Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 7:29 pm

Mueller to U.S. House: Saddle the hell up

Robert Mueller all but begs Congress to impeach Donald Trump and implicitly tears a deserving news media a big new orifice in the process.

Outgoing special counsel Robert Mueller made several critical points today in his roughly eight-minute statement at the Department of Justice.

First (and I’m not necessarily going in chronological order here), he emphasized at both the beginning and the end of his statement that the evidence is crystal clear that Russian military intelligence sought to interfere with the 2016 presidential election for the benefit of Donald Trump and that they are continuing to try to interfere with U.S. elections even today.

Second, he emphasized that the Mueller report speaks for itself, which was a polite way of saying that if the people whose jobs it was to tell us what was in the report had done their jobs and read the damned report, we wouldn’t be nearly so confused about the way forward and we wouldn’t have wasted the past two months. Instead, he implicitly pointed out, journalists covered what people (i.e., Attorney General William Barr) SAID about the report, rather than what the report itself said, to the detriment of the American public. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it, “Mueller’s statement is an indictment of a press that focused more on what people had to say about the report than what the report said, because the former was easier to cover. No one has learned anything.” (The first three rules of investigative reporting are “Follow the money,” “follow the money,” and “follow the money,” but Rule 4 is, “Always read the documents” and Rule 5 is “Always do the math.”)

Third, he said that he did not seek charges against Trump because Justice Department policy, while authorizing investigations of a sitting president “while memories are fresh and documents are available,” forbade charging a sitting president. (For what it’s worth, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley went on CBS immediately after the statement to say that, constitutionally speaking, Mueller was “dead wrong,” that Trump indeed could have been indicted.) Mueller clearly implied that had Trump been anyone but the sitting president, he would have been indicted.

Fourth, he fleshed out that point by observing that, contrary to what Donald Trump and Barr have said, the report is not an exoneration. Indeed, he said, “As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”

Fifth, he emphasized that that obstruction definitely had hampered his campaign: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” The implication, though it is only that, might explain why he failed to find enough evidence to indict people on the conspiracy charge. Because while Vol. 1 of the report said Mueller’s team found insufficient evidence to indict Trump on a conspiracy charge, notwithstanding Trump’s lies, you can’t swing a dead cat in it without running across multiple instances of collusion, a concept that has real-world meanings but no legal significance.

Fifth, he re-emphasized that in his view and given Justice Department policy, it was not for Justice to accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing; rather, that responsibility fell to Congress. Combined with the documentation in Vol. 2 of the Mueller report of up to 10 instances of obstruction of justice on Trump’s part, he seemed to be practically begging the House to begin impeachment hearings.

He said a few other noteworthy things, such as that even if he were to appear before Congress to testify, he would not go beyond what’s already in the report. Legally and constitutionally, that’s a dubious claim, particularly if the House opens impeachment hearings. If the House subpoenas him and asks him questions and he refuses to answer, he can be held in contempt and spend up to a year in jail. Moreover, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce observed:

He has no excuse left. He is a private citizen now. And if he only repeats what’s in the report, on television, in front of the country, it will contribute mightily to the political momentum behind the demands that Congress do its damn job or shirk its duty entirely. He still needs to testify. He still needs to take questions. He’s only a citizen like the rest of us now, and he has a duty to do the right thing. We all do.

And Mueller said that our ongoing election-security weaknesses “deserve the attention of every American.” That assertion must be weighed against Republicans’ outright hostility, and particularly that of Mitch McConnell, to taking the slightest action to make elections more secure, such as, oh, I don’t know, even holding a vote on H.R. 1.

But his main points make clear what I and many others, from Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School to Rep. Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, already have been saying: It is past time for the House to begin formal impeachment hearings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her second-in-command, Steny Hoyer, publicly have been reluctant to acknowledge that the need exists. But House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, whose committee would be the one to hold such hearings, said today:

Although Department of Justice policy prevented the Special Counsel from bringing criminal charges against the President, the Special Counsel has clearly demonstrated that the President is lying about the Special Counsel’s findings, lying about the testimony of key witnesses in the Special Counsel’s report, and is lying in saying that the Special Counsel found no obstruction and no collusion. Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies, and other wrongdoing of President Trump — and we will do so. No one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law.

Democrats have talked tough before only to fold, and there’s no guarantee they won’t fold again. But I believe at this point that whether or not Democrats actually pull the trigger on impeachment hearings, they at least have heard and understood that that is what the outgoing special counsel is asking, if not begging, them to do. I won’t reiterate the many reasons why I think it’s important to do so, except to say this: Thanks in large part to our mealy-mouthed news media, Trump has been able to spend the past two months lying with impunity about the findings of the Mueller investigation. Anyone who saw and heard Mueller speak today now knows that Trump has been gaslighting the American public — and that televised impeachment hearings aren’t just a constitutional necessity but also a necessary news and public relations corrective to Trump’s gaslighting. I hope and trust that Nadler and other House committee chairs, currently on Memorial Day recess, will make this happen soon.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019 7:36 pm

NPR: Your so-called liberal media at work

When NPR lets a war criminal like John Yoo defend the Trump administration’s defiance of subpoenas and contempt of Congress, it is neither liberal nor news media.

Today was long and full of aggravations, from morning to evening. And to end it this afternoon, like a rancid cherry atop a shit sundae, we got a 5 p.m. report from NPR on the White House’s claim of executive privilege in withholding the full Mueller report, with underlying evidence, from the U.S. House, which has subpoenaed it.

Now, let’s be very clear here. The U.S. House, as a co-equal branch of government, has an almost absolute right to subpoena any document or person in either of the other two branches for the purpose of conducting oversight. There are a few limited exceptions, but no one has offered any that such constitutional experts as Laurence Tribe of Harvard take seriously.

But NPR calls today’s vote by the House Judiciary Committee to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt “a major escalation of a battle between President Donald Trump and the House Democrats investigating his administration.” That framing almost makes it look as if the House is at fault. At the least, that’s misspelling “a perfectly justified and long overdue attempt by the House to bring this lawless administration to heel” so badly you can’t even hardly recognize it.

Yeah, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler is quoted as saying, “If allowed to go unchecked, this obstruction means the end of congressional oversight.” But the segment treats this conflict as a normal and unremarkable contest between White House and Congress in which both sides are more or less equally at fault and nothing particularly significant is at stake. In fact, the framers of the Constitution viewed legislative oversight, including impeachment when appropriate, as essential to preventing a runaway executive. Having lately fought a war to rid themselves of one runaway executive, they wanted to make damn good and sure there would never be another.

And that’s the just the intro. Reporter Kelsey Snell’s report is in the worst tradition of mainstream reporting, offering a very careful one-side-says-this, the-other-side-says that take that manages to be almost 100% journalism-free, particularly the failure to note that some of the limitations Justice attempted to place on access to the unredacted report had no basis in law whatever.

“It’s partially political, partially symbolic, but it’s also pretty high-stakes,” Snell said, not even bothering to mention that one and only one side in this dispute is, you know, breaking the law.

That was bad enough. But made me actually pull my car over to the side of Walker Avenue, stop dead, and shriek like a banshee at the radio was that NPR’s next segment devoted a huge 7.5 minutes to the legal stylings of alleged law professor John Yoo and his resurrection of the corpse of the “unitary executive.”

Who is John Yoo and what is the “unitary executive,” you ask? Yoo, now at Berkeley, was deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush. He wrote the so-called “torture memos” justifying torture as an instrument of national policy under Bush. For that alone, he should have been hanged at The Hague, particularly inasmuch as he wrote in 2002, by which time the U.S. already was engaged in torture, meaning he wrote it to try to provide justification in hindsight for a crime against both U.S. and international law.

To put it plainly, Yoo’s support for torture was so unhinged that even some of his most powerful co-workers in the Bush administration thought it was nuts. Secretary of State Colin Powell flatly insisted that Yoo’s position violated the Geneva Conventions, while Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora called Yoo’s position “catastrophically poor legal reasoning.”

As for the “unitary executive theory,” well, to hear Yoo tell it in today’s segment, it is a theory of executive power, running from Lincoln down through FDR and so on until today, that claims that unlike enumerating individual powers, which is what most conservatives profess to claim Article II of the Constitution does for the executive branch, that article actually creates a “pool,” in Yoo’s word, of unspecified executive powers.

In fact, “unitary executive theory” is bullshit. Yoo decided that his boss, Bush, during the so-called Global War on (some) Terror, ought to be able to do anything he wanted, including interpreting treaties like the Geneva Conventions as he pleased, with Congress’s only control being the power of the purse. So he cobbled together this sorry excuse for legal theory and cherry-picked from history to try to make it look as if this legal Frankenstein’s monster had a long and honorable legal tradition.

Those of you keeping score at home also will note that this assertion flies in the face of everything that conservatives have traditionally said about executive power and the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution, but Yoo and the Republicans have never let that hypocrisy stop them except when a Democrat occupied the Oval Office.

Anyway, NPR, whose mission is supposed to be journalism, actually devoted pretty much 11 full minutes of prime afternoon drive time to Trumpian propaganda at the expense of educating and informing its audience, and coming at the end of a day such as today, it was just more than this listener could take.

And as Trump and the Republicans try to dismantle our democracy, this is one of the biggest problems we face: Not only are Trump and the Republicans and Fox News and Breitbart trying to gaslight the American public, a ton of mainstream journalists are doing the same. Yes, they’re trying — I believe we have long since passed the point at which we can as ascribe performances like NPR’s this afternoon just to incompetence. (Also, and not for nothing, competence is an ethical issue.)

So this is just one of the many reasons why we need immediate, televised impeachment hearings: to counteract the fire hose of unmitigated bullshit emanating not only from the criminals in this case but also from their co-conspirators in the so-called liberal media. (I have heard some people say that’s actually what the House is doing right now, they’re just not calling them “impeachment” hearings. To which I respond: You HAVE to call them impeachment hearings to get the news media to broadcast them live and the American public to pay the appropriate amount of attention.) Accordingly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to lead or get the hell out of the way.

Sunday, May 5, 2019 2:35 pm

With all due respect to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, time has run out. We must begin impeachment hearings now.

