Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, July 23, 2018 7:31 pm

For the 4,683rd time: No, the two parties are NOT both equally bad

I see some version every day, usually multiple times a day, of this argument: “Both parties are to blame for our problems. They’re both equally bad.”

I’m not sure why today’s iteration, a point made in passing by someone I don’t know in the comments of a friend’s Facebook post, triggered me when all the others didn’t. There was nothing unique about his argument, and it wasn’t even his main point.

But he said it, and I reacted viscerally. After taking some time to boil down my thinking, here’s where I am.

Whoa, sorry, ” … the two parties … simply will not compromise for any reason whatsoever”?? No, sir. WRONG. ONE party will not compromise for any reason whatsoever, as a result of which actual Holocaust survivors are warning us that we’re heading down the same road Germany followed in the 1930s.

I’ll give you just one example, albeit a hugely important one. Obama was elected in 2008 with a clear mandate to do something about health care. Rejecting the pleas of his own base for single-payer, something many other Western industrialized democracies are quite happy with, he instead offered what became the ACA, which originated in the 1990s as the Republican/Heritage Foundation alternative to Hillarycare. Democrats accepted more than 130 Republican-sponsored amendments to the original bill. And still, it passed without one single Republican vote. I could cite many more examples.

Please stop repeating false storylines. Both parties are not equally bad. One and only one party has rejected science and truth. One and only one party has made itself an agent of a hostile foreign power and a perpetrator of treason — yes, treason; I’m well aware of the legal definition. One and only one party is pushing economic and tax policies that transfer vast quantities of wealth upward from the poor and middle class into the hands of a hyperwealthy few. One and only one party is campaigning on undisguised appeals to racism and other forms of bigotry. One and only one party is breaking down our democratic norms and our constitutional system of checks and balances. And it’s the party to which I belonged for 38 years: the GOP.

I think the reason why so many people adhere to this view is that no one ever challenges them on it, despite the abundance of grounds on which to do so. Another reason is that some people on cable TV say it, and they don’t get challenged either.

Well, we all know it’s bullshit. So it’s time to call it bullshit, out loud and without apology. If the Democratic Party were flawless I’d join it, and I haven’t done that for a reason. But the Republican Party has gone so far off the edge in so many policy and procedural areas that there isn’t any comparison, and anyone telling you otherwise is lying.

 

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Monday, June 18, 2018 10:15 pm

The crying of the lambs

First, listen to this:

That’s the sound of 10 Central American children, recently taken from their parents by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Listen again, dammit. That’s the sound of a human rights violation being committed in your name and with your tax dollars. That’s audio smuggled out of an office in which your government wouldn’t allow pictures, video or audio. What are they hiding?

They’re hiding a crime against humanity: the tearing of children from their parents, perhaps never to be reunited. Already, a sheriff’s deputy has been accused of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl and threatening her mother with deportation if she told police.

This administration started out in mid-2015 making brown people the enemy. It has only done more so since. In the tradition of murderous dictators before him, Donald Trump has insisted that would-be immigrants from Latin America aren’t human, but animals. And so we’re viciously ripping children, including nursing infants, from their parents. In many cases, the parents are being deported but the children kept here, for what nefarious purpose we’re left to guess. The policy is so distasteful that not only Democrat Rosalyn Carter but also Republican Laura Bush have criticized it.

Why? Republicans like to insist — lie — that this is the law of the land and has been since Bill Clinton. That’s horseshit. Although this was an option, it was one that Obama and Bush 43 alike refused to choose, not least because they had to know how bad it was and how bad it would look. This is happening because Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked this policy in April 2018 (although it always had been part of the plan). Trump, despite claiming that Democrats must “change the law,” is Sessions’s boss and could overturn this policy with a phone call.

But he won’t, because he supports the policy. He supports it because he knows his base does: 58 percent of Republicans support it, as opposed to 5% of Democrats and 27% of independents. And he supports it because he believes he can use these kids as hostages to get funding for his border wall, which wouldn’t work and would only enrich his contractor buddies.

Overall, two-thirds of Americans oppose the policy. At least 48 Democratic senators have signed on to S. 3036, a bill that would overturn the policy, but at this writing not one Republican has signed on. (Jeff Flake and Lindsay Graham and Ben Sasse have expressed concern about the policy, but as usual none is putting his vote where his mouth is.)

At this writing, more than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. And why? In many cases, the kids accompanied their parents as they came to the U.S. to seek political asylum from the violence in their home countries. Entering this country to seek political asylum is, Hello, absolutely legal.

But there’s a catch. Such immigrants must present themselves at a designated port of entry. And the Department of Homeland Security has been delaying immigrants on the Mexico side of the border for days on end at such ports, forcing some to seek to enter the country at places other than designated ports of entry.

Thus, immigrants fleeing gang violence and death squads are forced to commit a misdemeanor in order to try to enter our country. And it is on that “basis” that children are being separated from their parents. (Some children are taken from parents under the guise of getting a bath. You know where else did that? Auschwitz.)

And the current policy calls for prosecution in 100% of such cases, with parents being told that the only way they ever will see their children again is to plead guilty.

So far, roughly 2,000 kids have been separated from their parents, and that may be an undercount. Why is this bad? It isn’t just sad or inconvenient; it can do permanent brain damage to the children who experience it:

“It is a form of child abuse,” Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. Kraft visited a Texas facility where children 12 years and younger are being held.

Kraft described seeing “very quiet” toddlers and one young girl under 2 years old “who was just sobbing and wailing and beating her little fists on the mat.”

“I was told that you couldn’t comfort or hold a crying child,” Kraft said. “And we all knew that this child was crying because she wanted her mother, and we couldn’t give that to her.”

Kraft explained how stress increases levels of cortisol, “our fight-and-flight hormones.”

“Normally that helps to protect us when there’s a dangerous situation. In the instance where children are separated from their parents, the one buffer they have against these fight-or-flight chemicals is gone and so these children are on red alert all the time and they’re not able to buffer these different hormones,” Kraft said. “And what this can do is disrupt the synapses and the neurological connections that are part of the developing brain.”

The American Psychological Association adds:

APA warned that trauma from family separation is a significant social determinant of mental and physical health, and referenced decades of documented research showing the harmful effects of parent-child separation on children and caregivers’ emotional and psychological well-being. APA implored the administration to reconsider this deleterious policy and commit to the more humane practice of housing families together pending immigration proceedings.

This is what is being done to children in our name. This is what Trump, lying, says is the result of a Democratic law. This is what we must do, says Attorney General Jeff Sessions, invoking Romans 13, despite the fact that the Bible says that unjust laws may not be obeyed, that the Torah says no fewer than 36 times that aliens must be treated hospitably and that Jesus, most famously in the parable of the Good Samaritan, constantly stresses hospitality; despite the fact that we are a secular republic and don’t use the Bible as a policy guide; despite the fact that Jeff Sessions’s own church says he’s wrong, wrong, wrong; despite the fact that a huge number of faith leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions agrees; despite the fact that Jeff Sessions ordered this to happen and Jeff Sessions could order it to stop. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Neilsen even insisted, laughably, that the U.S. had no such policy …
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We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.

… even as White House staffer Stephen Miller said that it was a simple decision.

Welp. This is who we are, America in 2018. When Trump took office, tried to ban Muslims, and got hit with a barrage of lawsuits, we proudly boasted, “First they came for the Muslims, and we said, ‘Not this time, motherf*ckers.'” But, somehow, we have gotten very quickly to well past “First they came for …”

The Nazis are here, America, right here in 2018. Wake up and fight back. That means voting Democratic, every race, every time, and getting as many people as possible to the polls to do likewise. Mueller isn’t going to save us. Trump isn’t going to get bored and resign, and the current, Republican-controlled House will never impeach him. This will only stop when we elect enough Democrats to Congress to put a stop to this hideous practice, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has denounced and which Amnesty International has called “nothing short of torture.”

We have roughly 150 days to the election. If enough Democrats win, we can put a stop to this and many other inhumane and ill-advised policies. But if we do not, we will slip, as Winston Churchill warned in 1940, into the abyss of a new Dark Age.

And we had better move fast, because go listen to that audio again. Those kids are already there.

Monday, May 28, 2018 7:32 pm

Some stuff matters more than manners

A couple of days ago I had a conversation on Facebook with a relative of mine and a friend of his whom I didn’t know. It looks as if my relative has taken the thread down now, so I’m going from (potentially flawed) memory here, but it had to do with civil political discourse. In particular, the friend, whom I’ll call Al because that’s easy to type, argued that Trump supporters and Trump opponents should discuss their differences civilly.

I said then what I’ve said many times before here and in many other forums: I’m not interested in civil discussions with racists. Donald Trump is an unreconstructed racist. He ran on an unapologetically racist platform and was elected by racist people acting on their racism; the research, ranging from polls to focus groups, has been pretty much unanimous on that score. Accordingly, I believe that if you voted for Trump, you’re a racist, or you’re indifferent to his racism, which amounts to the same thing. Al, for his part, called people who can’t discuss politics civilly “immature.”

Well.

Those of you who know me know that I think that pleas for civility in political discourse are often the last refuge of people who desperately need to be hit with the chair. Sure, I think we ought to be able to discuss political differences civilly. But some things are more important than polite dialogue. Like racism. And torture. And genocide. And Nazism. And these things cannot be reasoned with, for they seek to overthrow the very rule of reason. They can only be defeated.

Al’s remark betrayed both a political naivete and a high level of privilege. While he wants to have civil discussions about Trump’s neo-Nazism, Trump’s minions are working to build a fascist government, separating children from their parents at our borders, perhaps never to see one another again, in some cases only because the families have committed the legal act of seeking political asylum in the United States. Moreover, in areas ranging from environmentalism to health care, Trump’s actions are literally putting thousands of American and other lives in jeopardy while people like Al insist that the real problem is the maturity level of Trump’s critics.

Here is what people like Al (and my relative, who, to be fair is a dedicated, decorated public-school teacher who’s usually way more sensible than this) need to understand.

In 1930s Germany, the Nazis used the tools of a free state against a free state. They used freedom of their own expression to destroy freedom of expression for others. They used the ballot to ultimately deny the ballot to others. And Trump and his minions are walking the same path today, using the same techniques, and pulling the same wool over the same people’s eyes, that the Nazis did 85 years ago.

About that: As it happens, being on vacation last week, I read a novel, Brandenburg Gate, by the English writer Henry Scott. It’s a spy novel set just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The protagonist, Rosenharte (whose father had been a high-ranking SS officer during World War II), and his girlfriend, both former employees of the East German secret state police, the Stasi, have met an elderly German man, Flammensbeck, who served on the Eastern Front with the Nazis during World War II. Rosenharte asks Flammensbeck whether he thinks the current demonstrators against the East German government have legitimate grievances.

Flammensbeck blew out his cheeks and exhaled. He seemed to be weighing something. Eventually he addressed them both. ‘By the spring of 1945, I was in a prisoner of war camp in the East — we didn’t know where. I was lucky to be alive because they shot many of us when we surrendered. Then one day in April it was announced that the Fűhrer had committed suicide. We were stunned, but after a bit we fell to asking each other what it had all been about. So much death and destruction. Millions dead. And each one of us with innocent blood on our hands. What was it all about? No one could say. Then one in our group answered that it was about nothing. There was no point to it, no hidden meaning. Nothing! We’d been had.’

And with Trump, here we are again fighting Nazism. Think I’m wrong? Think there’s no comparison between the Trump administration and the Nazi regime? Grapple, then, with this 1996 7-page paper, “The 8 Stages of Genocide,” by Gregory H. Stanton, the James Farmer Professor of Human Rights at The University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia; president of Genocide Watch; chairman of The International Campaign to End Genocide; director of The Cambodian Genocide Project; and vice president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. A guy who knows from genocide, in other words.

He posits eight stages of genocide: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial. The administration is unquestionably engaging in classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, and polarization of certain minorities. And with Trump’s decision to order ICE and the Justice Department to separate children from their parents at our borders, even when those families have come to request political asylum as the law allows, we arguably have entered the stage of preparation as well.

Wake up, people. Extermination and denial are all that are left.

Given those circumstances, Al and his ilk, and my relative for that matter, are going to have to forgive me for not wanting to reason with Trumpists. This country spent 425,000 lives and untold billions of dollars defeating fascism in World War II. That argument was supposed to have been done, just as our argument about slavery was supposed to have been done after the Civil War. And given the decades I have spent researching World War II and Nazism in particular, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be lectured to by a political virgin about my political maturity in the context of crimes against humanity. Indeed, Al had better wake the hell up before he finds himself either up against the wall or wearing a swastika himself.

 

Sunday, February 25, 2018 9:06 pm

Who ya got?

Anyone who is a hard-core Democrat may want to take what I’m about to discuss with a big ol’ grain of salt, inasmuch as I have been politically unaffiliated for a year, prior to which I was a Republican for 38 years.

However:

I have been seeing a whole bunch of discussion on the web, mostly but not all from BernieBros, arguing that Nancy Pelosi, by virtue of her age, should step aside as House Democratic leader in favor of someone, well, younger. And my gut response is: Who ya got?

Who among House Democrats is as reliably progressive? Who among House Democrats can wrangle the herd of cats that is the House Democratic caucus as well as Pelosi? Who among House Democrats can get a bill passed, or killed, as reliably as Pelosi? And, in acknowledgment of her historic status as the first female House speaker, who among House Democrats meets all those criteria and is a woman or a person of color?

I’ve asked this question across social media. And so far I haven’t gotten a single answer.

Oh, I’ve gotten plenty of insistence that her time is over and she needs to step aside. A lot of generalities, in other words. But generalities don’t run for caucus leadership positions, let alone the speakership. People do. Real people with real, assessable records, or the lack of them.

To be clear, I don’t think Pelosi is the ideal House Democratic leader. But as I said, elections don’t take place between ideals, but between real people with real records. I’ve looked pretty hard at the House leadership, as well as some other House Dems not in leadership. And at the moment I don’t see anyone, anyone, who is clearly superior to her.

So, for those who think she needs replacing, I would suggest you work on developing a better candidate. And for those who might want to replace her, I would suggest you create a record that strongly suggests you could replace her. You’ll want to keep in mind that the next Democratic House speaker isn’t just going to have to be speaker, but also is going to have to start cleaning up the mind-numbing list of disasters committed by Donald Trump and his fascist, bigoted, cosmically ignorant administration. That’s not a job for amateurs or poseurs. It’ll take a pro.

A flesh-and-blood pro, not some idealized conception. So: Who ya got?

Saturday, February 24, 2018 9:12 am

The kids are alright; or, finally getting some common-sense gun legislation

As I write, it’s been 10 days since the killing of 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And to judge from social media, we’re still talking about that massacre in particular and gun legislation in general. That’s remarkable.

It’s remarkable because, after nothing happened in the wake of the Newtown slaughter of innocents, a lot of people resigned themselves to the inevitability that nothing would EVER happen to put a stop to mass killings in the United States. Now? Companies including several rental-car firms, Symantec, and the bank that issued NRA credit cards have dropped their affiliation with the NRA. And in a midterm election year that already was shaping up to be potentially a wave year for Democrats, gun violence has emerged as an issue that might finally drive a lot of blue voters to the polls.

There are a lot of reasons, but the single most important has been the determination of the Stoneman Douglas students themselves. They believe, correctly, that the older generation has been derelict in its duty to protect the younger. And, either already able to vote or on the cusp of being able to do so, they’ve decided to take matters into their own hands. From die-ins outside the Capitol to humiliating Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio on CNN, these young men and women have made it clear that they have decided to be the change they want to see. And it isn’t just Stoneman Douglas students; it’s high-school students nationwide (students at my own son’s high school walked out this week to protest gun violence). Former president Barack Obama acknowledged their leadership role in a tweet, adding that the rest of us should get behind them.

One beneficial consequence has been that we’re finally starting to talk about solutions. At least, the sane among us are. Obviously, that excludes the National Rifle Association.

In a generation, the NRA has mutated from sportsmen’s organization to industry lobbyist to batshit insane fascist propaganda outlet. Executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre gave an unhinged speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week, insisting, despite the fact that exactly zero people in responsible positions are actually saying this, that there is a movement afoot to strip all guns from law-abiding citizens and warning of a “socialist agenda” intent on “eradicat[ing] all individual freedoms.”

The NRA’s solution to this is more guns: specifically, arming teachers. (If the NRA ever publicly agreed that global warming is a problem, its solution would be more guns. Its solution to global COOLING would be more guns.) But given the fact that well-trained, periodically retrained New York City police officers return fire accurately only 18% of the time (and open fire accurate only 30% of the time), it’s hard to picture teachers doing any better, to say nothing of the safety and liability issue of having a loaded gun in a classroom full of young kids.

(Also at CPAC, speaking of unhinged, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch insisted:

Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it. I’m not saying that you love the tragedy, but I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many of the legacy media in the back [of the room].

(Here are the facts. Reporters cover mass shootings and other murders, as well as such other trauma as fires, wrecks, and industrial accidents, because people want to know about them and because, in many cases, it’s the only way the voiceless get a voice. Nobody loves it. In fact, quite a few public-safety reporters develop PTSD. But because the culture of most newsrooms is that it’s all part of the job and reporters just have to suck it up, most don’t get treatment for it and resort instead to self-treatment, often in unhealthy ways. For example, I dealt with mine for a long time just by drinking heavily. That Dana Loesch thinks reporters revel in this, or knows otherwise but is willing to lie about it, betrays a stunning depth of ignorance or depravity.)

Gun laws vs. gun deathsThe NRA’s protests to the contrary, the U.S. is alone among industrialized nations in its incidence of mass shootings. There are far more gun deaths in states without strong gun laws than in states with them (see chart at left). And getting military-grade weaponry out of the hands of civilians might be the single most important thing we can do to reduce the number of mass shootings.

Because here’s the thing: Well within the Second Amendment, we can absolutely have a rational conversation about what combination of objectively quantifiable qualities — caliber, muzzle velocity, magazine or clip capacity, reload rate, etc. — can provide sufficient stopping power for widespread gun ownership for self-defense or sport without putting military-grade hardware in the hands of crazy 19-year-olds like Nikolas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter. And if Democrats make big gains in this year’s elections, that conversation is going to start happening with or without the NRA at the table.

