Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Tricks of Memory — Charlie Pierce on forgetting our past at the peril of our future.

… The 2016 presidential campaign—and the success of Donald Trump on the Republican side—has been a triumph of how easily memory can lose the struggle against forgetting and, therefore, how easily society can lose the struggle against power. There is so much that we have forgotten in this country. We’ve forgotten, over and over again, how easily we can be stampeded into action that is contrary to the national interest and to our own individual self-interest. We have forgotten McCarthy and Nixon. We have forgotten how easily we can be lied to. We have forgotten the U-2 incident and the Bay of Pigs and the sale of missiles to the mullahs. And along comes someone like Trump, and he tells us that forgetting is our actual power and that memory is the enemy.

The first decade of the twenty-first century gave us a great deal to forget. It began with an extended mess of a presidential election that ended with the unprecedented interference of a politicized Supreme Court. It was marked early on by an unthinkable attack on the American mainland. At this point, we forgot everything we already knew. We knew from our long involvement in the Middle East where the sources of the rage were. We forgot. We knew from Vietnam the perils of involving the country in a land war in Asia. We forgot. We knew from Nuremberg and from Tokyo what were war crimes and what were not. We forgot that we had virtually invented the concept of a war crime. We forgot. In all cases, we forgot because we chose to forget. We chose to believe that forgetting gave us real power and that memory made us weak. We even forgot how well we knew that was a lie.

[…]

A country that remembers, a country with an empowered memory that acts as a check on the dangerous excesses of power itself, does not produce a Donald Trump. It was the very first Republican president who said the most memorable thing about memory, and its mystic chords, and how he hoped, one day, those chords once again would be touched by the better angels of our nature. That was Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. By the time he came to deliver his second, in which he appealed to the country to remember how it had torn itself apart, six hundred thousand Americans had slaughtered one another in a war that was only then beginning to come to an end:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty 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 three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Remember, this passage said to the people of a tattered and bleeding nation. Bind up the wounds. Take care of him who has borne the battle, and his widow and orphan, too. Achieve a just and lasting peace between yourselves and all nations. But first, remember how this misery came to pass. Remember what we are capable of doing to one another if we lose faith in every institution of self-government, especially those into which we are supposed to channel our passions to constructive purpose. Remember, Lincoln said in this speech, which was his last warning to the nation he’d preserved. Remember that we can be killers. Remember that, and you can be strong and powerful enough to not allow it to happen again.

The late historian Michael Kammen likened even the newest Americans to Fortinbras in Hamlet, who declares that he has “some rights of memory in this kingdom.” Even the immigrants most lately arrived can, Kammen argued, “have an imaginative and meaningful relationship to the determinative aspects of American history.” In the campaign now ongoing, we see successful candidates running against the very notion of what Kammen was talking about. When Trump chants his mantra—”Make America Great Again”—the rest of the slogan is unsaid but obvious. The implied conclusion is “…Before All of Them Wrecked It.” And that is what has been selling, all year long, because while the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, there is no guarantee that either struggle will end in triumph.

The Remains of Chernobyl — Alex Wellerstein in The New Yorker on the aftermath of the explosion at the nuclear power plant thirty years ago.

… For many people in the West, Chernobyl has served as a kind of referendum on nuclear power. Those who oppose it see the disaster as the ultimate embodiment of industrial folly. They point to evidence, extremely difficult to confirm, of increased rates of cancer and birth defects in the region around the plant. Those who support nuclear power, meanwhile—a slight majority of Americans today—argue for better and safer reactors and more competent operators. But Chernobyl has also had a strong and lingering political legacy. The Soviet state shared no small part of the blame for the accident, yet even in the era of glasnost it was unwilling to admit it. (Outside the U.S.S.R., the first indication that something was amiss at the plant came not from Soviet authorities, who initially kept quiet, but from a nuclear-power station in Sweden, where fallout, carried by the wind and tracked in on an employee’s shoes, set off the alarm during a routine screening for radioactivity.) To condemn the design of the RBMK-1000, much less nuclear technology itself, was to criticize Soviet know-how and jeopardize other economically necessary reactors of the same type. Human error was the only politically viable explanation. In the spring of 1987, Chernobyl’s operators and engineers were subject to what the historian Sonja D. Schmid has called “perhaps the last show trial of the Soviet era.” Not surprisingly, they were convicted.