If House Democrats do not begin immediate, televised impeachment hearings and begin jailing immediately any administration figure who refuses to comply with a duly issued subpoena, we could be mere weeks from one-party GOP rule.

A lot of y’all fail to understand two things: how close we are to effective one-party GOP rule and how electoral politics works.
Look, I supported Nancy Pelosi for speaker for three reasons:
  1. Her superior record, relative to the other candidates, of being able to wrangle the notoriously fractious House Dem caucus, move legislation, and raise money.
  2. The fact that her most viable opponents were WAY too cozy with a Republican Party that long ago demonstrated that it doesn’t give a damn about the Constitution.
  3. The likelihood that, when Trump’s obfuscation over the Mueller report and his and his administration’s inevitable contempt of Congress against the inevitable House subpoenas finally manifested, she would have a logical and effective plan for responding.

I supported her despite serious misgivings about her spine. She unilaterally took impeachment of George W. Bush off the table despite the fact that Bush and his inner circle had ordered torture in violation of both U.S. and international law. My father, an Army infantry officer in the Korean War who won a Bronze Star and who had been a lifelong Republican voter, cast the last ballot of his life in 2004 against Bush specifically because of the torture. As an amateur student of the Holocaust for decades, I thought then that Bush had crossed the one line besides first-strike nuclear war that could never be crossed. And I was horrified to watch how Democrats under Pelosi threw away their opportunity to bring about justice. Still, you vote for one of the candidates you’ve got, and she was head and shoulders above the rest.

Problem is, I turned out to be badly wrong on item No. 3 above. She had and has no plan to deal with a president intent on becoming a dictator and a major party that is all in with him on this effort. Indeed, in this New York Times article, she makes clear in her own words that she is drawing exactly the wrong conclusions given the facts before us:

In recent weeks Ms. Pelosi has told associates that she does not automatically trust the president to respect the results of any election short of an overwhelming defeat. That view, fed by Mr. Trump’s repeated and unsubstantiated claims of Democratic voter fraud, is one of the reasons she says it is imperative to put roadblocks in the way of Mr. Trump’s efforts, with the full support of the Republican party, to become a dictator.
See, that makes sense. Unfortunately, that’s not what she actually said. What the article actually reports her as saying is:
In recent weeks Ms. Pelosi has told associates that she does not automatically trust the president to respect the results of any election short of an overwhelming defeat. That view, fed by Mr. Trump’s repeated and unsubstantiated claims of Democratic voter fraud, is one of the reasons she says it is imperative not to play into the president’s hands, especially on impeachment.
Opposing a would-be dictator’s efforts to become dictator is “playing into the president’s hands, especially on impeachment”? With all due respect, Madam Speaker — and in my case, that’s a lot of respect — that’s 180 degrees wrong.
Pelosi insists we have plenty of time. And a lot of people, noting that she is an expert in American politics, agree with her. But here’s the thing: We’re not faced with a conventional political opponent. We’re faced with a would-be dictator, and Pelosi is IN NO WAY an expert on dealing with that because America has never had one before. And the people who ARE experts in authoritarianism and dictators — historians, diplomats, war-crimes investigators, some members of the intelligence community, even Holocaust survivors? Almost all of them are waving red flags. A number are saying that if Dems don’t respond forcefully to the GOP’s concerted effort to ignore the subpoenas of a co-equal branch of government, then we will effectively become a one-party GOP government within weeks.

Now, what if they’re wrong? No harm, no foul, and we may yet see the impeachments we want with strong public backing and a clean and fair 2020 election. And I sincerely hope they, and I, are wrong.

But what if they’re right? No, serious question. I want you to stop and think for a minute about what that would mean — and not just for the country as a whole, although a stolen election is just about guaranteed, and not just for comfortable, privileged WASPS, but also for Jews, for poor people, for women (particularly women’s health care), for children, for racial and ethnic and religious minorities, for LGBTQIA people.

The safest bet — which also has the advantage of being the House’s constitutional duty — is for House Dems to: 1) Stop asking and start subpoenaing. Asking just leads to needing to subpoena anyway with this administration, and time is of the essence. 2) Begin jailing for contempt immediately any member of the administration who refuses to testify and/or produce records pursuant to a subpoena. 3) Begin holding televised impeachment hearings immediately. The hearings can begin with the multiple instances of Trump’s obstruction of justice documented in Vol. 2 of the Mueller report and expand from there, or they can begin with other high crimes and misdemeanors already in public view such as Trump’s serial violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, and expand from there. The important thing to remember is that we already have evidence in the public record that Trump has obstructed justice, abused his office, and behaved in legal contempt of Congress. Those were the three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon that led him to resign, and Trump’s violations have been even more egregious.

And why are the televised hearings so important? As with Watergate, given what we already know about this administration, they are likely to reveal the kind of information to the public that will build public support for impeachment. Moreover, they are essential to counteracting the gaslighting of the American public now being carried on by this administration, particularly Attorney General William Barr, and its henchmen at Fox News, Breitbart, and some of the darker media neighborhoods such as 8chan and VDare. Believe it or not, a large number of Americans still aren’t paying very close attention to this, so Dems need to give them a reason to. And even the mainstream media have largely treated this issue as a conventional Democrats-vs.-Republicans partisan political issue rather than the constitutional crisis that it is. The Times article linked above contained information that should have been the lede headline for every mainstream news outlet in the country: House Speaker Doubts President Will Leave Office If Defeated. And yet it was not.

Now some of you have expressed concerns about how robust opposition to, and even attacks on, Trump’s people and policies might affect the 2020 elections. A couple of thoughts on that:

  • In constitutional terms, impeachment’s effect on the 2020 election shouldn’t even be a consideration. A president is carrying out high crimes and misdemeanors in full public view; as the Framers’ contemporaneous writings make clear, impeachment in such circumstances is not just option but duty.
  • But let’s say it is a consideration. A lot of people with elementary math skills but no political understanding have pointed out that the GOP-controlled Senate won’t convict. I cannot say this too many times or strongly enough: So what? Dems must make Republicans run in 2020 on defending this criminal (as well as on such other issues as trying to kill people’s health insurance and supporting environmental despoliation). Dems made Republicans run in 2018 on their desire to destroy insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and Dems generated the biggest blue wave since Watergate. The biggest political risk attached to the 2020 election is not that more Trump supporters will turn out if Dems impeach — Republicans already are going to turn out. No, the biggest political risk is that if Dems do NOT impeach, a big chunk of the Democratic base is likely to stay home in 2020, as it did in 2010 and 2014 when Dem caution also prevailed over the need for action. And without that base, not only will Trump win re-election, the Republicans also will regain the House.
  • For the folks, including Pelosi, who have expressed concern that Trump might not leave office if he doesn’t win in 2020, I’ve got news: That’s Trump’s plan no matter how large or narrow the Dems’ margin of victory. Guaranteed. And it is far from sure that the Secret Service would do its duty at noon on Jan. 20, 2021: arrest him for trespassing and drag him from the White House. I mean, I think they will? But given Trump, assuming the worst generally is the most accurate method of forecasting.

Folks, we’re in very dire straits here; the attempted coup against FDR in the 1930s is the only thing that comes close and this is way worse than that. House Dems need to act now, and not only is there no good reason to wait, there are some chilling reasons why we cannot afford to. Whether we do or not act will determine whether this country is still a democratic republic come sunset on Jan. 20, 2021. So if your rep is a Democrat, call him/her and demand: 1) That House Dems stop asking nicely and start issuing subpoenas from the git-go. 2) That administration officials who refuse to immediately comply with subpoenas be jailed for contempt the FIRST time. (That legal mechanism hasn’t been used for decades, but it’s still on the books.) 3) That the House immediately begin televised impeachment hearings on Trump and AG Barr, who lied to Congress about the contents of the Mueller report and Mueller’s dissatisfaction with Barr’s summary of it. Those hearings MUST include the subject of election security and the Russians’ election-theft efforts in 2016 and 2020, and should hear from former President Obama and some of his officials as well as current administration officials if need be to get the full picture.

The next year and a half are going to be ugly politically no matter what choices Dems make. And the ugliness might extend beyond the halls of Congress and the White House and into the streets. But rest assured that 1) the most vulnerable will suffer the most, and 2) Republicans couldn’t give less of a damn about the most vulnerable.

Citizenship is not a spectator sport. History has pointed down the bench at us, swatted us on the asses and ordered us into the game. We need to play hard and play to win, because the cost of defeat would be too great for any of us to bear.

UPDATE, 5/5: For some excellent historical perspective on the rise of authoritarianism in America, read Teri Kanefield’s piece here. She’s an author and lawyer.

Monday, March 11, 2019 6:47 pm

For once, Nancy Pelosi gets it wrong. WAY wrong.

History shows that not impeaching Donald Trump for his crimes will open the door to even worse Republican behavior in the future. For the sake of the country, we cannot allow that to happen.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said today that she is not inclined to impeach President Donald J. Trump. Responding to an observation from a Washington Post reporter that calls for Trump’s impeachment are growing, she responded:

I’m not for impeachment. This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.

I don’t lightly contradict one of the most able and storied politicians of my lifetime. But I have spent that lifetime observing, and living with, the consequences of Democratic failure to hold Republicans responsible for their crimes.

Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. At the time, he said it was to appeal to a sense of national unity — kind of the same thing Pelosi is saying here. He even testified to that before Congress. But years later, he confessed to the Post’s Bob Woodward that in fact he had pardoned Nixon simply because he and Nixon had been friends. Woodward didn’t see fit to share that fact with the world until Ford had died, which is one reason I have found it very difficult ever since to take him seriously as a journalist. Americans had a right to know why Ford had done what he had done, because had Nixon gone to prison, it is entirely likely that Reagan never would have been elected president and all the executive-branch crime of his era never would have happened.

Democrats decided not to impeach Reagan even though Reagan had ordered arms to be traded to Iranian militants for hostages and had sold those same militants arms, with the proceeds to be used to fund Nicaraguan conservative insurgents even though Congress had strictly forbidden any such spending. The so-called Iran-contra scandal ended with neither Reagan nor then-vice president George H.W. Bush being impeached or charged. And Bush, at the tail end of his single term as president, pardoned most of the Iran-contra offenders.

