson & Johnson. The suit said the company and its subsidiaries “created a public nuisance” by using misleading language to aggressively market addictive painkillers, downplaying the risk of addiction. 

An Oklahoma judge determined Johnson & Johnson had indeed practiced such promotion, with dangerous consequences. And the good news is, the judge ordered J&J to pay Oklahoma $572 million in compensation, one of the largest monetary awards in U.S. history, — However the bad news is, this impressive sum is a fraction of the $17 billion settlement that Oklahoma sought and (considering the damaged lives, families and deaths) possibly deserved.  Yes, a Big Pharma corporation was held responsible for egregious misdeeds, but for a corporation that enjoyed $76.5 billion in worldwide sales in 2017 alone, a one-half billion-dollar penalty is peanuts. 

The other drug company story involved Perdue Pharmaceuticals. They are probably best known as the makers of OxyContin. They’ve made a variety of other pain medicines for years, but OxyContin, introduced in 1996 as an “extended release” formula of oxycodone, has been their super seller. It promised 12 hours of powerful time-released pain relief and demanded a price of up to hundreds of dollars per bottle. Once things got rolling, Purdue’s earnings boomed from a few billion dollars in 2007 to $35 billion in 2017. 

Such a successful product made the owners of Perdue richer than ever. Those owners are the Sackler family, who share an estimated fortune of $13 billion. And as I learned in my research, dealing with accusations and lawsuits isn’t new to them.  

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges that the company had misrepresented the dangers of OxyContin, and three of their top officials pleaded guilty to criminal misdemeanors. The company and the men paid $634.5 million in fines. In a 2015 settlement, Kentucky received $24 million from Purdue Pharma. And most recently, prior to the Oklahoma court’s judgment against Johnson & Johnson, the Sackler family and Purdue settled with Oklahoma out of court for $270 million.  

As of right now, forty-eight states and Washington, D.C., as well as approximately 2,000 local and county governments, hospitals, and patients have gotten involved in suing Purdue and the Sacklers for allegedly using deceptive sales practices. The complaints have now been consolidated by a federal judge. 

This brings me to the interesting proposal the Sacklers just made to resolve the grievances against them and their company. — Perhaps they see the writing on the wall. For sure, they’re aware of the recent revelations of documents showing they clearly did encourage behavior that helped lead to our opioid disaster. 

The Sacklers are proposing they declare bankruptcy and that Purdue be reorganized as a for-profit “public benefit trust. ” Reportedly, the “public benefit trust” would last for at least a decade with Purdue contributing between $7 billion and $8 billion, some of it coming, ironically, from the sales of drugs that combat opioid overdoses. 

The trust would provide $4 billion in drugs to local and state governments to fight opioid addiction and also provide governments with profits from the sale of OxyContin. On top of that, the Sackler family would give up its ownership in Purdue, and contribute $3 billion to the settlement. – You might notice that this personal sacrifice would leave the family with only $10 billion for their personal needs. 

I would not be surprised if the Sacklers and some of their peers running other Big Pharma firms envision wriggling out of this predicament in a way similar to the model presented by the tobacco industry. That group still has growing sales overseas and has found a profitable new product line at home that continues to deliver addictive nicotine. Those guys lied to the U.S. public for years as they knowingly sold a product that caused sickness and death. Then they lied to congress about their actions. Eventually, their corporations paid huge fines – but they’re still in business.  

At this point in my litany of misdeeds, guilty pleas and settlement payments, you might notice that nowhere is there a mention of any person spending any time in jail. You never see it in the news either, because it doesn’t happen. The penalty they pay is always just…money.  This is where my disappointment surfaces. Corporate crimes require corporate criminals, and they should pay for their actions with a piece of time from their lives. Virtually all other criminals do. 

Outrageous quantities of drugs have been pumped into communities and regions with populations that clearly do not justify the sales figures. People all through the system have known what was going on was wrong – from the manufacturers and marketers to the distributors, pharmacies, doctors and public officials. The national media even reported on it.  

