Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday Reading

The Two-Year Presidency — Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post.

Good news: In two years, we’ll have a new president. Bad news: If we make it that long.

My “good” prediction is based on the Law of the Pendulum. Enough Americans, including most independent voters, will be so ready to shed Donald Trump and his little shop of horrors that the 2018 midterm elections are all but certain to be a landslide — no, make that a mudslide — sweep of the House and Senate. If Republicans took both houses in a groundswell of the people’s rejection of Obamacare, Democrats will take them back in a tsunami of protest.

Once ensconced, it would take a Democratic majority approximately 30 seconds to begin impeachment proceedings selecting from an accumulating pile of lies, overreach and just plain sloppiness. That is, assuming Trump hasn’t already been shown the exit.

Or that he hasn’t declared martial law (all those anarchists, you know) and effectively silenced dissent. We’re already well on our way to the latter via Trump’s incessant attacks on the media — “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” — and press secretary Sean Spicer’s rabid-chihuahua, daily press briefings. (Note to Sean: Whatever he’s promised you, it’s not worth becoming Melissa McCarthy’s punching bag. But really, don’t stop.)With luck, and Cabinet-level courage that is not much in evidence, there’s a chance we won’t have to wait two long years, during which, let’s face it, anything could happen. In anticipation of circumstances warranting a speedier presidential replacement, wiser minds added Section 4 to the 25th Amendment, which removes the president if a majority of the Cabinet and the vice president think it necessary, i.e., if the president is injured or falls too ill to serve. Or, by extension, by being so incompetent — or not-quite-right — that he or she poses a threat to the nation and must be removed immediately and replaced by the vice president.

Aren’t we there, yet?

Thus far, Trump and his henchmen have conducted a full frontal assault on civil liberties, open government and religious freedom, as well as instigating or condoning a cascade of ethics violations ranging from the serious (business conflicts of interest) to the absurd (attacking a department store for dropping his daughter’s fashion line). And, no, it’s not just a father defending his daughter. It’s the president of the United States bullying a particular business and, more generally, making a public case against free enterprise.

To an objective observer, it would seem impossible to defend the perilous absurdities emanating from the White House and from at least one executive agency, the Agriculture Department, which recently scrubbed animal abuse reports from its website, leaving puppies, kittens, horses and others to fend for themselves.

In a hopeful note, a few Republicans are speaking out, but the list is short.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz recently got a taste of what’s ahead for Republican incumbents. Facing an unruly crowd at a town hall meeting in Utah, the House Oversight Committee chairman was booed nearly every time he mentioned Trump. Even if many in the crowd were members of opposition groups, the evening provided a glimpse of the next two years. From 2010’s tea party to 2018’s resistance, the pendulum barely had time to pause before beginning its leftward trek.

While we wait for it to someday find the nation’s center, where so many wait impatiently, it seems clear that the president, who swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, has never read it. Nor, apparently, has he ever even watched a Hollywood rendering of the presidency. A single episode of “The West Wing” would have taught Trump more about his new job than he seems to know — or care.

Far more compelling than keeping his promise to act presidential is keeping campaign promises against reason, signing poorly conceived executive orders, bashing the judicial and legislative branches, and tweeting his spleen to a wondering and worrying world.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Reading

The Women’s March on Washington as reported by Megan Garber in The Atlantic.

In the middle of the National Mall, on the same spot that had, the day before, hosted the revelers who had come out for the inauguration of Donald Trump, a crowd of people protesting the new presidency spontaneously formed themselves into a circle. They grasped hands. They invited others in. “Join our circle!” one woman shouted, merrily, to a small group of passersby. They obliged. The expanse—a small spot of emptiness in a space otherwise teeming with people—got steadily larger, until it spanned nearly 100 feet across. If you happened to be flying directly above the Mall during the early afternoon of January 21, as the Women’s March on Washington was in full swing, you would have seen a throng of people—about half a million of them, according to the most recent estimates—punctuated, in the middle, by an ad-hoc little bullseye.

“What is this circle about?” a woman asked one of the circle-standers.

“Nobody knows!” the circle-stander replied, cheerfully.

The space stayed empty for a moment, as people clasped hands and looked around at each other with grins and “what-now?” expressions. And then: A woman ran through the circle, dancing, waving a sign that read “FREE MELANIA.” The crowd nodded approvingly. Another woman did the same with her sign. A group of three teenage boys danced with their “BAD HOMBRE” placards. The crowd whooped. Soon, several people were using the space as a stage. A woman dressed as a plush vulva shimmied around the circle’s perimeter. The circle-standers laughed and clapped and cheered. They held their phones in their air, taking pictures and videos. They cheered some more.