There was the battle against the fire, and then there was the battle over its political meaning. Today, there is the battle of memory. The Internet is replete with videos of disaster tourists visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, sometimes with Geiger counters. Poke around in the bushes or buildings and you can sometimes find something “hot”—a rubber boot or glove, a piece of misshapen graphite. Stories abound of wild animals retaking the zone, and haunting photographs of the abandoned town of Pripyat—especially of the ruins of its carnival grounds—are now a staple of social media. (A friend of mine who visited Chernobyl not long ago noted that there was a suspicious overabundance of gas masks and creepy dolls in the town’s most cinematic locations.) But it is a mistake to assume, amid the Cold War nostalgia and post-apocalyptic romance, that Chernobyl was ever really relinquished. The undamaged portions of the plant were in operation until 2000, run by workers who were paid triple their normal wages. There are even some people—mostly elderly—who have, illegally and unadvisedly, returned to their homes nearby, sometimes eating crops grown in the contaminated soil. The acute radioactivity, the sort that can induce radiation sickness and kill people quickly, has largely decayed. The lingering fallout poses a long-term threat to anyone who inhabits the area, but if these people are old to begin with, and small in number, they are likelier to die of other causes.

The late sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote that risk can help human societies rediscover the importance of collective action and responsibility. But risk is a tricky thing to wrap one’s head around, especially once the fires have gone out. Does Chernobyl indict an entire industry, or does it show that, even at its worst, it isn’t that bad? The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. Chernobyl was a disaster, but it was not the apocalypse. It was a highly specific event—specific to the reactor and to the Soviet state that it was conceived in. But it should give us pause to reflect generally on the high costs of technological mismanagement and deferred maintenance. It is easy to dismiss a few thousand extra cancers, out of the hundreds of thousands of cancers caused by other sources, when they are not in the bodies of our loved ones; it is easy to say that the Exclusion Zone is relatively small when it is on the other side of the world. These battles of Chernobyl are still being waged, but there may be no winners in the war.

Walt Whitman, Wellness Guru — Jennifer Schuessler notes that the poet was a health nut.

In 1858, when Walt Whitman sat down to write a manifesto on healthy living, he came up with advice that might not seem out of place in an infomercial today.

“Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else,” Whitman wrote, sounding more than a little paleo.

As for the feet, he recommended that the comfortable shoes “now specially worn by base-ball players” — sneakers, if you will — be “introduced for general use,” and he offered warnings about the dangers of inactivity that could have been issued from a 19th-century standing desk.

“To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he declared. “Up!”

Whitman’s words, part of a nearly 47,000-word journalistic series called “Manly Health and Training,” were lost for more than 150 years, buried in an obscure newspaper that survived only in a handful of libraries. The series was uncovered last summer by a graduate student, who came across a fleeting reference to it in a digitized newspaper database and then tracked down the full text on microfilm.

Now, Whitman’s self-help-guide-meets-democratic-manifesto is being published online in its entirety by a scholarly journal, in what some experts are calling the biggest new Whitman discovery in decades.

“This is really a complete new work by Whitman,” said David S. Reynolds, the author of “Walt Whitman’s America” and a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who was not involved with the find.

“These are the most interesting and mysterious years in Whitman’s biography, and now we have this major journalistic series right in the middle of it,” said Ed Folsom, the editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, the online journal that is publishing the series in its spring issue.

“One of Whitman’s core beliefs was that the body was the basis of democracy,” Mr. Folsom, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, continued. “The series is a hymn to the male body, as well as a guide to taking care of what he saw as the most vital unit of democratic living.”

Doonesbury — Updating.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

Next Thing You Know, They’ll Win Elections

Buck Newton, A North Carolina state senator is very upset that gay people are actually voting.

“We all know that the folks that wave the rainbow flags and things like that are politically very upset about the way things are today. They’re upsets about the way things have always been in this state,” he said earlier in his remarks. “And they’re bound and determined to try to change it, whether it’s by winning elections in the city of Charlotte on their city council or whether it’s wining [sic] elections in November in the General Assembly or whether it’s winning elections in November for our governor.”

It kind of reminds me of how a group of like-minded people banded together to vote for people who supported their causes.  Y’know, black people.  Or the elderly.  Or even, more’s the pity, cranky white people in the Tea Party.  It’s called “democracy.”  Funny how that works.