Bush’s son, George Walker Bush, ordered torture and warrantless domestic wiretapping used as instruments of government policy despite the fact that they violated the Constitution and both international and U.S. law. But Nancy Pelosi, who became House Speaker for the first time after the 2006 midterms, famously declared impeachment “off the table” then. And after Democrats regained control of the executive branch, President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, never sought to hold Bush or his underlings accountable for the war crimes they had committed (or for the damage they had done to the economy, for that matter).

Had that happened, the GOP would have been far less likely to nominate in 2016 a man with a long history of association with organized crime. There are not many bets you can make about history, but I’m pretty sure that one is solid.

Ronald Reagan was elected when I was 20. I’m now on the cusp of 60. And EVER. SINGLE. REPUBLICAN. PRESIDENTin my adult lifetime has committed criminal acts and escaped, primarily because of Democratic concerns about whether the country could handle holding them accountable.

Well, I’ve got a question for Nancy Pelosi and all Democrats who think as she does:

HOW’S THAT WORKIN’ OUT FOR YA, NANCE? Because it SURE isn’t workin’ out for ordinary Americans.

Consider this: In 1998, the Republican House impeached Bill Clinton, a popular president who had lied about consensual but adulterous oral sex. House Republicans took it in the teeth in that year’s midterms, but still held control of the House. You know what else happened?

  • The GOP continued to hold both the House and the Senate until after the 2006 midterms, regained the House in 2010 and regained the Senate in 2014.
  • The GOP regained the White House (with Supreme Court-engineered theft) in 2000 and with Russian-engineered theft in 2016.

The idea that Democrats would pay a political price for doing the right thing is laughable. The idea that the country couldn’t handle the truth is laughable. The idea that there isn’t a basis for impeaching Donald J. Trump right now, this very second, is laughable.

But let’s say Pelosi wants to act out of an abundance of caution (as opposed to ignoring her constitutional obligation to hold the president accountable). Here’s what she can do:

  • Accept that Donald Trump already has admitted that he fired FBI director James Comey to interfere with an investigation. That’s obstruction of justice.
  • Accept that the Trump family has been benefiting since Trump’s first day in office from people staying at Trump properties that should have been placed in a blind trust but never were — a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
  • Accept that Trump has refused to hold his nominees and employees accountable under the law or to act on his constitutional, legal and regulatory obligations — a violation of the Constitution’s take-care clause.
  • Accept that Trump has attempted to get NFL players fired for kneeling in protest against police brutality — a felony violation of 18 USC 227.

And that’s only a fraction of what’s already out there in the public record. I suspect that investigations by the House Government Oversight Committee, House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence and House Ways & Means Committee, to name just three, also will find grounds for impeachment ranging from obstruction of justice to espionage to tax fraud.

Pelosi needs to understand that there already is a compelling case for impeaching Donald Trump right this minute and that that case is going to grow stronger, not weaker, with time.

She needs to understand that for all of her accomplishments, history is going to judge her on her response to this question and this question alone.

And she needs to do the right thing for the country: Impeach Donald Trump. Maybe not now, but soon, and well before the 2020 election. Trump is the Framers’ worst nightmare, and Congress should respond to that fact accordingly.

 

 

 

Saturday, March 9, 2019 4:41 pm

At long last, David Brooks starts to get it

I almost never have anything good to say about the New York Times’s David Brooks, nor should I. His whole career is built on a foundational dishonesty: He believes and says that liberals and conservatives in America are equally to blame for all our problems and that only wise moderates (such as himself, of course) can lead the country forward constructively. And because he’s a rich white guy who writes for The New York Times, people figure, well, he must know what he’s talking about. Because they wouldn’t give that job to a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, would they?

In point of fact they did, and were it not for the relentless pursuit of the blogger Driftglass, many fewer people would know about it.

Frankly, wedded as he appears to his own grift, I’d long since given up hope that Brooks was capable of learning anything, even something so simple and obvious that a lot of his intellectual and moral betters intuited it in middle school. And yet he has: In a column posted March 7, he acknowledges that, five years after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s groundbreaking, Polk Award-winning essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” the meaning of the words in Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address appears finally to have permeated his mental block. Lincoln said:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Much to my surprise, and very much to his credit, Brooks grapples with these words long and hard enough to arrive at some very solid conclusions:

There are a few thoughts packed into that sentence. First, there is a natural moral order to the universe. There is a way things are supposed to be — more important than economic wealth or even a person’s life.

Second, moral actions are connected to each other. If somebody tears at the moral order by drawing blood through the lash of slavery, then that wrong will have to be paid for by the blood of the sword. History has meaning. It’s not just random events.

Third, sin is anything that assaults the moral order. Slavery doesn’t merely cause pain and suffering to the slave. It is a corruption that infects the whole society. It is a collective debt that will have to be paid.

Fourth, sin travels down society through the centuries. Lincoln was saying that sometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed.

He goes on to acknowledge that while people of many backgrounds have suffered during the history of the English colonies and then the United States, the suffering of African slaves, Native Americans and their descendants has been uniquely awful, with uniquely awful consequences:

Slavery and the continuing pattern of discrimination aren’t only an attempt to steal labor; they are an attempt to cover over a person’s soul, a whole people’s soul.

That injury shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.

He endorses Coates’s understanding of what we need and why we need it. As Coates wrote:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

Brooks concludes:

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

Do not presume that I think for one minute that this column lets Brooks off the hook.

We are “a nation coming apart at the seams” precisely because of the kinds of policies and politicians Brooks has promoted, supported, and served as an apologist for — often with staggering levels of contextual and/or intellectual dishonesty — for more than two decades. Brooks acknowledges and repents for none of that here, almost certainly because he has yet to begin the hard work of critical self-examination. (I would suggest he started by reading Driftglass, but that’s just me.) And his column offers no evidence whatever to prove that he ever will.

But, like the blind men and the elephant in the old story, he has, by touch more than sight, begun to grasp some of the contours of a problem, and a moral necessity, that he has up until now never rightly understood. As I said earlier, a lot of people not necessarily any smarter than he began to intuit those things at a much earlier age. But, frankly, that he has begun to do so now is more than that of which I ever had thought him capable, so I owe him credit where due.

Do I think this will change anything in the near term? I do not. The people in position to begin any sort of serious discussion of reparations in the policy sphere oppose reparation and consider The New York Times and its writers enemies of the people.

But Brooks’s unaccountable popularity as a “moderate” means that maybe more Americans will reconsider the idea of reparations who otherwise might not have done so. It’s a small candle amidst a lot of cursed darkness right now, but I’ll take it.

Thursday, January 17, 2019 6:55 pm

It’s all Colbert’s fault

I blame Stephen Colbert.

The comedian was speaking to the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner in April 2006 — to the audience in general, but to President George W. Bush, whose poll numbers by then were low, in particular. Colbert said:

Now, I know there are some polls out there saying that this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Even then, people were getting news from comedians as well as traditional print and online news sources — and even then, if you live in reality, you had to admit that the comedians frequently provided a … well, less distorted version of objective reality than the traditional news sources.

Only here’s what I think sometimes happened. I think conservatives heard that line and took it literally. Frankly, not much else explains both the behavior of Donald Trump and the Republican Party leadership and the more or less unbudging support for Trump of roughly 37% of the population (although we learned today, from multiple sources, that that number might, finally, be slipping). They’ve shown an aversion to reality that, frankly, is hard (though not impossible) to explain any other way.

And all kidding aside, that aversion to reality can have and is having dangerous effects on the world, our country, and us personally. Only reality-based solutions to problems are likely to work.

Global warming is a huge threat to civilization, and the experts in that field say we have roughly 10 years left to make the significant changes needed to reduce the threat. Republicans mostly oppose any effort to do anything about it. That’s a step up; not so long ago most refused even to acknowledge that global warming existed.

In terms of economics, Republicans have been peddling fantasy for 40 years. No, tax cuts generally never pay for themselves, and big tax cuts on the highest earners in our country not only haven’t paid for themselves, let alone delivered the economic growth that was promised, they’ve also had the effect of funneling wealth up from the working class and middle class to the already very wealthy. I think it’s fair to say that Republicans know their tax policy is fantasy; they just don’t care.

And their policies in areas from health care to the environment are not fact-based, either, and pose the risk of tens of thousands of additional premature American deaths every year.

So it’s all Colbert’s fault, and he needs to reopen the government.

 

 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019 7:17 pm

These two things are not the same

It is hard to believe that there are still people around who think that both major political parties in the United States are the same and that they are equally bad. But I ran into one today.

Truth is, they’re not, and here’s some proof:

One and only one party has relied on appeals to bigotry, with decreasing subtlety, for more than 50 years.
One and only one party supports a fact-free economic and tax policy, one that further enriches the already very rich mainly by hoovering up what remains of the wealth of the middle class and the working class.
One and only one party has made torture an instrument of national policy.
One and only one party wiretapped its own citizens without a warrant in felony violation of the law and then, when the news became public, retroactively changed the law to escape punishment.
One and only one party wants to funnel money to for-profit prisons.
One and only one party denies the existence of anthropogenic global warming.
One and only one party supports energy policies that will make global warming worse, not better, even as scientists say we have roughly 10 years, at best, to do some pretty drastic things just to level it off.
One and only one party is imprisoning children at the border.
One and only one party is pushing to reduce LEGAL immigration by 50%, which would be economic suicide.
One and only one party is working actively to weaken our international economic and military alliances and gutting our State Department.
One and only one party is tolerating more than 30,000 firearm deaths per year, many of them absolutely preventable.
One and only one party is just fine with Saudi Arabia assassinating a U.S. journalist.
One and only one party is acting as an agent, or at least an asset, of a hostile foreign power.
 
I could go on, but I hope you get my point: Both parties are not the same. Republicans are demonstrably worse for the country than Democrats and have been since no later than 1992 and arguably since the early 1960s. Anyone who says the two parties are equally bad is lazy, ignorant or lying. There’s no other option.

Friday, January 4, 2019 1:03 pm

Election 2020: I do not like the whole idea of likability

Ignore anything and everything you read about a presidential candidate’s “likability,” particularly if that candidate is a Democratic woman. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left office Thursday with an honest-to-God favorability rating of 12%. During gardening season, actual cowshit is more popular.