The Women’s March on Washington began in a similarly ad-hoc manner. The protest sprang to life as an errant idea posted to Facebook, right after Trump won the presidency. The notion weathered controversy to evolve into something that, on Saturday, was funereal in purpose but decidedly celebratory in tone. The march, in pretty much every way including the most literal, opposed the inaugural ceremony that had taken place the day before. On the one hand, it protested President Trump. Its participants wore not designer clothes, but jeans and sneakers and—the unofficial uniform of the event—pink knit caps with ears meant to evoke, and synonymize, cats. It had, in place of somber ritual, a festival-like atmosphere. It featured, instead of pomp and circumstance, people spontaneously breaking into dance on a spontaneously formed dance floor.

And yet in many ways, the march was also extremely similar to the inauguration whose infrastructure it had co-opted, symbolically and otherwise, for its own purposes. The Women’s March on Washington shared a setting—the Capitol, the Mall, the erstwhile inaugural parade route—with the ceremonies of January 20. And, following an election in which the victor lost the popular vote, the protest seems to have bested the inauguration itself in terms of (physical) public turnout. During a time of extreme partisanship and division—a time in which the One America the now-former president once spoke of can seem an ever-more-distant possibility—the Women’s March played out as a kind of alternate-reality inauguration: not necessarily of Hillary Clinton, but of the ideas and ideals her candidacy represented. The Women’s March was an installation ceremony of a sort—not of a new president, but of the political resistance to him.

“I DO NOT ACCEPT THIS FILTHY ROTTEN SYSTEM,” read one sign, carried by Lauren Grace, 35, of Philadelphia. She got the quote from Dorothy Day. And she intended it, Grace explained to me, to protest “a system that sort of left me out.”

“We’re told that voting is a sacred right in this country,” Grace said. “But even though Hillary won the popular vote, she still lost. I feel pretty conflicted about a country where that could happen.”

The Women’s March was, to be sure, also a protest march in an extremely traditional vein: It featured leaders—celebrities, activists, celebrity activists—who gave speeches and offered performances on a stage with the Capitol in its background; its participants held signs, and chanted (“This-is-what-a-feminist-looks-like!,” “No-person-is-illegal!”), and commiserated. It was also traditional in that its participants were marching not for one specific thing, but for many related aspirations. Women’s reproductive rights. LGBTQ rights. Immigration rights. Feminism in general (“FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL,” one sign went, riffing off a famous feminist’s Netflix show). The environment (“CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL,” “MAKE THE PLANET GREAT AGAIN”). Science (“Y’ALL NEED SCIENCE”). Facts (“MAKE AMERICA FACT-CHECK AGAIN”). Some signs argued for socialism. Some argued against plutocracy. Some argued for Kindness. Some pled for Peace. Some simply argued that America is Already Great.

This was a big-tent protest, in other words—a messy, joyful coalescence of many different movements. The Women’s March deftly employed, in its rhetoric, the biggest of the big-tent tautologies: The point of this protest wasn’t so much the specific things being protested as it was the very bigness of the crowds who were doing the protesting. This was another way the protest alternate-realitied the presidential inauguration: Just as the official ceremony is meant to celebrate not only the person occupying the presidency, but the presidency itself, the Women’s March was a protest that celebrated protest.

In doing that, it took direct aim at the things the new president has a record of valuing so highly—crowd sizes, ratings, large-scale approval—and countered them. Trump, after all, since the beginning of his presidential candidacy, has made a point of emphasizing the size of the crowds he has been able to attract by way of celebrity’s gravitational pull. He has boasted about the throngs attending his rallies. He has taunted his opponents about the relatively few people who turned out for their events. And Trump’s ascendance to the presidency seems to have done nothing to assuage that impulse: On Friday evening, at the Armed Services Ball, Trump again talked about the large size of the crowd that had come to witness his inauguration. And on Saturday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer used his first official White House briefing to blast the media who had mentioned the size of Trump’s inauguration crowds as compared to those of past presidents, dismissing their assessment as attempts to “minimize the enormous support” that had gotten Trump elected. (Though crowd sizes are notoriously difficult to determine with precision, Trump’s crowds were in fact decidedly smaller than the ones that came out for Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.)

