The Unknown

I was going to walk by. I nodded in that way you do when you don’t want to seem impolite, but you don’t want to engage either. He said, “hello, brother,” and for some reason, I knew I needed to talk to him. He was in his mid-sixties—not that much older than I—with eyes clouded by cataracts and a head of gray dreadlocks. I reached out, shook his hand, and asked him how he was. He said he was old. And tired. I asked him what he was doing. He told me his life story. How he raised three daughters with his German wife. Her journey to Peoria is a mystery, though I asked how he came to be married to a German girl. He met her in school. “Married my high school sweetheart,” he said. He talked about how he’d lost a job, maybe several, some years ago. How he’d started riding trains even though it made his mother worry. “She told me not to,” he said. But what else could he do? He told me he was hoping to catch a train to Phoenix…or maybe get a ride from his brother who drives a truck coast to coast. It would be hard, since his cell phone had been stolen. Maybe find a library and email him, I said. He liked to be able to talk and find out the right time. It made sense.

He told me about showing up at his sister’s house unannounced. They hadn’t seen him for years. He talked about seeing his father again, the first time since he’d “lost him.” How he’d gone missing was left to the imagination. The story was somewhere there in the clouds of his eyes. He told me how his father had always called him “boy,” even then in later life, but that his sister called him by name. It was Todd. “I hadn’t heard anyone say my name in years,” he said. People walked past beside the river along a touristy path in a major southern city. He was there and in other places like it, but we never call his name. He is a part of the unknown.

I cannot comprehend the pain of it. It is the simplest thing to be addressed as though you are real. It is the cruelest thing to deny someone such basic acknowledgement of their being. The thought of his joy at hearing it from his sister nearly struck me down in sadness that a man could know bliss from that kind of a place. There is such profound inequity all around us that it renders judgment meaningless.

I wished him the best and shook his hand again, this time the kind that flowed from the business-like, to the grip around thumbs, to the interlocked hook of bent fingers not quite curled into a fist. We had gone beyond a nod or even a simple handshake. Hello, brother, he’d said, after all. But there was something else he wanted me to know. He told me, in a rambling way, the one thing his father had left imprinted on his younger mind. “Boy, if there’s one thing you better always do, it’s hear a man out,” his father had told him. “And you did that,” he said. “You did that…” We shook one more time, and I again offered my farewell.

I hope he gets that train. Or finds his brother. I hope he makes peace with whatever demons he’s been chasing along the rails that crisscross a country. I hope our time meant more to him than the few dollars I gave him. It did for me.

Godspeed, Todd. I know your name.

Rod Rosenstein: Player, not Played

Author’s note: I wrote this the weekend of the 12th of May, 2017. I sent it to the New York Times and waited the obligatory three days to “publish” it. Having heard nothing from my esteemed “Gray Lady,” I offer it to you. It appears my faith in Mr. Rosenstein was well-founded.

We know it was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo that led the president to fire the director of the FBI. The Vice President said so. We also know it wasn’t Mr. Rosenstein’s memo that led to that firing. The president said so in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt this week. Of course, only one of these narratives can be correct. Mr. Rosenstein already knew exactly which it was by the time he was ordered to provide a substantive cause for the president to act against the man leading an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with a foreign power to influence the election. For the last few days, the press has dragged the deputy attorney general, who just won confirmation by a 94-6, through the ringer of innuendo and credibility assassination. They have it all wrong.

Mr. Rosenstein knew he was being used for the respect he meticulously cultivated over decades in the snake pit that is Washington. He was ordered by the president and his direct boss, who though recused in the Russian matter for his own false statements was still somehow to be a part of the decision, to provide a rationale to fire Director Comey. He did it with indisputable facts and the knowledgeable opinions of others who had served in his capacity. It’s just that he did it for a previous president. And he did that knowing that president never entertained the notion seriously and neither the new president nor the attorney general were savvy enough to catch the nuance. It was the masterstroke of a highly intelligent, extremely self-aware public servant who played his superiors in a manner both were far too dim to understand.