And it must. A lot of gun nuts (as opposed to sane gun-rights supporters) like to insist that AR-15s and similar assault rifles are a lot like other weapons. This account from a radiologist who helped treat some of the Stoneman Douglas victims gives the lie to that argument:

In a typical handgun injury that I diagnose almost daily, a bullet leaves a laceration through an organ like the liver. To a radiologist, it appears as a linear, thin, grey bullet track through the organ. There may be bleeding and some bullet fragments. …

The injury along the path of the bullet from an AR-15 is vastly different from a low-velocity handgun injury. The bullet from an AR-15 passes through the body like a cigarette boat travelling at maximum speed through a tiny canal. The tissue next to the bullet is elastic—moving away from the bullet like waves of water displaced by the boat—and then returns and settles back. This process is called cavitation; it leaves the displaced tissue damaged or killed. The high-velocity bullet causes a swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path. It does not have to actually hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding. Exit wounds can be the size of an orange. …

Handgun injuries to the liver are generally survivable unless the bullet hits the main blood supply to the liver. An AR-15 bullet wound to the middle of the liver would cause so much bleeding that the patient would likely never make it to a trauma center to receive our care.

After a mass killing in Australia in 1996, that country greatly restricted gun ownership. It has not had another mass killing since.

The Second Amendment would forbid measures as strict as Australia’s. But notwithstanding the lame protestations of NRA whores such as my own congresscritter, Ted Budd*, not only would a ban on military-style assault weapons be upheld as constitutional, we’ve already tried it and know that it works.

Congress enacted such a ban in 1994, with a 10-year sunset provision. It also banned magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. What happened?

Compared with the 10-year period before the ban, the number of gun massacres during the ban period fell by 37 percent, and the number of people dying from gun massacres fell by 43 percent. But after the ban lapsed in 2004, the numbers shot up again — an astonishing 183 percent increase in massacres and a 239 percent increase in massacre deaths.

A ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines enjoys public support of 68 percent and 65 percent, respectively. Even among gun owners, almost half favor an assault-weapons ban.

We also could consider universal background checks for gun ownership (favored even by 87% of NRA members), excluding from ownership those with histories of domestic violence or mental illness as well as criminal records. We can raise the minimum age at which a civilian can buy certain kinds of weapons. We can require gun registration, gun training, and the purchase of liability insurance.

Those measures address gun violence more generally than they do mass shootings in particular. But with about 32,000 gun deaths (homicide, suicide and accident) per year, they’re worth pursuing anyway. It is true that most gun-owning Americans are law-abiding, but 32,000 deaths a year, many of them preventable, is unacceptable. And as any cops reporter can tell you, the American public is not, in any way, shape or form, a well-regulated militia.

We can’t continue to accept the status quo. And God willing, the kids are going to make sure we don’t.

*Ted Budd argues that the biggest problems with respect to gun violence are mental illness and radical Islamic terror, never mind the fact that mental illness exists in lots of countries without many mass shootings and never mind the fact that radical Islamism is implicated in passing few U.S. mass shootings. Budd must harbor an amazing contempt for his constituents’ intelligence to think these arguments persuasive.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018 5:57 pm

Constitutional crisis: You’re soaking in it; or, The state of the union is shaky

Later tonight Donald Trump will give his State of the Union address. There’s no reason to think that he’ll say anything truthful; accordingly, I won’t be watching. One advantage of this is that rather than playing drinking games, I can just drink, thoughtfully, like a grownup.

But if you want to know the actual state of the union, right now it is goddamned shaky. We have not one but two constitutional crises going on right now, either one of which would be serious all by itself. Together, they’re frightening.

The first is that on Monday, Trump forced FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe out early. McCabe had been planning to retire in March. He’s gone now, taking accrued leave to get up to his retirement date. McCabe’s crime has been allowing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election to proceed more or less without molestation.

Then, later Monday, Trump’s administration announced that despite being given a direct order by Congress, it would not be imposing additional sanctions on Russia. Congress approved those sanctions 419-3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate specifically to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. Trump’s refusal is a direct violation of the take-care clause of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution: the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed …”

What’s the remedy for this refusal? Impeachment. But with the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, that won’t happen. Why not? One or both of two possible reasons: 1) The Republicans, or a significant number of them, are complicit with the Russians, and/or 2) the Republicans have finally, completely given up on putting country before party, a road they’ve been heading down since at least the 1994 elections.

When a leader commits impeachable offenses and doesn’t get impeached or criminally tried, bad things inevitably happen down the line. Nixon should have been indicted and tried; he wasn’t, and some of his underlings went on to create more trouble in the Reagan era. Reagan and then-VP George H.W. Bush should have been impeached over Iran-contra. They weren’t, and Bush was free to pardon all those convicted, some of whom went on to serve in the Bush 43 administration. Bush 43 should have been impeached for torture if nothing else. He wasn’t, and now Trump is sucking up to torturing, murdering dictators like Putin, Erdogan and Duterte and attempting to emulate them in his governing style.

You say it can’t happen here? It is happening here. The firing last year of FBI director James Comey, the forcing out of McCabe, Trump’s attempt to fire Mueller last summer, and his reported desire to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s investigation, and his reported desire to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions prosecute Mueller and his team, are a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre, and Congress and the press are sitting around with their thumbs up their hind ends. We’re very close to no longer being a nation under the rule of law, and once we pass that point, the state of the union may well be irretrievably broken.

I’m going to have that drink now.

 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 7:30 am

Confess your unpopular opinion: Noprah

After media magnate Oprah Winfrey’s magnificent speech at the Golden Globes, which you should totally read, a lot of people on Twitter and other social media are calling for her to run for president in 2020. This wave of support has only been magnified by the comment from her longtime partner, Stedman Graham. Asked whether she would run, Graham said, “It’s up to the people. She would absolutely do it.”

My unpopular opinion? Not just no, but hell, no.

It’s not like I don’t get the appeal. She has phenomenal name recognition. She could finance her own campaign, if she chose (and unlike Donald Trump, she really is a self-made billionaire). She knows a lot of influential people. She exudes empathy even more than Barack Obama did — also unlike Trump, she got to her billions by way of an impoverished childhood — and if there’s one thing the current occupant of the Oval Office lacks, it’s the slightest trace of empathy. She also seems, at least, far more trustworthy than the liar-in-chief.

All of these things make her an attractive candidate — arguably the most attractive candidate the Democratic Party could put up.

But they won’t necessarily make her a great candidate, which is different from an attractive one. And they won’t necessarily make her a good president. Some people have argued that she’s more qualified than a number of men who have held the job, and that’s probably true. But that bar is way too low, particularly now. We can’t screw around with our choice of the next president. Way too much is at stake. The next president isn’t just going to be the president, a daunting enough job under any circumstances. No, the next president is going to have to clean up all the shit that Donald Trump and his cronies have inflicted upon this country. And there is every reason to doubt that Oprah could do that. Let me elaborate.

I said above that Oprah knows a lot of influential people. That’s great, but what we are going to need isn’t necessarily influential people, but smart people. We face huge challenges: Global warming. The existential threat of nuclear war with North Korea. An economy that stubbornly refuses to pay a living wage to too many people. Russian interference with our elections from abroad and GOP suppression of voting at home. Opioid addiction and deaths. Immigration. And, yes, sexual misconduct against women. And on and on and on. Oprah may know lots of influential people, but our lives may depend on whether she knows whom to name the next Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Presidents deal with the toughest of questions. For all the bad raps government work gets, the facts are that career government workers are generally very good at what they do and good at solving problems. That means in many cases that when a problem lands on the president’s desk, some of the nation’s most talented people already have taken swings at it and we still don’t have a resolution everyone’s happy with.

Supporters say she would work collaboratively. Two former co-workers of mine worked for her, and let’s just say I fear the truth is a little different: The gag orders she imposed on employees do not bode well for open government, which we desperately need.

We also need to get away from the idea that a savvy businessperson will make a good president. Government is not a business, it has different aims and imperatives from business, it cannot be run like a business, and history shows that most efforts to do so have come to grief. Trump is only the worst example; almost as bad was Herbert Hoover, universally acknowledged as a great businessman but inarguably one of our worst presidents.

Finally, there are far more qualified candidates available. Just looking at Democratic women in the U.S. Senate, I can point to Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillebrand, and Elizabeth Warren. That’s before we even start looking at male senators or members of either sex in the U.S. House or at governors.

In addition to governing savvy, the next president is going to have to have political savvy as well. He or she won’t be able to wave a wand and clean stuff up; he/she will have to be able to work with Congress, which will require relationships with some of its key leaders. Oprah’s good at relationships, but this is no time to be establishing them on the fly.

If she knew anything about politics, she would know that now is not the time to be talking about the 2020 presidential race. Instead, now is the time to be talking about the need to elect Democrats to the House and Senate and governorships and state legislatures and local offices this year. Sure, if she’s gonna run in 2020, it absolutely would not hurt to start planning now, but in public statements, it’s critical that Democrats focus on this year’s elections and not look ahead.

And there’s one other thing about Oprah’s political savvy that bugs me perhaps more than it should, but it bugs me a lot so I’m gonna talk about it anyway: After that powerful speech about the plight of women and the need for change, she allowed the public conversation to become about her and not about the position she was championing. She made no effort that I can see to redirect the public conversation back to that issue, and she apparently didn’t coach Stedman Graham to do the same. No one gets where she has gotten without some ego, but I can’t help wondering whether she doesn’t harbor at least some of the narcissism that Trump does. And, boy howdy, narcissism is literally the last thing we need in our next president.

I think Oprah could and would inspire a lot of people if she ran for president, particularly women and girls, and I do not underestimate the effect that that inspiration could have on voter registration and turnout. But she could do that while raising money, raising awareness of issues, and campaigning for a more qualified candidate as well as for down-ballot Democrats.

So God bless Oprah, but, no. We don’t just have issues or problems, we have crises, and the stakes are far too high to roll the dice.

Edited to add, at the suggestion of my cousin Andrew Curry and my friend David Allen: Oprah’s judgment in people is not quite as unquestionable as some of her fans seem to think. After all, she foisted “Dr.” Phil, “Dr.” Oz and some anti-vaxxers on her audiences. Given the problems outlined above, we desperately need people with evidence-based approaches, not quacks.

Sunday, November 19, 2017 10:10 am

Meet the candidate: Adam Coker, NC13, U.S. House

Friday night I met one of two announced Democratic candidates in 2018 for the U.S. House seat from North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, Adam Coker, at a meet-and-greet at the home of the daughter and son-in-law of a friend. Summary: I think he’d be a great replacement for GOP incumbent Rep. Ted Budd, but 1) he has an uphill climb in a predominantly Republican district and 2) his message, although fundamentally sound, needs some polish and is even problematic in a few areas.

(Here’s my take on Budd, derived from a quasi-town-hall meeting he held here in Greensboro this past April. That post also includes some background on the district. If you look at a district map, the 13th looks kindof like a labradoodle, with the dog’s head being where most of the district’s Democrats are clustered: western Greensboro and Guilford County. The rest of the district is mostly moderate to deep red territory and mostly rural.)

Coker’s bio, which he summarized at the gathering, would seem to make him a pretty good fit for this hybrid district. He’s descended from farmers, mill workers and small-business owners but grew up in Greensboro and became one of the first two people in his family to graduate from college. He’s been a small business owner and has traveled the country extensively.

He talked most, and most powerfully, about the need for universal health care, a game in which he has some serious skin because his young son was born with a heart condition. Even if that weren’t the case, given that Virginia voters in last week’s gubernatorial and legislative elections there told exit pollsters that health care was their top priority, he’s politically smart to lead with this issue, especially because, as I write, Senate Republicans are trying to take away health insurance from 13 million Americans as part of their tax cut for the rich.

Given the nature of the district, Coker talked about the need to focus on issues that unite people rather than dividing them. I agree in principle, but this raised a caution flag for me. As I’ve written here many times, and as polling data show, the national media have made far too much of the economic concerns of the white working class and not nearly enough of the racial resentment that drove them to vote for Trump. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to make appeals to our commonality on issues like health care. But I also think it’s a waste of time and money to try to get many Trump supporters converted; those resources are better spent registering new voters, particularly women of color, and getting them to the polls next May and November.

In response to a question about unifying the voters of the district, Coker acknowledged that abortion remains a divisive hot-button issue. From my standpoint, unfortunately, he failed to grasp just how dishonest anti-abortion activists have been in their arguments and thereby weakened his own.

He seems to believe, as Bill Clinton did before him, that a platform of making abortion safe, legal and rare will win the hearts and minds of conservatives. That was a dubious proposition even in 1992. Today there’s not a shred of evidence to that effect; if there were, conservatives would want to give Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and prenatal services and therefore helps reduce the need for abortion, more money rather than trying to cut it off entirely on the basis of fabricated video, as the Republican health care plan tried to do and as some conservative GOP activists would like their tax plan to do.

And Coker appears to fail to grasp that conservatives aren’t just against abortion, they also want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control nationwide. (Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore recently said, “By 1962, the United States Supreme Court took prayer out of school. Then they started to create new rights in 1965, and now, today, we’ve got a problem.” Most media observers initially thought Moore was talking about that year’s Voting Rights Act, but it seems more likely he was talking about Griswold — voting wasn’t a new right in 1965, but contraception was.)

My own take on abortion is straightforward: Women should have autonomy over their own bodies just as men do; accordingly, abortion is a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor, full stop. Not only do anti-abortion activists have no legal or moral standing to get involved, they are not arguing in good faith and therefore shouldn’t even be listened to. I’m just one person, but I believe that that needs to be Coker’s position and he needs to embrace it loudly and strongly for two reasons: First, he’s not going to win over any anti-abortion activists. It just is not going to happen. And, second, anything less than full support of reproductive rights will demotivate his own base, which he needs not only at the polls but also to do all the work of winning prospective voters’ hearts and minds and then getting them to the polls.

Given the House’s recent approval of the appalling GOP tax bill — which will greatly accelerate the upward transfer and concentration of wealth in this country by effectively raising taxes on almost all but the very wealthy — I asked Coker what his tax bill would look like. (Poor choice of words on my part: I meant not necessarily that he should write his own bill, but rather, what kind of bill he would support.) He took me literally and said he doesn’t have one yet but is working with tax and economic advisors to develop a tax and economics platform. (He named one economic advisor whom I won’t name here because I don’t know if this individual is ready for his involvement in Coker’s campaign to be public yet, but it’s someone I’ve known and respected for years.)

Coker didn’t do a lot of Trump-bashing, but he also didn’t demur when some audience members did it for him. And he did say two things that resonated with me: First, that the system must be made to work for everybody, not just the hyperwealthy (my word) elites, and, second, that the current system is bullying the less powerful and that he, and we, must stand up to the bullying. The first point seems self-evident. The second point resonates with me because of what I have observed to be driving Trump policy in particular and GOP policy in general.

Trump’s decisions seem to be driven, to the extent he has any motivation, by three things:

  • Inurement — he’s cashing in, plain and simple. His serial violations of the Emoluments Clause will be studied by students of political science and law for decades to come and with any luck will lead directly to some legislative reform, such as requiring presidential candidates to make tax returns public and divest themselves of all assets before taking office.
  • His desire to undo the accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
  • And finally, his desire to do things just to piss his political opponents off, a desire shared by Congressional Republicans and even by the GOP leadership in the N.C. General Assembly. That, in a word, is the bullying that Coker describes.

One example is the GOP willingness to end health insurance for millions of Americans to give the wealthy a massive and unneeded tax cut. As another example, I would point to the Trump administration’s announcement earlier this week that it would lift an Obama-era ban on importation of elephant parts, a ban intended to reduce poaching pressure on the animals. The ban would benefit Trump’s sons, who have proudly posed for photos after having killed elephants, it would undo part of Obama’s legacy, and it would piss off people working to protect elephants in particular and endangered species in general. Granted, late in the week Trump appeared to bow to political and media pressure and announce that the decision would be on hold pending a review. But the case neatly illustrates how Trump and the GOP think — and that’s something Coker appears determined to fight.

If in fact he is determined to fight it, then we can use him and many more like him.

Coker faces at least one other announced candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 13th District, Beniah McMiller. I hope to meet him and report on him soon.

Monday, October 2, 2017 7:31 pm

An immodest but entirely justified proposal

If you think that 58 dead and 200+ wounded and 273 mass-shooting incidents in just three-quarters of a year are “the price we pay for freedom,” for God’s sake just kill yourself.

Sunday, August 20, 2017 5:24 pm

“Be nice to me or I won’t support impeachment.”

So today on Facebook I stumbled across a butthurt Republican woman complaining that someone else had pointed out the obvious fact that the Republican Party has been dining out on racism and other forms of bigotry for 50 years. I didn’t respond directly to her, and I’m not gonna name her because women have a hard-enough time online without having hell unleased on them by total strangers, but I do want to address her idea.

After reading another Facebook poster’s long history of GOP racism, dating from Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act to Trump’s comments last week, she responded:

Wow. What a great way to support us moderate, anti-Trump Republicans. … Should the Mueller and other investigations prove Trump colluded with an active foreign enemy, you DO realize you will need us lowly Republicans to pass articles of impeachment?

May I make a suggestion to any Republicans who think like this? Well, it’s my blog, so of course I may:

Leave the party. I did 18 months ago after 38 years of membership when it became clear that it was going to nominate Trump.

Because here’s the thing: In Congress and in the N.C. legislature, THERE. ARE. NO. MORE. MODERATE. REPUBLICANS. There aren’t even any SANE Republicans. Oh, moderate Republicans who aren’t politicians like to think that there are, and the news media find it useful to pretend that there are, and a Republican here or there will occasionally SAY something constructive. But when it comes to actual voting, no. They’re. All. Gone. Even John McCain, who voted to kill ACA repeal, was fine with torture when it came time to try to hold the torturers accountable. And he’s as good as it gets; Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, for all their anti-ACA accolades, are no better.

Robert Mueller could produce evidence that Donald Trump murdered a 6-year-old boy in broad daylight in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue and had sex with the corpse, and there still will be not one single Republican vote to impeach him. Nah. Guh. Happen. Hell, you haven’t even seen a single Republican sign onto the measure to censure him for supporting actual Nazis, let alone call for his impeachment.

Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder and early dementia. He is a serial liar of world-historical scale, he is a confessed sexual assaulter, he is a con man of decades’ standing, and he’s never going to change. All of this was a matter of broad public record in July 2015. CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS DIDN’T CARE THEN AND DON’T CARE NOW. And neither do most other Republicans. There’s no pony under all that sh*t, lady. For the love of God and the good of the country, stop pretending otherwise.

Finally, if there’s anyone else out there who thinks that the rest of us need to be NICE to you if you’re going to support Trump’s impeachment, how dare you. If you were a patriot, you’d’ve been fighting him from the day he announced his candidacy two years ago. That’s the LEAST you could have done. Instead, it’s the fault of people like you that we have to deal with this at all, and you want us to pat your head and tell you what a good person you are? No, I expletiveing well think not. A decent respect for the opinion of mankind ought to impel you to repent and try to expiate what you’ve done without expecting anything in return. Now shut up and get busy. When you’ve earned a pat on the head, we will damned well let you know.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017 7:39 pm

Trump assumes the chancellorship

It took a tragedy, but we now know, finally and forever, who Donald Trump is: He’s a Nazi.