Might want to try it, Buck.

There Are Limits

I can find something to laugh at in almost anything, but there are limits, and mocking someone with dementia is going over the line.

Having already famously portrayed former President George W. Bush in various comedy sketches, Will Ferrell is now setting his sights on another former commander-in-chief.

Sources tell Variety Ferrell is attached to star as President Reagan in the Black List script “Reagan.”

Penned by Mike Rosolio, the story begins at the start of the then-president’s second term when he falls into dementia and an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander-in-chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.

I don’t know how anyone finds that funny.  Sure, we made jokes about Reagan and his age and his B-list movie career, but when it became known that he had Alzheimer’s disease, that should have put it out of bounds.  Dementia is hell, especially for the people who have to take care of the patient, and exploiting it for laughs and money is just plain cruel.

The Unpopular Vote

Keep digging that hole, Republicans.

The Republican Party’s image, already quite negative, has slipped since last fall. Currently 33% of the public has a favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 62% have an unfavorable view. Unfavorable opinions of the GOP are now as high as at any point since 1992.

In October, 37% viewed the Republican Party favorably and 58% viewed it unfavorably. The decline in favorability since then has largely come among Republicans themselves: In the current survey, 68% of Republicans view their party positively, down from 79% last fall.

By contrast, public views of the Democratic Party are unchanged since October. Currently, 45% of the public has a favorable impression of the Democratic Party, while 50% have an unfavorable opinion.

And yet there will still be Very Serious People who are sure the GOP will sweep the election in the fall and that the Democrats have a lot of work to do to catch up.

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know, John

The New York Times is oh so amused that former Speaker John Boehner is calling them like he sees them now.

John A. Boehner never minced words as House speaker, but he usually leveled his insults behind closed doors. Now a private citizen, Mr. Boehner is going public, and the results can be spectacular.

On Wednesday, the former speaker gleefully unloaded on Senator Ted Cruz before a crowd at Stanford University, colorfully describing the Republican presidential contender from Texas as “Lucifer in the flesh.”

“I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life,” said Mr. Boehner, who has made previous disparaging remarks about Mr. Cruz in both public and private, though without comparing him directly to Satan.

[…]

To anyone who knew Mr. Boehner in Washington, the comments, first reported by The Stanford Daily, were no surprise. With a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Mr. Boehner would often hold forth, offering his rather spirited views of individuals and ideas, though not always for publication. And when he was in exile from the leadership from 1998 to 2006, he was a go-to quote for commentary on the poor conduct of those who were in charge.

But when he took over as speaker, Mr. Boehner clammed up a bit, so the surprise is how freely flowing the comments are these days.

Yes, and that’s exactly what we need in this campaign now; more name-calling and chortle-inducing epithets because up to now it’s been a model of decorum and restraint.

No, I’m not some prude who faints at the utterance of an F-bomb.  I enjoy a good insult as much as the next guy, but in the case of Boehner v. Cruz, it’s not exactly news that nobody likes the junior senator from Texas.  As he himself noted, it’s why he’s running in the first place; being an obnoxious and self-aggrandizing jerk is a feature, not a bug.

What would really be news — and would really torpedo the Cruz campaign — is if John Boehner came out and praised Ted Cruz as the most accommodating and and obsequious brown-noser on Capitol Hill and that this son-of-a-bitch persona was all an act.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Butthurt Abroad

If you like Donald Trump’s cranky, whiny and petulant view of how to run the country, you’ll like how he’ll deal with the rest of the world.

Josh Marshall:

There’s no real strategy behind Trump’s arguments – no new set of alliances or regional focus, no emphasis on trade as opposed to military strength of vice versa. At least there is no strategy in terms foreign policy professionals would recognize (which, in fairness, is not necessarily a bad thing.) With basically every other country the demand is for respect and fairness because under the current rules we are humiliated and cheated.

This is precisely the same policy, posture and strategy Trump brings to America itself: white identity politics aimed at taking back what other rising or new groups in American society have taken away from the guys who used to be at the top of the heap. It is more or less the identical vision, only with the humiliated party looking to set things right transposed from within American society to the globe.

