What happens when lawyers and judges become mere politicians in robes governed by a perverse irrational political theory?

Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race LawHitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coming to this book I was already startled by the idea that the United States had "influenced" or "inspired" Nazi German policies during the rise of Hitler's Third Reich. Too simplistic in light of the author's conclusion which discusses the USA's common-law tradition and how it was that which the German lawyers sought to emulate even more. This is particularly disturbing as that common law tradition, for all the good it has contributed to American society and culture, has also been weaponized to rationalize the irrational and legalize the unlawful. Germany's lawyers operating under the Nazi regime discovered in America's philosophy of law the means to foment their version of legal realism towards a racist state which they were convinced the United States was destined to become but was being held back by liberal as well as formalistic legal appreciations.

Despite America's appeal to its founding documents the Constitution in amendments like the 14th, the Nazi lawyers keenly observed contradictory existence of a legal philosophical "loophole" the allowed politics and ideology to influence the creation and execution of racist laws that would allow for the creation of a "legal" second class citizenry (e.g. blacks, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, etc.). Granted, as James Whitman emphasizes, this American legal tradition paved the way for social democracy to finally take root in American politics in the form of the New Deal and the civil rights movements but it was also used by racist political leaders to institutionalize racism. As Whitman warns in his conclusion, "...to have a common law system like that of America is to have a system in which the traditions of the law do indeed have little power to ride herd on the demands of the politicians, and when the politics is bad, the law can be very bad indeed."

Among a host of other things, Nazi Germany is a lesson of what happens when lawyers and judges become mere politicians in robes governed by a perverse irrational political theory that will stop at nothing to support heinous and cruel policies. Whitman correctly points to a current example in the USA: our criminal justice system. One of the most punitive in the democratic world that is negatively influenced by individuals --judges and prosecutors-- yielding primarily to ideological and political considerations that trump lawfulness while denying a reasonable path towards restorative justice. Even today, the American legal system remains vulnerable to the political headwinds that allow for racial injustice and the unequal treatment of "undesirables" to continue. This should put fear in the hearts of those concerned about the direction of American politics and how it will impact our courts, and our lives, for generations to come.

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Democracy dies in degrees

I have refrained from going political on my blog but the times are uncontrollably shifting under our feet. I wonder of the bliss of ignorance as I ponder back to my teen years in which I cared little to nothing about current events, history, and the comings and goings of the world. I did not understand that everything is politics; that in the end, those decisions made by others I completely ignored had the very real potential to affect my livelihood and that of my future nonetheless.

So, in the spirit of encouraging some of you to become more politically aware, if current events haven’t already done so, I leave you with a humble review of my most recent read of a book written by an author whose political views I don’t necessarily agree with but who appears to share my love and concern for the nation —and the democratic ideals it has long aspired to— I call home.

Our democracy is dying in degrees, observes Frum. His intent: to scrutinize what he calls Trump's "rulership", his "power", how it came to be, how it has been used, and why his actions have gone unchecked. He draws on reporting of his own and a variety of other media sources to explore the Trump machine that enables and supports the current administration. The system is rigged alright, but not like Trump sees it; it's rigged in his favor as the GOP move ahead with voter suppression efforts, gerrymandering, and the constant assault on the truth, and the dismantling of the guardrails designed to help safeguard our democracy against our worst impulses and persistent unaddressed cultural tensions.

I am no fan of Frum's political leanings but he had much to say that I found myself agreeing with. However, in the first chapter where he goes into the events that lead up to Trump, he seems to have willfully ignored the trend towards zero-sum game politics that was nurtured primarily in the right by folks like Newt Gingrich. The upset to the rules-based political order our country has enjoyed for over two centuries started were evident over 40 years ago and not 1992 as Frum claims. I admit there was a level of arbitrariness from Democrats in recent decades, but the right began to take on the view that compromise was a losing proposition and historical events back this. No mention of McCain who, by appealing to Tea Party sentiments in the person of Sarah Palin, was also responsible for shifting the center of the GOP further to the fringe paving the way for a Trump post-fact future.