On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts became the first Democrat to announce that she was forming a 2020 presidential-campaign exploratory committee. And just like that, the political press served notice that it was going to be just as sexist and idiotic as it had been in 2016.

Politico, whose reporting frequently is essential but whose analysis and opinion seems to be at least 50% pro-Republican horseshit, popped up noon Monday with “Warren Battles the Ghost of Hillary,” which suggested that Warren might be just as “unlikable” as Hillary Clinton had been in 2016 and therefore doomed as a candidate.

The anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative was written before the Massachusetts senator even announced she was exploring a presidential run.

She’s too divisive and too liberal, Washington Democrats have complained privately. Her DNA rollout was a disaster — and quite possibly a White House deal-breaker. She’s already falling in the polls, and — perhaps most stinging — shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton.

In the year of the woman, it adds up to one unwelcome mat for the most prominent woman likely to be part of the 2020 field. But it also presents an unmistakable challenge: How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Man, there is so much horseshit here that you probably would need dynamite to unpack it.

  • First of all, how is it that there is any “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” at all just hours after her announcement? Answer: People have been lying in wait for her for a while. And who would do that? People who are anti-Elizabeth Warren. Duh. There is no organic “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” at this point, only propaganda.
  • And how is it that there is an “anti-Elizabeth Warren narrative” that is similar to Hillary Clinton’s? After all, Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye for 35 brutal years, whereas five years ago most Americans had no idea who Elizabeth Warren was. Answer? Sexism: The implicit message of this comparison is that no female candidate, or at least no Democratic female candidate, can be trusted.
  • Too divisive? How? How does one quantify “divisive”? Sophisticated polling can sort of, kind of get at that — more on that in a bit — but as of Monday, not very much had been done on Warren, and certainly nowhere near as much as has been done on Clinton.
  • Too liberal? First, there’s always the tiresome and mostly unanswerable question of how one defines “liberal.” And if you can’t define that, how does one quantify how much liberalism is enough vs. too much? And “too much” on what scale? An ideological scale? As opposed to other candidates? Of course, Warren being the first, there were no other candidates when this piece was written.
  • And who are these “Washington Democrats” who call her too divisive and liberal? I may have spent my career with daily newspapers and their admittedly stodgy websites rather than online creations of the Kewl Kids, but we didn’t let political opponents snipe at each other anonymously, for good reason: It isn’t ethical, and even more importantly, it adds nothing to the reader’s understanding. Half-competent journalists should make political opponents call one another out by name, with all agendas out where the public can see them. That enhances reader understanding, which is, or ought to be, the point of it all.
  • Warren’s “DNA rollout” was a forthright response to a libelous criticism from a sitting president of the United States. To call it a “disaster” is pure editorializing: I am in no way an expert on this, but to the extent that Native Americans themselves have criticized her for having had her DNA tested, they appear to be privileging custom over science, arguing that without her name on a tribal roll, a DNA test means nothing. (If I’m missing something on this point, I’m happy to be corrected.) In any event, given Donald Trump’s apparently being an agent of a hostile foreign power, his tax fraud, his serial violations of the Emoluments Clause, his history of serial sexual assault, to be suggesting that a DNA test fatally damages a candidate for president is to display both practical ignorance and moral stillbirth. I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that her timing, during the Blue Wave, suggests she put self ahead of party, but 1) absent additional information that is hardly the only explanation, and 2) If you’re going to make putting self ahead of party a criterion (and you should), there are far greater offenders. Bernie Sanders and Corey Booker come immediately to mind.
  • “Shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton”? And what are they, pray tell? An electoral college founded in not just slavery but also in cosseting the whiny, bitchy, gimme attitudes of the slave states? A grossly bigoted electorate? Enemies in the Kremlin? Republican vote-suppression efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina? Third-party candidates secretly supported by the Russians? Because those are the “attributes” that sank Clinton. By 65 million to 62 million, American voters favored her.

And that’s just three paragraphs. Holy shit. The piece goes on for many paragraphs more, laden with sexism and editorializing and almost unburdened by fact, all predicated on the notions that likability is real, that it matters, that it can be quantified, and that Elizabeth Warren has less of it than other Democrats and perhaps even less than Trump.

And that’s just one candidate. Multiply this bullshit across the dozen-plus likely 2020 Democratic presidents, candidates, many of them women, and you would be forgiven the urge to burn down every single U.S. news outlet.

Well, here are some facts.

“Likability” is incredibly subjective. It cannot be quantified or measured except in the most relative of terms. It is subject to pollution from bias, from lack of information, from lack of context. The closest we can quantifiably get to it is the favorability/unfavorability ratings of polls. The same recent Quinnipiac University poll that scored Warren’s favorability/unfavorability ratings at 33%/37% scored Donald Trump’s at 39%/52%, and yet somehow Warren’s “unlikability” gets all the attention.

And if you Google likability with respect to politicians, you’ll find that the subject comes up WAY more often in articles about women than in articles about men. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not a good one.

And here’s another fact, even more to the point:

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin left office Thursday with an honest-to-God favorability rating of 12%. During gardening season, actual cowshit is more popular. And yet our news media are convinced that Elizabeth Warren 1) is unlikable and 2) cannot be elected president because of it. That ought to adjust your attitude regarding any “analysis” you read about Democratic candidates for the rest of the 2019-2020 election cycle for offices at any level.

So what to do about it? I covered politics for 25 years, some years better than others, so here are my modest suggestions for consumers of news in general and people wondering which Democratic presidential candidate to support in particular:

  • For now, DO NOTHING. The actual voting doesn’t begin for another 13 months. As of this writing, Warren has formed an exploratory committee and Washington Gov. Jay Insbee has said he intends to. No one else is even close to being a formal candidate. If you were utterly undecided on a candidate a week or a month ago, there is no reason for you to even think about picking a candidate until 1) everyone who is going to run has formally announced and filed their paperwork, and 2) at least some of the Democratic presidential debates, which start in June, have come and gone. You can wait at least six months without sacrificing a thing, and unless you have some kind of personal attachment/connection to a candidate, you probably want to see how the candidates perform in several debates before picking one to support.
  • At least until the number of remaining Democratic presidential candidates is reduced to two, avoid the temptation to criticize a candidate or candidates you do not support. Instead, talk up the candidate you favor. Send him/her money. Find a way to volunteer for his/her campaign, even if it’s only making phone calls.
  • Whether you are talking up your candidate or talking down an opponent, do so with both factual and contextual accuracy. That’s harder than it sounds. You might mean quite well, but there are many, many sources of misinformation on the Web with respect to every declared candidate and plenty of potential ones. The Russians messed with what you saw on social media in 2016 and are likely to do so again in 2020. And conservative “news” outlets frequently take bullshit rumors that originate on conservative message boards and give them a patina of legitimacy, so be particularly careful not to amplify that bullshit. Check and double-check the information you choose to use. Factcheck.org and Politifact.com are excellent sources for vetting information, as is Snopes.com.

(And what do I mean by “contextual accuracy”? Remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. Where numbers are concerned, remember that one number is meaningless without at least one other number as a scale. Where facts about a political candidate are concerned, ask questions like, “What other candidate(s) is this fact true about, and to what extent?” Be wary of claims like “first,” “greatest,” “best” or “worse”: As one of my old editors used to say, there’s always a faster gun. Even mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post that are generally reliable with regard to factual accuracy frequently commit mistakes and omissions with regard to contextual accuracy. One big example: The Times’s 2016 focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails — yes, she made mistakes, but she did not commit a crime — while ignoring, for another two years, a long string of evidence that Donald Trump was a crook. And when a news outlet purports to examine any candidate’s “likability,” examine their methods for quantifying it and see to what extent they attempt to assess all candidates or likely candidates in the same manner.)

So, to sum up, I don’t like “likability,” and you shouldn’t either. At this point in the race, and pretty much from now until November 2020, news outlets should be focusing primarily on candidates’ policy proposals — what they are, how they will work, what they will cost, how we will pay for it, and what their outcomes are likely to be. And if the news outlets on which you rely try to dabble in it, hammer them hard. It’s just a pity Facebook doesn’t offer a “don’t like” button.

P.S.: One more thing about likability. George W. Bush won in 2000 because a lot of reporters thought he was “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.” Screw that. On both literal and metaphoric levels, I am realistic enough to know that I will never have a beer with even a former president of the United States, let alone a sitting one. So I will vote for a competent, empathetic jackass over a charming sociopath for any office, any day. You can ask the people of Iraq and Puerto Rico and Flint what we get when we elect sociopaths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 9:49 pm

God, how much would these people whine if they’d LOST?

There are a lot of voters out there who either have a lot to learn or who will never learn. I was reminded of this by the response of some Democrats to the (apparent, razor-thin) victory of Conor Lamb last night in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District seat.

Lamb won by a couple of hundred votes — a small fraction of a percentage point — out of more than 210,000 cast in a district that went for Trump in 2016 by 20 percentage points. That’s remarkable in and of itself. What’s even more remarkable is that Lamb won despite the fact that the GOP spent $10 million against him and for his GOP opponent, Richard Saccone. (Fun fact: The GOP holds roughly 110 House seats that are more competitive than PA18, and they don’t have the money to spend $10 million on every one of them.)

How did he do it? He’s an ex-Marine (and as any Marine will tell you, there’s no such thing) and an ex-prosecutor, so at least on the surface, no one could question his patriotism or his stance on crime. (Surprise: He’s against it.) He says he’ll vote for women’s reproductive freedom. He supports the Affordable Care Act and believes in universal coverage. He wants to defend Social Security and Medicare. He explicitly supports unions, which even most Democrats hesitate to do anymore.

But some of the other ways he did it upset some on the far left edge of the Democratic Party, because Lamb had the temerity to vote for some things voters in his Pittsburgh-area district actually wanted. He supports fracking, which is big in PA18, albeit with strong government oversight. He supports gun rights, also big in PA18, where the opening of deer season is pretty much a national holiday. Although he says he’ll vote pro-choice, he’s personally anti-abortion.