We learned this as the result of the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Va., during which a counterdemonstrator was killed and 19 others injured when a Dodge Challenger rammed into a crowd, then rapidly accelerated away in reverse. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder and other felonies. Fields has been described by former teachers and others who knew him as obsessed with Hitler and Naziism, and he was photographed with a fascist group shortly before the car incident.

The march ostensibly was to protest the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a park in Charlottesville. So let’s talk for a minute about that statue and the many other statues and monuments ostensibly erected to honor the Confederacy. You know when the bulk of them were actually erected? Fifty or so years after the war, at the height of Jim Crow, with another spike in construction during the civil-rights era about a century after the war. In other words, these statues and monuments didn’t honor the Confederacy, they honored white supremacy. So what should we do? Seems pretty clear to me: take them all down, melt them down so as to make something truly useful of them, and display pictures of them in museums alongside images of the lynched bodies of African American victims of Jim Crow.

But taking them down would be illegal here in North Carolina, where the legislature a couple of years ago passed a law, enthusiastically signed by ex-Gov. Pat McCrory, that no such statue or monument could be taken down. This fact calls to mind something often attributed to Thomas Jefferson that he didn’t actually say: “When laws become unjust, resistance becomes duty.” Irrespective of authorship, it’s a damn good thought. And so it was that a number of people took it upon themselves Monday to pull down a Confederate statue on the grounds of the Durham County Courthouse an hour or so from me. The sheriff’s department is filing felony charges, which strikes me as adherence to the letter of the law while defecating on its spirit.

Meanwhile, Trump went quite a while before saying anything about the death of Heather Heyer and the injuries of 19 other people. Finally he said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides,” and added, “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”

So many things wrong with that.

For starters, Trump equates the few skirmishes caused by counterdemonstrators with the terrorist act of a Nazi of driving a car at speed — 35 to 40 mph — into a crowd of people he disagreed with politically. He also made sure to include “law and order,” which has been a racist dogwhistle since Nixon’s Southern Strategy in the 1968 campaign and also has been a mantra of the extremist right.

Not just anti-Nazis but even some of Trump’s own staff asked him to speak more forcefully against the white supremacists. He finally did on Monday, but as many an observer noted, he did so with the affect of someone making a hostage video.

And, indeed, earlier today, he returned to his original position and then some, basically defending the Nazis in his first news conference in basically forever:

TRUMP: Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at [indiscernible] – excuse me – what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?

REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY

TRUMP: What about this? What about the fact that they came charging – they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY

TRUMP: As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day.

REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY

TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group – you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. [emphasis added]

TRUMP: Those people – all of those people, excuse me – I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.

Earlier this year, when Trump managed to give a speech without defecating all over both of his own feet, some idiot pundit said, “Tonight was the night Trump became president.” Well, today was the day Trump became either Grand Kleagle or chancellor, setting himself clearly on the side of the white nationalist movement, his voting base.

A lot of people of good will have argued that the Nazis and other white supremacists have First Amendment rights, too, and, yes, they do. But let’s keep something in mind that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s future Minister of Propaganda, said upon becoming one of the first Nazis elected to the German Reichstag, in 1928 (h/t to Dan Conover for the reminder of this):

We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves, in the arsenal of democracy, with its own weapons. If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair. We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come.

I’m not sure exactly how you balance those competing interests. For the sake of the country, we had damned well better balance them in favor of preserving democracy, but it is clear from their actions that neither Trump nor many of his backers are interested in that. They’re here to mess us up as the wolf bursts into the flock.

One of the disturbing tidbits to come out of the Charlottesville incident was that state and local law enforcement adopted a mostly hands-off attitude toward the white supremacists in part because they felt outgunned. Look, there are two and only two possible responses to this: Up-arm your police or, preferably, tell the marchers they must disarm. The ultimate responsibility of law enforcement is to protect the public, and that means mitigating the threat at the source.

And if it takes a rifle to fend off the wolf, so be it; democracy is that valuable. As I’ve said before, if the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of seditious white jackasses, I’ll cheer on the National Guard and not lose a minute’s sleep.

 

 

Saturday, July 1, 2017 8:29 am

The best election money can steal

Dolt 45’s poll numbers continue to tank, and the Senate Republicans’ “health care” plan is polling down around the levels of cat poop: As of earlier this week, only 12% of Americans supported it. But Republicans don’t seem overly worried about the 2018 or 2020 elections. There are a couple of reasons for this: They’re pretty confident they can use Trump’s new election commission to steal the elections, and they may even be relying on voting-machine hacking.

When Trump signed an executive order in May to form an election commission, he said it was “to promote fair and honest elections.” It’s not. Trump himself continues to say (if not believe) that he lost the popular vote because 3 to 5 million people voted illegally. (That’s despite the fact that documented cases of voter fraud in the U.S. are vanishingly rare — law professor Justin Levitt found 135 cases of vote fraud nationally out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, while the Washington Post found four cases out of 135 million ballots cast in 2016.) He clearly wants this commission to try to find evidence to back up his claim.

To do that, he named perhaps the country’s most notorious vote suppressor, Kansas Secretary of State (and gubernatorial candidate) Kris Kobach, vice chair of the commission. Kobach made headlines this week by demanding voter registration data from all 50 states; more on that below. Let’s be blunt: If you’re interested in fair and honest elections, you don’t hire Kris Kobach. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in suppressing the votes of people who might be disproportionately inclined to vote Democratic, Kobach’s your guy.

As this New York Times profile from a couple of weeks ago indicates, Kobach is basically a Klansman without the n-bombs. (Hey, in his spare time he provides legal counsel to a hate group, as one does.) He’s also a committed ideologue who has never allowed the facts to get in the way of a good delusion, on voting or anything else. (Read that profile. Kobach is the kind of scary true believer who could get us into a nuclear war if he ever got elected president.)

Since being elected Secretary of State, he has enacted four measures in Kansas to restrict voting, and the ACLU whipped his ass in court on all four. Not only that, a federal judge fined him $1,000 for lying to the court about the contents of some of his documents. (I’d’ve jailed him for contempt and referred the matter to the state bar for additional sanctions, as well.)

Moreover, Kobach was the driver of the GOP’s notorious “Crosscheck” program in the 2016 elections. Crosscheck, in place in swing states including Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina, ostensibly was intended to search voter-registration data for people who were registered to vote in multiple places and states, to ensure they voted only once. But in real life, its matching parameters were so loose — just a name and a date of birth — that the program generated roughly 200 false positives for every duplicate registration it detected.

Here’s how it worked in North Carolina:

Crosscheck has led to outrageous headlines that make double voting seem far more common than it is. In 2014, after North Carolina joined Crosscheck, the head of the state board of elections reported that in the 2012 general election, there were 35,750 voters in the state whose first and last names and dates of birth matched those of individuals who voted in the same election in a different state. Republican leaders of the North Carolina Legislature called it “alarming evidence of voter fraud,” and the conservative political strategist Dick Morris told Sean Hannity on Fox News, “It’s the most important data I’ve read in a year,” adding that it was “the first concrete evidence we’ve ever had of massive voter fraud.” But when North Carolina investigated the numbers using additional data like the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, eight cases of potential double voting were referred to prosecutors and two people were convicted.

So, as we see, this is not a man who is disinterestedly pursuing free and fair elections. This is a man who is attempting to strike likely Democratic voters from the rolls, even when they are legally entitled to vote; indeed, as noted by former Justice official Sam Bagenstos, it appears Kobach intends for the commission to sue the states to force them to purge their voter rolls in the manner he favors. I note for the record that 18 USC 241 makes it a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to conspire to deny people their civil rights. And Kobach has been so wrong for so long on voting rights that it is difficult to understand his actions as anything other than intentional.

Also on the commission: Hans von Spakovsky, a former member Bush 43-era Justice Department official who also has a long history of vote suppression efforts under the guise of preventing vote fraud — indeed, Democrats successfully blocked his nomination to the Federal Election Commission in 2008 because of it. Like Kobach, von Spakovsky also has a certain morally casual attitude, as this 2006 Post article highlights:

When he was a senior lawyer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Hans von Spakovsky played a central role in approving a controversial Georgia voter identification program over the objections of staff lawyers.

But now, after leaving Justice for the Federal Election Commission, von Spakovsky has acknowledged writing a law review article that endorsed photo identification, which was Georgia’s approach, before the state’s proposal was even submitted to Justice for review. He also took the unusual step of using a pseudonym, “Publius,” in publishing the article, which appeared in the spring 2005 issue of the Texas Review of Law & Politics.

The article and its unusual authorship prompted a letter of complaint to the Justice Department last week from the Voting Rights Project, an arm of the American Civil Liberties Union that is opposed to Georgia’s voter identification plans. The group said the article shows von Spakovsky had already made up his mind on the issue and that his attempt to hide his views may have violated Justice Department guidelines.

In addition, a link to the Publius article suddenly disappeared this week from the FEC Web site, which had featured the article among a list of von Spakovsky’s writings.

“There appears to have been an intentional desire to prevent the public and, in particular, advocates with business before the Voting Section, from knowing the views of one of the senior officials involved,” Neil Bradley, the ACLU group’s associate director, wrote in his letter to Justice.

Whether or not von Spakovsky did anything to merit discipline, this is not the behavior of someone with a disinterested desire for free and fair elections.

Earlier this week, as noted above, Kobach asked all 50 secretaries of state, who oversee voter registration in most states, for voter registration data, including not only such things as names, addresses and dates of birth but also political party, last four digits of Social Security number, and voting history since 2006.

It is hard to avoid the inference that Kobach intends to apply Crosscheck nationwide — basically doing for the country what he did for North Carolina and possibly illegally disenfranchising millions of Americans.

(Even if Kobach’s motives were above suspicion, Kobach appears to know nothing about how to transmit, store, and analyze data safely and securely — you don’t transmit sensitive data files by email, just for starters. In short, this national database, even if it weren’t being used for partisan purposes, would be an identity-theft catastrophe just waiting to happen, particularly given the unseemly closeness of others in this administration to the Russian government.)

Fortunately, close to half of the secretaries of state are resisting, and not all of them are from blue states. Mississippi’s Republican Secretary of State, Delbert Hosemann, literally invited the commission to jump into the Gulf of Mexico. Even another member of the commission, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican, is refusing to provide anything more than what’s already public in Indiana: a voter’s name, address, and congressional district.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the commission will accomplish, but one thing it manifestly will not do is probe fully the question of whether our elections are truly honest.

For one thing, neither the commission nor anyone else in the Trump administration appears interested in the question of whether Russians — or anyone else — hacked voting machines in 2016. The Department of Homeland Security says it hasn’t examined a single voting machine and does not intend to. And Trump, who could insist upon it, has been silent on the issue.

To be clear, there is as yet no proof that anyone ever has successfully hacked a voting machine to alter or delete a ballot in a U.S. election. That’s a topic I’ve followed ever since editing the 2004 book “Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century,” by Bev Harris and David Allen (more on that here). But I’ve always believed it possible — the evidence that it’s doable is just too overwhelming. And that’s why you need robust election auditing, including but not limited to examining machines.

For another, an election commission truly interested in election integrity would be examining a lot of topics this commission isn’t. Some of them, as suggested by Vermont’s Secretary of State, Jim Condos, include:

  • Foreign interference and attacks on our voting systems;
  • Funding for the Election Assistance Commission, which, among many other virtues, is the only U.S. government agency currently empowered to look into voting-machine hacking.
  • Partisan gerrymandering
  • Updating election equipment
  • Automatic voter registration
  • Requiring paper ballots instead of hackable machines
  • Requiring election audits
  • Expanding early voting opportunities
  • Expanding voting by mail
  • Increasing the convenience and accessibility of voting places
  • Reducing long lines and wait times at the polls.

 

Anyone seriously interested in helping authorized voters exercise their right to vote would be working on these issues. But that ain’t what Kobach’s commission is about. And that’s why it must be resisted. Otherwise, the Republicans will steal the upcoming elections and our 240 years as a democratic republic will be over.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 7:58 pm

American Gulag

This is a first for Blog on the Run: a guest post. The author is a contemporary of mine who has top academic credentials in German and Soviet history. Her comments refer to this article, published earlier today by The Guardian. An excerpt:

Behind two rows of high fencing and winding coils of razor wire, and surrounded by thick forest in central Louisiana, hundreds of miles from the nearest major city, stands a newly created court the Trump administration hopes will fast-track the removal of undocumented immigrants.

Hearings take place in five poky courtrooms behind reinforced grey doors where the public benches, scratched with graffiti, are completely empty. There is no natural light. The hallways are lined with detainees in yellow jumpsuits awaiting their turn before a judge. The five sitting judges were quietly flown in by the US justice department from cities across the United States and will be rotated again within two weeks.

The new setup is part of Donald Trump’s attempts to ramp up deportations by vastly expanding the arrest powers of federal immigration enforcement and prioritising more vulnerable groups of detained migrants in new court locations around the country. It has received little scrutiny since its introduction following a presidential order in January, and the Guardian is the first news organisation to observe proceedings here.

My friend comments:

This is a black hole of a prison, devoid of civil rights, humanitarian observers, and legal aid, although it’s on American soil. It is in Louisiana, the state where I was born, in the middle of nowhere. Maybe some nutria and waterbirds notice what is going on.

What did the Bush administration call what they did in the early ’00s? “Extraordinary rendition,” a/k/a kidnapping and transport to prison and interrogation (and sometimes torture), the transportation being generally from one country to another. The Bushies maintained that the people subjected to this were under suspicion of great crimes. A significant number were found to be innocent of terrorist activity.

Now this “rendition” (bland word for abduction) happens to people who have behaved lawfully, deceived no one, paid taxes, and generally behaved better than the troll who inhabits the White House. TrumpsterFire can’t be allowed to create his own GULAG. And as a scholar of German and Soviet history, and of totalitarianism, I make that comparison with full understanding.

Monday, May 15, 2017 8:56 pm

Grounds for impeachment

The Washington Post’s newest story on Donald Trump makes a good time to stop and assess where we are right now. And where we are right now is damned depressing.

Were I a member of the U.S. House, right now I could introduce no fewer than four articles of impeachment regarding Trump, any one of which would be grounds for removing him from office.

  1. He retained a foreign agent (Michael Flynn) as national security advisor for days after being advised that Flynn was a foreign agent.
  2. He obstructed justice by firing FBI director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into Trump’s Russia ties (more on which below).
  3. He has committed serial violations of the Emoluments Clause.
  4. As documented in the Post article linked above, he has not only leaked highly classified (“codeword”) intelligence to the Russians, he also blew an anti-ISIS intelligence source managed by another country in doing so. This was information so sensitive we weren’t even sharing it with our other allies. Indeed, it is hard to read about this disclosure and not wonder why Trump isn’t being indicted for treason.

Any or all of these actions are grounds for impeachment and removal from office, even before the investigation of Trump’s Russia ties really gets going. That investigation, I am convinced, will at the least find evidence that Trump laundered Russian money, if not evidence of other crimes as well. And I’m almost as sure that it will implicate a number of Trump associates, among them Vice President Pence and House Speaker Ryan in the line of succession.

The Republicans control the House and Senate, so, naturally, Congress is doing nothing about these crimes, even though if President Hillary Clinton had committed them, she would have been impeached before sundown. But Congressional Republicans, to a man and woman, are accomplices in treason, nothing but Putinesque cockholsters.

Some commenters have drawn comparisons between the Comey firing and Watergate. But Watergate was just the cover-up of a third-rate burglary. What Trump is doing is much worse, and this time around we haven’t a single Congressional Republican willing to put country before party.

For 38 years, I was a law-and-order Republican, and here’s what I think: Trump needs to hang for treason. And Congressional Republicans need to hang alongside him.

 

 

Friday, April 28, 2017 7:02 pm

What colleges and universities DON’T owe would-be speakers

I’m one of those weirdoes who thinks that, once invited by a Berkeley student group in good standing, Ann Coulter should have been allowed to speak at Berkeley, or at least given the same consideration and attempts at accommodation as anyone else so situated. And it should go without saying that all groups at any college should be treated equally in this regard, but Imma say it anyway.

I’m weird like that.

And I don’t approve of disinviting someone from speaking at a college once they’ve been invited to speak by someone with the standing to issue such an invitation. Absent genuine safety concerns, which may or may not have been present in the case of Coulter at Berkeley, rescinding a speaking invitation seems the coward’s way out. By extension, if you’re in a position to invite a speaker, you need to do your due diligence on that speaker before issuing an invitation (and I’ll talk more in a bit about what that due diligence should include).

But there’s another angle to Coulter Agonistes that I haven’t seen explored much.

No college, private or public, is legally, morally or ethically obligated to provide a venue to just any speaker who wants one. But more importantly, colleges are the most important bastions of free speech in the country and the shapers of future participants in our civil life. As such, I would argue, they have a special duty to do their due diligence to pick carefully the people to whom they give a venue. Specifically, they have a duty to pick people, irrespective of their viewpoint on any particular issue, who have a track record of exemplifying speech that illustrates, supports, and, ideally, enhances free speech and the free exchange of ideas in this country.

OK, so what does that look like? Glad you asked.

First and foremost, colleges should look for speakers who trade in objectively verified and verifiable facts and only the best-supported theories, unless the speaker is pushing a theory for the specific purpose of engendering more disinterested research into whether it is supported and supportable. I don’t mean that speakers should limit themselves to reciting facts, of course; opinions can be just as enlightening. But colleges should be looking to provide speaking venues only to people who have a record of proceeding from objectively verifiable facts and premises, and who have a record of opining on the basis of objectively verified and verifiable facts and premises. The Earth is round (or, at least, an oblate spheroid), the Confederacy was about slavery, human carbon combustion is responsible for global climate change, vaccines do not cause autism, cutting taxes on the wealthy does not consistently — and might not ever — increase government revenue, the Democratic National Committee did not steal the 2016 nomination from Bernie Sanders, and colleges have an affirmative duty to screen out speakers who (absent, let’s say, breakthrough, peer-reviewed new research of their own into climatology or vaccinations) claim otherwise.

This is critical because shared information — shared factual, verifiable information — is fundamental to civilization. It is critical because, as one obscure blogger has observed, reality will not ignore YOU, and society must deal in reality to solve its problems and achieve its goals. And providing resources to help support and enhance civilization and solve society’s problems is at the core of what colleges do. (On a personal level, I find dealing with delusional people really fucking annoying, but that’s neither here nor there as regards my larger point.)

Second, colleges should vet speakers for their adherence to the rules of logic, because facts alone aren’t enough and facts alone can be dangerous, particularly in isolation and without context. At the very least, colleges should avoid providing venues for speakers who routinely engage in the most common logical fallacies. They key word there is routinely; pretty much every speaker engages in the occasional logical misdemeanor. But colleges and universities have an affirmative duty not to squander their venues and forums on people who routinely trade in ad hominem attacks without also engaging with their victim’s arguments, people who trade in straw-man argumentation, and so on.

