Kamala Harris Privilege

There are many things to know about Kamala Harris. Americans will take a closer look at the former presidential contender tonight, as she debates Vice President Mike Pence. But in this post, I’d like to start with her unique background. Most Americans will be surprised to find Kamala Harris among the most elite-pedigreed candidates to run for high national office. She is truly the 1% of the 1%.

Per Kamala’s father, she is descended from a notorious slave owner in Jamaica. Donald Harris, a former economics professor at Stanford, wrote: “My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown), descendant of Hamilton Brown, who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town.” Hamilton owned over 1,100 slaves over the years, including some as young as one month old.

Per Kamala’s mother, she is a member of the highest caste in India. In the words of Shyamala Harris (now deceased): “In Indian society, we go by birth. We are Brahmins, that is the top caste. Please do not confuse this with class, which is only about money. For Brahmins, the bloodline is the most important. My family, named Gopalan, goes back more than 1,000 years.”

Kamala’s parents (both with elite backgrounds) met at U.C. Berkley (an elite institution) in the 1960’s. Far from being limited by race or gender, Kamala benefited from affirmative action and used her sex appeal as a woman to jumpstart her political career. In law school, Kamala participated in the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP) where she received free tutoring and course outlines unavailable to other students. Her relationship with Willie Brown, a married man thirty years her senior, is well-documented. As the speaker of the state Assembly, Brown named Harris to well-paid posts on the California Medical Assistance Commission and Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. In these roles, she received lots of tax-payer money for very little work. As mayor of San Francisco, Brown supported her district attorney campaign in 2003. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

And yet if Kamala Harris becomes Vice President, her success will be touted as a win for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Why? Because according to post-colonialism and intersectional feminism, her group identity as a Black woman trumps the numerous privileges in her individual background (elite parents, good looks, preferential treatment).

I am not blaming Kamala for her privileged past. She should be judged on her own merits, just like everyone else. Voters should consider, for example, the fact that Harris abused her power in the politically-motivated prosecution of David Daleidan, the Pro-Life activist who secretly recorded Planned Parenthood employees nonchalantly discussing the sale of aborted baby parts. They may also find it relevant that, as District Attorney of California, she fought to keep nonviolent offenders locked up in spite of extremely overcrowded prisons, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

But Harris does not seem to have many deep convictions, aside from the desire for power and willingness to do whatever it takes to get it. She accused Biden of racism in a primary debate for opposing bussing, but then laughed off the matter after accepting his offer to run as Vice President. After representing the worst of prosecutorial excess as California’s District Attorney, she twice promoted a fund to help bail out the violent criminals burning down Kenosha, including known sex offenders.

I don’t care whether Kamala Harris can rock a pair of Timberlands or whether she thinks Tupac is still alive. I don’t care that she is a woman, or that she identifies as Black. I care about her record (which is disturbing, to say the least) and apparent lack of principles. With a visibly frail Biden well into his seventies, this woman could well become President of the United States, and sooner than you might think.

I pray to God she doesn’t.

Memento Mori and Be Not Afraid

October is paradoxically both a favorite month for many and also a time typically associated with fear and death. Leaves turn orange, gold, and crimson before falling to the ground to shrivel and decay. The faint chill lacing the morning and evening air is a clear warning that summer, with all its easy lethargy, is over. We know in our bones what this means, despite modern technology’s insulating effects: life is about to get harder, days shorter, survival less certain.

And yet there is an undeniable beauty in the dying. The end of the month brings Halloween, a holiday based in part on the Celtic festival of Samhain – a disorienting, ambiguous time when the traditional boundaries between worlds could more easily be crossed. For Catholics, this became the night before All Saint’s Day, or “All Hallows Eve” – saints by definition being both deceased in body and spiritually present in heaven. The following day is All Souls Day, when we pray especially for dead loved ones. It is a time to memento mori (remember your mortality) and to ask “considering that I must die, how ought I to live?”