With all the destruction of human lives, the willful ignorance of criminality, the displays of soulless greed…so far it appears that nobody has been held accountable beyond paying a financial settlement – and finding dollars has not been a problem. Get people hooked on a drug, make lots of money from it and, if you’re caught, pay a fine. It’s the kind of system that would make “El Chapo” Guzman envious. 

According to the CDC, last year nearly 49,000 Americans died from opioids. It may not be pre-meditated murder, but these opioid epidemic enablers are definitely accessories to that ultimate crime. They should face the justice of jail time.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

A Slow Day For News

On most Wednesdays, I begin my day reading a couple newspapers, checking out NPR stories and mulling over what I might write about in this weekly commentary. Of course there are some Wednesdays when I already know the direction I want to take because, during the week between the Wednesdays, something major captured everyone’s attention. On those occasions I start writing down thoughts earlier. 

Then there are those Wednesdays when our president has done something so outrageous or foolish or just plain buffoonish during the past week that I can’t resist talking about it, even though being talked about, whatever the reason, is what Trump loves. (Frankly, if I wrote a commentary every time Trump did or said something asinine, I could probably start a daily column. – And how depressing that would be, especially for me.)  

It’s also true that every day, every week, every month there are ongoing issues that deserve our attention: Climate Change…gun violence…the corrosive effects of racism…of sexism…It’s a list of heavy subjects that all justifiably demand action. But to talk about them in general terms, week after week, would get more than a bit preachy. 

So, each Wednesday I look for a specific incident, policy or point of view that inspires me to present my personal take on it. — And this week, nothing really grabbed me. Yes, our nation’s leader did propose that we buy Greenland from Denmark. But when Denmark’s Prime Minister called Donald Trump’s proposal “absurd,” the president cancelled his planned visit to Denmark and responded that Prime Minister Frederiksen’s words were “nasty.” He’s such a sensitive human being. Hearing such blunt language from those foul mouthed Danes shocks him.  

And then there was today’s report on Mike Madigan’s fired Chief of Staff, Tim Mapes. It sounds like he was one of those bosses you hope never crosses your path in a job, an insecure guy who resorted to bullying and threats to “manage” his subordinates. (I wonder where he learned that?) And now an investigator’s report has advised Mapes’ boss, Mike Madigan, that he should be less trusting in delegating power to just one person. Gosh! I would not have thought House Speaker Madigan was such a naïve, trusting guy. — You learn something new every day. 

Other than those two colorful stories, I was reluctant to comment on the other news items I noticed. They were either too early in development, such as the shifting language used by Democratic Candidates to describe their proposed healthcare plans, or the news stories required a lot more research than my time allowed (or that I was willing to invest).  

However, I don’t want to wrap up this week’s comments without offering something substantive to consider. It’s not a new idea. In fact, it’s been the underlying purpose of this New Trier Democrats’ newsletter since its beginning.  

When you scroll down below this commentary, you’ll find ways to make use of services provide by elected officials such as County Commissioner Suffredin and State Representative Robyn Gabel. And you’ll read about several social gatherings, including two big ones with the New Trier Dems. You’ll also be offered a chance to learn about a fight for immigrant and economic justice going on right here in our own area. And you’ll see some fundraisers too.  

Accessing services, building social relationships, gaining political knowledge, flexing financial muscle are important facets of our New Trier Democrats’ organization. And they all help us win elections. But…

The power behind our success at turning the North Shore blue continues to be our grass roots volunteers. I’m guessing that includes many of you. Offering you ways to volunteer has been a defining purpose of this newsletter. 

Just a few days from now, on August 24, you can train to be a Deputy Voter Registrar, a valuable volunteer service that can affect the outcome of next year’s elections. There’s also information on canvassing potential Democratic voters in Wisconsin next month — and as you know, the importance of winning Wisconsin in 2020 can’t be underestimated. There’s even an intriguing opportunity to have an impact on a state house race in Virginia. 

These opportunities are all explained below. The month of August marks the end of our vacation season. Now it’s time to start thinking about the work ahead of us. We cannot, we must not allow Republicans to prevail in 2020.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

Europeans Only!

