Thursday, October 18, 2018

"A contrary view in the Montgomery County race" for County Executive: My letter in the Washington Jewish Week

Today, the Washington Jewish Week published my disagreement with its endorsement of Nancy Floreen for Mongtomery County Executive:  

A contrary view in Montgomery County race

In debate after debate, Democratic Party county executive nominee Marc Elrich has displayed what his career has demonstrated: He is a principled and practical progressive who knows the nuts and bolts of county governance and looks for solutions to problems (“Floreen for Montgomery County executive,” Oct. 11).

Elrich is taking public financing, so he will not be beholden to special interests. Nancy Floreen, in contrast, draws the vast majority of her financial support from developers and other large business interests. The linchpin of her campaign is that somehow Elrich is too radical. Yet, as the WJW’s endorsement of Floreen reports, “At last week’s debate, Elrich asked Floreen, ‘I’d like to know what my radical ideas are, that I keep getting accused of having extreme views.’”
Floreen did not provide a single example. While she and Elrich are both friends of the Jewish community, I would suggest that current County Executive Ike Leggett’s endorsement of Elrich over Floreen speaks volumes.

Here it is on the WJW website (it is the third item at the link).  

Below are my earlier blogposts on this election:

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Washington Post's County Executive Endorsement, a recent candidate forum, and the significance of Ike Leggett's unhesitating endorsement of Marc Elrich

Robin Ficker, Nancy Floreen, and Marc Elrich at October 8 forum at
Beth Tzedek Synagogue

Post Endorsement

When it comes to the Montgomery County Executive race, the Washington Post Editorial Board appears to be living in a world of magical thinking. In endorsing Independent candidate  (and present member of the County Council) Nancy Floreen, it says that there are only “two plausible candidates,” Ms. Floreen and Democratic nominee (and present member of the County Council) Marc Elrich. See here. The Post dismisses the Republican nominee, Robin Ficker, as “rabble rouser notorious for heckling at Washington Wizards games, as well as for repeated disciplinary actions taken against him by Maryland’s Court of Appeals.”  True, but Mr. Ficker is no less credible as a candidate than previous Republican nominees, who had far less name recognition. And in recent elections, every Republican candidate has received one-third or more of the vote. So, in a three-way race, unless Marc Elrich swamps Nancy Floreen or visa versa, Mr. Ficker suddenly becomes a plausible victor.  

In reality, the Post is, in effect, gambling on the premise that Nancy (here in Montgomery County, we tend to identify our elected officials by their first names) will be able to use the wealthy business interest money backing her candidacy to overwhelm Marc, who limited himself to public financing. But Marc's near-universal Democratic Party and enthusiastic grassroots support make that scenario extremely unlikely. There is a distinct possibility that Nancy's candidacy could result in a close three-way race in which Montgomery County wakes up on November with a hangover that will rival the one experienced in 2016. 

I attended a County Executive Candidate forum last Monday. 

Mr. Ficker alternated between standard Republican talking points about taxes being too high and going off into never-never land in his attacks on both Marc and Nancy -- but mostly on Marc.  Mr. Ficker is just as off-the-rails as he has been his entire political career, as I explained last month, when I reviewed Nancy's support from a developer group calling itself County Above Party.  See here.

Nancy presented her self as a "mainstream" Democrat, effectively pretending that this is a re-do of the primary, in which her viewpoint on the influence of developer money did not prevail. She did display a reasonable understanding of the issues that do not divide her and Marc. Indeed, the only sharp difference that emerged is whether to accept at face value what developers want (essentially her position), or whether to be far more skeptical, as Marc.  Marc has shown himself to be a practical, progressive problem solver. And at the forum, he once again showed a thoughtful, detailed understanding of the issues that face the community.  That is why I voted for him in the primary, and why I enthusiastically support him now.

Nevertheless, most people do not attend campaign forums, and the pro-Floreen advertisements, funded almost entirely by the developers and unfairly attacking Marc as a "dangerous radical," are flooding the airwaves.  Indeed, while I see more and more Elrich yard signs in front of people's homes, I see huge Floreen signs in shopping centers and other large business operations.  A Floreen victory would be unfortunate, but a Ficker plurality victory would be a disaster for the County.

Ike Leggett's endorsement of Marc Elrich for County Executive

For the last 12 years, Ike Leggett has been our County Executive.  In some ways he has been a bridge between the business interests who achieved influence during the Doug Duncan years as Executive (1998-2006) and those who are more skeptical of business influence.  Now we have a choice between those two approaches.  It is telling that after the primary, Ike immediately endorsed Marc. (Note:  That Ike's endorsement was not a reflexive party unity step is illustrated by his reluctance to endorse Democratic primary victor Ben Jealous for governor. See here.  I favor Jealous, but Ike's approach certainly should put the lie to the "dangerous radical" label that the developer interests seek to attach to Marc.)