We may be the first culture in history to deny the basic fact of our mortality. The most cursory of glances at American life in 2020 reveals that we have forgotten how to live. Sooner or later, death comes for us all, no matter how wealthy or powerful. No one is immune from this most human of conditions. Illness and old age are but its precursors. We were recently reminded of this yet again when it was revealed that President Trump tested positive or COVID-19.

I feared for the president and the country when I heard President Trump was flying to Walter Reed, as he checks a lot of high-risk boxes. Like millions of others, I prayed for his good health. This Saturday, I was very happy to hear he was doing better, though he is clearly not out of the woods yet.

I was annoyed but not surprised by the media reaction. Many leftist individuals and outlets could not restrain their schadenfreude at the president’s diagnosis. This is what you get, they said, in more or less words. Serves you right for not “taking the virus seriously.” Now they are attempting to present Trump’s Rose Garden announcement of Judge Barrett as needlessly reckless, running tape of people talking and hugging and shaking hands (The horror! Pearl clutch! Gasp!). 

But I’d rather live in a world where people talk and hug and shake hands and even spread germs on occasion than a sterile, controlled, “safe” world… where people still spread germs (though perhaps more slowly), where they still get sick and still get old and ultimately, inevitably die.

The media did not cover the recent COVID diagnosis of Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat) with near the same level of scorn or hysteria. Millions of people have contracted this disease, many of whom followed all the recommended steps and precautions. You can wear a mask and maintain a “social distance” of six feet and avoid crowded areas, but unless you are prepared to live in a completely self-contained, total isolation bunker, you can still catch this virus and you can still get sick from it.

If you choose to stay home or take other steps to minimize risk, that is your freedom and your right. But with hospitals in no immediate danger of being overwhelmed, by what logic do you get to tell others to do the same? 

The “new normal” has never become normal for me. Every day begins a new struggle to adjust to a world that has forgotten such fundamental truths. It is not normal to blame people for getting sick. It is not normal to pretend we can do this forever, either maximal prevention (a short-term stalling tactic at best) or a vaccine (a long-term strategy, if it ever gets here).

It would be far better to focus on treatment and improved overall health. COVID-19 is here to stay. We could have done more to slow its spread in our country, but it would have gotten here eventually. Now it’s going to be similar to the common cold; we’re all likely to get it, eventually. Even so, CDC statistics show that it is no more deadly than seasonal influenza for younger Americans. For those under 49, survival rates are 99.997%. Those 50 to 69 have a 99.5 percent chance of surviving COVID, while for those over 70 – a long life by historical standards – it’s still 94.6%, and likely to increase with better treatments.

Considering these numbers, how ought we to respond to COVID?

To put it briefly, we should resume our normal lives. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, we implemented a few sensible (and some unnecessary) restrictions and regulations, and then more or less got back to work. To do less, our leaders cautioned, would be to “let the terrorists win.” During the Cold War, we faced the challenge of nuclear annihilation not with despair but with action – again, some sensible and some ill-advised, but all with a certain level of resolve. In World War II, we took the threat of Nazism and Japanese aggression incredibly seriously… so seriously that we sacrificed over 400,000 American lives to stop them.

The majority of us are called to live normal lives, lives as filled with kindness and compassion and purpose as possible. Our lives are not insignificant in their ordinariness, assuming we live them well.

But some of us are called to heroism. In the Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale’s only regret was that he had “but one life to lose” for his country. A hero is someone who shoulders the risks of others while refusing to hoard their rewards. Heroes display all the traditional virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and courage, virtues our depraved culture has almost completely forgotten. In their place we have “niceness” and “safety,” which are really fake virtues that prevent the development of others.

In this extra spooky election-year October, many Americans are more afraid that their side will lose the upcoming election than they are of catching COVID. I put myself squarely in this former camp. But like fear of death, fear of political defeat can become paralyzing, depressing, and if we let it soul-destroying.

The ancients of every civilization knew better, be they Greek, Indian, and Chinese. So too did early Christians. Saint Augustine wrote City of God as the Roman Empire was crumbling around him. He didn’t know then that five centuries of darkness and destruction would follow. Still, he urged Christians to focus on building the City of God: certain, fulfilling, and everlasting, not the City of Man: uncertain, unfulfilling, and temporary. Every empire, every polity will in time prove itself just as mortal, just as fleeting, as every human life. Politics, while often necessary, is thus a poor focus of our concern. Even if America crumbles, our true home is in heaven and we will not be fully happy until we get there. 