The new president, in his rhetoric, has emphasized the “pop” in “populism.” And so—counterpunch—the Women’s March has emphasized its own crowd size. The throngs on Saturday spilled over from the march’s stage, where celebrities (America Ferrera, Gloria Steinem, Janelle Monáe, Katy Perry, Ashley Judd, Alicia Keys, Madonna) and activists (Rise’s Amanda Nguyen, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Rhea Suh, Our Revolution’s Erika Andiola, and many others) spoke to the people watching them both in person and on TV; they marched down Independence Avenue, and milled down Pennsylvania Avenue; they piled onto the steps of the National Gallery of Art; they filled the Mall to capacity. They showed up to sister rallies around the country and the world—in Chicago, in Boston, in New York, in Los Angeles, in Barcelona, in Nairobi, in New Delhi. And according to the march’s organizers, CNN reported, “the crowds were exponentially larger than expected.”

According to organizers, too: That matters. If the Women’s March was trying to inaugurate a movement on January 21, 2017, the first thing it had to do was to prove that there was a movement to be inaugurated. As one sign read: “TRUMP, DO YOU REALLY WANT TO PISS OFF THIS MANY WOMEN?”

Or, as Raquel Willis, of the Transgender Law Center, told the audience before she began the rest of her speech on the march’s main stage: “I want us to take a second and look around. Look at all these people who are gathered here to take a stand. These are your partners in resistance and liberation.”

Monáe made a similar argument. “This is about all of us,” the actor and singer said, “fighting back against the abuse of power.”

“All of us.” “Us” is a tricky word in the America of 2017, the America that is coming off of an acrimonious campaign season—with all its offenses, on all sides, still fresh. But the Women’s March insisted that the “us” and the “we” are two other things to be reclaimed in the years ahead—two other things that will be at stake in every peaceful transition of power. As Ferrera told the crowd at the beginning of the protest, “The president is not America. His cabinet is not America. Congress is not America. We are America. And we are here to stay.”

Charles P. Pierce on the sales gimmick of the inauguration.

It was the very bizarre translation of the Beatitudes that threw me off for good. In the two-hole of the Inauguration Preachers batting order, a fellow named the Reverend Dr. Samuel Rodriguez went to the familiar and iconic fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, but the text he read sounded like an Aramaic-English Google Translation read by Yoda.

For example, here’s the majesty of the King James version:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

And here’s the Reverend Doctor Rodriguez’s version:

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble for they will inherit the earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the difference between the two renditions is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The former is poetry, the latter is prose—and clumsy prose at that. The first resounds like a prayer; the second is something you’d see on a poster in somebody’s cubicle under the picture of a sunset, or a kitten hanging by its forepaws.

What was lacking from the second is what has brought the first version down through the years: majesty. And on the west front of the Capitol on Friday morning, during what we were relentlessly sold as the miracle of the Peaceful Transfer of Power—as though anyone really expected a storming of the barricades—there was no room for majesty. And while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir still has game, and the Marine Band can seriously play, majesty surrendered rather meekly to salesmanship, and branding, and the gilt-edged palaver of the midnight infomercial.

This was a sales gimmick, not an inauguration.

In theory, there’s something admirably American in taking the piss out of the system’s pretensions. When Jimmy Carter walked in his inauguration parade, it represented for the moment the final collapse of the imperial executive within which Richard Nixon had hidden his crimes for so long. Barack Obama’s embrace of popular culture let some of the stuffing out of the office as well. But this was different.

This was somebody selling something precious and important at a reduced rate of sloganeering. A pitchman’s ceremony, the inauguration of President* Donald Trump was a device for selling American democracy a hair-restoral nostrum, a cure for erectile dysfunction, and a full scholarship to his Potemkin University. This was an event in which even Scripture itself was sent through the gang down in marketing so as not to sound too “elitist” for its intended audience of marks and suckers.

This was somebody selling something precious and important at a reduced rate of sloganeering

The speech itself was as dark and forbidding. It was Huey Long translated by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. (And, as Gizmodo‘s Gabrielle Bluestone pointed out, a famous Batman villain.) This is to say, it was Huey Long drained of his classical references, his summons to Scripture, and whatever was left of his authentic American economic populism. In 1934, for example, Long delivered his most famous speech. In it, he said:

It is necessary to save the government of the country, but is much more necessary to save the people of America. We love this country. We love this Government. It is a religion, I say. It is a kind of religion people have read of when women, in the name of religion, would take their infant babes and throw them into the burning flame, where they would be instantly devoured by the all-consuming fire, in days gone by; and there probably are some people of the world even today, who, in the name of religion, throw their own babes to destruction; but in the name of our good government, people today are seeing their own children hungry, tired, half-naked, lifting their tear-dimmed eyes into the sad faces of their fathers and mothers, who cannot give them food and clothing they both need, and which is necessary to sustain them, and that goes on day after day, and night after night, when day gets into darkness and blackness, knowing those children would arise in the morning without being fed, and probably go to bed at night without being fed.

