Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Reading

Trump Family Values — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

In the September 11, 1989, issue of The New Yorker, a twenty-eight-year-old writer named Bill McKibben published a lengthy article titled “The End of Nature.” The previous year had been especially hot––the country suffered one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl, Yellowstone was ablaze for weeks––and some Americans, including McKibben, had taken note of the ominous testimony that James Hansen, a NASA climatologist, gave before a Senate committee, warning that, owing to greenhouse gases, the planet was heating up inexorably. McKibben responded with a deeply researched jeremiad, in which he set out to popularize the alarming and still largely unfamiliar facts about climate change and to sharpen awareness of what they implied for the future of the planet and humankind:

Changes in our world which can affect us can happen in our lifetime—not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. Without recognizing it, we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change. I believe that we are at the end of nature.

By this I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall, and the sun will still shine. When I say “nature,” I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it. But the death of these ideas begins with concrete changes in the reality around us, changes that scientists can measure. More and more frequently these changes will clash with our perceptions, until our sense of nature as eternal and separate is finally washed away and we see all too clearly what we have done.

Last week, a hunk of Antarctica the size of Delaware, weighing a trillion metric tons, hived off from the Larsen C ice shelf and into the warming seas. Such events now seem almost ordinary—and harbingers of far worse. It is quite possible, the environmental writer Fen Montaigne wrote recently, in the Times, that, should the much larger West Antarctic Ice Sheet thaw and slip into the ocean, sea levels across the globe could rise as much as seventeen feet. This would have devastating implications for hundreds of millions of people, disrupting food chains, swamping coastal cities, spawning illnesses, sparking mass migrations, and undermining national economies in ways that are impossible to anticipate fully.

Around the time that this event was taking place, Donald Trump, who has lately detached the United States from the Paris climate accord and gone about neutering the Environmental Protection Agency, was prowling the West Wing of the White House, raging Lear-like not about the fate of the Earth, or about the fate of the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was dying in captivity, but about the fate of the Trump family enterprise. In particular, he decried the awful injustice visited upon him and his son Donald, Jr., who had, in a series of e-mails last June, giddily advertised his willingness to meet with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, to receive kompromat intended to undermine the reputation and the campaign of Hillary Clinton. He did not mention another participant in the meeting: Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist, who admitted to the A.P. that he had served in the Soviet Army, but denied reports that he was ever a trained spy.

The President argued that his son, “a high-quality person,” had been “open, transparent, and innocent.” This was a statement as true as many, if not most, of the President’s statements. It was false. Donald, Jr., had concealed the meeting until he could do so no longer. Social-media wags delighted in reviving the Trump-as-Corleone family meme and compared Donald, Jr., to Fredo, the most hapless of the Corleone progeny. This was unfair to Fredo. On Twitter, Donald, Jr., had spoken in support of cockeyed conspiracy theories and once posted a photograph of a bowl of Skittles, writing, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem. . . . Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.”

Still, the President, loyal to nothing and no one but his family, argued that “a lot of people” would have taken that meeting. Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community did not whistle their agreement. They were quick to say that such a meeting was, at best, phenomenally stupid and, at worst, showed a willingness to collude with Moscow to tilt the election. Michael Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., told the Cipher Brief, a Web site that covers national-security issues, that Trump, Jr.,’s e-mails are “huge” and indicate that the President’s inner circle knew as early as last June that “the Russians were working on behalf of Trump.” In the same article, James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, said that the e-mails were probably “only one anecdote in a much larger story,” adding, “I can’t believe that this one exchange represents all there is, either involving the President’s son or others associated with the campaign.” Intelligence officials speculated that the tradecraft employed in setting up such a meeting was possibly a way to gauge how receptive the Trump campaign was to even deeper forms of coöperation. In any case, the proper thing to have done would have been to call the F.B.I. Now the country is headed toward a “constitutional crisis,” Clapper said, and the question has to be asked: “When will the Republicans collectively say ‘enough’?”

Good question. Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, business leaders such as Stephen Schwarzman and Carl Icahn, and a raft of White House advisers, including the bulk of the National Security Council, cannot fail to see the chaos, the incompetence, and the potential illegality in their midst, and yet they go on supporting, excusing, and deflecting attention from the President’s behavior in order to protect their own ambitions and fortunes. They realize that Trump’s base is still the core of the G.O.P. electorate, and they dare not antagonize it. The Republicans, the self-proclaimed party of family values, remain squarely behind a family and a Presidency whose most salient features are amorality, greed, demagoguery, deception, vulgarity, race-baiting, misogyny, and, potentially—only time and further investigation will tell—a murky relationship with a hostile foreign government.

In the near term, if any wrongdoing is found, the Trump family member who stands to lose the most is the son-in-law and consigliere, Jared Kushner, who accompanied Donald, Jr., to the meeting with Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin. Kushner seems to see himself and his wife, Ivanka, as lonely voices of probity and moderation in an otherwise unhinged West Wing. Why they would believe this when their conflicts of interest are on an epic scale is a mystery. But such is their self-regard. It is said by those close to Kushner that, if he fears anything, it is to repeat the experience of his father, Charles, who, in 2005, pleaded guilty to charges of making illegal campaign contributions and hiring a prostitute to entrap his brother-in-law, and spent fourteen months in an Alabama penitentiary.