Third, colleges should provide a venue only to speakers who argue in good faith. That sounds subjective, I grant, but it can be understood as an outgrowth of points 1 and 2, combined with this standard: Does the speaker appear to sincerely believe what he/she says? One cannot read a speaker’s mind, of course, but speakers who sincerely believe what they say tend to frame their arguments in ways that speakers who don’t do not. To return to Ann Coulter, she frequently says things she manifestly does not believe, simply to get a rise out of people (consider these examples); if she actually believed these things, she would behave differently from how she actually behaves. I will refrain from speculating on why; I simply will observe that she makes a good living doing it. Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart editor, is another example; “I hope to offend every reader,” he told Business Insider, which is manifestly untrue because if he actually did offend every reader, he’d have no readers and thus no money. I realize that sincerity is considered childish in an era in which irony is king, but if civilization is to benefit, colleges must limit their venues to those speakers who advocate honest ideas honestly (or who, if they trade in irony, do so in service of a larger truth, e.g., Stephen Colbert).

I note for the record that all three of these standards are agnostic with respect to location along the Left-Right political spectrum, to the extent that that concept even has any meaning.

At a minimum, colleges should use these three standards in determining to whom to extend speaking invitations. Would use of these standards solve all our problems? Nah; probably not. I suspect a number of people to the left of me politically would claim, for example, that internal arguments over whether a prospective speaker deals in facts or avoids logical fallacies would inevitably be resolved to the detriment of more marginalized voices. And I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think that this approach would work far more often than not and certainly is preferable to opening college venues to people who willfully and intentionally use lies and flawed logic to try to exert influence over public discourse and, by extension, public policy. Such people are rhetorical grifters, and neither any self-respecting college nor any self-respecting citizen owes them so much as a moment’s attention.

Free societies require informed, rational, logical discourse to function and to progress. It is a mission and a duty of colleges to provide it, and they can only do so by imposing behavior-based standards on speakers who would speak under their aegis. And that, and not any argument about the First Amendment, is what is so important about who gets to speak on our campuses.

UPDATE:  In light of The New York Times’s hiring of Bret Stephens to be its newest op-ed columnist, I’m going to argue a little further that the same standards I’m recommending for colleges should apply to any curators of esteemed speaking platforms … like, oh, say, The New York Times op-ed page.

Stephens is a climate-change denier. He thinks that if a lot of college women are getting raped, then maybe women shouldn’t go to college, a bit of “logic” that defies not only law but also basic common sense. He denies that 1 in 7 Americans are food-insecure, in the face of unassailable government research to the contrary. He dismisses Black Lives Matter’s issues in favor of the discredited “all lives matter” argument and argues for the existence of the nonexistent “Ferguson effect,” which even the Fraternal Order of Police has dismissed.

And what did Marc Lacey’s national editor of The New York Times, have to say about Stephens’s hiring? This:

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That is some weapons-grade stupid right there. It leaves us with the well-supported belief that the national editor of the most widely respected news outlet on the planet is dumber than my cat’s chewed-up catnip toy. Lacey is asking us to believe that freedom of speech is synonymous with a six-figure gig on his paper’s op-ed page. He is asking us to believe that supporting freedom of speech requires not just tolerating falsehood and willful ignorance but lucratively rewarding it. He is further asking us to believe that the most qualified candidate for a coveted spot on that op-ed page is a bigoted dudebro who pulls “facts” out of his ass.

Since Trump’s election, the Times has been selling a lot more subscriptions, based on the belief among prospective subscribers that the Times will be a reliable and insightful source of news, analysis and opinion. If the Times doesn’t want to worry about trafficking in accurate information, maybe it will want to worry about the fact that climate scientists are canceling their subscriptions in protest.

Friday, April 14, 2017 3:07 pm

Report of sorts on the town hall held this morning by my congresscritter, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC13

First, a bit of background for those who aren’t from ’round here.

The congresscritter: Freshman GOP Rep. Ted Budd of the newly redrawn 13th CD of North Carolina. Ran a gun shop before getting elected. In a GOP-leaning district, the political newcomer emerged almost literally out of nowhere from a crowded GOP primary field mainly because he got a boatload of Club for Growth money. Club for Growth is a 501c4 that represents the tax-cuts-for-the-rich-and-steal-middle-class-wealth-by-any-means-necessary wing of the GOP, which is to say the party mainstream.

The district (into which I was placed recently after having spent almost 30 years in NC06): Encompasses about the southwestern third of Guilford County, along with Davie and Davidson counties and most of Iredell County. All but Guilford are heavily Republican (and I cut my reporting teeth in Iredell almost 35 years ago writing about Ku Klux Klan activities there); Guilford was the only part of the district Budd didn’t carry. N.C. districts were redrawn after the 4th Circuit threw out the pre-existing congressional districts on the grounds that they’d been racially gerrymandered, targeting African American voters “with almost surgical precision.” The districts redrawn since still gerrymander to the enormous benefit of Republicans; their constitutionality is in question, too.

The venue: 9 a.m.-noon today in a conference or dining room in the Marriott Hotel on North Greene Street in downtown Greensboro. (If you’re interested, Budd just opened a district office in Greensboro, at 4400 Piedmont Parkway.) For most of that time, between 100 and 200 people were in the room at once. Some came and some went, so I have no idea what total attendance was.

The town hall format: Other than the fact that there was decent free coffee, a fustercluck. More on this below.

# # #

First, let’s give Ted Budd credit for even showing up. That’s a low bar, but it’s one a significant percentage of his GOP House colleagues so far haven’t cleared.

Second, let’s give him credit for being in the moment. He already had started talking to people when I arrived about 8:45, and he was still going (although he’d been warned by an aide that time was up) when I left at 12:10. During all that time, he was on his feet and talking to people without so much as 3-minute bathroom break. He shook hands, looked people in the eye, really seemed to be listening attentively, didn’t interrupt anyone at all that I recall, referred people to staffers if the issues they were raising were ones with which staff reasonably could be expected to assist, and seemed to treat everyone — Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated, male, female, etc. — pretty much the same, which is to say, in a word, courteously, and he did that whether each conversation ran to two minutes or 10.

It is here, however, that I pretty much run out of credit to give Budd.

Let’s start with the format. It was great … if you were Budd. For the rest of us, it sucked. Here’s what I mean.

When you think of a town hall, you generally think of a large room with the congresscritter down in front with a microphone and constituents in seats, stepping up one at a time (ideally to another microphone) to ask a question or state an opinion on an issue. The whole room gets to hear the question, and the whole room gets to hear the congresscritter’s response.

That’s not what this was. This was more like a cocktail party (without cocktails, sadly), with Budd holding serial one-on-one conversations with attendees. He did not use a microphone. He moved around the room a fair bit, surrounded by a cluster of people (often including TV people with large cameras) who wanted to talk to him and therefore were forced to move with him. Often, only Budd and his interlocutor could hear what was being said. There were almost no chairs in the room until some of the attendees prevailed on hotel staff to bring a few more.

The format favored the tall and the people who were fit enough to stand in one place for extended periods, who, probably not coincidentally, also were the most likely demographic to be Budd supporters. I got close enough to take my turn with Budd several times but instead invited others who didn’t seem to be doing so well physically to go ahead of me.

It also made it very difficult — and I believe this was intentional — for others to record what Budd was asked and what he said in return. A lot of people, including me, tried, but based on what I was able to record, which wasn’t much, I doubt very many people got much that was usable. This deliberate strategy is intended to minimize the risk that a recorded statement, question, or possible gaffe by Budd could go viral.

Several attendees directly criticized Budd for this approach; he ignored them. A large number of us tried to encourage everyone else to sit on the floor and force Budd to address us as a group; the effort worked a little at first but then fizzled out. One large, loud guy (not me) on the edge of the scrum directly questioned Budd over everyone else’s head about health-care policy; the question got applause but Budd didn’t really answer it, so no progress there. (My friend and former colleague Joe Rodriguez of the News & Record captured that exchange on video; I’m hoping it’ll be up later at greensboro.com. UPDATE: Here it is. His colleague Kate Queram also got some of it here.)

I would suggest to anyone going to such an event in the future that you try to organize the crowd to insist that the congresscritter speak to the crowd as one.

Finally, there was Budd’s substance on the issues, which was, by and large, deplorable.

The guy did, in fact, oppose the Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), the would-be replacement to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). The AHCA would have given the top 1% of this country’s earners a $3.8 trillion tax cut while removing up to 24 million Americans from the insurance rolls over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office It also would have eliminated many popular and efficient provisions of the ACA, such as requiring coverage for mental-health care, allowing children to remain on their parents’ plans until age 26, requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions, and so on. But Budd opposed the AHCA not because it went too far in enriching the rich and screwing over the middle class and poor, but because it didn’t go far enough. And in at least one exchange near the end of the event, he was forthright enough to say so.

Budd at least gave lip service to the notion of Congress as a watchdog on the executive branch. But in response to my asking him why he opposed an independent special prosecutor to examine Trump’s Russia ties, Budd continued to insist that a bipartisan congressional investigation is the best method for finding out the truth there. There is, of course, nothing in the past 16 years to suggest that congressional Republicans have the slightest interest in holding a Republican executive branch accountable, even when a president goes on live TV and admits to having ordered torture or begins violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause on his first day in office, and plenty to suggest that they’re eager to abuse the process if it can persecute a Democrat.

Budd strongly supports cutting off all federal funding to Planned Parenthood, even though federal law already bans spending federal dollars for abortion services and even though many poor women can only get primary medical care through Planned Parenthood. Budd argued that 1) because money is fungible, ANY money given to Planned Parenthood is helping pay for abortions, and 2) there are alternative outlets for available, affordable medical care for Planned Parenthood’s patients, although when challenged to name even one in Greensboro, he couldn’t do it. UPDATE: He apparently asked an aide to provide such a list for the constituent who asked him about it; I’ll be surprised if such facilities exist.

(And the thing about that fungibility argument is that it is, itself, fungible: I can use the same argument as a basis for saying I shouldn’t pay federal taxes because they’re going to enrich Trump by paying for his $3-million-a-week visits to his private, for-profit Mar-A-Lago compound. Indeed, I would have the better case.)

Budd believes with Trump that we need to spend even more on the military and less on government programs that help people. At this point, it is hard to think of anyone who still holds this position as anything other than a sociopath.

Budd believes the science of climate change has been, in his word, “politicized,” although he offered no proof. He argued that state, rather than federal, environmental control is best, even though (as I pointed out under my breath at the time) tainted air and polluted water cross state lines; much of North Carolina’s air pollution problem until recently was caused by coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. He argued that environmental regulations are “choking” businesses, even though 1) there’s little research to prove that and 2) we DO have research showing that most such research undervalues human life by a factor of about six.

Budd, an evangelical Christian, reiterated the old canard that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not to be found in the Constitution, a literal truth joined at the hip to a contextual lie: It ignores the existence of the establishment clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”

To conclude: Budd is polite and courteous enough, but he is a dangerous ideologue who will pursue measures that weaken the United States strategically, economically, spiritually and as the world’s last, best hope for freedom. He’s smart enough not to behave like a total dick (see, inter alia, Berger, N.C. Sen Phil) in one-on-one interactions. But when you’re a congresscritter, your votes are your morals, and his past votes (he has sided with the GOP all but once in more than 200 recorded votes to date, per one of his aides) put him squarely on the side of screwing the middle class and the poor, imposing a brand of Christianity on this country that tens of millions of Christians find appalling, and actively harming the people whom Christ called “the least of these.” Based on his stated positions, his future votes appear likely to ignore science to do the bidding of Big Carbon even at the expense of killing the Earth (or at least human civilization as we know it), and supporting agents of a hostile foreign power in the White House, to the detriment of U.S. freedom and the country’s global interests and those of its allies. Indeed, Budd seems to have no problem with a “president” who, as I type this, may be getting us into an unnecessary war with North Korea in which millions on the Korean peninsula alone could die.

And don’t even get me started on the gun industry.

Budd strikes me as a younger version of Howard Coble — not the Howard Coble you read about in the media, but the real one: a man who cunningly used an affable personality and nonpartisan affectation to deflect attention from his cold-blooded pursuit of a partisan and dangerous agenda with his votes. The 13th District Democratic Party needs to find at least one qualified candidate to run against Budd, and it needs to do it today.

UPDATE: Reporter Kate Queram also covered the event for the News & Record and was livetweeting it, starting here. Her story is here.

UPDATE: Jordan Green’s report for Triad City Beat is here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 8:20 pm

Rachel Maddow and Trump’s 2005 tax return (redux)

Immediately after Rachel Maddow’s show ended last night on MSNBC, I jotted down a few thoughts on Facebook, which follow:

1) Maddow tweeted she had “returns,” plural. That implied she had both full returns and multiple years. Neither was true.

2) We learned not much substantive from one year’s 2-page Form 1040. Without the schedules, we don’t know WHERE he got his income, which is much the more important question.

3) The long intro at the top of the show ground on a lot of people’s nerves, including mine, and for people who don’t watch Maddow regularly it probably was almost unwatchable. But she often has long intros that serve valuable purposes. In this case, it was valuable for two reasons: to provide background to low-info viewers, and to suggest future avenues of inquiry for other reporters.

All of that said, this was a 30-minute segment that someone unwisely stretched into an hour.

4) It’s a start. It’s a bloody start.

I had more thoughts, but I also wanted to go to bed, so I did. The additional thoughts follow, in no particular order:

While I’m sure MSNBC scored high if not record viewership on Maddow’s show last night, it did so at the cost of a big chunk of its credibility. It grossly overhyped what it had in terms of substance. Although Maddow (or the $25,000-a-year production assistant who actually runs her Twitter account) tweeted only twice before the show started, as noted in Point 1 above, even she implied that she had more substance than she really did. Maddow’s unspoken schtick has been that her show isn’t like the rest of cable news. That schtick took some big hits below the waterline last night.

Although I am not confident that Johnston’s source for his copy of the Form 1040 was Trump himself, as Johnston suggested it might have been, the two pages almost certainly were sent to him with Trump’s knowledge. (Johnston explains here how he got the return.) It smacked of what the Watergate-era Nixon folks called a “limited, modified hangout,” meaning they would admit to the absolute minimum truth that they could admit to without further damaging themselves. Because, after all, what did we learn about this? Trump earned about $153 million and paid about $37 million in taxes. Those numbers aren’t abnormal for people presumed to be rich. So for a lot of low-info viewers and voters, this release was the equivalent of Trump saying, “Here, see? There’s no THERE there! Lying media! Fake news! Thorax!” And a lot of those people will believe that. (More in a bit on what else we learned, most of which will fly over the heads of low-info viewers despite Maddow’s best efforts.)

Johnston’s own reporting on the Form 1040 is much less breathless and more substantive. Among his findings and observations:

  • “Donald Trump was paid that year like a member of the 0.001%, but he paid taxes like the 99%. And by at least one measure, he paid like the bottom 50%.”
  • “There is one clear expense, however, that can be discerned because portions of Trump’s 1995 state tax returns became public last fall. Trump got out of repaying nearly $1 billion he borrowed for his failed casino business. When you don’t repay a loan Congress says that money is income and you owe taxes on it immediately. Instead, Trump made use of an abusive tax shelter that Congress soon closed to newcomers. Like magic, the tax shelter converted what should have been a tax bill of about $360 million into future tax breaks. Ten years later, on his 2005 return, Trump was still saving tax dollars thanks to that tax shelter.”

Johnston also finds that the only reason Trump paid as much in income taxes as he did was because of the Alternative Minimum Tax, which he has said he wants Congress to abolish — a move from which he would benefit directly. And, he says, the return tells us more about the $916 million tax write-off contained in his previously-released 1995 state tax return — the write-off that led to suspicions that Trump had paid no income taxes for 18 years thereafter. Johnston explains it like this:

To understand the Trump tax returns it’s important to realize that America has two income tax systems. The regular income tax was supplemented by a parallel tax system, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, called the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT.

How these two systems interact is central to understanding the Trumps’ taxes.

Viewed in terms of the regular federal income tax system, here is what Trump did:

Trump reported $152.7 million of income. He also reported $103.2 million of negative income, the remainder of the roughly $918 million tax shelter he bought in 1995. That deal was disclosed earlier in three summary pages of his 1995 Connecticut, New York and New Jersey state income-tax returns.

That Trump had only $103 million of his $918 million tax shelter left in 2005 also tells us something about his past income. Using up the other $815 million of negative income in the tax shelter indicates that he earned an average of $81.5 million annually during the 10 years from 1995 through 2004.

Deducting the negative income lowered Trump’s adjusted gross income or AGI to $48.6 million. AGI is the last figure on the bottom of the front page of a federal tax return.

From that, the Trumps took $17 million in itemized deductions, which are not specified. That left  $31.6 million of taxable income.

The Trumps paid just $5.3 million of regular federal income tax. Measured against their cash income of almost $153 million their federal income tax rate was 3.48%.

That figure is slightly lower than the tax rate paid by the poorest half of Americans. The half of taxpayers whose income was less than $33,485 that year paid 3.51% of their money in federal income taxes.

Trump’s total federal tax bill was larger, though, because of the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT.

The President, in writing, has called for eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. Now we know one reason why—he lives like a king, but wants to pay taxes like a Walmart cashier.

All high-income Americans must calculate both their regular income tax and their AMT income tax and pay whichever is larger.

Most of that $103 million of negative income was ignored under the AMT, which meant that for tax purposes Trump’s income was larger than under the regular system.

The Trump income subject to AMT was $111.7 million, according to Daniel Shaviro, a New York University law professor who as a Congressional staffer helped draft the AMT three decades ago.

The Trumps paid $31.3 million in AMT which, together with the regular tax, made their total federal income tax $36.6 million.

Viewed in terms of their positive income of almost $153 million the total Trump tax bill came to 24%. That’s in the range paid by two-income career couples who both work all year to earn about $400,000. The Trumps income was $418,460 per day.

So Trump is, to be kind, manipulating the tax system to pay a lot less tax than a person earning as much as he might be expected to pay. But you know what? A lot of rich people do that. It shouldn’t be legal, but it is, and it probably always will be as long as rich people are the only ones writing the tax code.