If you take that passage and run it through the Trump Rosetta Stone program, you get:

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

There was a terrifying solipsism to Trump’s address, as there likely will be to his presidency. For all his protestations that he is merely the instrument of a great movement, he holds himself above that movement in the way he imagines all great leaders do. In every real sense, from his podium at the Capitol, he talked down to his audience sprawled over a good portion of the National Mall.

He talked to them about the blighted hellscape of a country that he inherited, the blighted hellscape that already existed in their own truncated imaginations. He coined their actual anxieties and displacement into one of the hoariest demagogue’s tropes: America First. And despite its dingy antecedents, Trump’s use of America First doesn’t necessarily mean what the anti-Semites of the 1930s meant when they said it. It’s more like one of those foam rubber fingers that fans wear at football games with “AMERICA” written in red across it.

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes—starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.

That is what had them buzzing on the way out of the event Friday. He really told them, did our Donald Trump. He’s got balls, doesn’t he? “You see ’em up there? They had to listen to him,” said the guy in front of me, waiting to cross Constitution Avenue. “Yeah, there’s a new sheriff in town.”

As he said it, we were passing a big tree under which I had sat in January of 1981 to listen to Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. It was a barrel of banality, too. (“Government isn’t the solution. Government is the problem.” Thirty-five years of political mischief have flowed from that one line.) But there was a brightness to what Reagan said, and he seemed at least to have some sense of the moment, which proves that there is a great distance between even a mediocre actor and a great con-man.

On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of . . . . On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.” Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.

Act worthy of me, Trump’s speech said. Act worthy of what you bought from me.

In his speech, and in draining the event of his inauguration of its majesty, the president* managed to turn the west front of the Capitol into a college auditorium in Iowa, or an airplane hangar in New Hampshire, or a stage in Cleveland, Ohio. Already, this is being praised by the dim and the craven as admirable—that Trump deserves credit for declaring that he will be the same person as president as he was in the campaign. I would remind those people, and the new president*, of Henry Gondorff warning to Johnny Hooker: “You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.”

There is a reckoning out there in the distant wind for everything and everybody who brought us to this day, when not even the Marine Corps Band and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir could neither elevate the inauguration of a president out of the language of mere commerce nor make of the event anything more than a banal transaction—a day on which even Jesus Christ on the Mount was warned to keep it simple, stupid.

Welcome to Trump U — Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

In an astonishing comeback for the scandal-scarred educational institution, Trump University enrolled more than three hundred million new students at noon on Friday.

“Congratulations,” the President of Trump University told the new students. “For the next four years, you are all in Trump University.”

Some Americans who supported the President of Trump University in his long-shot bid to reopen the school made the journey to Washington, D.C., to hear his welcome address.

“He said we’re all going to be rich!” Harland Dorrinson, a new Trump University student, said. “I just know that this is going to end really well.”

But even as students like Dorrinson celebrated, there were complaints from other students, millions of whom said they had been enrolled in Trump University against their will.

“I never signed up for Trump University,” Carol Foyler, who is one of those students, said. “The President of this school is some kind of a con man. And why are so many members of the faculty Russian? The whole thing seems fishy.”

“Not my University,” she said.

While the original program offered by Trump University had a price tag as high as thirty-five thousand dollars, the next four years are expected to be far more costly, experts say.

Doonesbury — Feed that ego.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Make ‘Em Laugh

Like it or not, Trump is going to become president at noon on Friday.  Nothing is going to change that, even if the CIA or the FBI or the press comes up with absolute proof of misdeeds, misconduct, and mischief.  No amount of petitions or calls to Congress will stop the clock from running down to the change of terms, and all those people marching the next day in Washington, Seattle, Miami, Denver, and Kansas City won’t stop him from assuming office.  The government must go on.  The Constitution says so.

But that doesn’t mean that we cannot do everything we can to limit the damage, to push back against the chaos that is already brewing here and abroad, and it doesn’t mean that the press should stop pushing back and digging in.  Right now the current worry in the press corps is that the Trump White House might restrict their access or even throw them out of the briefing room at the White House.  The relationship between the White House and the press has always been adversarial, which is the way it should be.  So you do your reporting from the driveway.