I have one question for these people: Where was the pro-choice, pro-universal-health-care, pro-Social Security, pro-Medicare, pro-labor, anti-fracking, pro-renewable energy, pro-gun control, personally-OK-with-abortion candidate on the ballot in PA18 last night?

That’s right: There wasn’t one.

But you know who else WAS on the ballot last night? Rick Saccone: A guy who wants to cut taxes on the rich even more, who’s anti-labor, who thinks that the “free market” can “fix” the Affordable Care Act, who’s an anti-immigrant bigot, who claims to have “successfully negotiated with the North Koreans,” and who was endorsed by future defendant Donald J. Trump.

Those were the realistic choices in PA18. (A little-known independent candidate got a little over a thousand votes.) Your perfect candidate and mine were not on the ballot. So what are you going to do?

Here in the real world, you have these choices: 1) Vote for Lamb. 2) Vote for Saccone.

Yeah, you could vote for the independent candidate. But here in the real world, in 99.9% of cases, voting for the independent candidate really is a vote against the major-party candidate whose views align more closely with those of the independent candidate.

And you could have not voted at all. People do that. “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” you pout. But here in the real world, I spent most of my adult life in journalism, covering politics — two worlds in which pure black and pure white are incredibly hard to find. So maybe I’m missing something. But I’ve scoured the real world looking for what that might be and come up empty. If you find it — here in the real world — let me know.

And in this case, standing on that assertion would be a remarkably privileged thing to do, because one vote up or down on, say, the Affordable Care Act here in the real world could make an annual difference of thousands of Americans living or dead. Multiply that across such issues as gun control and climate change and pretty soon you’re talking about a lot of dead people. Add to that the fact that current GOP tax and economic policy are destroying the middle class, sending a lot of people into poverty here in the real world. If you’re morally retarded enough not to care about those deaths and that impoverishment, go to hell.

The time to go after your perfect candidate is in the party primary, but you need to know that whether your choice wins or not, whoever wins is not going to be your perfect candidate. That’s a unicorn. It’s a chimera. It doesn’t exist. You probably won’t even like the winner very much as a person. In more than 40 years of voting at all levels of government, I can point to maybe three people I voted for whom I didn’t want to just slap on a regular basis. THAT’S JUST LIFE. DEAL WITH IT.

The media spend a lot of time and effort telling you that there’s no major difference between the two major parties. That’s a lie. Research shows that in fact there’s a bigger gap between them than at any other time since 1860. It also shows that more than 80% of so-called “unaffiliated” voters reliably vote for one major party or the other more than 80% of the time.

There’s no perfect candidate. No savior. At this point in our history there is no middle. And just for grins, one of our two major parties, in its rejection of facts both economic and scientific, has gone batshit insane. But for God’s sake keep telling me how the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Conor Lamb was not my ideal candidate. But he was a good enough candidate for his particular House district to keep it out of the hands of someone who was a hell of a lot worse. By the lights of Lamb’s critics on the left it was an ugly win.

But you know what they call an ugly win? A win.

Now say “You’re welcome” and don’t whine again. And if you’re ever again tempted to whine, go down and file and run yourself.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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, October 1, 2017 11:49 am

Journalists, here’s a story idea at no charge

Last night, five people were killed here in Greensboro when a stolen car being pursued at high speed by a sheriff’s deputy ran a red light and crashed into another car crossing the intersection of Battleground Avenue and New Garden Road.

Around midnight, a Guilford County sheriff’s deputy spotted a suspicious vehicle that turned out to be stolen from Greensboro, according to a news release from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.

The deputy turned on his blue lights and the suspect vehicle sped south on Battleground Avenue. The deputy was about ¼-mile behind when the vehicle ran a red light at the intersection of New Garden Road and Battleground.

The stole car struck a car crossing Battleground that had the right of way.

Five people in the two vehicles were killed  two females in the vehicle crossing Battleground and two males and one female in the suspect’s vehicle.

As far as I know, the deputy was following departmental procedure, although I’ve been out of the game now for most of a decade and don’t know what policy changes might have taken place since I left the News & Record.

At the same time, anyone with a lick of compassion has to ask: Granted, this case is kind of a black swan as law enforcement goes, but was this chase really worth five human lives, at least two of whom, and possibly up to four of whom, were wholly innocent?

This brings up an idea I had in my reporting days that I never got to execute: What if news outlets did comprehensive cost-benefit- analyses of high-speed chases by law enforcement in their area and used those findings to advocate for changes, if any be needed, to local law-enforcement policy on high-speed changes?

As I see it, such an analysis would look something like this: Journalists partner with experts in cost-benefit analysis to total up the cost of such chases, assigning a dollar value to everything from damaged vehicles, fences, mailboxes, etc., to human lives. And also assign a dollar value to the benefits of such chases: the dollar value to society of getting a murderer — or, in this case, a suspected car thief — off the street. And then calculate how those costs and benefits add up.

Is catching an auto-theft suspect worth one life, let alone five? If so, current policy stands. If not, then ideally, policy would be amended accordingly.

News outlets are uniquely situated to carry out this research, but I invite any journalist, pro or citizen, to take this idea and run with it. If we’re paying too high a price to apprehend fleeing suspects, we need to know that. And if we’re not, we need to know and accept that, too.

 

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, 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Thursday, December 15, 2016 7:42 pm

The battle is joined

My friend Beau Dure, who, among other things, writes for The Guardian, both sounds and heeds the call to battle against fake news:

Let’s be absolutely clear. This is not “left wing” vs. “right wing.” The two sides here are not equivalent. This is truth vs. lies. In this case, it’s an attempt to label demonstrable facts on border crossings as “fake news,” lumping it in the same category as the websites that have made Weekly World News look rational.

And it’s part of an ongoing deliberate attack on the nature of truth, one that leads to many Americans going against overwhelming scientific consensus on everything from climate change to vaccines (with creationism still lurking in there somewhere). It leads to the propagation of absurd conspiracy theories like the one that prompted a North Carolina man to walk into a D.C. pizza place armed to the teeth in what we would call an act of terror if a Muslim did it.

Do Democrats sometimes bend the truth? Yes. Call them out on it. We all should.

But don’t pretend that it’s the same as what you’re seeing here, where the powers-that-be don’t just want to spin something but want to undermine the very forces that hold them accountable.

And we cannot allow that to happen.

Like Pichard in the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode in which he is captured and tortured by the Cardassians, we are about to be placed under enormous pressure to believe things that simply are not true and, worse, are lies told with malicious intent. Journalists are the first line of defense. Their bullshit meters will need to be sensitive, high-capacity, durable, and loud, or else the U.S., after 240 years of relative freedom, will emerge as an autocracy within the next four years.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 9:36 pm

People are policy — and Trump’s people are poison

Fifth in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment)

“People are policy,” President Ronald Reagan used to say. He was right. And Trump’s people are poison. These are not people who have equal justice under the law, fairness, or even simple, human decency in mind. Consider, in no particular order:

Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence: For God’s sake, just Google “bad things about Mike Pence.” If Trump dies, becomes incapacitated, gets impeached, or just gets bored and quits, Pence, policy-wise, will be every bit the disaster that Trump will be. From opposing abortion to supporting fake “religious freedom” laws that legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people, Pence is a darling of those who want to remake the United States as a Christianist fascist nation. While governor of Indiana, he tried to start his own news service and wasted $365,000 of state money on a PR contractor, he dilly-dallied and allowed an AIDS outbreak to grow exponentially,  approved an education budget that cut funds to public schools while boosting charters and a sketchy voucher program, fought the settling of Syrian refugees in Indiana and also tried unsuccessfully to cut off federal aid to those already in the state, fought to de-fund Planned Parenthood (which, remember, provides not just reproductive health care but also affordable primary health care to many women), signed limits on abortion (including requiring women who had them to hold funeral services for their fetuses) that were so extreme a federal court blocked them, fought increases in the minimum wage (surprisingly or not, two-thirds of workers who make minimum wage are women), said, in the face of all logic, research and reason, that increased gun ownership increases public safety, and fought to reimpose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses despite the documented problems they cause and lack of proof that they work. Mike Pence is a vicious human being who is particularly vicious toward women. He has no business anywhere near a position of public trust. (In fairness, I should note that Snopes.com casts doubt on the widespread claim that he supported electroshock therapy as a means of turning gay people straight.)

Chief political counselor Steve Bannon: On Nov. 22, Trump expressed puzzlement that the racist, anti-Semitic white nationalist movement should have been in any way encouraged by his election. If he was sincere — unlikely, but work with me here — he need have looked no further than this staff choice for the reason. Bannon, formerly head of the right-wing “news” site Breitbart.com, was a focus of the racist movement even before Trump picked him; indeed, Trump had to have been familiar with his work. Bannon’s Breitbart called conservative Jewish pundit Bill Kristol “a renegade Jew” in a headline. Bannon’s ex-wife accused him during their divorce trial of having made anti-Semitic remarks. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist hate groups in the U.S., has called Breitbart “part of the extremist fringe of the conservative right.”  And Bannon’s elevation was cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white-nationalist groups, The Hill reported. One would think that Bannon’s documented tenure at Breitbart would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind, but in case there is any doubt left, his former screenwriting partner, Julia Jones, says that Bannon once said that limiting African American voting might be “not such a bad thing.” When Jones pointed out that Bannon’s longtime executive assistant, Wendy Colbert, was black, Bannon replied, “She’s different. She’s family.” Insert groan here.

Trump has said that if white nationalists — racists and Nazis — are energized by his campaign, he wants to find out why. As Jon Ralston has written, that’s like O.J. Simpson vowing to find the real killer.

And as if Trump cashing in on his own presidency weren’t bad enough, Bannon will be cashing in on it, too.

Attorney General-designee Jeff Sessions: Here’s all you need to know about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III: He was so racist that a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him for a federal judgeship in 1986. But there’s more you probably will want to know. He once called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union “Communist-inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” He once said of civil-rights cases, which he would have to litigate as attorney general, “I wish I could decline on all of them.” He opposes immigration reform. Sessions also has suggested increasing the segregation of disabled students in public schools, calling the inclusion of students with significant disabilities “the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.” If Senate Democrats are looking for a hill to die on, or on which to sacrifice the filibuster, this nomination would be an outstanding one.