Mr. Rosenstein’s memo is three pages long. It accurately details Mr. Comey’s missteps and his breaks with precedent involving his public statements about Mrs. Clinton’s emails. These are well argued and indisputable. But the deputy attorney general also leaned into the president’s well observed weaknesses. He states he cannot understand the director’s “refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.” He is detailing the consensus on one matter and subtly projecting it to another before lining up former attorneys general and deputies appointed by presidents of both parties who have all concluded Director Comey made grave errors and endangered the reputation and nonpartisan nature of the FBI. He provided Mr. Trump with the possibility of using a familiar refrain from the campaign when he would say, “people are saying” and “I’ve heard this from many people” in attempts to add voracity to largely baseless claims, allegations against opponents, or his own boasts.

Mr. Rosenstein then turned his attention to Mr. Trump’s most glaring weakness, his knowledge of his own inferiority. Mr. Rosenstein tacitly reflected on Mr. Comey’s ability to provide devastating narrative by highlight what “an articulate and persuasive speaker about leadership and the immutable principles of the Department of Justice” he was. Mr. Trump had demanded Mr. Comey’s loyalty at a dinner, the circumstances of which are now in doubt, and was rebuffed. For all his faults, the director maintained the integrity to hold himself apart from our president’s royal tendencies. He would later confirm the FBI’s investigation of the campaign and destroy the credibility of the president’s claims of illegal surveillance by his predecessor. Articulate and persuasive were qualities Mr. Trump could not abide in a subordinate who would never kiss the ring. Mr. Rosenstein knew exactly what he was doing.

The end of the letter is telling. The deputy attorney general never unequivocally recommends removal. Most ominously, Mr. Rosenstein opens that last paragraph with, “Although the President has the power to remove the FBI Director, the decision should not be taken lightly.” He offered the president a life-line, but he knew the president’s mind was already made up. He knew Comey’s firing had nothing to do with whatever he would write. He also knew the president and his staff would initially claim it was his recommendation that drove the action, so Mr. Rosenstein crafted an entirely accurate rationale that was so preposterous any thinking human would never believe it. And so it passed that the president of the United States, who led the chants of “Lock her up!” on the campaign trail and cheered Comey’s actions just days before the election, supposedly fired the Director of the FBI for the way he publicly mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Mr. Rosenstein could not foresee his great fortune that the president would leg sweep his entire staff, including the Vice President, and claim the decision was his alone. That the president would also admit “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia” was on his mind when he decided to take that action? Well that was something he could never have dreamed.

Mr. Rosenstein’s reputation did not just shrink. His credibility can hardly be questioned when what he wrote is absolute truth. The deputy attorney general just proved himself to be a formidable player with a ruthless intellect. Those with lesser capabilities should take note. What he does next with that intellect may very well make him a historical figure in the defense of democracy. It will certainly determine how history takes the ultimate measure of the man. I hope he chooses wisely. I suspect he will.

Rich, Smart…Intolerant

In the fall of 2004, I was sent to Alabama to learn to be a better mid-level officer. During one lecture, an Air Force general recommended a book on Islam that sent the faculty into apoplectic attempts to censor comments already made. The book was judged as non-scholarly at best and bigoted at worst. Professors made immediate attempts to discredit both the book and the speaker for making such a recommendation. They lamented our ability to develop as officers with such uninformed senior leadership. It was a shocking display of derision for our ability to think. It led me to write a satirical piece which, through the wonders of the internet, spread around the world in less than twenty-four hours and gained me some infamy among academic and military leaders on the base. The fact that I could tell you the name of the professorial ring-leader of this attempt at thought purity through source limiting, and that I can recall neither the general officer’s name nor the title of the book should perhaps be instructive as we approach similar attacks on the second right of the First Amendment.