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Newsweek report on Mike Fishback's "Green Eggs and Ham" lesson.

I am a very fortunate father and grandfather.

Sun, Oct 07, 2018
"Do you like green eggs and ham?" 
It's a seemingly innocuous question—and one that children and parents around the world will be affectionately familiar with as the first line of Dr. Seuss' beloved Green Eggs and Ham children's book. 
First published on August 12, 1960, Green Eggs and Ham follows a particularly persistent character, "Sam-I-Am," who pesters another character, who is never named in the tale, to try a plate of green eggs and ham, despite the second character's repeated refusals. 

After being hounded by the determined Sam-I-Am across several locations, including in a car, on a train and on a boat in the middle of the ocean, the second character finally relents, agreeing to give green eggs and ham a chance. 
The story is supposed to be one about persistence, about trying new things. 
But one middle school teacher says the tale could also be interpreted in a more negative way—and could have an important lesson to teach us about consent. 
"I had been thinking about this ever since I read the book to my daughter who is now five," Mike Fishback, a San Diego humanities teacher, told Newsweek. 
"Every time I read the book I think about how this is a really bad example of how to have relations with people," he said. "Then it occurred to me that now, in the context of the MeToo era, this could really be interpreted as a story about lack of consent."
Fishback said that Sam-I-Am's repeated badgering of the second character, demanding that they try "green eggs and ham," despite their refusals, could be seen as a form of harassment.
"If someone says 'no,' you do not persist and badger them until they break down and say yes", the teacher said.
"When the second character at the end of the book says, 'ok, Sam-I-Am, I'll try it,' he’s not saying he’s trying it because he's changed his mind. He's doing it because he's exhausted, tired, worn down and trapped," Fishback said. 
Fishback said he had initially wanted to teach his seventh grade class of 12- and 13-year-old students about how they could use storytelling to support an argument.
A week or so before delivering the lesson, in the context of an unrelated class activity, Fishback lightheartedly referred to his dislike of Green Eggs and Ham, which prompted significant pushback from the class.
"Many students identified this as having been one of the first books they had loved as children, and the importance of the lesson that you should be open to trying new things," he said. "Simply telling them a different interpretation wasn't going to help them understand. That's when I realized that I could use this as a model for how they can use storytelling to shift people's thinking about something."
So a few days later, Fishback read the book aloud to the class and listened as students shared their mostly positive thoughts about it with one another.
"The class period ended with students feeling pretty good about having communicated to me what was so great about this book," he said, adding that he felt confident he had set the stage well for the next lesson on modeling storytelling.
Then coincidentally, on the day the seventh-grade teacher decided to teach his lesson and see if he could show his students another side to the Green Eggs and Ham story, much of the world was looking towards Washington, D.C. where senators had gathered to hear the testimonies of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Palo Alto University Professor Christine Blasey Ford who had accused the judge of sexually assaulting her at a high school party in 1982. 
Fishback realized he had an opportunity to turn this simple storytelling lesson into both a current events lesson and a life-skills lesson about the importance of consent.
Fishback said many of his students had been aware of the Kavanaugh story and had been following it. 
However, the teacher said that regardless of whether his students were aware of the details of the allegations against Kavanaugh, he decided to focus the lesson specifically on consent and sexual harassment with the guidance of his school's principal. 
"I want to emphasize that if teachers would like to pick this up and use Green Eggs and Ham to teach about consent, that it's really important to be careful about how you speak about sexual harassment and sexual assault because we don't want to trigger any students," he said.
As such, Fishback did not discuss the full details of the allegations against Kavanaugh. 
Instead, he decided to tell them about attorney Anita Hill who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee 27 years ago after accusing Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his own confirmation hearings in 1991. 
The teacher then defined sexual harassment, referred to the new round of Senate hearings happening "at this very hour," and proceeded to read aloud five real-life narratives of sexual harassment as told by working women to various media outlets during the past year of the MeToo movement.
"Then I told the class that when I, as a man, read stories like this from women, it makes me angry. These stories of being chased, their polite 'No's being ignored, of feeling trapped and having to escape, are experiences no one should ever have to go through. As a parent, I would never want my children, especially my son, to think this is okay."
Then, in a "slow and intense voice," Fishback said he told his students: "This is why I don't like the book Green Eggs and Ham.  
"There was an audible gasp in the classroom," the teacher said.
Fishback said that after listening to stories of what sexual harassment looks like, the connection between harassment and Green Eggs and Ham seemed to click immediately. 
"What I really wanted to focus on is that 'no means no'," he said. "We should be teaching kids how to listen to the word 'no" and to take it seriously and step back." 
Books like Green Eggs and Ham, Fishback said, can be used as a teaching tool to start those important conversations.
"Many teachers use picture books with older students as a way of showing how stories can communicate a lesson or message," he said. "The 'hook' here is that I'm turning a beloved book on its head and revealing a hidden message that the author had not intended to teach. This gets the kids really engaged.
"Then, we can have conversations about serious issues on a deeper level because they have a prior story that they can reference-and that really is the power of using these picture books," Fishback said. 
"You can still love this book," he said. "But what I hope is that when you think about this book, you will consider this angle too." 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Senator Collins is naive and/or willfully ignorant of the facts surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination.