Health and Human Services, U.S. Rep. Tom Price: I’m guessing Trump picked Price because of Price’s opposition to Obamacare, which is well-documented. But Price also is an awful choice because he supports “privatizing” (which means “killing”) Medicare; Igor Volsky said on Twitter that Price’s nomination is a big “screw you” to seniors who voted for Trump because had had promised not to touch their Medicare. Make no mistake; enacting such a policy would bankrupt a large percentage of America’s seniors; as such, although it has lots of competition, it might be the single most immoral policy priority of the new administration — and certainly indicate that Democrats of good faith have NO common ground with that administration. As Esquire’s Charlie Pierce says:

For progressives of any stripe, Medicare has to be a bright, hot line. One of the great triumphs of progressive government in the 20th century was its virtual elimination of hopeless poverty among the elderly. Because of Medicare, and Social Security before that, old people were freed up to have the opportunity to consider their quality of life, rather than living from one can of catfood to another. And there was no more shame in them than there was in young Paul Ryan when he was living off Social Security survivor benefits after the death of his father. (You’re welcome, by the way.) There can be no backsliding on this one, no attempts to “work across the aisle,” no appeals to “civility” or “bipartisanship.” Loyalty to Medicare has to be a defining characteristic of a Democratic politician and any Democratic politician who doesn’t like it deserves to be primaried out of office.

Myron Ebell to oversee the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency: It’s truly hard to know exactly what Trump thinks about climate change; he generally says he doesn’t believe in it, but occasionally drops hints to the contrary. There’s no doubt about the guy he has tasked with handling the administrative transition at the EPA, however: Myron Ebell not only doesn’t believe in climate change, he doesn’t even believe in science. Take it away, Business Insider:

Ebell is not a scientist and has no degrees or qualifications in climate science. But he serves as director of global warming and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian advocacy group in Washington, DC.

In practice, that means he spends his time rejecting and trying to discredit scientists who work to understand the global climate.

Ebell believes climate scientists are part of a coordinated ‘global warming movement’
In an interview with Business Insider in August, Ebell repeatedly referred to climate scientists as “global warming alarmists” and suggested that climate research is in fact an arm of a coordinated political movement.

“I think that the global warming movement has three parts,” he said. “One is to exaggerate the rate of warming, one is to exaggerate the potential impacts of warming and how soon they may occur, and the third is to underestimate wildly the costs of reducing our emissions by the magical amount that they have picked.”

Business Insider spoke with several climate scientists who described Ebell as a kind of gadfly — someone’s whose views they must occasionally stoop to address in forums and debates where he’s brought in to represent a discredited anti-climate-change perspective, but not a particularly serious person.

“He doesn’t really know anything about science,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a top Earth scientist at NASA who has faced off with Ebell in the past. “He uses science like a talisman.”

Ebell’s technique, Schmidt said, is to point toward “some little fact” and use it to extrapolate some larger irrelevant and scientifically incorrect point.

As for Ebell’s current employer, CEI, it used to be funded by ExxonMobil. Now it’s funded by a group called Donors Trust, which, according to The Washington Post, “is staffed largely by people who have worked for Koch Industries or nonprofit groups supported by the conservative Koch brothers.” The Koch brothers, of course, own Koch Industries, which is heavily into extraction and which spends a lot of money trying to convince people that climate change isn’t real, when more than 99% of climate scientists are convinced that it’s real and that people are causing it.

CIA director: U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan.: Not only is Pompeo a Benghazi truther, he also encouraged sedition within the military:

“It’s unconscionable to put our military leaders in this position, where the commander-in-chief asks of them something that is unlawful,” Pompeo told [Frank] Gaffney. “And my intention was not to put pressure on those amazing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, but rather to inform everyone that you can’t ask folks in the military to execute an unlawful order. And I hope that they understand that there are members of Congress that have their back in the event that they choose to make a decision that comports with their duty.”

And maybe I’m weird, but I’d prefer my CIA director not see himself and the country as being in a religious war with Islam, because that’s exactly what ISIS wants Muslims worldwide to think.

Mike Flynn to head the National Security Agency: Colin Powell, who may have turned out to be a big ol’ ho’ but has never been credibly accused of stupidity, thinks Flynn is a nutball.   You also would like to think that a guy picked to head the National Security Agency would be concerned about, you know, security, but you would be wrong.

Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: One of the main jobs of this position traditionally has been fighting discrimination in housing, but Carson, who demonstrated during his inept presidential campaign that he has all the smarts of a paving stone, wants to gut housing anti-discrimination law, even though fighting such discrimination is a key component of fighting poverty.

Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary: The difference between your gun and your public schools is that someone really is coming for your public schools, and that someone is Betsy Devos. She never attended public school, and her kids have never attended public school. She is a front for for-profit interests who want to use charter schools to scam taxpayers. If that weren’t enough evidence of what a jewel she is, she also wants to bring back child labor.

Secretary of State: As I write, Trump apparently is considering naming as Secretary of State Gen. David Petraeus, who, you will remember, lied to the FBI about giving classified material to his mistress. Trump was all “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton possibly having mishandled classified emails (she basically didn’t), so this pick strongly suggests that he isn’t a serious person.

There are many more, but I had to draw a line somewhere. Still, no examination of Trump’s personnel picks is complete without at least a quick look at the extent to he is giving his kids and son-in-law roles in things that should be none of their goddamned business. To wit:

  • Son Donald Trump Jr. met in October with a Syrian politician with strong ties to Russia, in defiance of current U.S. foreign policy, which supports certain Syrian dissidents. Someone needs to explain to me how this was not a felony violation of the Logan Act.
  • Daughter Ivanka Trump sat in on Trump’s talks with Japan’s prime minister as well as with officials from Turkey and Argentina. While not felonious, this does raise questions of how a child of Trump’s who is supposed to run Trump’s business affairs while he’s president without conflicts of interest can actually, you know, do so. Or, as The New York Times puts it:
    • Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is in charge of planning and development of the Trump Organization’s global network of hotels, has joined in conversations with at least three world leaders – of Turkey, Argentina and Japan – having access that could help her expand the brand worldwide.
  • Son-in-law Jared Kushner is widely described as having played a key role in Trump’s campaign. His dual role as a key player in the transition and as publisher of The New York Observer contains some inherent conflicts of interest that so far aren’t attracting much attention, but should.

These are the people who will be making public policy, America. If you think that public officials should pursue the public interest and scrupulously avoid self-aggrandizement and self-enriching at the public trough, well, you’re pretty well fucked.

Monday, November 7, 2016 8:52 pm

Oh, and about your “protest vote” …

For those of you who think you’re too good to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tomorrow: One and only one candidate on the ballot will work to both protect and improve Obamacare, on which both of my brothers depend because of chronic health problems. In other words, fuck your protest vote. Your hurt fee-fees do not outweigh my brothers’ lives. And if you have a problem with that, fuck you with a red-hot poker.

Jay Rosen on what the media missed, and me on what we need to work hard to miss

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has posted a piece titled “A Miss Bigger Than a Missed Story,” his final reflection before the election on how badly U.S. media have lost the thread of this election. It’s not that long, and its underlying thread is how politics simply doesn’t deal in reality anymore and how unprepared the media  have been for that change. He makes clear that this trend didn’t arise overnight with Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The real value of the piece, though, is this conclusion:

Yesterday I read something by a philosopher, Jason Stanley, that illuminated what I mean by “a miss bigger than a missed story.” Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality. Stanley made the point that fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

“On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening,” Stanley writes. And I agree with that. He compares what Trump did to totalitarian propaganda, which does not attempt to depict the world but rather substitutes for it a ruthlessly coherent counter-narrative that is untroubled by any contradiction between itself and people’s experience.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Trump’s campaign was “openly intended to distort reality” because that is a show of power. Power over his followers. Over the other candidates he humiliated and drove from the race. Over party officials who tried to bring him to heel. And over the journalists who tried to “check” and question him.

That last graf is really what Donald Trump is up to, and it’s the one I want most to commend to the attention of my friends at the Times and the Post and Politico and CQ and The Hill and all the other primary drivers of national political coverage in this country.

I’ve made quite the pest of myself with y’all by emphasizing that this was the campaign that repealed Godwin’s law. That tenet of Internet dialogue holds that the longer a discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood that someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Naziism. A corollary, also itself often referred to as Godwin’s law, is that whoever does so automatically loses the debate.

But in this campaign we have seen a candidate, Donald Trump, who has, in no particular order, advocated torture; advocated massive forced relocations; espoused racism, sexism (including sexual assault), many other forms of bigotry, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualismHe has embraced some of the most virulent anti-Semites currently operating in U.S. media and made them a key part of his campaign. His campaign’s final television ad was one long anti-Semitic dogwhistle. Look, I realize no one wants to look hysterical AND that comparisons to Hitler/Naziism have been overplayed on other subjects in the past. But, kids, at some point, if the jackboot fits, you’ve got to wear it. Trump and his campaign have been functioning in exactly the same way, with largely the same result, as all of the big totalitarian propaganda efforts of the 20th century, from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to China. And while some in the media get this, way too many are still in denial.

But, you say, Trump isn’t going to win tomorrow.

And as I write this, that looks like it’s probably true. My own prediction remains what it was once the two major-party nominees were determined last spring: Clinton wins with at least 310 electoral votes, and the Democrats tie for or retake the Senate. (Fun fact for us North Carolinians: Our polls close at 7:30 p.m. In 2012, the Associated Press called the state for Romney at 10:53 p.m. If North Carolina gets called for Clinton, particularly if that happens a lot earlier than it did in 2012, it’s game over for Trump. Clinton can afford to lose North Carolina. Trump cannot; he simply has no road to 270 electoral votes without us.)

But a huge number of Americans have supported Trump, and in so doing, they’ve demonstrated that they’re OK with the hatred, they’re vulnerable to the propaganda, or both. And those people will still be around and still creating trouble Wednesday and probably for years, perhaps decades, after. This campaign hasn’t just injected massive doses of hate into our political mainstream, as Rosen and Stanley point out, it has tried to make that the new reality.