It’s not news that Trump is a coward and a bully who has surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-people.  Take it from someone who has dealt with bullies most of his life and learned a very valuable lesson: they have very thin skin and they are destroyed when they are mocked and laughed at.  It is the ultimate form of defiance and it makes them flail, which provides even more fodder for mockery and defiance.  Note how easily Trump is pissed off by Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of him by Alec Baldwin.  A normal person would laugh it off or even offer to contribute to their own mockery, thereby deflating it.  But Trump is providing endless hours of fun.  He’s already improving the economy for actors and writers.

Yes, of course we should be concerned about what a Trump presidency will mean for the global economy and stability in the numerous hot spots around the world.  Yes, he is more than likely on the hook to Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs of oil (which is probably redundant).  Yes, he has threatened basic civil rights of journalists and made outrageous promises that he couldn’t fulfill even if he wanted to.  But the way he wins and gets his way is by his opponents being cowed and surrendering.

I’m not a politician or an elected official so there’s not much I can do about voting against his plans.  Neither am I a journalist with the resources to dig into his dealings.  But I am a writer, and until they pry the keyboard from my cold dead hands, I will continue to document the absurd and the dangerous, the cheap and the tacky, and to make America great again by using the one weapon that actually works against a bully: their inability to take a joke.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Trump needs a pie in the face.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Seasonal Sounds

The radio — and other iterations of that form of mass communication — is wafting out seasonal tunes: Christmas music both religious and secular.  You don’t have to be a Christian or observant of the holiday to enjoy them.  So, do you have a favorite one?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

And yes, Quakers do have a sense of humor.

quaker-silent-night-12-22-16

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sunday Reading

Clear and Present Danger — Ari Berman in The Nation on how voter suppression is just the start.

Donald Trump’s tweets yesterday about “the millions of people who voted illegally in 2016” and “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California” cannot be dismissed as just another Twitter meltdown from the president-elect. (It goes without saying that Trump’s claims are categorically false.)

His conspiracy theories about rigged elections during the presidential race were meant to delegitimize the possibility of Hillary Clinton’s election. But now that he’s won the election we have to take his words far more seriously. He will appoint the next attorney general, at least one Supreme Court justice and thousands of positions in the federal government. His lies about the prevalence of voter fraud are a prelude to the massive voter suppression Trump and his allies in the GOP are about to unleash.

Unlike his Democratic and Republican predecessors, Trump has little respect for the institutions that preserve American democracy, whether it’s freedom of the press or the right to vote. As I wrote in The Nation recently:

Trump undermined the basic tenets of democracy in ways unseen by any previous presidential nominee. He said he might refuse to accept the outcome of the election if things didn’t go his way; his supporters explicitly called for “racial profiling” at the polls; and his campaign openly boasted that “we have three major voter-suppression operations under way” to reduce turnout among African Americans, young women, and liberals.

We can already glimpse how a Trump administration will undermine voting rights, based on the people he nominated to top positions, those he has advising him, and his own statements.

His pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, wrongly prosecuted black civil-rights activists for voter fraud in Alabama in the 1980s, called the Voting Rights Act “a piece of intrusive legislation,” and praised the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, saying that “if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.”

Trump’s Justice Department could limit voting rights in a number of critical ways, as I wrote in The New York Times last week:

It could choose not to vigorously enforce the Voting Rights Act, instead pressing states to take more aggressive action to combat alleged voter fraud. This could include purging voter rolls and starting investigations into voter-registration organizations.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a front-runner to head Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, has called for precisely this. During a meeting with Trump last week, Kobach brought a “strategic plan” for DHS that advocated purging voter rolls and drafting amendments to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, presumably to require proof of citizenship, like a passport or birth certificate, to register to vote, which prevented tens of thousands of eligible voters from being able to register in Kansas. It’s chilling that a top Trump adviser like Kobach views voting rights as a threat to homeland security.

Trump’s chief adviser, Steve Bannon, has even more radical views. According toThe New York Times, he “once suggested to a colleague that perhaps only property owners should be allowed to vote.” A co-writer of his on a Reagan documentary told the paper:

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

Trump himself said, after courts struck down voter-ID laws in states like North Carolina, that “the voter-ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” Ironically, one of the only documented instances of voter fraud in 2016 was committed by a Trump supporter who voted twice in Iowa—and was caught in a state without a voter-ID law.