In the meantime, memento mori, and Happy Fall.

Are We Serious?

In the wake of their resounding victories in New Hampshire, the excitement emanating from the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns is palpable. Both (old, white) men are populist leaders. Both have built their campaigns on the promise of what they can do for the people, though in somewhat different ways – Sanders by getting the government to fund everything from your health care to your college education, Trump by using his force of personality to revive the economy and stop illegal immigration.

Even if you disagree with Trump and Sanders, which I emphatically do, it’s not hard to understand their appeal. Both men are unapologetic “straight talkers” who claim to be beyond the influence of big corporations and their party’s establishment. In fact, both men only recently joined the parties they are now vying to represent.

I get it. People are fed up with Washington. They’re fed up with Wall Street. They’re tired of both parties, let down by Bush and Obama. Voters are sending the message that they will not be controlled. They will not dutifully line up behind their party’s Chosen One. This year, people are choosing passion over pragmatism.

And perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Party leaders who would prefer to bypass the people will now have to persuade them. In a democracy, this is where all power originally resides. But the same can be said for a lynch mob. What keeps our system of government from descending into mob rule, anarchy, and despotism? Respect for the rule of law, certainly, but also the virtues of moderation, prudence, and humility. In embracing Trump and Sanders, I fear we have abandoned both.

My question for America after New Hampshire is, are we serious? Do we realize that we are choosing someone to do a job here, the most important job in the world? This is not reality TV, and it’s not a popularity contest. We are not deciding the next American Idol here, but the leader of the free world.

The next President of the United States will have to work with Congress to pass legislation that the American people will accept. Not a passionate quarter of the electorate, but the whole country. You might love the idea of socialized medicine, but guess what? The rest of the country doesn’t. You may want to deport all twelve million illegal immigrants currently residing here, but this is never going to happen.

The main task of the next president will be to deal with the international crises that have been accumulating over the past seven years, as well as any others that may arise. These include, but are not limited to: the Syrian Civil War, the spread of ISIS, deteriorating security in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese aggression, the threat of a nuclear Iran, saber-rattling in North Korea, and European democracies threatening to buckle under the weight of millions of Muslim refugees.

And yet it is on foreign policy that both Trump and Sanders are at their weakest. Trump offers few specifics beyond “getting along” with Putin, killing the families of terrorists, and doing “much worse” than waterboarding. For all his tough trade talk on China, he erroneously identified them as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Sanders is even worse, preferring to ignore foreign policy altogether. I don’t doubt he would dissolve the military entirely if it meant being able to fund his domestic agenda. When Sanders does address the issue of global terrorism, it is to utter something truly idiotic, like the claim that ISIS is the result of climate change.

I know that a good chunk of the American electorate would prefer to ignore the rest of the world and focus on things here at home. I recently had a Bernie Sanders supporter tell me that ISIS doesn’t matter because more people die from car accidents than terrorist attacks. But whether we like to think about it or not, these are dangerous times. In an era of globalization and terrorism, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy is increasingly blurred.

Just think beyond the rallies and debates and campaign trail euphoria, and imagine an actual Trump or Sanders presidency. Do you really want to see either of these men in the Oval Office? Do you want them representing America, negotiating with Congress, and handling all the inevitable crises and surprises of a presidential term?

I realize the Democrats don’t have much of a choice here, as a Hillary Clinton presidency would be no better. Their rejection of Jim Webb, the only Democratic candidate qualified to do the job, is truly disturbing. But Republicans still have options. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are conservative alternatives to Trump, though I still don’t see how Cruz gets elected. Even Jeb Bush and John Kasich, though too moderate for my liking, could do the job of commander-in-chief.

You wouldn’t choose a doctor, a pilot, or even a dog-walker on the basis of their rhetoric alone. Why are we treating this election with less seriousness?