This past 4th of July holiday, I took the day off from writing this weekly commentary. Instead, I simply displayed these key words from the famous plaque at our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  

The words come from a poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was cast onto a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level. 

Although those words don’t date back to 1776 and the founding of our nation, I thought they summed up a standard of behavior for our United States that began to germinate with the writing of our Declaration of Independence. It has grown into a worthy ideal that has repeatedly reminded Americans – at least, I believe, the majority of Americans – that offering a harbor of hope to people of goodwill, hungry to thrive in a free society, is a quality America should always champion. 

But yesterday, Ken Cuccinelli, President Trump’s acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, clarified the Trump Administration’s understanding of those inspiring words. He said the Emma Lazarus poem only referred to “people coming from Europe.” As he put it, “people who can stand on their own two feet.” 

Before I even get into how misguided his words were, I have to point out that Mr. Cuccinelli’s boss, Donald J. Trump, has owned businesses that have pleaded for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on at least 4 occasions. – It seems “standing on your own two feet” is easier when you can force your numerous creditors to eat a lot of the debt you created. 

I also see some irony in that Mr. Cuccinelli’s name, although of European extraction, likely gave his forebears a bit of trouble when they came to our shores from Italy. Although it is a European nation, Italians were not always welcomed with open arms by many long-time American citizens. I cannot believe Cuccinelli isn’t aware of this, however I can believe he has about the same amount of empathy and perspective as his leader – zilch. 

But I digress. Ken Cuccinelli’s comments were made a day after the Trump Administration announced it will work to deny green cards to migrants who seek Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. 

I suspect that a lot of this new positioning has to do with the Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign and its appeal to Trump’s hardcore supporters. They want their voters to view the Latin American refugees in our country and on our border as undeserving of any “safe harbor,” no matter what their reasons for seeking asylum. 

The Trump Administration would like their audience to believe that we got where we are today thanks to the work ethic and wholesome values of longtime American citizens, not “outsiders” who don’t look like us and who “expect government handouts.” (I should also mention that for a lot of our history, our nation’s economic success was aided by the labor of several million non-Europeans known to census takers as “slaves.”) 

I guess if you revised the words of poet Lazarus to reflect the new Trump policies, it might read like this: “Give me your well-educated, your financially secure, your select group of people prepared to add immediately to the U.S. GDP…” 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for smart, successful, entrepreneurial men and women emigrating to our United States and future citizenship. We want people who will add their skills to our economic growth. (As long as they aren’t some variety of criminal.) But excluding a broad diversity of backgrounds from that pool would be a stupid move. 

And as for Cuccinelli’s “Europeans only” interpretation, in 2016 Forbes magazine listed 45 foreign-born billionaires who made their fortunes in the U.S. These are the countries they came from: Argentina, Australia, Burma, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Korea, Morocco, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vietnam. 

Some of those successful immigrants came here already equipped with an education and sufficient funds to the quickly get started. But others came equipped with little more than their brains and a strong will to succeed in a country that allows such success to happen, regardless of your background.  

I think we all know that our nation’s behavior has been far less noble than the inspiring words at the base of Lady Liberty would indicate. Nevertheless, the ideal expressed there has repeatedly resurfaced over the years. Today, it is gratifying to see the present push back from Americans across the country against the treatment of Central American refugee families at our southern border.  

That’s what striving for an ideal brings — whether you set it for your own personal behavior or, as a people, for the behavior of our entire nation. It may never be fully achieved but aspiring to reach it makes us better and stronger than we would otherwise be. 

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

P.S. Emma Lazarus’ poem alludes to the Collussus of Rhodes, one of the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” According to legend, the gigantic statue stood at the entrance to the main port of Rhodes, with one foot on each side of the entrance. Our statue of liberty was going to be placed in New York Harbor, between the welcoming twin cities of New York and Brooklyn (not yet absorbed as a borough). Here is the poem in its entirety: 

The New Collussus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”