     I would love to see capable people annotate the entire text of Senator Collins’ statement today explaining why she is going to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the United States Supreme Court.   In the meantime, I see significant flaws in her analysis. 
     First, is the question of Roe v. Wade. Collins is convinced that a Justice Kavanaugh would not overturn it because he told her how much he respects precedent. Of course, that is what Chief Justice John Roberts said in his confirmation -- but then proceeded to vote, in Citizens United, to overturn a century of precedent involving campaign finance laws and the First Amendment.  Likewise, in Heller, Chief Justice Roberts voted to ignore long-standing precedents with respect to the the “well-ordered militia” language of the Second Amendment. So Senator Collins should not have been so credulous regarding Judge Kavanaugh’s assertions, particularly since his formative years in his pre-judicial career were spent as a right-wing political operative. The Federalist Society incubator cannot be ignored. Indeed, Senator Collins’ invocation of the pro-choice decisions of Republican appointees O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter actually undercuts her argument. For the last quarter century, the rallying cry of anti-choice Republicans has been “No more Souters!” So now we have Justices Alito, Roberts, and Gorsuch, who with Justice Thomas, have consistently voted to undercut Roe. With retired Justice Kennedy about to be replaced by Judge Kavanaugh, the stage is set for the reversal. Lest Senator Collins think that this is not so, all she need do is look at how, earlier this year, Judge Kavanaugh placed insuperable roadblocks to an incarcerated 17 year old immigrant seeking to terminate her unwanted pregnancy before he was stopped by the full District of Columbia Circuit. Senator Collins’ naïveté is breathless.
     But what of Senator Collins’ conclusion that Judge Kavanaugh was truthful denying the Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez allegations? While Senator Collins seems to accept Dr. Ford’s good faith, she notes the possible incongruity of how Ford could have gotten home from a house near Columbia Country Club. The FBI could have looked into this, but did not. And there are plausible explanations, even though Dr. Ford, to her credit, did not speculate. And the FBI declined to interview her, even though she repeatedly offered to subject herself to such an interview.
     Compare this to Judge Kavanaugh’s insistence that his drinking never got out of hand -- a linchpin of Dr. Ford's allegation. Judge Kavanaugh's insistence is undercut by contemporary documentary evidence (his Georgetown Prep yearbook, his own calendar, his own note to his friends in advance of "Beach Week", and his friend Mike Judge's memoirs) and is directly refuted by sworn statements of many of his Georgetown Prep and Yale classmates. See here.  But the FBI refused to explore this vital aspect of the controversy, which also underlies Ms. Ramirez's allegation.  Indeed, other than interviewing Ms. Ramirez, the FBI did absolutely nothing to test the veracity of her allegation or  Judge Kavanaugh's denial.  Senator Collins simply ignores these grave, indeed fatal, flaws in the FBI "investigation." Instead she asserts that the FBI investigation satisfied her. (Given the gravity and evidence supporting Dr. Ford's and Ms. Ramirez's allegations, it is irrelevant to Judge Kavanaugh's veracity or responsibility whether there is truth to the Julia Swetnick allegations; but Senator Collins seizes on the Swetnick charge, to the exculsion of any serious consideration of the Ford or Ramirez charges.)
     Finally, Senator Collins ignores Judge Kavanaugh's dreadful, revealing performance last Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which his inner partisan hit-man instincts came out. This caused retired Justice John Paul Stevens (another Republican, albeit one who often voted with the Court’s liberals) to withdraw his endorsement.  But this did not seem to trouble Senator Collins at all.
     I do not know whether Collins is this naive or is willfully determined to ignore the salient facts. But I do know that I am utterly unpersuaded by her.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

"Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." Al Franken was not exaggerating.

In early 2003, Al Franken published his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. As a fan of Franken's, I read the book with great interest, assuming it would be a biting, hilarious satire.  To my surprise, while the book was biting and often funny, it was a well-documented piece of non-fiction.  The title, which I had assumed was hyperbole, turned out to be a deadly accurate summary of the actual state of play in American politics.

The book destabilized my assumptions about political discourse.  I always figured that people would spin the facts to favor their own conclusions, but, in the United States, I thought that prominent figures would not stoop to straight-out lying on important matters -- if only because they knew they would get caught and would suffer adverse consequences.  But Franken showed that the most prominent right-wingers lied repeatedly to advance their interests, and got away with it.