Still, this wasn’t a non-story. Seth Abramson, in this thread on Twitter, wrote last night that we actually learned some other important things:

  • We got confirmation that Trump has been lying about not being able to release his 2005 and other returns because they’re being audited.
  • We therefore have reason to believe that if the White House has reason to think other returns might be released soon, it may do so on its own.
  • Someone, somewhere who had access to at least some part of Trump’s tax returns was able and willing to send them to a reporter, with or without Trump’s knowledge. (And I would add that he knew to send them to Johnston, perhaps the most qualified reporter on the planet to address them.)
  • Maddow’s and Johnston’s publication of the return proves that the press is willing and able to publish the material despite allegations that doing so is illegal. (The 1971 Supreme Court case on the Pentagon Papers backs this up, by the way.)
  • Trump made only $150 million or so in 2005 despite the housing market’s still being way up at that point. (I have said all along that Trump’s claim of a $10 billion net worth is bullshit; Abramson thinks this return confirms my suspicions.)
  • Trump may have lied to the FEC at some point, which would be a crime. (Maddow touched on this too last night, but I admit she was talking so fast I wasn’t clear on the details.)
  • The White House now has a “tell” that the press and public can use to gauge its responses to any future revelations regarding Trump’s taxes: “The WH’s willingness to talk about this return sets a standard we can use later on if/when the WH balks at discussing other returns. Indeed, the moment the WH reacts differently to the possible release of a tax return than it did tonight, we’ll know something’s up.”

One last thing: My friend Dan Romuald wonders whether the White House might have made a copy of this one particularly nonthreatening 1040 available to certain White House staffers suspected of leaking to the press, to see whether they could catch a leaker in the act. That, too, is possible and would not be out of character for this administration. I like my modified-limited-hangout scenario better. But that’s just a gut feeling. I could be wrong.

So where do we go from here? In search of more tax returns — the whole things, not just the two-page summaries. I would not encourage anyone to do anything illegal to get them, but in the unlikely event Congress gets sufficiently incensed, that wouldn’t be necessary: Congress, as we saw during the Clinton and Obama years, can subpoena anything it damn well pleases and probably get it. And if more news outlets get returns in their mailboxes with no return addresses, they need to publish them (after verifying their authenticity, of course). It’s perfectly legal and it would be a huge public service.

Because at the end of the day, there’s still a huge question hanging over this country: To what extent do our so-called president’s financial and political ties to the Russians allow Russia undue influence over American policy? Keep in mind that 1) for all Trump’s praise, Vladimir Putin is and always has been a dictatorial, murdering fuckhead (to quote Eddie Izzard), and 2) the Russian government, the Russian banks and the Russian Mafia are all pretty much the same thing.

Trump’s tax returns — in full, all of them — would be the quickest, easiest way to answer that overarching question. And I’m not the only one willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that that’s why he has been keeping them hidden.

 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 9:05 pm

In which your news media attempt to polish a turd

A couple of months ago, I warned you that whatever came of Donald Trump’s likely disaster of a presidency, the news media would be of no use in helping us fight it. We got proof of that last night and today in the media’s coverage of Trump’s joint address to Congress.

To begin with, as several media fact-checking outlets reported, practically every factual assertion made by Trump was a lie. Despite having an army of researchers at his disposal, the president of the United States stood before Congress and told lie after lie after lie. One can only conclude that the lies were intentional, and that alone should have led to universal condemnation of the address.

But, no, it gets worse.

Trump highlighted his executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to create something called the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, to work with people who are victims of crimes created by immigrants. He did this despite the fact that immigrants commit crimes and are incarcerated at a rate significantly lower than native-born Americans. He also did this despite the fact that it is quite reminiscent of the practice of Nazi Germany of publicizing crimes committed by Jews.

If the lies didn’t turn off the media, the Nazism should have. And if Trump had stopped there, it would have been bad enough.

But no.

As the grotesque centerpiece of his speech, Trump “honored” Carryn Owens, who was widowed in late January when her husband, Navy SEAL Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, was killed on a mission in Yemen.

Keep in mind that this mission was launched without adequate intelligence, one result of which was that both Ryan Owens and numerous civilians were killed. As commander-in-chief, Trump bears the ultimate responsibility for the outcome, yet earlier Tuesday he had tried to throw military officers under the bus:

“This was a mission that started before I got here,” the president said. “This is something that they (his generals) wanted to do. They came to see me; they explained what they wanted to do.

“My generals are the most respected we’ve had in many decades I believe.”

Indeed, The Washington Post quoted Trump as saying of his generals, “The y lost Ryan.”

Trump touched all the bases of appallingness in this set piece.

He insisted that the military had obtained actionable intelligence from the raid, a claim the military insists is not true.

He overlooked the fact that not only was Ryan Owens’s father, William, not present, William Owens has strongly criticized Trump’s handling of the raid, had refused to meet with Trump when his son’s body arrived back in the United States, and has called for an investigation of the raid.

And then, as applause for Carryn Owens filled the chamber, Trump added, “And Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record” with that applause.

I am running out of words to say how vile this construction is. He was using  Carryn Owens as a hostage, a human shield against his manifest mishandling of the raid. And he managed, by remarking on the level of applause, to make it all about him, not Carryn Owens or her late husband.

One would think that a perceptive and competent media would recoil at this performance. And as I predicted, you would be wrong. While there were a few dissenters, many commentators focused purely on Trump’s tone — which was, in fact, significantly more reserved than in his previous speeches — in saying that he had been “presidential.”

I would expect a toad like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say something like that, even if, in doing so, he was admitting that up until now, Trump has not been presidential. McConnell is about GOP power, not the public interest.

But CNN commentator Van Jones, normally a liberal stalwart, announced, “He became President of the United States in that moment. Period,” and added that if Trump can conjure more moments like that, “He’ll be there for eight years.”

Perhaps the second-worst offender behind Jones was Chris Cilizza, who writes for The Washington Post’s political column The Fix:

1. Trump rapidly grasped that this was a real moment — and he didn’t step on it by trying to immediately return to his speech. Lots of politicians, obsessed with making sure they got the speech out in the allotted time, would have moved on too quickly — missing the resonance of the cascades of applause that washed over the rawly emotional Carryn Owens. Trump understands moments; he stepped away from the podium, looked to Owens and just clapped. For the better part of two minutes, the only thing you heard in the room was loud applause and the only thing you saw was Owens crying and looking heavenward. Very powerful stuff.

Critics will say — and have already said — that Trump was using a widow’s emotion for political gain. But Owens willingly agreed to come to the speech knowing Trump would single her out. And, politicians of both parties regularly use these tragic moments to make broader points about our country and its policies. That’s politics. To suggest that Trump somehow broke with political norms here is to turn a blind eye to virtually every speech like this given by any recent president of either party.

2. Trump showed some grace. There has never been any question that Donald Trump is happiest when people are talking about, looking at and generally obsessed with Donald Trump. He’s never shown much grace in the public eye, often exhibiting a sort of ham-handedness in situations where some delicacy is required. But not Tuesday night. Trump, dare I say, gracefully handed the spotlight to Owens — even taking a few steps back to let her have that moment. For a candidate, a man and a president who has shown a stunning inability to ever make it about anyone other than him, it was a very deft move.

Well, no. As regards Point 1, Cilizza is engaged in the perennial DC media both-siderism that deprives the American people of an honest understanding of what is causing our problems. It’s true that both parties have used widows/widowers of fallen heroes in political appearances, but no one — no president ever — has used a newly minted, grieving widow as a human shield the way Trump did. As for Cilizza’s Point 2, the “grace” Trump showed was that of a person with narcissistic personality disorder who, for perhaps 30 seconds, became asymptomatic. Applauding that is like cheering a grown man for not deliberately shitting on the carpet.

Cilizza must have been stung by some of the comments, because he then posted on Twitter, “I ask again though: Why can’t Trump be praised for delivering a good speech full stop?”

SpecialKindOfStupid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But his column did not hide him, nor his Twitter feed give him shelter. Among some of the Twitter responses:

“Because speech as performance is meaningless to non-pundit human beings deeply impacted by the substance of a president’s policies.”

“Because you eat up everything he says, no matter how dangerous it is, as long as he leaves you out of it.”

“Only reason you think it’s ‘good’ is Trump avoided saying Jewish bomb threats = false flags. You know, like he did EARLIER THAT DAY.”

“Gee, Chris, you know who ELSE gave nationalist speeches while hating on immigrants?”

You get the idea: There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who aren’t employed by the Washington Post who were just happy to point his errors out to him.

But that’s not good enough. The errors do damage, and corrections or walkbacks, if any, don’t undo that damage. The media need to be calling out this bullshit for what it is, and they need to be doing it in the moment.

But that’s not going to happen. The earlier post I linked to at the top of this post goes into most of the reasons why, and the media’s performance after last night’s Trump speech merely confirms what I predicted months ago: We are well and truly on our own.

 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 8:33 pm

Where are we going from here?

Former Bush speechwriter David “Axis of Evil” Frum, having lately had the scales fall from his eyes, has written an article about how America can transition, and likely already is transitioning, to authoritarianism under Trump, and what that might look like.

Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical [than any previous president]. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.

He arrives at his prediction via a speculative 2020 re-election win by Trump whose basis assumes facts not in evidence (e.g., growing real domestic wages), but that’s less important than his plausible scenario for what America becomes under Trump. Given Trump’s already-demonstrated penchant for using the power of the presidency to enrich himself and his family — and to hurt his enemies financially, as he did with a single tweet — Frum thinks Hungary’s ongoing slide into kleptocracy is a likely model for what we can expect:

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

He provides more detail on what he expects:

It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless. Venezuela, a stable democracy from the late 1950s through the 1990s, was corrupted by a politics of personal favoritism, as Hugo Chávez used state resources to bestow gifts on supporters. …

Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of personal munificence, in which graft does not matter, because rules and institutions do not matter. He will want to associate economic benefit with personal favor. He will create personal constituencies, and implicate other people in his corruption. That, over time, is what truly subverts the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. If the public cannot be induced to care, the power of the investigators serving at Trump’s pleasure will be diminished all the more. …

A mistaken belief that crime is spiraling out of control—that terrorists roam at large in America and that police are regularly gunned down—represents a considerable political asset for Donald Trump. Seventy-eight percent of Trump voters believed that crime had worsened during the Obama years.

In true police states, surveillance and repression sustain the power of the authorities. But that’s not how power is gained and sustained in backsliding democracies. Polarization, not persecution, enables the modern illiberal regime.

By guile or by instinct, Trump understands this.

As it happens, I have been thinking along a separate but related line: What happens if Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression cannot be stopped? I think that’s a real possibility. Here’s why.

For starters, earlier today Trump demanded that Senate Republicans “go nuclear” if Democrats oppose his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, meaning end the filibuster. Aside from the hypocrisy — the filibuster, which appears nowhere in the Constitution, was the Republicans’ main tool of opposition during the eight years of the Obama administration — that means that Republicans can put anyone they want on the Supreme Court. And given the ages of Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Ginsburg, he might be able to do that real soon. That means we can expect, fairly soon, a Supreme Court overwhelmingly against advancing voting rights and willing to tolerate vote-suppression measures many federal judges do not now find constitutional.

Because lower courts are bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions, that means we can expect judicial defeat of all efforts to expand and protect voting rights and likely all efforts to end gerrymandering for partisan political purposes. (It *might* remain possible to toss out gerrymandered districts based on rights, but I doubt it. Chief Justice John Roberts once clerked for then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, whose antipathy to minority voting concerns dated back to his early political days in Arizona, and his work in the Justice Department during the Reagan years offers little encouragement.)

I think, then, that America will become a de facto one-party country. There will be no remaining checks and balances, because there will be no one in power in the White House, Congress or the Supreme Court who believes in them. As Frum describes above, business leaders will pledge fealty to, if not Trump himself, then at least the GOP, either out of hope for goodies or fear of retribution. Sure, some people will remain Democrats, and some Democrats will continue to get elected, almost exclusively to local office, but as a national party, and as statewide parties in most states, they’ll be done.

And once America becomes a one-party country, we’re screwed. If the Affordable Care Act hasn’t already been repealed, it will be, with all the deaths and other human suffering appertaining thereunto. Wage-and-hour regulations, meant in many cases to protect worker health and safety, will be destroyed. As for equal rights, the Republican Party already has demonstrated that it doesn’t believe in the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and several sitting justices already have ruled in ways that make clear that they are disregarding it, a trend that will only grow worse as Trump or a GOP successor appoints more justices.

An assault on individual rights will almost certainly commence, because that is what has happened everywhere else. Speaking publicly and critically about the government might not become a crime, but it likely will have serious effects on one’s career.

Our economy will become a kleptocracy. Wealth will no longer be created by ingenuity and entrepreneurship, but by getting a piece of Trump’s Big Grift.

And the pie will grow smaller, not least because the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs, engineers, software developers, and other talent, put off by the U.S.’s xenophobic immigration policies, will choose to go elsewhere, so that wealth creation in the U.S. slows. Our store of intellectual capital will diminish as the world’s best and brightest students choose to study in other countries, while more and more of our own students will be unable to afford college because of declining real wages, rising costs, and cuts in federal aid.

And so we will enter a whirlpool of declining economic activity and personal freedom. It won’t be an apocalyptic hellscape, at least at first, but in many ways the U.S. will become what we once referred to with smug superiority as a Third World country.

Can any of this be stopped? Maybe. If the Democratic Party finally finds its spine, some of the worst might be avoided. But I have no confidence at all that 1) the Dems will find their spines, and 2) it’s not already too late.

I’d love to be wrong about this. I hope I am. But current facts certainly point in this direction, and hope is not a plan.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 8:07 am

A fledgling coup?, cont.

Looks like I went to bed too soon last night. I woke up a little while ago to learn that several staffers of the House Judiciary Committee worked with the White House on the wording of Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Now, the White House and Congress work together on legislation all the time, and much of that work is done by staffers. That much is totally normal. What’s not normal in this case is that 1) the staffers didn’t tell the committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., or their respective House bosses what they were doing, and 2) they signed a nondisclosure agreement about their work.

As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo points out:

To be clear on one point, Goodlatte isn’t some moderate or softy. He’s an immigration hardliner. It’s unlikely he would have disagreed with at least the broad outlines of the executive order, though perhaps he might have disagreed with some of the particulars.

Still, as a result, Congress knew nothing about the order until the White House announced it on Friday, although work apparently began during the transition period after the November election. That’s not the kind of move that is likely to further a good working relationship between the White House and Congress, as Politico points out:

“Their coordination with the Hill was terrible,” said one senior GOP source on the Hill, who seemed flabbergasted that congressional Republicans didn’t receive talking points from the White House on the executive order until late Saturday night, about 24 hours after President Donald Trump signed it. “We didn’t see the final language until it was actually out.”

The fumbled roll-out serves as a cautionary tale to Trump officials who decide to go it alone in enacting controversial policies without help from Congress. Indeed, the lack of consultation has set off a wave of resentment on Capitol Hill. GOP insiders believe that the White House and Goodlatte staffers could have avoided the drama that unfolded over the weekend had they looped in relevant lawmakers on the front end.

The episode also has instilled a wariness among GOP aides about the White House.

“These executive orders were very rushed and drafted by a very tight-knit group of individuals who did not run it by the people who have to execute the policy. And because that’s the case, they probably didn’t think of or care about how this would be executed in the real world,” said another congressional source familiar with the situation. “No one was given a heads-up and no one had a chance to weigh in on it.”

When I read about this, I immediately wondered whether AG nominee Jeff Sessions, a bigot of long standing, had had something to do with it. Per Politico, I was right:

Insiders told POLITICO that the botched roll-out of the immigration executive order was coordinated for the most part by White House policy director Stephen Miller, a former Sessions staffer, and Trump senior strategist Stephen Bannon.

So why is this all a big deal? If you’ll recall, Congressional Republicans said during the presidential campaign that they would serve as a check on Trump’s worst ideas, just as the Constitution envisioned that Congress would do to the executive branch. But Trump and his staff now have demonstrated that they are willing to seek to bypass congressional oversight, just as they are defying federal court orders. And like all bullies, they’ll keep going until they get smacked.

We’re about to find just how constitutionally oriented the Republican Party is. Given the GOP’s voting record over the past 20+ years, I don’t think we’re going to like what we find.

 

 

 

Monday, January 30, 2017 6:48 pm

A fledgling coup?

Scary, and illegal, as Donald Trump’s executive order limiting immigration was, it was still a conventional policy initiative.

But there was nothing conventional — or legal, or constitutional — about what happened after a federal judge, Ann Donnelly in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, issued a ruling on the order. (A federal judge in Alexandria, Leonie Brinkema, later issued a similar ruling in a similar action on behalf of some people who were detained upon arrival at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. Brinkema’s order went further than Donnelly’s, mandating that those people at Dulles be allowed to talk with lawyers.)

Customs and Border Patrol agents kept stopping and preventing people covered by the executive order from entering the United States, detaining them in direct violation of the judges’ orders. CBP agents at Dulles, informed by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union that the detainees were entitled to legal counsel, responded, “That’s not happening.”

That means one of two things: Either the judges will hold a federal official, likely someone with CBP, in contempt, or the rule of law is dead in this country. And I’m not sure even a contempt citation with actual jail time would convince the Trumpites not to do what they’re doing.

As Yonatan Zunger writes at Medium:

That is to say, the administration is testing the extent to which the [Department of Homeland Security] (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Zunger asks whether this is the beginnings of a coup. When executive-branch officials directly disobey a federal judge’s orders, I think the answer is probably yes.

The judges’ rulings empower the U.S. Marshal’s Service to enforce those rulings. Were I Judge Donnelly or Judge Brinkema, I’d have whoever was overseeing the CBP at JFK Airport and Dulles, respectively, in jail, and possibly higher-ups as well.

And even if the judges did that, I don’t know whether it would be enough. I honestly do not believe the Trumpites are going to stop until they are forced to. And it is clear that the Republican Party in Congress, supposedly a check on executive power, does not have the will to force them to.

And if that didn’t bug you, consider this: Steve Bannon, the unreconstructed Nazi who is now Trump’s top advisor, has been given a seat on the National Security Council — and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s top military officer, has been booted out of the group.

My friend David Gwynn said this on Facebook:

Steve Bannon is basically your crazy alcoholic uncle who lives in a broken down trailer on the outskirts of Merced. And he tells the President what to do. This should frighten just about everyone.

This is true, but it’s even more appalling, as one member of the Facebook group Indivisible Concord posted:

Bannon has no government, intelligence, or high-level military experience; his experience is leading a propaganda outlet (Breitbart News) that peddles nationalist and white nationalist viewpoints.

This would be deeply concerning in and of itself. But one of the jobs of the NSC is to oversee a secret panel that authorizes the assassination of “enemies of the United States Government” – including American citizens. These targeted killings are fully authorized by law under the Congressional military authorization act following 9/11. There is no trial, no due process, and no public record of the decision or the assassination itself.

Just to recap the absurdity: the President of the United States has appointed a known propagandist, nationalist, and white supremacist to replace the highest military advisor in the country on a council that authorizes secret, legal, targeted killings of American citizens (and others) without due process.

And if you’re thinking, “Oh, they’d never do that to a U.S. citizen,” well, they already did, when President Obama ordered the extrajudicial assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. I said at the time that Obama should have been impeached for it.