Even worse, I can guarantee you that right now, this minute, someone both smarter and more disciplined than Trump already is plotting how to build on Trump’s accomplishments to capture those voters in off-year state and local races and in a race for the White House in 2020 and beyond.

That is what our news media will be facing, and denialism could be lethal to the American experiment as well as to nontrivial numbers of individual Americans. I realize that after this longest and ugliest of campaigns, no one wants to hear this — and God knows I’d love to be wrong about it — but I think the media, and all Americans of good faith and good sense, must fight this, starting immediately. I pray to God we’re up to it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 8:21 pm

The trade publication Law Enforcement Today is making the Internet dumber

You can’t make this up, y’all. This is an editorial by Jim McNeff that was posted today on the LET website:

With the NBA season around the corner, and more athletes indicating they plan to join the “sit-in” during the National Anthem, I feel compelled to send a message to athletes and coaches alike, since peace officers are asked to provide protection, security, and traffic related functions at these events. And ironically they are ultimately protesting the institution of law enforcement, but track with me for a minute.

The ultimate authority in America is the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights are part of this authority. The First Amendment, which grants us the right to protest, is part of the Bill of Rights. The American flag is the foremost symbol of America and the ultimate governing authority—the Constitution. The Star Spangled Banner is the National Anthem, which declares our support and allegiance to the flag, our Constitution, and the United States of America.

Consequently, I believe anyone who protests the American flag, or the National Anthem, is actually protesting the right to protest. It’s illogical.

Son, please. That sauce wouldn’t pass muster in any sixth-grade debating club. You are conflating tangible symbols with intangible values, and you’re not even particularly clever about it. I read this passage to my wife, who once taught at Yale and was a Fulbright Scholar, and she paused and said, “That made my brain hurt.”

He goes on to say:

If someone wants to protest oppression, real or imagined, that is fundamentally American. But shaking a fist at the symbols representing the rights being exercised is a misunderstanding of civics and demonstrates a principal lack of knowledge and understanding.

Uh, no, just the opposite, as the Supreme Court has found in numerous cases, including its 1989 Texas v. Johnson decision finding flag burning constitutionally protected speech. Damn, son.

Oh, but he’s not done:

One problem we have in America is that we’ve lost a sense of reality regarding governmental oppression. I am pictured in the photo below with a group of people that have experienced human atrocities at the hands of their respective governments and terrorist organizations. I worked with these people (refugees) for a short time in Mullheim, Germany. I had a chance to hear their gut wrenching stories from Afghanistan, Syria, Gambia, and Eritrea. I am not trying to sensationalize my experience. I simply want you to know, the people in this picture would literally sacrifice their life if it meant family members would be able to enjoy the rights and privileges that are taken for granted in the U.S.

This dimwit is literally arguing that violations of constitutional rights in this country don’t matter because people in other countries have it worse. I’d like to know which Supreme Court ruling or statute he’s basing that opinion on, because it sure as hell isn’t found in the Constitution.

He also appears to be presuming that everyone in the U.S. takes their rights and privileges for granted. But not everyone does. Why not? Because not everyone can — particularly not when U.S. law enforcement has engaged in patterns of abuse for years that recent, widespread availability of hand-held video technology is only now bringing to light. No, not every cop does it, but too many do, and too many more remain silent about what they observe.

Law enforcement has a public-relations problem because it has a behavior problem that is so bad that even relatively safe, relatively content conservative middle-aged white guys like me have taken notice. Publishing takes like this that evince utter ignorance of the law that officers swear an oath to uphold is not going to increase public trust and confidence in law enforcement; to the contrary, it will provide at least circumstantial evidence that many of the bad things that people are saying about cops are true.

Cops have a dangerous enough job as it is without allowing people like Jim McNeff to make them look foolish. So the National Police Association, which posted a link to this piece on Facebook, and the people who run Law Enforcement today ought to think long and hard about who speaks for cops and whether those individuals understand the first damn thing about what they’re writing about. Because Jim McNeff doesn’t; what he writes makes cops look absolutely stupid. That stupidity will result in a loss of already-fragile public trust in law enforcement, thus making a dangerous job even more so.

Besides, it makes the Internet dumber, and nobody should be allowed to do that.

 

 

Saturday, September 24, 2016 10:48 am

After protests, the next step is a boycott — but of what?

The problem with protests is that while they can raise awareness, they’re much less effective tools for bringing about real change. And some of the people most involved with protests against the killing of unarmed people of color by U.S. law enforcement are beginning to talk about that.

Shaun King in the New York Daily News:

… we’ve crossed a line in America. Police brutality and racial violence have pushed people far past a reasonable or compassionate human standard.

For the past two years, we’ve protested all over the country, and my gut reaction used to be that it hadn’t accomplished as much as it should have — that the energy required for those protests didn’t meet the meager reforms that we’ve achieved.

I no longer feel that way. In two years, in great part because of those protests, the fierce injustice of the United States has now become known to the entire world. That’s no easy feat. The world knows the names and stories of our victims and they care.

Furthermore, we have built consensus among tens of millions of people in America who are fully fed up with police brutality and demand a better way.

It is time that we organize a passionate, committed, economic boycott. It must be painful. It must be unified. And we must continue with it until we see change. This country is clearly willing to continue killing unarmed men, women and children without ever making any serious efforts at reforms. This economic boycott can change that. …

I’m going to be listening for the best ideas on how we proceed. We have to all be on the same page here or it won’t work. I’m in and I hope you are too.

(If you want to contact King directly, he’s on Twitter at @ShaunKing.)

For the purpose of discussion, and because I live in the real world, I’m going to stipulate the following: 1) We do have a problem with law enforcement killing unarmed people of color; 2) state and local governments, which oversee the overwhelming majority of law enforcement in this country, do not perceive this problem; do not think the lives lost are as important as other considerations, which may range from retraining cost to fears over loss of political support of LEOs; or perceive the problem and are just fine with it; 3) protests alone have achieved most or all of what any reasonable person could expect, i.e., they have raised awareness but have not led to widespread political or policy change.

King draws parallels with the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King and others, which lasted for more than a year. Closer to home and closer to now, there have been protests about the N.C. legislature’s ill-considered House Bill 2, but real pressure for change didn’t build until businesses, associations and entertainers started boycotting the state (and REALLY didn’t build in this college-sports-crazy state until the Greensboro-based Atlantic Coast Conference pulled all its conference championships out of the state and hinted that it might move its headquarters out as well).

King concludes not with a specific call to action but with a call to discussion, because he acknowledges, however briefly, a critical truth: To work, boycotts need a clearly identified target related in some way to the boycott’s goal. Here in North Carolina, business leaders who have legislators’ ears are seeing economic-development opportunities fly out of the window — and they also know that there undoubtedly more opportunities passing us by that we never even see, company formations or expansions for which we’re never even considered, because of the bigotry among the Republicans who control the Lege.

What might such a dynamic look like with respect to getting the police fully back under civilian control — because they are only nominally there now in many jurisdictions — and making the political changes, not just law-enforcement changes, necessary so that law enforcement officers can truly work for justice, rather than merely function as tools for keeping what one privileged segment of society considers to be order?

I have one suggestion. It might not be the best. It might not even be particularly good. And God knows whether it’s workable. But it identifies a clear target that is related directly to the goal of changing the policial framework that dictates how law enforcement operates, so that law enforcement will operate in the interests of true justice:

A tax boycott.

People of color and their allies could stop paying their state and local income and property taxes until state and local governments and their police forces take specific, quantifiable steps to reduce that violence.

People of color pay taxes, just like anyone else, to support a government that is required by law to provide equal protection under the law. Yet it is abundantly clear that that government does not provide equal protection. Further, the majority-white power structure in most jurisdictions doesn’t care, or else more steps would have been taken before now.

What might the steps that people demand look like? That would be up to each community or state to decide. For purposes of discussion, I’ll throw out some possibilities:

  • Mandatory, periodic training, retraining, and certification in de-escalation techniques.
  • Mandatory, periodic training, retraining, and certification in dealing with subjects with mental illness.
  • An increased commitment to community policing. A lot of departments are doing a lot of this now. We need more. It is in officers’ own safety interests to be seen as part of the community, someone you run into every day, and not as an occupying army.
  • Repeal of the new state law, HB 972, which permits release of police body-cam and dashcam video only with the permission of a judge. Here in N.C., those videos should be treated the same as any other public record under North Carolina law, which is to say that they should be presumptively public.
  • Civilian police review boards with subpoena power.
  • Demilitarization of state/local law enforcement and return of military-grade equipment to the federal government. (This one in particular I’m not on board with; there are so many firearms and other weapons on the street that a lot of departments need at least some of this stuff to avoid undue risk to officers. But there also are a lot of places that will never in a million years need it.)

Such a boycott would have a clear target. The target would be related directly to the problem. I have no idea if it would work. And the consequences for at least some potential participants could be devastating — and these are people who already have endured devastating consequences.

But if that many people took part — tens of millions of Americans in all 50 states — governments couldn’t jail/foreclose on all of them.

Again, to be clear, I am not advocating this specific course of action. But I think people of good will do need to talk about what it will take to force the kind of lasting political change that will, if not end this phenomenon, at least make it much rarer. This suggestion is one idea about what an effective course of action might look like.

But Shaun King is right: Protests alone, while serving a valuable purpose in raising awareness, aren’t effecting change. History suggests that money, almost alone, talks. So money must find its voice if lives are going to be saved.

(h/t Jill Williams for bringing King’s column to my attention and prompting my thoughts on this subject.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 7:31 pm

Kaepernick, cont.: Bleacher Report says team execs hate him

I have mixed feelings on this Bleacher Report story by Mike Freeman:

Across NFL front offices, there are team officials who are not offended, and even embrace, the controversial position of Colin Kaepernick. They are out there. Statistically, they have to be. But they are keeping a low profile.

They seem to be far outnumbered by the members of NFL front offices who despise him. Truly, truly hate him.

“I don’t want him anywhere near my team,” one front office executive said. “He’s a traitor.”

A traitor?

He wasn’t alone in the anger directed toward Kaepernick. In interviews with seven team executives, each said he didn’t want Kaepernick on his team. This is far from scientific, but I believe this is likely the feeling among many front office executives. Not all. But many.