If you want a better idea of the lengths a Trump administration might go to suppress voting rights, take a look at what Republicans are doing in North Carolina right now. A month after the Supreme Court ruled that states with a long history of discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government, North Carolina Republicans passed a “monster” voter-suppression law that required strict photo ID, cut early voting, and eliminated same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Like in so many-GOP controlled states, Republicans in North Carolina justified the voting restrictions by spreading false claims about voter fraud. (Such fraud was in fact exceedingly rare: There were only two cases of voter impersonation in North Carolina from 2002 to 2012 out of 35 million votes cast.)

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that North Carolina’s law targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” But even after the court restored a week of early voting, GOP-controlled county election boards limited early voting hours and polling locations. The executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party called on Republicans to make “party line changes to early voting” that included opposing polling sites on college campuses and prohibiting early voting on Sundays, when black churches held “Souls to the Polls” voter-mobilization drives. The North Carolina GOP bragged before Election Day that “African American Early Voting is down 8.5% from this time in 2012. Caucasian voters early voting is up 22.5% from this time in 2012.”

Things got even crazier after the election. After Republican Pat McCrory lost the governor’s race to Democrat Roy Cooper by 9,000 votes, his campaign began filing bogus complaints about voter fraud in an attempt to overturn the election result or have the North Carolina legislature reinstall him as governor. Those challenged by the McCrory campaign include a 101-year-old World War II veteran in Greensboro wrongly accused of double voting.

That wasn’t all. After a black Democrat, Mike Morgan, won a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, giving Democrats a 4-3 majority, Republicans have proposed expanding the size of the court by two justices, who could be appointed by McCrory in his last weeks in office, allowing Republicans to retain control. This would be an outrageous rebuke to the will of the voters and the rule of law, but you can’t put anything past the North Carolina GOP these days.

North Carolina is a case study for how Republicans have institutionalized voter suppression at every level of government and made it the new normal within the GOP. The same thing could soon happen in Washington when Trump takes power.

Hello, Taiwan — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on the background of our relationship with Taiwan.

It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.

Trump’s call was first reported by the Financial Times, but the Trump campaign soon confirmed it and issued a readout of the conversation:

President-elect Trump spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, who offered her congratulations. During the discussion, they noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.

Why would Trump not speak with Tsai? Here’s where the strangeness starts. The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.

The roots of this particular fiction date to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was routed by Mao Zedong and the Communists, and Chiang fled to Taiwan. The U.S., in Cold War mode, continued to recognize the ROC in Taiwan as China’s rightful government, and so did the United Nations. But in 1971, the UN changed course, recognizing the People’s Republic of China—or as it was often called then, Red China—as the legitimate government. In 1979, the United States followed suit. Crucially, the communiqué proclaiming that recognition noted, “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”Officially, this has also been the policy of Taiwan for almost a quarter century. Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.

Despite recognizing the PRC, the U.S. has kept close ties with Taiwan since 1979. The State Department notes that “Taiwan is the United States’ ninth largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner.” More importantly, the U.S. has sold some $46 billion in arms to Taiwan since 1990, which are intended as defensive. Last December, the Obama administration sold $1.8 billion in anti-tank missiles, warships, and other materiel to Taipei. Of course, the “defensive” purpose to all of this is against China, the most plausible aggressor against Taiwan. Naturally, the arms sales have consistently annoyed the Chinese. (Recently, China has been on a campaign of land-grabbing and saber-rattling across the South China Sea, trying to assert greater control and influence.)

Though the triangle between the U.S., China, and Taiwan sometimes flares up, the general goal of all three has been to maintain the fragile status quo. By speaking to President Tsai, and praising U.S. relations with Taiwan, Trump threatens to upset that delicate balance. Reaction to the call was immediate and, for the most part, aghast.

“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House National Security Council, told the FT. “Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first White House press secretary, noted that he wasn’t even allowed to refer to a Taiwanese government. My colleague James Fallows, not generally a man given to overreaction or caps-lock, was blunter: “WHAT THE HELL????” he tweeted.

As is typically the case with Trump, it’s hard to tell whether this blithe overturning of protocol is intentional or simply a result of not knowing, or caring, better.

There are various reasons Trump might be intentionally poking China. Trump spoke harshly about China throughout his presidential campaign, accusing Beijing of currency manipulation, land-grabbing, and taking advantage of the United States. He also showed a willingness, if not an eagerness, to slaughter nearly every sacred cow of American foreign policy.

Some Trump confidants have suggested existing policy on Taiwan should become one of them. John Bolton, who served as Bush’s ambassador to the UN, has been advising Trump, and Bolton has been a very public advocate of the U.S. cozying up to Taiwan in order to show strength against China.