So, you folks who like to say, “If I’d been there back then, I’d’ve …,” here we are. It’s time to do whatever you would have done.

UPDATE, 8:06 p.m. 1/30: A federal judge in Los Angeles, apparently annoyed that ICE deported a man in violation of HIS order, has ordered ICE to go bring him back, per the L.A. Times. That’s good, but holding some people in contempt, too, would’ve been better.

UPDATE, 9:35 p.m. 1/30: Earlier today, Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, announced that the Justice Department would not defend Trump’s executive order on immigration in court. A few minutes ago, Trump fired her. He said in his statement that she had “betrayed the Department of Justice.” This is, of course, bullshit of the purest ray serene. She swore an oath to uphold the Constitution — not the Justice Department or any president or administration — and that’s what she did.

Trump and Bannon are basically claiming that they are the Constitution. This is officially the biggest constitutional crisis since Iran-contra, if not the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre.

UPDATE, 8 a.m. 1/31: Steve Benen at MSNBC reminds us of some fairly recent history. Scene: Sally Yates’s confirmation hearing in March 2015 after being nominated to the post of deputy attorney general:

At the time, none other than Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, reminded Yates that she’ll have to be prepared to stand up to the White House should a president urge her to do something she considers unlawful. From the transcript:

SESSIONS: Well. you have to watch out, because people will be asking you to do things you just need to say ‘no’ about. Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? [„,] If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?

YATES: Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.

Two years later, Yates did as she promised. For her trouble, Donald Trump fired her and accused her of “betraying” the Justice Department.

History will remember only one of them kindly.

Monday, January 23, 2017 10:38 pm

How the media should strike back

On Saturday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held the first “press conference” of the new administration. Only it wasn’t a press conference, or anything more than a tantrum, really. As Dan Gillmor wrote for Slate [disclosure: I hosted Gillmor when he spoke at the News & Record in 2005], “Press secretaries almost always alienate White House reporters, but typically that takes a while. Spicer took care of it on his first full day in the job by spouting demonstrable untruths about the inauguration audience even as he lambasted the press.”

He kept reporters waiting for more than an hour. Then he read a vitriolic screed in which he falsely insisted that the news media had deliberately understated attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Then he excoriated the press. And then he left without taking questions. Watch:

There are several things going on here.

First, he’s lying about the crowd size.

Second, he’s claiming that the administration refuses to be held accountable by the news media, despite that having been the media’s role since the framing of the Bill of Rights.

Third, he’s refusing even to take questions, let alone allow response to his unreasoning accusations against the media.

Why is he doing all this? I don’t know what’s in Spicer’s head, let alone in the heads of his bosses, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump himself. But here is what I believe: He’s doing it not because he actually thinks he’s right, but because he’s trying to create a media atmosphere in which readers/viewers simply conclude that there IS no objective truth, that the truth is not knowable, and that therefore the media cannot and should not be believed. In such an atmosphere, a government leader may act, and even do terrible things, secure in the knowledge that the public will not hold him accountable because he can simply say that whatever the media claims about him never happened. And people will either believe that it never happened or they will shrug and conclude that there’s  no way ever to know and so there’s nothing that can be done.

Then, on Sunday morning, administration spokesflack Kellyanne Conway insisted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that what Trump and Spicer were saying about Friday’s attendance numbers were “alternative facts.” Counting on Chuck Todd to do the right thing where Republicans are involved is almost always a fool’s game, but on this day he pretty much did the right thing, pointing out to Conway that her “alternative facts” were actually “falsehoods.” I wish he, and NBC generally, would learn to call these things “lies,” as CNN did in its chyron on the same subject:

cnnaltfacts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We continue.

What the Trump administration wants to do to objective knowledge is not only, a short, wide road to dictatorship and atrocities, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Forget such issues as foreign relations (and tricky negotiations about nuclear weapons), that hurricane off the coast is going to strike somewhere, sometime, whether you say it is or not.

So, kind of a big deal. What can the news media do about this?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know where they can start: Trump and his administration want to make the news media their bitch, and the media simply should not allow that to happen.

At the White House, I suggest two parallel steps: 1) The media can inform Priebus that their reader/viewer mindsharer is off-limits, live or otherwise, to such inveterate liars as Spicer and Conway. They can tell Priebus that he simply will have to pick someone to speak on behalf of the president who is not an inveterate liar. I neither know nor care whether Priebus/Trump would even try to do such a thing, so I also suggest 2) that news media simply abandon, for all intents and purposes, its presence in the White House and go elsewhere after different kinds of stories: enterprise and investigative stories that will show what is actually happening in the administration, what policies are being formulated, and what the effects of those policies on everyday people. And then only contact the White House for comment on those stories when they are completed and ready to be broadcast with or without official comment.

Spicer has said he intends to “hold the press accountable.” The only problem with that is that this is America, not Russia. In America, the press holds the administration accountable, whether that whiny liar likes it or not, and if he doesn’t like it, I’m sure Vlad Putin is hiring.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University (disclosure: I was on a panel with him once about a decade ago) posted today on this subject and offered his own suggestions, including:

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

Look: they can’t visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up. The dream of the White House briefing room and the Presidential press conference is that accountability can be transacted in dramatic and televisable moments: the perfect question that puts the President or his designate on the spot, and lets the public see — as if in a flash — who they are led by. This was always an illusion. Crumbling for decades, it has become comically unsustainable under Trump.

He elaborates:

“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with [what Spicer is trying to do]. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people to it.

They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts. As I wrote on December 30:

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

How likely is this to happen? Not very, if one Twitter exchange Rosen had with a New York Times reporter is any indication. (Although, as you’ll see if you read on down the thread, it didn’t work out too well for the reporter.)

If you don’t want to take my word for it, or Rosen’s, you might want to take the word of Russian journalilst Alexey Kovalev, who has learned about covering Trump by covering Vladimir Putin, Trump’s BFF:

Welcome to the era of bullshit

Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, examples of false moral equivalence, and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. …

Don’t expect any camaraderie

These people are not your partners or brothers in arms. They are your rivals in a fiercely competitive, crashing market and right now the only currency in this market is whatever that man on the stage says. Whoever is lucky to ask a question and be the first to transmit the answer to the outside world wins. Don’t expect any solidarity or support from them. If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow-up on your behalf. It’s in this man’s best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention.

This is particularly the case in Russia, where Putin holds an annual news conference, four hours or more in length and attended by journalists from across Russia. We can hope, at least, that journalists covering the White House, a smaller cohort whose members generally see each other every day, can come to a common agreement on how and how not to cover the Trump White House. Even better, we can lobby our news outlets on how and how not to do it, just as Rosen, whose work is widely read in the news industry, is doing now. More from Kovalev:

Expect a lot of sycophancy and soft balls from your “colleagues”

A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions. Which also happen to be Putin’s favorites. Mr. President, is there love in your heart? Who you will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with? What’s your favorite food? “Questions” of this sort, sure to melt Putin’s heart … A subtype of this is also statements-as-questions, but from people who really love the man on the stage and will bob their head and look at the stage adoringly and say something to the tune of “Mr. President, do you agree that a lot of media are treating you unfairly?”

You’re always losing

This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules — which he can change at any time without any notice. You can’t — in Putin’s case — campaign to vote him out of office. Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking — while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.

That final point is essential and echoes mine and Rosen’s: You can’t win Trump and Spicer’s game, so don’t even start to play it.

Gillmor also recommends:

  • Don’t air live press conferences or other events featuring known liars. And don’t live-tweet them either except to document the lies. As Gillmor points out, tweets are like headlines, and many readers don’t read past the headlines.
  • With this administration, assume deceit well beyond the “normal skepticism” of journalists.
  • Always, always, call lies lies in the headline and top of the story — again, because so many readers never read past that, but also because simply repeating the untrue statement, even as pure stenography, helps reinforce it in the minds of readers/views.
  • Try to determine whether the “story” is news in and of itself, or whether (like so many of Trump’s tweets) it’s an attempt to divert media attention away from other news that makes the administration look bad.

Gillmor concludes:

… journalists now realize that the new president and his senior staff view the press in the way all authoritarians see real journalism: not a vital part of a functioning system of government. Not a sometimes annoying collection of insecure people who would rather watch the action than join it. Not even an occasional adversary.

No, for Trump, the press is truly part of the enemy—the people and institutions who might challenge his unfettered right to say and do exactly what he pleases, publicly or in secret, in the most powerful job on the planet.

Please, journalists: Act accordingly.

hope they realize that. I pray they do. And I hope and pray that they will be smart and brave enough not to play Trump’s game. Because nothing is riding on that except the future of our democratic republic.

Finally, if journalists are successful, will Trump’s supporters pitch a bitch about this? Wrong question; Trump’s supporters will pitch a bitch about this whether journalists are successful or not. A nontrivial minority of Americans already are inclined to believe both that anything Trump says is true and that anything the news media say is false. Fuck their feelings. Real journalists and the rest of us are going to have to save freedom in spite of them, just as we won freedom from Britain in spite of people like them, so let’s get started.

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 8:32 pm

Could Trump be a Russian spy? That train might have left the station years ago

Boy, life really does come at you fast. One day we’re (almost all of us) making golden-shower jokes; the next day, an ex-journalist like Dan Conover, whom I’ve known for more than a decade, takes the time that news-media outlets didn’t to peruse the document dump made public by BuzzFeed to bypass the salaciousness and get straight to the news.

For those of you playing catch-up, this Guardian article provides both background as to where the documents came from and some explanation of the basis for believing they might be reliable. (That said, the article itself is not well sourced.) Several outlets have identified the source of the documents as retired MI6 agent Christopher Steele and the author as an opposition-research specialist initially hired by one of Trump’s Republican primary opponents and later by a party or parties unknown.

Washington media apparently have known of the existence of the documents for weeks, if not months. Buzzfeed finally posted them; editor Ben Smith’s justification for doing so is here. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan thinks this was an ethically bad call and explains why here. Normally I would stop and dig into the details of that ethical decision — I’ve always been fascinated with ethical hard calls in journalism — and at some point I will. But right now I want to try to keep focused on the actual news in the dump.

Nota bene: The documents remain unverified. But more on that in a bit.

I haven’t had time to read the whole thing. But Dan did and wrote about it on Facebook; with his permission, I’m reposting a good bit of what he said here:

The real meat is in Report No. 95. It’s the only report in the Buzzfeed dump that is incomplete, as it appears to be missing the final page, which would include the date on which it was filed.

If it is deemed credible, then it accuses Trump and his campaign of an actual crime — not poor judgment, not allowing themselves to become vulnerable to blackmail at some point in the future. Report No. 95 says that “TRUMP’s team” passed intelligence on Russian oligarchs and their families living in the United States directly to Russian agents.

In other words: Espionage.

The report is titled “RUSSIA/US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: FURTHER INDICATIONS OF EXTENSIVE CONSPIRACY BETWEEN TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN TEAM AND THE KREMLIN”

The opening summery claims that a Trump associate admitted that the Kremlin was behind WikiLeaks’ DNC hack, and that “TRUMP’s team” used “moles within DNC and hackers in the US as well as Russia.”

It further claims that Russians received intel from Trump’s team on “Russian oligarchs and their families living in US,” and that the mechanism for transmitting this intel involved “pension disbursements to Russian emigres living in US as cover, using consular officials in New York, DC and Miami.”

Detail item No. 1 cites a “Source E,” described as “an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP.” In late July, Source E told a compatriot that:

“…there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership. This was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy adviser, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries. The two sides had a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, whom President PUTIN apparently both hated and feared.”

Detail item No. 2, still citing Source E (who appears to be an unwitting source), talks about the WikiLeaks operation and claims this was conducted “with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team.”

Highlighted: “In return the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defence commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine, a priority for PUTIN who needed to cauterise the subject.”

Detail item No. 3 discusses the structure of the anti-Clinton intelligence network, and the mechanics of the two-way flow of intelligence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

And there’s Detail Item No. 4, which I quote in its entirety:

“In terms of the intelligence flow from the TRUMP team to Russia, Source E reported that much of this concerned the activities of business oligarchs and their families’ activities and assets in the US, with which PUTIN and the Kremlin seemed preoccupied.”

Detail items Nos. 5 and 6 describe the Trump team’s political calculations and Trump’s investment efforts in Russia.

But let’s go back to the important part. Detail No. 4 alleges a crime, and other passing references in other reports reinforce the claim — particularly in Report No. 97 (30 July). In the opening summary of the July 30th report, the opposition research consultant writes:

“Source close to Trump campaign however confirms regular exchange with Kremlin has existed for at least 8 years, including intelligence fed back to Russia on oligarchs’ activities in US.

“Russians apparently have promised not to use ‘kompromat’ they hold on TRUMP as leverage, given high levels of voluntary co-operation coming from his team.”

The consultant expands on that claim in Detail No. 4:

“As far as ‘kompromat’ (compromising information) on TRUMP were concerned, although there was plenty of this, he (ed note: the source is described as a Russian emigre in an earlier Detail item) understood the Kremlin had given its word that it would not be deployed against the Republican presidential candidate given how helpful and co-operative his team had been over several years, and particularly of late.”

Long story short: This material is unverified, but if it can be verified, it means that we’ve gone way past “conflict of interest” and “potential security risk” and have wound up at “Trump is guilty of having spied for the Russian government for the past eight years.”

Can it be verified? I don’t know. Dan knows a lot more about the national-security apparatus than I do, and he doesn’t know.

But here’s what I do know: We as a country can’t afford not to try to find out. If this doesn’t call for a joint select Congressional committee with an investigative staff full of hard-nosed former prosecutors, nothing does. This is sure as hell more important than Hillary’s emails. This is about giving a longtime Russian spy the keys to the thermonuclear kingdom.

And here is where we find out who the real patriots are. They’ll be the ones, in Congress, elsewhere in government, and in the media, who make an effort to find out the truth. They’ll face some of the most vicious opposition in the country’s history. And it is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the country could depend on whether they succeed — even if the ultimate truth is that Trump, for all his bad qualities, is innocent.

 

 

Monday, January 9, 2017 10:26 pm

Acculturation

Earlier today on Twitter, I stumbled across an interesting rant, which starts here. You can read it for yourself, and I encourage you to do so. But basically it’s an attack on the notion that Donald Trump won the Electoral College because liberal coastal elites didn’t thoroughly understand and sympathize with the concerns of the white working class.

The writer, who claims to have grown up poor and white in Texas, makes a number of good points:

  • Conservatives don’t really care about people like him.
  • People like him “are not worth romanticizing.” (Honestly, who among us is?)
  • Impoverished white Americans “are used as a political cudgel by rich Republicans against blacks, against women, against Muslims, against Jews and LGBTQ folks … “
  • Those Republicans “have gotten a shit ton of mileage from impoverished and blue-collar white folks by claiming the people in power live in some ‘bubble’ in Washington and are out of touch with ‘real Americans.'”

It goes on. And it’s really worthwhile, a big slice of both self-aware and more broadly aware understanding of just how America came to be under the control of a sociopath, someone with narcissistic personality disorder and a symptomatic Alzheimer’s patient who surrounds himself with Nazis and is empowered and protected by the most corrupt Congress in the nation’s history.

Well, enter a guy on Twitter who objects to it because of the language.

This individual’s bio describes him as a “philologist and dog trainer,” which is sweet. This individual has four followers, which is unsurprising inasmuch as this individual’s account was created on Dec. 31.

Now, I think I know who this individual is. I think he’s somebody local, somebody who has blogged for years about an obscure but (to me) interesting local subject. I’ve not met him in real life, but I know where he works and I’ve interacted with him on his blog, and he on mine. I could be wrong about this, which is why I’m not naming him. But I’m about 99% certain.

He characterized this rant as “hysterical” and added, “Well, repeated use of derivatives of ‘f***’ and ‘moron’ give the rant a certain cheap discourse continuity.” He also called the rant “just a vomit of self-aggrandizing outrage.”

Well.

This individual has been on Twitter for nine days. I’ve been on it for nine years. So here’s an observation he might find useful: If Facebook is more or less an online family restaurant, Twitter is a dive bar, complete with frequent spilled drinks, vomiting, and the occasional knife fight. Don’t like it? Don’t go in.

Oh, and you’re a philologist? Well. I’m impressed. Perhaps, being a philologist, you have some familiarity with the language of the ancient Greek comedists. If so, then you know for a fact that 1) clean language wasn’t at the top of their list of concerns, and 2) humor flows, and satire races, uphill only.

And if you find language objectionable, count your blessings. Because apparently you’ve been able to live for decades a life free from the kind of desperation that makes the author of that thread use language you find so offensive. Because a lot of people use that kind of language out of desperation because they are so utterly lacking in resources, options, opportunities and luck that they can’t do anything else.

Also, pro tip: When the country is being taken over by someone who was not legitimately elected president, someone who has narcissistic personality disorder and early-stage Alzheimer’s AND is an agent of a hostile foreign power (update 1/10/17: additional evidence has surfaced that the Russians are blackmailing him), someone who surrounds himself with Nazis, someone who gives every indication of intending to use the office of the presidency to grift and who is empowering his blood and marriage relatives to do the same with all the power of the United States executive branch behind them, someone whose actions to date, from firing the supervisors of the country’s nuclear-weapons program to nominating a Cabinet full of inept and/or corrupt scumbags, someone who clearly poses a threat to the future of freedom and democracy in this country, well, your concern with how often someone says “fuck” is just a tad precious.

More to the point, son: Not despite but because of your education, you’re going to be one of the first people they come after. And all your learning, all your pretentiousness, all your decades of voting Republican, and all your concerns about objectionable diction aren’t going to save you when they do.

So if you want to live, you’d better wake up.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 8:03 pm

When the watchers are doing the pillaging

The Associated Press, noted for its balance and sobriety, seldom uses the word “eviscerate” in the lede of any story not datelined from a butcher shop. So when it announced that, in the dark of night on a national holiday, House Republicans had voted Monday to “eviscerate” the Office of Congressional Ethics, I sat up and paid attention.

The vote, in a closed-door meeting the night before the new Congress was sworn in, was to severely weaken that office, ending its independent status and placing it under the partisan (and therefore Republican-controlled) House Ethics Committee. The measure, authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, was part of a larger package of House rules covering the 2017-2018 legislative session that was to be voted on today. (There is no corresponding Senate office. You might wonder why that is.)

Not the least of the reasons for paying attention was that the whole reason the office was made independent in the first place, by House Democrats in 2008, was in response to the congressional lobbying scandals created by Jack Abramoff, who went to prison on corruption charges. The Abramoff case demonstrated that the House Ethics Committee was either unable or unwilling to police the House. Last night’s vote was so bad that Abramoff himself strongly criticized the measure today. (I believe it was one of Charlie Pierce’s commenters who said that if Jack Abramoff says you’re corrupt, you should strongly consider the possibility that you are corrupt.)