Recent protests at Middlebury College in Vermont and UC Berkeley’s institutional identity disorder over whether conservative firebrand Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak have brought the issue of free speech on campus back to the front page. In Vermont, the student body shouted down Charles Murray, author of the controversial book The Bell Curve. Berkeley first disinvited Ms. Coulter, citing fears over violent protests, then re-invited her. Issues such as the supposed fragility of our youths’ minds to offense cloud the greater principle and far more dangerous consequence of such nonsense. Trigger warnings and “safe space” concepts are anathema to intellectual and academic freedom and teach these fragile youths that suppressing speech is warranted if individuals’ feelings are hurt. It is only one step further to endorse suppression of speech with which one disagrees. This appears to be exactly what is happening at some of the best schools in the land.

A piece appeared in the March 30th, 2017 edition of The Economist highlighting a study of protests and attempts by student bodies at some of the finest institutions of higher learning to disinvite controversial speakers. It found a statistically significant and proportional correlation between the income of students’ families and college entrance exam scores with the ability to gather large protests and to be “successful” in influencing institutions to pull invitations and cancel speaking engagements. These are disturbing data. Those with higher intellectual capacities who come from families of greater means are more likely to protest and ultimately suppress speakers.

This finding gives credence to the claim from conservatives and rural America about “liberal elites” and their hypocrisy over tolerance. It makes combatting “political correctness” the rallying cry of populists and gives cover to our reemergent problem of white nationalists and supremacists. Perhaps most harmfully, it sets a precedent from the most respected institutions of higher learning in the world that sequestering students from ideas that might challenge their views about the world and society is a legitimate endeavor. That idea is a major force behind religious home-schooling curricula, some of which teach that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old. This precedent can only lead to greater self-segregation, both physically and mentally, into like-minded cabals where independent and critical thought die a quick yet merciless death.

While the institutions themselves may plod on, higher learning itself cannot thrive in any environment where the free exchange of ideas is stifled. Academic freedom is a necessity if colleges and universities still expect their students’ minds to grow. It has been, heretofore, the reason U.S. schools are the most respected in the world. It does not have to remain so.

These schools should immediately cease caving to their highly recruited, supposedly intellectual students of rich parents when it comes to one of our most basic rights. They must encourage differing viewpoints to be widely heard. They should spend time mentoring these would-be future leaders on the merits of civil discourse and the methods thereof. There are ways to protest—silently, with well-reasoned queries during question and answer sessions, or in a more raucous manner outside the venue—that still allow speakers to have their say and others to process the words in their own time and way. There may be cause to sanction those who disrupt and disable fora where speakers have been invited to share their views. These are not political rallies where there is no expectation of academic rigor nor of insulation from others expressing their own political views. Shouting someone down in these academic environments is not an equal form of free speech when its sole intent is to muffle their views, denying them the same right the protester claims as cover.

I am no fan of either Mr. Murray or Ms. Coulter, but they and other controversial speakers must be allowed to talk. Often doing so is in the interest of those who would oppose them. When certain ideas are exposed to the light, the full weight of their internal inconsistencies and the biases of their creators can be projected to ever wider audiences. This is nothing to fear; it ought to be cheered. On the free exchange of ideas, the arc of history—or a concept’s utter lack of ability to capture and hold a memory—sees to it that bad ones die of their own frailty. The name and life of Cesar Chavez will likely be widely known long after Ann Coulter’s contributions disappear into a tiny, dark, and barely accessible crevasse of human knowledge.

In the world’s great cities there are places where speakers will talk to whoever will listen, and when no one listens at all. My first experience with such a place was Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. It is in the country that so economically, religiously, and intellectually repressed a bunch of upstart colonists “in a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations…” that they saw fit to “…throw off such Government…” and eventually create the most enlightened document on self-governance yet known. At Speakers’ Corner, you may hear the eloquent and the absurd. There, as it should be everywhere, it is up to the listener alone to discern the difference between the two.