Even if the provocation is intentional, that doesn’t mean Trump has acted wisely. “I would guess that President-elect Trump does not really comprehend how sensitive Beijing is about this issue,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill.Some observers suggested that the call fits with the pattern of Trump intertwining his business and political interests, pointing out that he’s currently seeking to open luxury hotels in Taiwan.

But it’s also possible that Trump just stumbled into the matter, Being There-style. Trump tweeted Friday evening that Tsai had called him, presenting himself as just the guy who picked up the handset. It’s unclear how studied the decision to take it was, or whether it was studied at all. Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, assailed Trump for not taking it seriously. “Foreign policy consistency is a means, not an end. It’s not sacred. Thus, it’s Trump’s right to shift policy, alliances, strategy,” Murphy said in a pair of tweets. “What has happened in the last 48 hours is not a shift. These are major pivots in foreign policy w/out any plan. That’s how wars start.”

It’s also hard to know how big a deal Trump’s call is. China did not immediately comment. A White House official told The New York Times that the administration was only informed of the call after the fact, and said the fallout could be significant. There were other questions. Wouldn’t Beijing see that what Trump did was a blunder, but not a major shift in policy? Isn’t the Chinese government sophisticated enough not to take Trump at face value?

Trump’s previous conversations might provide hints on whether foreign governments will take Trump seriously. As Uri Friedman wrote today, Trump’s conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already had repercussions. The Pakistani government put out a readout that read suspiciously like a near-verbatim transcript of Trump’s words, capturing the tone the president-elect uses. His promise to “play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems” might sound to an American who just observed the election as so much Trumpian space-filling, but it made headlines in Pakistan, where some interpreted it as a nod to Pakistan’s conflict with India in Kashmir. Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, told the Times it appeared Pakistani officials had taken Trump’s words too seriously.China is perhaps a more sophisticated foreign-policy player than Pakistan; it’s certainly a more important one. But as Fallows points out, a China that sees Trump as buffoon probably isn’t good for American interests either.

For the time being, the most important thing to watch is probably for Beijing’s announcement. That will be the first clue as to whether Trump’s phone call will set in motion a huge realignment of American policy and relationships with China and Taiwan—or if it will be another Hainan Island incident, barely remembered 15 years on.

Beware of Bribery — Andy Borowitz’s humor.

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—President-elect Donald J. Trump drew a line in the sand on Friday as he warned that U.S. companies planning to ship jobs overseas will be slapped with enormous bribes.

“If you think you’re going to get away with sending jobs out of the U.S., think again,” Trump said. “You are about to be bribed, big league.”

He raised the cautionary example of Carrier Corporation, which this week decided to keep a few hundred jobs in the U.S. in exchange for a seven-million-dollar government incentive. “I warned those boys at Carrier: we can do this the easy way, or the hard way, where you get seven million dollars,” he said. “They backed down so fast—it was terrific.”

The President-elect said that the Carrier story should strike fear into the hearts of all American businesses that might be contemplating shipping jobs overseas. “Do you really want to wind up like Carrier, with seven million dollars in your pockets?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”

In a parting shot, Trump warned companies that he was prepared to back up his tough rhetoric with even tougher action. “I will bribe you so hard, your grandchildren will get paid,” he threatened.

Doonesbury — Colorful language.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sunday Reading

Conscientious Objector — Charles M. Blow in the New York Times.

Donald Trump schlepped across town on Tuesday to meet with the publisher of The New York Times and some editors, columnists and reporters at the paper.

As The Times reported, Trump actually seemed to soften some of his positions:

He seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t seek to prosecute Hillary Clinton. But he should never have said that he was going to do that in the first place.

He seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t encourage the military to use torture. But he should never have said that he would do that in the first place.

He said that he would have an “open mind” on climate change. But that should always have been his position.

You don’t get a pat on the back for ratcheting down from rabid after exploiting that very radicalism to your advantage. Unrepentant opportunism belies a staggering lack of character and caring that can’t simply be vanquished from memory. You did real harm to this country and many of its citizens, and I will never — never — forget that.

As I read the transcript and then listened to the audio, the slime factor was overwhelming.

After a campaign of bashing The Times relentlessly, in the face of the actual journalists, he tempered his whining with flattery.

At one point he said:

“I just appreciate the meeting and I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special. Always has been very special.”

He ended the meeting by saying:

“I will say, The Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along well.”

I will say proudly and happily that I was not present at this meeting. The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing. Let me tell you here where I stand on your “I hope we can all get along” plea: Never.

You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions.

I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.

I also believe that much of your campaign was an act of psychological projection, as we are now learning that many of the things you slammed Clinton for are things of which you may actually be guilty.