In addition to stripping the office of its independence, the measure also would have prevented staff from making public statements independent of the Ethics Committee and would have prevented it from investigating anonymous tips. It even would have prevented the office from reporting crimes, even crimes against children, which is not just a hypothetical:

Last year, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for fraud charges linked to allegations that he sexually abused boys while he was a high school wrestling coach more than 30 years ago.

During Hastert’s tenure as Speaker, congressional Republicans turned a blind eye to Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate relationship with an underage male page. Foley resigned after text messages he sent to the page were leaked to the press.

A number of media outlets reported that this package passed over the objections of senior GOP leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan. That’s bullshit of the purest ray serene, as well known Marxist political analyst Norm Ornstein of the radical-hippie American Enterprise Institute points out:

Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker.

My local daily, which is also my former employer, didn’t post a story until 10:26 this morning. But a good number of news outlets did last night, and the issue went viral. Both independently and at the urging of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, citizens nationwide bombarded their GOP representatives’ offices with calls and emails demanding to know how their reps had voted, and why. Many also insisted that the measure be reversed. (It should be noted here that Talking Points Memo’s similar response to an initially secret GOP plan to privatize Social Security in 2005 smoked that plan out, and ultimately strangled it in its cradle, in much the same way.)

Earlier today, the measure was stripped from the House rules package in response to public pressure, although there’s nothing that would keep Republicans from sneaking or ramming it through at any future point. President-elect Donald Trump issued a statement objecting to the timing of the measure but not the substance. Naturally, he later took credit for its reversal.

Worse, The New York Times and some other media outlets also wrongly credited Trump for bringing about the change, with CNN saying Trump had “dramatically strong-armed” the change.

So what have we learned from all this?

First, and once again for those who aren’t paying attention, we as a nation are screwed because the people in charge of the executive and legislative branches of government for at least the next two years simply cannot be trusted. They cannot be trusted to make policy in the public interest. They cannot be trusted to police themselves. And they cannot be trusted to attack public corruption on the part of others. That’s just not what they do. That’s just not who they are. And you should not believe anyone who tells you differently.

Second, and worse, it is clear that the agenda of both executive and legislative Republicans right now is plunder, pure and simple. Trump and his family show no intention of doing anything but using the presidency to fill the family coffers to bursting. The Congressional Republicans appear inclined let them do that so long as, in return, he allows them to plunder public resources and what remains of the wealth of the middle and working classes, by gutting Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act and selling off public assets for cheap to cronies, all of which will result in huge upward transfers and concentration of wealth.

As Ornstein wrote:

Given Ryan’s solidarity with President-elect Trump on Russian hacking—preceded by his deep-sixing any bipartisan statement during the campaign warning against foreign attempts to influence our elections—along with Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s indifference to any investigation of conflicts of interest or ethical problems with the president-elect and his cronies, this is chilling evidence that we are headed for a new age of official embrace or at least acceptance of unethical and illegal behavior. The core of America’s political system depends on real checks and balances, on a Congress that puts country ahead of party. The House leadership showed this week that party comes first.

Third, and unsurprisingly, Trump shows no compunction whatever about telling whatever lies he thinks he needs to tell to inflate his public image and feed his own ego, no matter how demonstrably untrue they are. This isn’t news.

Fourth, and more dismayingly also not news, is that even major-league mainstream news outlets like CNN and The New York Times appear uninterested in fighting Trump’s lies. As I said before, the media will not help us. We’re going to have to fix this ourselves.

Which brings us to Point 5: Encouragingly, we have seen evidence once again that if Middle America pitches a bitch at Congress, Congress — even this Congress, saturated in its own pustulence — will, at least temporarily, take a hint. Screaming at the top of your lungs all the time gets tiresome, and it’s hard on a body. But when the evidence shows that it works at least some of the time and other available tools appear to lie thin on the ground, maybe that’s just what we have to do.

 

 

Lindy West, Gamergate, and the alt-right Nazis

Feminist writer and educator Lindy West quit Twitter today because Nazis:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

 

That wasn’t why she quit though, or wasn’t what prompted her to pull the trigger. No, that was something rather more than personal:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

Well, yes, Nazis* are bad, and Twitter isn’t the only medium or social medium wrestling with what, exactly, to do about that. Still, Twitter has been almost unique in its ratio of encouraging talk to gross inaction. And I suspect that, as with most problems, it probably comes down to money.

What I mean by that is this. I’ve been online in various ways for going on 30 years, and in all that time I have yet to see an online community that wasn’t ruined by, for lack of a better term, trolls in the absence of moderators. (For the first decade or so of my life online, I wasn’t convinced moderators were necessary; not for the first time, I admit I was wrong.) But moderating takes time, and time takes money, and over its life as a public company (i.e., since late 2013), Twitter has, per generally accepted accounting principles, never made money. Since its 2006 founding, it has burned through more than $2 billion. And its user growth has slowed to the point at which near- to medium-term profits look unlikely.

More to the point, though, CEO Jack Dorsey has never said anything publicly that suggests to me that he truly understands that he has a problem. But he does. As Leigh Alexander (no relation) wrote in the context of Gamergate, “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”

Dorsey, his executives and his board absolutely have a moral obligation to users of their service not to let that service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit. And for a lot of people who don’t look like me — a cishet middle-aged, white, until-recently-Republican male — it already is.

Moreover, I would argue that they have an obligation to their shareholders not to let the service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit, because while that might give you a profitable quarter or two, it spells doom for the business’s long-term financial interests and those of its shareholders.

And, finally, I would argue that they have an obligation to the public in general, in the U.S. and abroad, not to allow their service to become a sinkhole of Nazi shit because Nazi shit is gaining popularity and causing problems around the world. It is competing with Vlad Putin right now as the No. 1 danger to small-l liberal democracy worldwide. And it should be denied any foothold it attempts to seek. Twitter isn’t just a medium anymore; it’s also an organizing and fundraising tool. Dorsey et al. need to deny its benefits to Nazis and their backers.

And it’s especially important to do so here in the U.S., where an illegitimate president-elect is backed by Nazis. As an article a month ago in the Guardian by Matt Lees explains, what happened in Gamergate absolutely predicted what has happened in the past year, and is happening now, with Donald Trump:

The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the “alt-right”, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence. After all, the culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House. As a founder member and former executive chair of Brietbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannopoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate. This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it. …

n 2014, the media’s reaction was often weak or overtly conciliatory – some sites went out of their way to “see both sides”, to reassure people that openly choosing to be affiliated with a hate group did not make them in any way responsible for that hate. Olive branches were extended, but professional lives continued to be ruined while lukewarm op-eds asked for us to come together so we could start “healing”. The motivations may have been sound, but it’s the language Trump and his supporters have used post-election to obliterate dissenting voices.

In 2016, new wave conservative media outlets like Breitbart have gained trust with their audience by painting traditional news sources as snooty and aloof. In 2014, video game YouTube stars, seeking to appear in touch with online gaming communities, unscrupulously proclaimed that traditional old-media sources were corrupt.

Everything we’re seeing now, had its precedent two years ago. …

Looking back, Gamergate really only made sense in one way: as an exemplar of what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism”, a form of extremism he believed could flourish at any point in, in any place – a fascism that would extol traditional values, rally against diversity and cultural critics, believe in the value of action above thought and encourage a distrust of intellectuals or experts – a fascism built on frustration and machismo. The requirement of this formless fascism would – above all else – be to remain in an endless state of conflict, a fight against a foe who must always be portrayed as impossibly strong and laughably weak. This was the methodology of Gamergate, and it now forms the basis of the contemporary far-right movement.

We have no idea where this will lead, but our continued insistence on shrugging off the problems of the internet as “not real” – as something we can just log out of – is increasingly misled. 2016 has presented us with a world in which our reality is being wilfully manipulated. Fake news, divisive algorithms, misleading social media campaigns. The majority of people who voted for Trump will never take responsibility for his racist, totalitarian policies, but they’ll provide useful cover and legitimacy for those who demand the very worst from the President Elect. Trump himself may have disavowed the “alt-right”, but his rhetoric has led to them feeling legitimised. As with Gamergate, the press risks being manipulated into a position where it has to tread a respectful middle ground that doesn’t really exist.

Prominent critics of the Trump administration need to learn from Gamergate. They need to be preparedforabuse, for falsified concerns, invented grassroots campaigns designed specifically to break, belittle, or disgrace. Words and concepts will be twisted, repackaged and shared across forums, stripping them of meaning. Gamergate painted critics as censors, the far-right movement claims critics are the real racists.

Perhaps the true lesson of Gamergate was that the media is culturally unequipped to deal with the forces actively driving these online movements. The situation was horrifying enough two years ago, it is many times more dangerous now.

Obviously, Jack Dorsey and Twitter aren’t responsible for all of this. But within his own lane, Dorsey and the organization he leads have an obligation to the service’s users and their fellow Americans to run a service that, if it doesn’t facilitate the best that America on the Internet can be, at least doesn’t allow the worst to prey on everyone else.

 

*In this post, and on this blog generally, I do not use the term “alt-right.” That’s Orwellian nonsense. These people are Nazis, just as their dads were when I was covering the Klan and other right-wing white-nationalist groups back in the ’80s. They’re not even “neo-Nazis”; there’s nothing neo- about them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 1:53 pm

“There is no kindness in them.”

Neal Gabler, author of a number of books examining the intersection of U.S. history and popular culture, has posted an essay that is, I think, essential to what we who would oppose Trumpism must stand for. It also, unfortunately, helps to illustrate why I think resistance to Trump can expect very little help from the media.

The gist of it is that kindness, and such related tendencies as community responsibility and mutual aid, have gone by the wayside in American culture in general and Republican politics in general. He traces this change from a 1961 essay by Gore Vidal on the subject of Ayn Rand and the psychopathic “philosophy” she espoused. Vidal quotes Rand:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her.

Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom… or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.

To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.

The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral …

Keep in mind here that Rand was writing in the giant shadow of World War II, which democratic countries (and, yes, the Soviet Union) would not have won without “the creed of sacrifice.” And yet she argues that altruism undercuts America, she conflates selfishness with freedom and altruism with slavery, she values money above relationships and dismisses everything that every great religion and moral code going back thousands of years has taught us about the value of unselfishness.

Gabler comments:

In most quarters, in 1961, this stuff would have been regarded as nearly sociopathic nonsense, but, as Vidal noted, Rand was already gaining adherents: “She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.”

Because he was writing at a time when there was still such a thing as right-wing guilt, Vidal couldn’t possibly have foreseen what would happen: Ayn Rand became the guiding spirit of the governing party of the United States. Her values are the values of that party. Vidal couldn’t have foreseen it because he still saw Christianity as a kind of ineluctable force in America, particularly among small-town conservatives, and because Rand’s “philosophy” couldn’t have been more anti-Christian. But, then, Vidal couldn’t have thought so many Christians would abandon Jesus’ teachings so quickly for Rand’s. Hearts hardened.

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.

Yep, that’s where we are, folks. Our House speaker, Paul Ryan, who famously grew up and got educated with the help of Social Security benefits, equally famously gives his staffers copies of Rand’s works to read and is planning to privatize (read: kill) Social Security. And writ large, that is the problem with today’s GOP politicians and the large swath of the electorate that supports them, Gabler says: “There is no kindess in them.”

Moreover, Gabler blames this lack on the media:

The media have long prided themselves on being value neutral. It was Dragnet journalism: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Or: “We report, you decide” — a slogan coopted by the right-wing Fox News, ironically to underscore that they weren’t biased, at least not liberally biased.

Of course, not even the most scrupulous journalists were ever really value neutral. Underneath their ostensible objectivity there was a value default — an unstated moral consensus, which is the one Vidal cited and the one to which most Americans subscribed throughout most of our history. But it took a lot to activate those values in the press. The mainstream white media moved ever so slowly to report on the evils of segregation. Yet when they finally did, they didn’t behave as if African-Americans marching for their rights and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing dogs on them were moral equals. Value neutrality had its limits. The reporting of the movement was one of journalism’s proudest moments, and you can read about it in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanonff. It is a story worth telling and remembering in these frightening days — a story that shows how the press can serve us.

However long it took for them to grow a conscience, those journalists who covered the civil rights movement didn’t think they were violating their professional code of objectivity by exposing the heinous conduct of the Southern authorities, because they knew what they were upholding wasn’t subject to debate. The morality was stark. (I have a suspicion from the way the Black Lives Matter movement is covered that it wouldn’t be so stark today.)

Taking sides against the KKK and redneck sheriffs, however, was one thing, as was taking sides against lunatic fringe right-wingers like the John Birch Society who hated government. But what happens when those extremists who advocate a bizarre morality that elevates selfishness and deplores altruism commandeer one of our two major political parties? What do you do then?

We know the answer. You do nothing.

The media sat by idly while American values were transmogrified. Even the so-called “good” conservatives — David Brooks, David Frum, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, et al. — refused to speak the language of kindness, preferring the language of free markets. As far right conservatives took over the Republican Party — the very same conservatives who just a few years earlier were considered crazies — the media dared not question Republican opposition to anything that assisted the disempowered and dispossessed, which is how a value-neutral media wound up serving the cause of conservatism and Republicanism and how the moral consensus was allowed to be turned upside down.

Read those Ayn Rand quotes to your children as moral instruction, and you will see how far we have fallen. This is Republican morality. This is Trump morality. And the media, loath to defend traditional American values in an increasingly hostile conservative environment, let it happen. That is what value neutrality will get you.

Gabler acknowledges the potential pitfalls of media determining not only facts but also values. And yet, he says, the risk is greater if we do not:

It is true that we don’t all share the exact same values, though in the past I think our fundamental values were pretty close to one another’s. But even if values differ, all values are not created equal. Some are better than others. Most of us do know what is right. Most of us do know that we have moral obligations to others. Most of us understand kindness. It is just that we have been encouraged to forget it. That was Ayn Rand’s mission. Trump is proof of how well she and her acolytes, like Paul Ryan, succeeded.

This election turned on many things, but one that both the public and the press have been hesitant to acknowledge is the election as a moral referendum: the old morality against the new Randian one Republicans had advanced for years and Trump fully legitimized. There is no kindness in him. We prefer the idea that Trump voters were economic casualties, that they were frustrated with the system, that they felt marginalized and misunderstood. It lets us avoid seeming condescending.

Perhaps. But I think it behooves us to recognize that many of those voters bristled under the old morality and turned to Trump because he removed the guilt Vidal had cited when we tried to harden our hearts. Shame helped keep the old morality in force. Trump made shamelessness acceptable. We are reaping that whirlwind every day.

And so he charges the media:

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth,” Tolstoy said. Going forward, that could be the basis for a politics. And we must press our media to understand that they can only restore the values they once took for granted by doing what the best of them did during the civil rights era: observe events through a moral lens. Appealing to our worst selves is usually a winning strategy, as it was for Trump. The media must remind us of what it means to be our best selves. This should be their new mission: a media in opposition. It should be unrelenting, regardless of the right-wing blowback.

Moreover, Gabler observes, it’s not just that Americans are selfish. For many Americans, including Trump, it’s not good enough merely that they succeed; their competitors or opponents also must be punished (indeed, in Trump’s case, humiliated):

America is in moral crisis. Many Americans seem far more interested in making sure that those they consider undeserving — basically, the poor — get nothing than in making sure that they themselves get something. A friend recently told me a joke told him by a Hungarian acquaintance, who intended it as an example of Hungarian schadenfreude, but I have modified it because I think it is a harrowing parable for contemporary America and its strange moral turnabout. This is Trump’s America:

There were three farmers: a German, a Hungarian and an American. Each had a cow. One day, misfortune befell them, and their cows died. Each remonstrated against God, saying God had failed him, and each lost faith. God realized he had to do something to make amends. So he came to Earth and approached the German.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked. And the German answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me another cow.” And God did so.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked the Hungarian. And the Hungarian answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me that cow and another to compensate.” And God did so.

And finally God came to the American, and He asked, “What can I do to restore your faith?” And the American answered, “God, I lost my cow. Shoot my neighbor’s cow.”

Not only can no civilization embrace such “values” and be called great, no civilization can embrace such values and even survive. As for the media’s role, I have argued for years that media should be transparent not only about methods but also about values, a notion that went over like a rock because being transparent about values first requires you to have some. But what might a news outlet’s values be?

I have suggested such examples as loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law. The presumption that the best government is that which governs in the open. That government service be just that, service, and not merely the opportunity to enrich oneself and one’s cronies. That policy be based on what produces the greatest good for the greatest number. And so on.

To that list, Gabler adds, and I agree, that the news media must view the personnel and policy choices of the Trump administration through a moral lens that encourages each and all of us to be our best selves. Rand argued that the pathway to our best selve was money, but we have millennia of experience to shows us that not only couldn’t she write, she also couldn’t think.

To Gabler’s point, I would add only that both the media and we, the people, must watch not just Trump and his administration through such a lens, but also the choices of government, corporations, nonprofits, and powerful individuals at all levels. If, as a lot of Christians like to suggest, God has turned his face from us, it’s because we have failed to do so.

Monday, December 26, 2016 7:40 pm

Metaphor — and other nonliteral language — under siege

Twenty-one years ago, on Jan. 14, 1996, I published this piece in the Sunday Ideas section of the News & Record. I think it has held up well and is likely to serve us well as we face the linguistic depredations of an incoming administration bent on dispensing with the entire notion of truth. I’ve added a postscript at the end.

* * *

METAPHOR UNDER SIEGE: Are we so literal-minded today that we imperil figurative speech, dumb down civic discourse and jeopardize democracy?

Whatever else Congress is full of, it can’t have many English majors. Otherwise, the proposed constitutional amendment banning the burning of a U.S. flag might never have gotten as far as it did. The Supreme Court already has ruled that flag burning is constitutionally protected, if figurative, speech.

The U.S. Senate recently rejected the amendment. But the controversy surrounding flag burning — some see it as a metaphoric protest against government policies; others see it as a threat to democracy — is but one example of America’s growing inability or unwillingness to communicate in nonliteral language.

Mankind has embraced this rich language since ancient times; the 23rd Psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd” – might be the world’s best known metaphor. It weaves itself through Aesop’s fables and Shakespeare’s tales; its irony and satire define the works of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.

For centuries, even the simplest people understood and enjoyed this complex language. Few Oxford dons would be found quaffing ale among the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

But in recent years, that understanding and enjoyment of nonliteral language have come under attack, many students of the language believe. They see a growing intolerance of language that purports to express anything but the plain, literal meaning of the words. And they fear that the consequences could go far beyond duller language. They worry that our political institutions and society’s ability to solve problems are endangered.

Is metaphor dying? Can it be saved?

“Dying,” a metaphor itself, is overstating the case: To use language is to use metaphor, intentionally or not.