[…]

Seeing America as humiliated and abused by foreigners is no more healthy, productive or based in reality than the idea that middle aged whites are under the heel of minorities and millennials. It’s all of a piece. Most people will get tripped up by the scaffolding of foreign policy talk around this basic worldview. That’s mainly beside the point. Trumpism at abroad is basically identical to Trumpism at home. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that will be any less toxic abroad than it is at home.

The personalization of foreign policy — making it about hurt feelings — is what led us to the disastrous policy towards Cuba after the revolution in 1959 and has taken over fifty years and cooler heads to prevail over a mindset that acted as if Fidel Castro stole our lunch money.  Going around with a chip on our shoulder will only invite confrontation with those who think they can hurt us, and it will alienate allies who, surprisingly, may not agree that we are the only country on the planet.

Mr. Trump basically boiled it down to “America First.”  To students of history or those of a certain age, that’s a direct lift from the isolationist movement of 1940-1941 that fought FDR’s attempts to fight Hitler before Pearl Harbor.  They were not without their charms: while many members were sincerely dedicated to keeping the peace and America out of war, a number of America Firsters were xenophobic, thinly-veiled racists and anti-Semites, and impressed with how well Herr Hitler had revitalized Germany.  They rallied behind celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh who warned America that we were being conned into war by a cabal of “international money interests.”  (They knew how to dog-whistle, too.)  And we all know how it ended.

Ted’s Last Try

Not trying to sound desperate or anything…

Praising the former technology executive as “brilliant and capable,” in Indianapolis, Cruz said Fiorina stood up to frontrunner Donald Trump as a candidate in the GOP race after the billionaire “insulted her face.”

“Everyone of us remembers the grace, the class, the élan at which Carly responded,” he said.

The senator also acknowledged the unorthodox timing of the announcement, which came on the heels of Trump winning five state primaries.

“It’s tradition that a vice presidential nominee is announced at the convention,” Cruz said. “It is unusual to make the announcement as early as we’re doing so now. I think all would acknowledge, this race, if anything, is unusual.”

After a lengthy introduction, Fiorina appeared on stage and hugged her running mate, saying Cruz’s unfavorable reputation in Washington is evidence of his fighting the establishment.

“The only way you solve festering problems is you actually have to challenge the status quo,” she said, noting he made enemies along the way. “So I am reassured and I am proud of some of the enemies that Ted Cruz has made.”

Fiorina also sang an affectionate ditty about the Cruz daughters, calling them “two girls that I adore.”

And she’s creepy to little girls, too.

“Cruz Fiorina” sounds like a lightweight punch-drunk boxer who got knocked out in the first round.

Short Takes

Bernie Sanders cuts back on staff as chances for nomination dwindle.

Donald Trump outlines a bombastic, isolationist, incoherent foreign policy.

U.N. envoy says Syrian cease fire still in place “but barely.”

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert gets 15 months in prison.

Former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez arrested for domestic violence.

The Tigers beat the A’s 9-4.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Minimum Wage Benefits

The conservative mantra that raising the minimum wage is bad for business is being disproved.

According to a new report by Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, neither restaurants themselves nor their employees have suffered significant losses as a result of past wage hikes.

“There is no doubt that restaurateurs face higher expenses as a result of minimum wage increases, but if restaurants are raising prices to compensate, those increases do not appear to decrease demand or profitability enough to sizably or reliably decrease either the number of restaurants or the number of employees,” Michael Lynn, a co-author and professor of consumer behavior and marketing, said in a press release.

For the study, the researchers looked at wage increases in states between 1995 and 2014 to asses the impact on restaurants, finding that hikes have had “no reliable linear effect on the number of full-service restaurants or on full-service restaurant employment, even when looking at cumulative effects over three years.”

Not only that, raising the minimum wage could have an impact on crime.

Mass incarceration is failing to prevent crime, according to the Obama administration — so much so that the president’s staff is looking in a few unconventional places for new ideas on public safety.

For example, raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour could prevent as many as half a million crimes annually, according to a new report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, a group of economists and researchers charged with providing the president with analysis and advice on economic questions.

[…]

The authors consider a few ways of reducing crime. They forecast that hiking the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $12 would reduce crime by 3 percent to 5 percent, as fewer people would be forced to turn to illegal activity to make ends meet. By contrast, spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent, according to the report.

It goes beyond economics: paying people a living wage is the right thing to do.