Preserving Religious Freedom — John Nichols in The Nation on how Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) turned the “religious liberty” argument on its head.

Can Democrats defend the most basic premises of the Bill of Rights in a Republican-controlled House that is run by hyper-partisan Speaker Paul Ryan and that, at Ryan’s direction, so frequently dances to the authoritarian tune of a Trump administration that disrespects and disregards the Constitution?

Yes, they can. Congressman Keith Ellison just prevailed in a high-stakes struggle to defend freedom of religion as it is outlined in the First Amendment, and as it has been understood since Thomas Jefferson explained it in his final letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

One of the most right-wing members of the House, Arizona Republican Trent Franks, proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would, in fact, have made a law respecting an establishment of religion. Franks, a staunch defender of President Trump’s executive orders restricting travel by Muslims, sought to require Secretary of Defense James Mattis to “conduct two concurrent strategic assessments of the use of violent or unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine to support extremist or terrorist messaging and justification.”

The amendment targeted only Islam and was so vague in its referencing of “unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine” that it invited abuse. The amendment also mandated that one of the two reviews be conducted by “non-governmental experts from academia, industry, or other entities not currently a part of the United States Government”—opening up the process to further abuse.

Ellison responded with a stinging rebuke. “This amendment stigmatizes people simply because they practice a specific religion,” the Minnesota Democrat told his colleagues. “The idea that Congress is seriously considering an amendment that legislates stigmatization and hate in direct contradiction of the Constitution is outrageous.”

Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the House, recalled historic instances of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. and warned that “when we single out a group of people and treat them differently, shameful and regrettable abuses and mistreatment follow.”

“If we haven’t already learned from our tattered past, when will we?” asked the congressman.

Ellison also raised concerns about the message that adoption of the amendment would could send at a time when American Muslims already face violence and discrimination:

Rep. Franks’ NDAA amendment ordering a ‘strategic assessment’ on Islam goes against everything we strive to be. By ordering the Department of Defense to scrutinize a single religion, identify leaders for some unknown purpose, and determine an acceptable way to practice, Congress is “abridging the free exercise of religion,” which is constitutionally impermissible.

The FBI reported a 67 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015—the same year Asma Jama’s face was slashed with a beer mug while she was eating dinner at an Applebee’s in Minnesota. Her attacker admitted in court that she attacked Asma simply because she was Muslim and not speaking English.

This rise in hate crimes isn’t a surprise. Our president began his campaign spouting hate, said Islam hates America, and promised to ban Muslims. His rhetoric has contributed to the growing movement of hate in our country, and I have no doubt that some of the most notorious racist, anti-Muslim voices will be a part of the non-government assessment demanded by this amendment.

With support from Muslim groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, and his congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues, Ellison struck a chord in the House, convincing 27 Republicans to join 190 Democrats in opposing the amendment.

That meant that 217 House members embraced their oaths to defend the Constitution, while 208 Republicans rejected the dictates of First Amendment. It is, of course, unsettling that so many members of the House cast votes that were in conflict with the Bill of Rights. It is equally unsettling that victories of this sort come in the context of continued assaults on individual rights and civil society. But it is encouraging, in these times, that bipartisan support for freedom of religion prevailed.

“We should study what drives people to terrorism. But this amendment didn’t do that. Not equally,” Ellison tweeted after Friday morning’s vote. “Glad so many of my colleagues agree.”

Florida Mythology — Adam Weinstein in the Washington Post dispels the tall tales about the Sunshine State.

Ordinarily at this point in the slow, hot summer, American journalists would be out of stories and looking to Florida — my allegedly strange longtime home — for “weird news” inspiration. We don’t have that problem this year, because America elected a part-time Florida Man as president. But Floridians still have to deal with an unearned reputation as a nexus of the bizarre and the tragic. “Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe,” Susan Orlean famously wrote, “but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.” Here are five common myths about America’s sun-soaked southerly proboscis.

Myth No. 1
Florida is a cultural wasteland.

Per Gawker, “The middle of the state is a cultureless void from which crystal meth (or, like, moving away) is the only escape.” One can find defenses of individual cities (for example, Jacksonville) or particular coastal hot spots, but one of the most-Googled questions related to Florida is nonetheless “Why is Florida so trashy?,” and that seems to reflect the nation’s general sentiment.

Sure, we’re the land of Disney World and Universal Studios and stucco and strip malls. We have that weird double existence that characterizes a lot of frontier or colonial destinations: We’ve been stereotyped as the exotic “other,” then we capitalized on the stereotype’s allure to drive the local economy, then we lost track of what was real and what was just a reductive stereotype. Now, it all blends together. As they said in our old tourism ad from the “Miami Vice” days, “The rules are different here.”