Striking how Frum seems to contradict (by the in the last chapter of the book) his initial assessment that Trump is but a symptom of a disease in the American polity; an illness that --Frum notes-- is enabled by a conservative entertainment complex, the GOP party, Trump surrogates, Trump's advisors, and many of his defenders controlling the pace and status of the news cycle furthering the cause of what might be the most, corrupt, erratic and unprincipled administration in modern American history.

Trump has ushered in a culture of impunity ravaged by corruption that is despoiling America of the values of our American Creed. Instead of emptying the swamp as he promised, Trump has fomented "a repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin, or Mao." Trump is not to anyone but himself. He has publicly and privately betrayed members of his cabinet and all those who trusted he would fulfill his campaign promises. Trump's model of governance rests "not on deregulation but on nonregulation, not on deconstructing the state but on breaking the state in order to plunder the state."

Not only is Trumpocracy furthered by Trumps closest allies and friends; even worse, his power also comes from his control over an increasing number of Americans, especially on the right, who support his hatred of a free, skeptical, and cantankerous press. Through his vile and deceitful rhetoric, Trump has successfully managed to wall in his supporters in an alternate information universe by dehumanizing the press, designating it an enemy of the people while siding with a Russian autocrat bent on undermining the legitimacy of all Western democracies. By accusing millions of fraudulent voting, he has also managed to further efforts to restrict. Trumpocracy is an autoimmune disorder evidenced by an unprecedented level of dysfunctionality and corruption we witness mostly in banana republic territory. America is not immune and it's time we wake to this reality. Sadly, this book will be read mostly by those already familiar --and in agreement-- with much of what Frum has to provide in this brief and crisp piece of prose. I am more afraid of how far the GOP is willing to go to maintain its grip on power. Frum makes the frightening observation that GOP will abandon democracy before ever abandoning their brand of conservatism. So how can we build a space for consensus? Frum words no balm for those weary with the current state of polarization nor a solution to the susceptible tensions Trump capitalized on to further white resentment. Frum argues there is still room for hope and lists some pretty convincing reasons. But will these be enough to pull us back from the precipice? Perhaps.

After all of Frum's analysis, I was surprised in his unwillingness to admit the level of responsibility the Republican Party holds. The party has been paving the way for the Trump presidency and the party's demeanor under Obama, as well as the Bush Jr. years, made this very evident. Frum says Trump "imprinted upon his party his own prejudices, corruption, and ignorance" but from where I stand there is sufficient reason of public record to conclude that Trump is a symptom that reflects the absence of the values that shaped and served as foundations of our American creed and which the Republican Party outspokenly chose to reject. Trump is an example of what happens when some unprincipled men of power and an ignorant poorly informed polity, put party and tribe over the best interests of a nation founded on the enlightenment ideals we call the American democratic experiment.

Land of the free, that was?

The latest debate regarding flags, statues, and symbols celebrating key moments in American history got me thinking about the selective appreciation of such emblems and how this dispute continues to underscore the perennial effort to rewrite American history in the image of a perverse few who seek to redefine what it means to be American.  Hard to believe that a little before the Charlottesville tragedy, some of us were just about forgetting the heated exchange between Stephen Miller and CNN’s Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta as they verbally altercated over the historical significance of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Miller belittled the poem —“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”— as an addition that followed the statute way after it was placed at what is now known as Liberty Island; hence, Miller argued,  the poem is divorced of the statute’s original intent as a beacon of liberty to the world. In fact, the poem was donated by Emma Lazarus and added to the base in 1903 after being used as part of a fundraising campaign for the statute; Lazarus was herself involved in helping refugees flee anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe in the late 1850s.


Though somewhat technically right, Miller’s understanding of what Lady Liberty stands for is farther from the truth than he would care to admit given his history and policy hopes for the nation; Miller, known for his dark nationalist speeches written for President Trump,  is among a few white nationalists at the White House —including President Donald Trump— hoping to take back America for whites who perceive themselves as repressed and threatened by people ethnically, morally, and religiously inferior themselves.  Historically, America has been down this road before with the likes of the Know Nothing Party in the late 1850s and again in early 20th-century with the rise of eugenics and nativists policies that lead to sterilizations and the 1924 Immigration Act; the latter sought to restrict the flow of immigrants down to white Nordic types. Poor Italians and Irish were at the time viewed as inferior with their Catholic faith representing a moral threat to white, Protestant values.