“We invent words through a process of association that is basic to making metaphors,” says William Covino, professor of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Concrete analogies help people grasp concepts more easily, he says: “What is the ‘leg’ of a table except a metaphor created by associating the structure of the table with human anatomy?”

But anatomy is the province of science, and metaphor has been suspect since the rise of modern science. Soon after the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was chartered in 1662, it “castigated figurative language in general, and metaphorical language in particular, for veering from the ‘plain English’ that must be employed to validate scientific truth,” Covino says.

This scientific emphasis on the literal deviates sharply from the outlook of Aristotle, a natural scientist himself. In the 4th century B.C., he wrote in his “Poetics”: “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”

But many linguistics experts believe that an eye for resemblances is less valued today than in Aristotle’s time.

“People only see the truth as factual truth, whereas metaphor presents the truth via analogy,” says Art Berman, professor of language and literature at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“We suspect metaphor as fraudulent,” Covino says. “We tend to devalue metaphor in our educational systems as something that belongs to poetic understanding and stands apart from ‘facts.’ ”

Linguistics experts today fear nonliteral language faces more suspicion – even opposition – than ever. One reason is that the technique relies on shared information and a shared background, which are in short supply, particularly among youth.

“Metaphor ‘works’ when it fits the psychology of the audience – their background, education, basic premises and beliefs,” says Covino.

Dan Taylor, a professor of classics at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, says metaphor needs even more – a shared context.

“On MTV, there’s no context,” he says. “You go from one image to another, and there’s no continuity. You try to tell a story in pictures, but they’re disjointed, disconnected. Today’s kids tend to think visually rather than verbally, and they’re missing the complexity of verbal connections that metaphor makes possible.

“In classics, we have this wonderful database called Perseus. There are thousands of images in it of ancient coins, temples, archaeological sites and so on, but there’s no context for any of it; you can pull 10 images from 10 different centuries. I’ll have students go through it, and they’ll pull a 5th century statue and a 3rd century coin and try to make the two go together.

“If I’m using metaphors that deal with a cultural background that is not yours, we’re not talking to one another. We’re not communicating.”

When Jonathan Swift published his classic essay “A Modest Proposal” in 1729, it provoked strong reaction. But it did not do so on the basis of its literal message, which was that the problem of Ireland’s starving children should be solved by butchering them and selling them as delicacies. Rather, it did so on the basis of its actual message, a protest of English economic exploitation of Ireland – a problem that was widely known. People understood, then, how Swift used irony.

Has our understanding of figurative language so atrophied since then? Earlier this summer, in newspapers across the country, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette penned an editorial cartoon that depicted a black man shining the shoes of a white male executive. The executive accuses the shoe shine man of exploiting affirmative action to take the job from a white man.

That cartoon was an example of irony. But in Greensboro, some members of the NAACP said the literal depiction of a black man shining a white man’s shoes was so offensive that the newspaper shouldn’t have published it, regardless of what Marlette’s real meaning was.

Tom Lisk, head of N.C. State’s English department, doesn’t worry as much as some linguistics experts that nonliteral language is in trouble. Ensuring that writer and reader have shared information is not a failure of metaphor but “a challenge to any writer,” he says.

But he acknowledges that more and more people struggle with nonliteral language. And he’s not surprised that irony is in the most trouble of all.

“Irony is a pretty subtle form of communication because it depends on shared values as well as shared information,” Lisk says. In a culture in which politicians such as Patrick Buchanan speak of coming “wars” about societal values, finding shared values is hard to do.

“We’re much more interested in what differentiates than what assimilates, the ties that bind,” says Doug Northrop, professor of English at Ripon College in Wisconsin. “Critics used to be interested in those responses people had in common: What was the central quality of a play, poem or short story that we agreed on? Now critics are interested in how responses differ.”

Another reason we lack that common background and context, some professors believe, is that we don’t read as much as we used to, or read for the same reasons. We need not all have read the same works, but we need to have read the same kinds of works — works that incorporate metaphor, irony and other complex language.

“After Dr. Seuss, we abandon the genre — both at home and at school — in favor of novels, popular songs, television and film,” says Pat Hargis, associate professor of writing and literature at Justin College in Illinois. “But these modes of literature seldom teach us to think in metaphors. We are teaching the current generation to read only for information, not for pleasure and mental development.”

Television is the biggest culprit, says Victor Harnack, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He says a reader processes information in linear fashion, an approach that requires certain rules — syntax — and that offers a clear delineation of cause-and-effect relationships.

But young people aren’t reading; instead, they’re watching TV four to seven hours a day. As they do, they process information globally — that is, they hear dialogue and, at the same time, receive a variety of other cues: the actors’ tones of voice, costumes and facial expressions; the scenery; the background music.

“All kinds of things are built into that that lead us to conclusions that we don’t have to work out ourselves,” Harnack says.

“The current generation of students, and even two or three older generations of students, were pretty much raised on television,” says Joseph Pitt, chairman of the philosophy department at Virginia Tech. “And unless you have an appreciation of metaphor to begin with, you won’t be able to capture any metaphorical meaning in a TV program, because I think TV producers are increasingly leaving out the subtleties of symbolic communication. So you have a generation that is increasingly told and expects that what they hear or see is what they get.”

Some members of those same generations are among the parents who want such works as Mark Twain’s novel “Huckleberry Finn” removed from schools. That book incorporates the infamous ‘N’ word and other language considered objectionable today. But in its own time – and until very recently – it was widely understood as satire and a criticism of slavery.

Another factor possibly fragmenting society – and fracturing communication – may be the increasing proportion of Americans who have had to learn English as a second language. In Greensboro, those numbers nearly doubled during the 1980s.

“Second-language learners tend to take things literally at the start, steering clear of idiomatic expressions and figurative language,” observes Vivian de Klerk, professor of linguistics and English at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

And, finally, many linguistics experts say that political correctness has made metaphor a mine field.

“Everything that goes under the rubric of political correctness is extremely literal-minded,” says Peter Stitt, a professor of English at Gettysburg College.

“It’s such a politicization of discourse. You have people who are extremely sensitive to a cause, and you can’t argue with the reasons – they’re very powerful. But the sensitivity is so great that anything that deals with those subjects and has a little twist on it is misinterpreted. It’s sort of like boarding an airplane: If you mention a gun, it’s not a joke.”

Such misinterpretation is widespread.

During this fall’s Greensboro mayoral race, a political action committee affiliated with the Greensboro NAACP endorsed incumbent Carolyn Allen over challenger Tom Phillips. That committee organized a get-out-the-vote effort targeting black voters, using the slogan “Underground Railroad To the Polls.”

Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was the network of people and safe houses that enabled runaway slaves to reach freedom in the North. Some Greensboro residents helped in the effort.

Phillips criticized the slogan as racist. But the appropriation of the phrase “Underground Railroad” for the voter turnout effort didn’t mean black people saw Phillips as literally a slave owner, or even, by extension, racist.

Rather, the slogan functioned as metaphor on two levels. First, it was an expression by black leaders of their belief that of the two candidates, both of whom are white, Allen would be more responsive to black residents’ concerns. Second, it encouraged black people to vote by likening voting — the exercise of political power — to a journey toward greater self-determination, success and happiness.

If the trend against such nonliteral language continues, what may the consequences be? Many linguistics experts believe that civic discourse, the basis of our political system, will be dumbed down.

“The first impact is already apparent — we’re going to lose a lot of richness and beauty and color and force of language,” says Northrop of Ripon College. “Political language, in particular, will become increasingly gray, colorless and lacking in vitality.”

Art Berman of the Rochester Institute of Technology wonders whether our political system can function without it.

“Our democracy was founded on the belief that language was important and that we should all be able to use it in a complex and sophisticated way, which is why one of the first measures of this nation was to make public schools free,” he says.

“It was assumed that a citizen couldn’t be a good citizen without education and intelligent deliberation on the issues. Metaphor allows us to deliberate.”

But some scholars fear even worse consequences than deteriorating political debate.

Metaphor is an implied comparison, but a comparison implicitly includes both similarities and differences. When we grasp the similarities but not the differences, we can be led to false conclusions on public issues.

“Instead of saying government is like a business, we say it is a business and should be run on the same limited criterion of cost-effectiveness,” says Ed Haley, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “You don’t see the flaws (in the comparison) unless you push the argument to the extreme: Wouldn’t a private army be more efficient in delivering firepower? Well, yes. But government is charged in the Constitution with doing things regardless of efficiency.”

Haley adds: “Government is not a business, and we put ourselves in a mess if we think or imagine that it is. Among other things, we create false expectations. And the dangerous side is, what if these expectations can’t be realized? It invites demagoguery.”

Outside of politics, some fear a loss of metaphor will erode our problem-solving skills.

“If we are in the process of reading metaphor out of our means of communication, I think it will have disastrous consequences for creativity across the board, from sciences to the arts,” says Joseph Pitt of Virginia Tech. “It’s metaphor that transports us through new avenues of inquiry, new ways of ‘seeing’ things. … That creativity lies at the heart of our ability to deal with the problems we face.”

Can metaphor be saved? Yes, say linguists. How?

First, eliminate political correctness – which, those linguists argue, proposes the wrong solutions to real problems.

“Instead of talking about ‘diversity,’ why not talk about ‘inclusiveness?’ ” Pitt says. “Why not talk about bringing as many voices to the table as possible – not to revel in our differences, but to bring them together in hopes we can benefit from one another?”

Second, if language is inherently metaphoric, these linguists say we must accept that there is no such thing as plain, literal truth in any language.

“The written word is symbolic of the sound we enunciate, but the word that’s uttered – ‘pen’ or ‘light’ or ‘sailboat’ – clearly is metaphorical and will always be imprecise,” says Peter Stitt of Gettysburg College. “There is no perfect communication between any two people, period. Those seeking it are doomed to fail, and I think they ought to give up their evil ways and return to the glory of metaphor.”

Third, we must instruct ourselves in the glory of metaphor. That, linguists say, means turning off the TV and picking up a book.

“When you read great literature, you encounter marvelous metaphors,” says Dan Taylor, the Lawrence University classics professor. “You not only know them, you learn how to recognize new ones.”

Finally, linguists say, we must teach our children.

“If you have young children who have not already mastered the concept of metaphor and you sit them down in front of the TV … we’ve almost lost the battle from the beginning,” Pitt says. “The key lies in educating the young, who are far more intelligent than we give them credit for and far more capable of understanding and developing language. We treat them like morons when they’re not. …

“Either we accept the cost of educating the young or we accept the long-range cost of an impoverished society – culturally and economically.”

* * *

If I were updating this piece for today, I wouldn’t change much. But I understand political correctness, and accusations thereof, very differently now than I did then and would treat them differently in this piece. Primarily, based on my experiences since writing this piece, I’ve found that of every 10 or so complaints about political correctness, only about one is legitimate. The other nine are rude people complaining about being called out and held accountable for being rude.

More importantly, I see now that our shared language, our shared understanding, and our ability as a society to solve problems have far bigger problems today than complaints about political correctness, let alone actual instances of it. The whole notion of objective truth is under assault by people who want to use confusion on this point as cover to loot the country. And while “loot” is indeed a metaphor, it’s an apt one for the new era we are entering.

Friday, December 23, 2016 1:13 pm

Think North Carolina doesn’t feel like a democracy? There’s a reason for that.

The political dystopia of my home state has made international news, primarily because of the autocratic behavior of the Republican-controlled legislature. Deeply and safely gerrymandered, our senators and representatives are free to disregard the public will almost completely and act not just in their own interests but also in direct opposition to the public interest. And if that weren’t enough fun for your Friday, thanks to the theft of the presidency by Donald Trump and the vote-suppressing GOP, we’re about to enjoy the same experience on the national level.

That is what makes this piece in the Raleigh paper today so eye-opening and important:

In 2005, in the midst of a career of traveling around the world to help set up elections in some of the most challenging places on earth – Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, Lebanon, South Africa, Sudan and Yemen, among others – my Danish colleague, Jorgen Elklit, and I designed the first comprehensive method for evaluating the quality of elections around the world. Our system measured 50 moving parts of an election process and covered everything from the legal framework to the polling day and counting of ballots.

In 2012 Elklit and I worked with Pippa Norris of Harvard University, who used the system as the cornerstone of the Electoral Integrity Project. Since then the EIP has measured 213 elections in 153 countries and is widely agreed to be the most accurate method for evaluating how free and fair and democratic elections are across time and place.

When we evolved the project I could never imagine that as we enter 2017, my state, North Carolina, would perform so badly on this, and other, measures that we are no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy.

In the just released EIP report, North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table – a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.

Indeed, North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project. (emphasis added)

That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time. The most respected measures of democracy — Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project — all assess the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy.

The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy.

Yeah, you read that right. Now, it’s one thing for me to say that the U.S. is a fascist country, even if I’m right about that. But here, some of the world’s leading experts on democracy — people who have worked in and studied democratic government, and its lack, in countries around the world, people who have objective standards for determining whether or not a government is democratic — say North Carolina isn’t a democracy.

(And all y’all morons who are about to jump in, screaming, “But we’re NOT a democracy, we’re a REPUBLIC!” need to sit down and shut the fuck up.)

Definition of democracy

plural

democracies

  1. 1 a :  government by the people; especially :  rule of the majority b :  a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Put another way, if North Carolina were a foreign country and the U.S. weren’t being taken over by autocrats at the moment, America might well be pondering ways to bring about regime change here.

This isn’t just differences on policy, however substantive those differences might be. This is a clinical diagnosis by some of the most knowledgeable people on the planet that our state government is deeply, systemically broken. Here is just some of the evidence:

First, legislative power does not depend on the votes of the people. One party wins just half the votes but 100 percent of the power. The GOP has a huge legislative majority giving it absolute veto-proof control with that tiny advantage in the popular vote. The other party wins just a handful of votes less and 0 percent of the legislative power. This is above and beyond the way in which state legislators are detached from democratic accountability as a result of the rigged district boundaries. They are beholden to their party bosses, not the voters. Seventy-six of the 170 (45 percent) incumbent state legislators were not even opposed by the other party in the general election.

Second, democracies do not limit their citizens’ rights on the basis of their born identities. However, this is exactly what the North Carolina legislature did through House Bill 2 (there are an estimated 38,000 transgender Tar Heels), targeted attempts to reduce African-American and Latino access to the vote and pernicious laws to constrain the ability of women to act as autonomous citizens.

Third, government in North Carolina has become arbitrary and detached from popular will. When, in response to losing the governorship, one party uses its legislative dominance to take away significant executive power, it is a direct attack upon the separation of powers that defines American democracy. When a wounded legislative leadership,  and a lame-duck executive, force through draconian changes with no time for robust review and debate it leaves Carolina no better than the authoritarian regimes we look down upon.

What do we do about it? The author has some suggestions, but at least some are problematic:

The first step to recovery is self-awareness. We need to put aside the complacent hyperbole and accept that in North Carolina we no longer live in a functioning democracy worth its name. We have become one of those struggling developing world states that needs to claw its way slowly toward democratic integrity.

Practically we need to address the institutional failures which have cost us our democratic ranking – districting, equal access to the vote and the abuse of legislative power. An independent commission is the sine-qua-non of democratic districting (no democracy in the world outside of the U.S. allows the elected politicians to draw the lines). Voter registration and poll access should make voting as easy as possible and never be skewed in favor of any one section of society. Last, elected officials need to respect the core principles of democracy – respect the will of the voters, all the voters and play the game with integrity.

Those are nice thoughts. Unfortunately, they presume good will on the part of our current leaders, who have demonstrated amply that they have none. To the extent that those leaders are aware that we “have become one of those struggling developing world states,” they see that as a feature, not a bug. Despite absolute power, they have not lifted a finger to implement independent redistricting; indeed, they have defended their unconstitutional and deeply dishonest gerrymandering in court at enormous expense to all the state’s taxpayers. They have cut back on access to the franchise and intend to do more despite judicial rebuke. And the behavior and public comments of outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory, Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, have not demonstrated respect for the will of voters or integrity, but only contempt and corruption.

Three-quarters of a century ago, when countries fell under the sway of governments like ours, America spent blood and treasure to liberate them. Now, America will be spending treasure — and, I predict, blood — to become more like them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 1:55 pm

“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Former President Richard Nixon made the argument above in an interview with David Frost. He tried to elaborate by saying that a president has to balance concerns of national security with the law, but honestly, all he did was repeat himself.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone even further, using the specious claim that we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before to argue that Trump should simply pardon advisers (including his kids) who do wrong and, further, that Congress should change conflict-of-interest laws to benefit him:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that Donald Trump could pardon members of his administration who break the law.

Referring to a law that could prevent Trump from hiring his daughter and son-in-law to serve in his administration, Gingrich said on “The Diane Rehm Show” Monday morning: “In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon.”

“It is a totally open power, and he could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period.’ Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority,” he said, according to Politico.

Gingrich also suggested that Congress change ethics laws so Trump can avoid any conflicts of interest that his global business empire may pose.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work,” he said.

What’s the technical term for this? Oh, yeah, horseshit.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House”?? Objection, Your Honor; assumes facts not in evidence.

For starters, we don’t know that Trump is all that wealthy. Indeed, as Josh Marshall has said, there are some very good reasons to think he’s not a billionaire at all.

Moreover, even if he is as wealthy as he says, there is no obviously good reason to change ethics laws on his behalf, and plenty of good reasons — indeed, reasons in the national interest, such as keeping the President of the United States free from any potential pressure from foreign debt holders — not to change them.

Moreover, changing an ethics statute wouldn’t change the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which basically forbids the president from receiving anything of value (or certain things of intangible value, such as appointments to the nobility) from foreign countries. The Framers had very good reason for inserting that provision; they had seen how nobles in Europe sometimes enriched themselves in endeavors and arrangements of questionable, or less, benefit to their own countries. They wanted the president to be both able and obliged to act in the national interest, not his own.

Gingrich, having been a history professor (as he loudly and frequently reminds us), knows all this, and yet he doesn’t even pretend to offer any kind of factual or logical basis for his notion that because Trump is supposedly so rich, he should get a pass on ethics requirements that were imposed post-Watergate for very good reasons.

That’s bad enough. What’s markedly worse is his insistence that Trump should simply allow his advisers, including his children, to do as they like and then pardon them if they run afoul of ethics laws. That, folks, is how we transition from a republic under the rule of law to a dictatorship, because history is (ahem) replete with examples of folks who got get-out-of-jail-free cards and then went on to live selfless lives of duty and sacrifice for the greater good.

Gingrich’s notion is, quite simply, appalling to anyone who believes in the rule of law. Moreover, it clearly sets Gingrich apart as someone who does not, which is pretty fucking funny coming from the guy who impeached Bill Clinton. Gingrich’s new role in the Trump administration appears to be as a cheerleader for kleptocracy. The guy who used to brag about his patriotism has become the cheerleader for its destruction and the destruction of the rule of law in this country.

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