But Florida’s proud, contrived role as a lazy, breezy, escapist state of nature yields something nobody could have predicted: lots of cultural heroes, large and small. Consider these icons: Southern-rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doors frontman Jim Morrison, Flo Rida, Johnny Depp, Tom Petty, Norman Reedus, Zora Neale Hurston, Tao Lin and Kate DiCamillo. Don’t say we never did anything for you.

Myth No. 2
Florida is separate from the Deep South.

According to the Sun Sentinel, “Florida is not the South.” If you wanted graphic evidence, the Miami New Times supplied 19 maps in 2015 “That Prove South Florida Is Not Really the South.”

It’s possible that we have more Mets fans than Queens, and it’s certain that we have more Mets fans than Marlins fans. But if you’ve ever traveled down the Panhandle’s Redneck Riviera to eat oysters in Apalachicola or made a pilgrimage to watch college football in Doak and the Swamp, you know there’s a lot of twang to go with the Tang. There really is a place called the Flora-Bama, situated exactly where you’d expect, and it really does host an annual mullet toss (the fish, not the hairdo, but you always see some of both).

The cliche about the differences between northern Florida (red-state rednecks) and South Florida (pasty invaders and “Latins”) aren’t right, either. Drive a few miles west of Fort Lauderdale, and your car will have to yield for horses. Remember Bob Graham , the soft-lilted cowpoke who served for decades as a left-center governor and senator? He’s a Miami native. Yes, you can grow up sounding like that in Miami. Even South Florida’s deep-blue urbanites can see social and cultural remnants of the South — for instance, the state park that used to be a blacks-only beach , and neighborhood divisions that persist years after Jim Crow.

That’s all of Florida, in its beauty, ugliness and guilt. We are completely Southern. We are also completely Yankee, completely Latin American and completely committed to believing in mathematical impossibilities.

Myth No. 3
Florida is ready for the next big hurricane.

Cutler Bay Florida is hurricane ready!” declares one municipal ad; last year, Florida’s “top finance and insurance regulators” confirmed to the Miami Herald that the state was indeed prepared for another hurricane season. Oops.

Named storms are a seasonal fixture, but until Hurricane Matthew gave us all a serious scare last year, Floridians hadn’t had a real blow since 2004 and 2005, when they got blitzed by six hurricanes. Since then, the state’s population has grown by 15 percent — meaning at least 2.5 million new residents have probably never lived through a storm of significant size, much less a Wilma or an Andrew. And complacency abounds, even among old-timers. “That is a very scary thought from an emergency manager’s perspective,” Orlando’s emergency manager said, back in the middle of our mostly storm-free decade.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is light on real storm experience, too. Scott appointed an out-of-state Walmart executive as his emergency preparedness director in 2011 amid a push to privatize some of the state’s disaster response programs. (Little of that privatization has materialized.) Scott’s administration is also accused of barring state-employed scientists from discussing climate change or sea-level rise. It’s not easy preparing 20 million people for one disaster when you’re busy pretending another disaster doesn’t exist.

Myth No. 4
Floridians are impossibly divided along political lines.

In 2015, southern Floridians threatened to secede from the rest of the state, citing political differences with northern Floridians. And prior to last year’s presidential election, pundits observed that the contest could be decided by Florida, “the Divided Sunshine State.” It has been conventional wisdom since the 2000 recount that Florida is hopelessly split along political lines. Apparently, we’re a purplish state with a reddish government and bluish social tendencies.

But both sides are united by a love of the market. Indeed, the pro-business tendency is no less powerful among liberals, from South Florida — where many a real estate developer, D or R, has had a historically easy path to a mayorship — to Tallahassee, where even deep-blue Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls are known to boast about the size of their business tax repeals . One party wants pro-business decisions made by bureaucrats, and the other party wants pro-business decisions made by transnational consortiums owned by shell corporations. Accordingly, Florida has been rapidly rising on lists of business-friendly states in recent years, even making the top 10 in a recent CNBC ranking.

We got there through a long, two-party effort.

Myth No. 5
The Florida housing market has learned its lesson.

That the Orlando Business Journal wants to let you in on “4 lessons learned” from Central Florida’s real estate bubble, and Florida Today is already advising caution for home buyers based on the last big real estate bust, might make you think Florida has learned its lesson when it comes to inflated markets. But it doesn’t look that way.

Between 2003 and 2007 was a hell of a time to be a Floridian: It seemed like everyone was a mortgage originator or a house-flipper. Obviously, that all ended, and a lot of people lost their butts on a “correction” in property values. Problem solved: Many Floridians don’t even have enough money to place another bad bet.

But once again, the Florida real estate market is doing great. There’s a boom in sales and prices, and buyers have a lot of options — if they have half a million bucks or more to spend. In South Florida, even modest, fixer-upper apartments in sad neighborhoods are getting plucked up by cash buyers looking for rental income. Big-money and foreign investors are bidding up prices, perhaps precipitously so, on luxury and high-rise properties. (Zdravstvuyte, Russian friends!)

What happens when the dollar strengthens, the Trump real estate name fizzles and those investors look to dump their stock? Oh, probably another implosion, and three and even four generations of working family members living under one roof.

Doonesbury — Talk of the town.

Speak!