Miller would serve his intellect well by paying attention to a widely ignored historical fact: that the Statue of Liberty was birthed in the mind of abolitionistÉdouard René de Laboulaye —presidentin the late 1800s of the French Anti-Slavery Society; furthermore, though the statute was gifted to the United States of America in commemoration of its 100th birthday, Labloulaye sought to honor the victory of the Union army in the Civil War and its consequences, which included the emancipation of black slaves --keep in mind those chains at the feet of the statute (see [Black Statue of Liberty - Summary Report - Statue Of Liberty National Monument (U.S. National Park Service)](http://bit.ly/2wKKoZi)).

As Americans, we need to ask ourselves why some of us are still dangerously clinging to a delusional and false historical romanticism involving traitors and immoral slaveholders who sought to keep slavery alive at the expense of a nation that was set on the cornerstone that all men were created equal. Why not seek to remember or rediscover the origins and the meanings of those symbols that unite us as Americans and define the struggle to nurture the values of freedom and liberty we claim to uphold? The Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus' sonnet are a good place to start if we are to query and memorialize those images, and words, that are meant to unite in lieu of picking at unhealed, festering wounds.


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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

- Emma Lazarus

With the bakers

In late 2015 my wife and I were invited to join a friend and his wife --Juan and Esther-- on a two-hour excursion outside Mexico City in San Rafael Atlixco. For days he nostalgically took us on a tour down memory lane detailing his family history and upbringing against the backdrop a place that had once been very commercially active in the 20th Century; it had been the town's golden century, that is until the French operation went belly up. 

Knowing my obsession for meeting people and documenting life, Juan took me to meet the owners of a local bakery walking distance from his spacious and recently renovated weekend home.  

The exit and the entrance --all the same to me.

The exit and the entrance --all the same to me.

Exit to Francisco I. Madero in Mexico City's downtown. 

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The Sponge on Broadway

Sponge Bob on Broadway

An image made while visiting New York to be with my parents who were living in Poughkeepsie at the time. Really hard to fathom the person who must have been wearing that suit in 90-degree Fahrenheit temperatures right on Broadway in the middle of July. He had made the effort to stand in the shade but the humidity that day was unbearable even for my father, my son, and me who were all dressed for the weather. Thinking about it while remembering a New York Times article I read about these street performers in New York City puts a lot in perspective. What some people are willing to do to make ends meet; they deserve a great deal of respect.

¿Tienes frío? (Are you cold?)

Are you cold?

A woman reaches for a sweater donated by the public in Mexico City. A group of journalists and photojournalists kicked off a campaign this winter labeled with the Twitter hashtag #SinFrioDF to get folks to donate clothing to those in need. 

I get asked these days by friends and family abroad about how Mexico is doing. Almost immediately an image of former President Carlos Salinas on the cover of Time Magazine in 1993 with the headline "Mexico Is Looking Up" flickers across my mind followed by the rest of significant events since then. Indeed, in spite of the economic turmoil that ensued in December of 1994 as the Mexican peso plunged things did take a turn for the better shortly thereafter. The party lasted a while as NAFTA began to take root and the world economy boomed. Mexico could have used this period of growth to diversify its economy, but didn't and the opportunity was ignored at a hefty price: its future. 

Today Mexico is struggling to stay on its two feet as it fights destructive gusts from internal and external whirlwinds. Dreams of one day joining a dwindling middle class are being crushed as poverty rises in a country where approximately 50% of the population already faces extreme economic hardship and reduced life chances. Inflation on some basics suffered significant increase according to some figures released at the start of the year while the current administration lives in denial of both the rise in deaths from the drug war as of 2014 and the impact of the commodity and currency crisis on the nation's economy. Just to think where things could be taken if the people who could make a difference were concerned with being transparent about the issues. Recognizing a problem brings you that much closer to fixing it, if it's not too late of course. 

Tower, light, and people

Tower, light, and people

Downtown Mexico City looking towards one of Mexico City's most iconic landmarks. 

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