Still, I hoped that this "ends justify the means" approach had not gone beyond the best-known commentators and politicos.  Later in the year, however, I learned that it was the modus operandi of the hard right, at least when it came to the cultural struggle over sexual orientation.  As chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development, appointed by the Montgomery County (Maryland) Board of Education, I presided over discussions about the inclusion in the secondary school health education curriculum of material on sexual orientation.  The Committee included some people who were very conservative, including one who repeatedly presented "information" which was demonstrably false.  This advocate did not simply look at the facts through a different prism, but rather presented as fact things that had long been rejected by every mainstream American medical and mental health professional association.

Throughout 2003 and well into 2004, I spent countless hours examining the "studies" which purported to conclude that being gay was a disease, that it was caused by abuse, that people could choose to change their sexual orientation, and that gay people could not possibly have healthy and happy lives.  At every turn, I discovered (often with the help of medical professionals on the Committee) that these studies had no scientific validity and that they almost invariably were funded by right-wing religious groups which decided, as a matter of theology, that these things were true.  When the facts did not fit their theories -- which was constantly -- they simply ignored the facts, the realities of actual people's actual lives. At every turn, I was able to show this to my fellow Committee members, and the Committee votes were overwhelmingly in favor of presenting the facts as found by our mainstream medical professionals.  And after a long struggle -- which included an ambush lawsuit and later a second lawsuit for which we were prepared and resoundingly won, as well as foot-dragging by people within the school system who admitted to us that we were right, but were afraid to challenge the small group of right-wingers  -- we finally succeeded in securing a good health education program.  A fuller account of the history of this successful struggle may be found here.

What we have seen with Donald Trump, those who serve him, and, it turns out, at least one person he wishes to put on the Supreme Court, is the triumph of lies over facts.  Not "alternative facts," as Kellyanne Conway posited, but lies.  Not spin, but falsehood.  Brett Kavanaugh demonstrably lied about his relationship with alcohol and the kind of person it turned him into -- facts relevant to the question of whether he, in fact, sexually assaulted Christine Blasey. See here. The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Thursday, and the sworn statements of multiple high school and college contemporaries of Kavanaugh's (statements the FBI chose to ignore), I believe made it clear to anyone who would choose to be open minded that Kavanaugh was lying.  But lying has become the coin of the realm in American politics -- at least on the Republican side.  What I witnessed and dealt with on a local level in Montgomery County in the beginning of this century was the approach that the Corporate and Social Warrior Right Wing used to achieve power a decade later. 

Turning this around will be hard, but we owe it to ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren to try as hard as we can.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Imagine if Brett Kavanaugh had said the following.....

Imagine if Brett Kavanaugh had said the following when Christina Ford's allegations came to light:
"When I was in high school, I did a lot of really stupid things, typically involving drinking alcohol. I have no recollection of doing anything like what Dr. Ford describes, but I cannot categorically say it did not happen. The drinking was that bad -- as my friend Mark Judge wrote in his book. If I did abuse Dr. Ford while drunk at the age of 17, I apologize profusely.
"What I can categorically say is that I matured a lot after high school, learned to drink responsibly, and was able to put my immaturity in the past. I believe that my life as an adult demonstrates that I have acted responsibly in all aspects of my adult life. I stress to my daughters and the other girls I coach that young people should not drink;their bodies are too-often ill-equipped to keep the alcohol from impairing their judgment.
"And if I had sons, I would stress to them that they should never make the mistakes I made as a teenager."
If he had said it when the story first broke, I might have believed him. But now, having issued categorical denials over the past days, I for one, would not believe his sincerity. The Trumpian strategy of Deny, Deny, Deny appears to be contagious. We must do everything we can to keep the contagion from spreading.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"The Trump administration is choosing corporate profits over public safety" -- Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post, 9/18/18

Published in The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2018

The Trump administration is choosing corporate profits over public safety
Catherine Rampell’s Sept. 12 op-ed, “Making Asbestos Great Again,” brought to mind the long, multibillion-dollar struggle during the 1980s and 1990s between the asbestos-products industry and the Justice Department, in which the industry unsuccessfully sought to shift its tort liability to the federal taxpayers. As part of the United States’ defense team in that litigation, I learned that the industry knew about the hazards of asbestos but hid that knowledge from everyone else, including the federal government. That fact enabled the executive branch (in both Republican and Democratic administrations) to defeat lobbyists’ efforts to have Congress bail out the asbestos industry.

Now the Trump administration may be giving industry the green light to bring back the dangers in the name of corporate profits. My successors at Justice may not have the equitable argument against federal responsibility that we had. More to the point, as Ms. Rampell showed, while our economy may be getting a short-term boost from current federal policies, the price will be long-term damage to the country.

David S. Fishback, Olney