All seven estimated 90 to 95 percent of NFL front offices felt the same way they did. One executive said he hasn’t seen this much collective dislike among front office members regarding a player since Rae Carruth. Remember Rae Carruth? He’s still in prison for the plot to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

Personally, I think the dislike of Kaepernick is inappropriate and un-American. I find it ironic that citizens who live in a country whose existence is based on dissent criticize someone who expresses dissent.

But in NFL front offices, the feeling is very different.

The story goes on like that for a good bit longer, letting one exec after another take some often-ridiculous potshots at Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem at last Friday’s 49ers-Packers game in protest of police violence toward people of color.

So, let’s take these executives’ complaints about Kaepernick at face value and analyze them, starting with the executive quoted above:

  • “He’s a traitor.” Well, no, he’s not. Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution, and the Constitution defines it as making war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Kapernick is guilty of neither.
  • “”He has no respect for our country. F— that guy.” I’m not sure how this exec became a mind reader, but let’s assume for a second that he’s correct. Given the real and documented nature of the problem about which Kaepernick is complaining, why should he respect this country, which asserts it offers “liberty and justice for all” but which in practice has a long way to go before that will be true?
  • “Another said that if an owner asked him to sign Kaepernick, he would consider resigning, rather than do it.” No reason given, but I wonder how this exec feels about signing domestic abusers and dogfighters.
  • ” (Executives) also don’t believe he appreciates what he has. Many of them pointed to Kaepernick’s salary and said he would never make that kind of money if not for football.” What the hell does that have to do with anything? Kaepernick made it very clear that he was speaking in support of people of color generally, not just for himself. He was using a platform that he has that most people of color do not. Do league executives, who famously don’t give up a penny not called for in the contract, actually think that paying a player buys his silence on topics of which team execs do not approve?

Granted, not many direct quotes here, but what quotes there are don’t seem to come from a place of reflection or even logic.

Now, I’m glad that Freeman did this story. It’s good to know how at least some league execs feel. But I have some problems with it as well.

For one thing, we have only Freeman’s word that it’s in any way representative of team execs around the league. Seven is a very small sample.

But more damningly, I think it was unethical of Freeman to grant these men (I’m certain they were all men) anonymity in order to hurl their invective at Kaepernick. If these guys felt as strongly as Freeman would have us believe, certainly they’d have been willing to go on the record. And if they weren’t willing, then that calls into question just how right they actually think they are.

Which leads us to the question of what, exactly, is going through these executives’ minds. We hate what we fear. Are these execs really afraid of what would happen if this country, as Kaepernick suggested, got serious about erasing racial discrimination, especially in law enforcement? Or, on a more basic level, are they just afraid of people of color in general?

Either way, such fear not only is not grounded in reality, it’s un-American. The NFL makes a big deal about being the most patriotic of our national sports, but its executives would appear to have a lot to learn about the ideals on which this country was really founded and what it takes to make those ideals real.

 

 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 7:35 pm

Why Colin Kaepernick is right and you are wrong and need to sit down

San Francisco 49ers quarterback — for the moment — Colin Kaepernick got a whole bunch of people’s panties in a twist when he sat down during the national anthem this past Friday. But, to paraphrase Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, at least he’s shouting at the right buildings:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

“Getting away with murder.” That is the issue. Please to focus.

Kaepernick, who is himself of multiracial ancestry, has more than just his literal skin in this game: At this writing, it’s unclear whether he even still has a job with the 49ers independent of his protest (although he’s slated to start the final preseason game), and his protest makes it less likely that another NFL team might hire him and makes him a less likely prospect for endorsement deals. That’s a ton of money to be potentially walking away from, but he has made it clear that he couldn’t care less.

I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

First things first: Is what he is doing “legal”? Yes. There’s no First Amendment issue here because government is not involved, and there’s no law against what he did. The NFL does not require players to stand for the national anthem. 49ers coach Chip Kelly told reporters, “It’s not my right to tell him not to do something.” And the team itself issued a statement:

The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.

DeMaurice Smith, head of the players’ union, the NFL Players Association, made clear that the union stands behind Kaepernick even though Smith said the form Kaepernick’s protest took made him personally uncomfortable:

I’m not sure that any father, son, mother, you know, brother whose family member is on that playing field would want to hear that their family member should just shut up and play, because that reduces you to something less than human.

Next question: Is his cause justified? Based on the facts, on the merits, absolutely. Even in recent years, discrimination against African Americans and other minorities has been documented in employment, housing, lending, and other areas. And the recent cases of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, to which Kaepernick spoke directly, speak for themselves. This country wrote itself some huge checks in 1776 and 1787, checks that we are still struggling to cash today. That’s a fact, and Kaepernick is not wrong at all to point it out. And I’ll have more to say on that in a bit.

Next question: Was his method “appropriate” — i.e., the best way to get his message across? A lot of people don’t think so. Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, now at the University of Michigan, initially said, “I don’t respect the motivation or the action,” before later “clarifying,” “I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to.” And New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told ESPN, “there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.” Brees particularly thought Kaepernick’s protest was disrespectful to the military even though Kaepernick specifically said that what he did was not intended to disrespect the military. And the San Francisco police union wants an apology (more on that in a bit, as well).

But here’s the thing about protest: It’s meant to make people at least a little uncomfortable, because comfortable people usually don’t often get involved in unpopular but positive change. From the Boston Tea Party to the Pullman strike, from the March on Washington to the Greensboro sit-ins and beyond, Americans have stood up, or sat down, for all kinds of issues, most of which resulted in the betterment of society and some of which made this country possible. Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in major-league baseball, felt the same way as Kaepernick:

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

And of course there’s the case of Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1966 because, as a conscientious objector, he refused to be drafted. He was convicted of draft evasion, but he took the U.S. government all the way to the Supreme Court and whipped it like a rented mule. Upon Ali’s recent death, he was hailed as an activist and a man of conscience for his actions. Kaepernick is getting a lot of criticism, but his action was less disruptive than Ali’s and sits squarely within the same long tradition.

And here’s another thing about protest: You don’t get to choose the means for protesters to protest. That’s their call, and as long as it’s within the law (or, for civil disobedience, as long as protesters are willing to pay society’s price), you don’t get to say anything about it. You have no — what’s the word? — standing.

Beyond all that perspective on protest, there’s the particular nature of what’s behind objection to this particular protest: political idolatry. God commands the Israelites in the Second Commandment not to worship graven images. But that’s what a lot of Americans do when it comes to patriotism. They’ve tried to ban flag burning (the Supreme Court, including the late Antonin Scalia, held it to be protected political speech). They seek to enforce conformity in how people express their patriotism, either not knowing or not caring that to do so is the very opposite of political freedom. In short, they confuse patriotism’s idols — the flag, the anthem, even the U.S. military — for the actual qualities we say we embody. Meanwhile, issues like discrimination, poverty, and abusive police officers continue to go unaddressed without a whole lot of complaint, or even caring, by the majority of Americans. Kaepernick was pointing out an inconsistency, if not a hypocrisy, between what we say about ourselves and what we actually do. Yeah, it stings — but it stings because he’s right.

Moreover, there is racism in the national anthem itself, as this excellent article at TheRoot.com shows:

To understand the full “Star-Spangled Banner” story, you have to understand the author. Key was an aristocrat and city prosecutor in Washington, D.C. He was, like most enlightened men at the time, notagainst slavery; he just thought that since blacks were mentally inferior, masters should treat them with more Christian kindness. He supported sending free blacks (not slaves) back to Africa and, with a few exceptions, was about as pro-slavery, anti-black and anti-abolitionist as you could get at the time.

Of particular note was Key’s opposition to the idea of the Colonial Marines. The Marines were a battalion of runaway slaves who joined with the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. The Marines were not only a terrifying example of what slaves would do if given the chance, but also a repudiation of the white superiority that men like Key were so invested in.

All of these ideas and concepts came together around Aug. 24, 1815, at the Battle of Bladensburg, where Key, who was serving as a lieutenant at the time, ran into a battalion of Colonial Marines. His troops were taken to the woodshed by the very black folks he disdained, and he fled back to his home in Georgetown to lick his wounds. The British troops, emboldened by their victory in Bladensburg, then marched into Washington, D.C., burning the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building and the White House. You can imagine that Key was very much in his feelings seeing black soldiers trampling on the city he so desperately loved.

A few weeks later, in September of 1815, far from being a captive, Key was on a British boat begging for the release of one of his friends, a doctor named William Beanes. Key was on the boat waiting to see if the British would release his friend when he observed the bloody battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 13, 1815. America lost the battle but managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British in the process. This inspired Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” right then and there, but no one remembers that he wrote a full third stanza decrying the former slaves who were now working for the British army:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In other words, Key was saying that the blood of all the former slaves and “hirelings” on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of the British invaders. With Key still bitter that some black soldiers got the best of him a few weeks earlier, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom. Perhaps that’s why it took almost 100 years for the song to become the national anthem.

Some opponents, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, have suggested that Kaepernick is hypocritical for complaining about a country in which he has achieved professional and financial success, saying, “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.” These people miss another point Kaepernick made clear in interviews: It’s not just about Colin Kaepernick, but also about a lot of other people who are less fortunate. Kaepernick has a platform, at least for now, and he has chosen to use it in that way. Donald Trump, of all people, is utterly unqualified to lecture Kaepernick about anything.

And, finally, to get back to Kaepernick’s original point: We have too many cases in this country of African American people dying wrongly at the hands of police without anyone being held accountable. From 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cincinnati to Freddie Gray, who died while being transported in police custody, it’s happening and not enough is being done about it. Rogue officers are not being held accountable. That’s about as serious a problem of political governance as they come, yet large numbers of Americans don’t even see a problem. The San Francisco police union apparently doesn’t see a problem, so don’t talk to me about a “few bad apples.”

In a democratic republic, the government is us, and those police officers are acting in our name and with our tax dollars. Do we really want this to be a country in which people die unnecessarily at the hands of police? If not, I grant you, there may not be a hell of a lot any one individual can do. But the least you can do is to sit down and stop shoveling shit at the guy who’s pointing out the problem.

 

 

 

 

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