You slammed Clinton for destroying emails, then Newsweek reported last month that your companies “destroyed emails in defiance of court orders.” You slammed Clinton and the Clinton Foundation for paid speeches and conflicts of interest, then it turned out that, as BuzzFeed reported, the Trump Foundation received a $150,000 donation in exchange for your giving a 2015 speech made by video to a conference in Ukraine. You slammed Clinton about conflicts of interest while she was secretary of state, and now your possible conflicts of interest are popping up like mushrooms in a marsh.

You are a fraud and a charlatan. Yes, you will be president, but you will not get any breaks just because one branch of your forked tongue is silver.

I am not easily duped by dopes.

I have not only an ethical and professional duty to call out how obscene your very existence is at the top of American government; I have a moral obligation to do so.

I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, but rather to speak up for truth and honor and inclusion. This isn’t just about you, but also about the moral compass of those who see you for who and what you are, and know the darkness you herald is only held at bay by the lights of truth.

It’s not that I don’t believe that people can change and grow. They can. But real growth comes from the accepting of responsibility and repenting of culpability. Expedient reversal isn’t growth; it’s gross.

So let me say this on Thanksgiving: I’m thankful to have this platform because as long as there are ink and pixels, you will be the focus of my withering gaze.

I’m thankful that I have the endurance and can assume a posture that will never allow what you represent to ever be seen as everyday and ordinary.

No, Mr. Trump, we will not all just get along. For as long as a threat to the state is the head of state, all citizens of good faith and national fidelity — and certainly this columnist — have an absolute obligation to meet you and your agenda with resistance at every turn.

I know this in my bones, and for that I am thankful.

“Tu día llegó” — Jennine Capó Crucet on Miami’s reaction to the death of Fidel Castro.

The first time Fidel Castro died was around my birthday in 2006. I was in Miami when the announcement went out that Castro had had an operation and was temporarily ceding power to his brother. This being the first time Castro had voluntarily stepped away from his dictatorship, speculation ran wild. Miami Cubans took to the streets to celebrate the death of a tyrant, a symbol of death and loss for Cubans of all races and faiths.

This morning, my sister texted, “Fidel is dead… again,” one of 26 messages from friends and relatives sharing the news.

I’d already heard: around midnight, Cubans of every age again poured into the streets of Miami to celebrate the death of a dictator who’d had a profound effect on our lives — who was, in many ways, the reason we were all here in the first place. I was in Westchester, a south Miami neighborhood that’s arguably the heart of Miami’s Cuban community (and as a Hialeah native, I’d be the first one to argue).

On Bird Road, where the lane closest to the sidewalk had been blocked off to allow for overflowing crowds, police lights bathed people in swirls of blue and red light. A father had his arm around his adolescent daughter, who was draped in a Cuban flag, the two of them watching the celebration around them. A woman about my age, there with her girlfriend, wore a T-shirt she seemed to be saving for this day: it read, Tu dia llego (meaning, “your day has come,” though the accents were missing from both día and llegó). A crew of fraternity brothers, none of them Cuban, said they’d “come down from Broward to see this.” “Hialeah must be on fire right now,” one of them said.

I am always somehow back in Miami when something monumental happens in our community. Celia Cruz’s death. Obama’s 2015 visit to Cuba. Even the Elian Gonzalez chaos in 1999 and 2000 coincided with my college breaks. I turned that saga into a novel in order to write through the media’s inaccurate and incomplete portrayal of frenzied Cubans throwing themselves at the feet of a young boy-turned-symbol.

The news out of Miami today will show you loud Cubans parading through the streets. It will show us hitting pots and pans and making much noise and yelling and crying and honking horns. It will give you familiar, rehashed images of old men sipping café out of tiny cups outside Versailles, the famous Cuban restaurant in Miami. That’s all part of it, yes.

But what is more important, yet difficult to show, are other prevalent scenes: People just outside the camera frame, leaning against a restaurant wall, silent and stunned and worried about those still on the island; the tearful conversations happening this morning between generations, families sitting around café con leche and remembering those who Castro’s regime executed.

At a dinner with Miami-based Latino writers a couple nights after the Miami Book Fair last week, we joked that Castro would never die because he is protected by powerful santería — the joke being that the news would take such a statement from us as fact because of our heritage. We are already anticipating the inevitable question: Now that Castro is dead, will we visit Cuba? As if those visits would legitimize something about our identities as American-born Cubans, as if the choice to visit the island would be worth bragging about — as if our answer to that question is anyone’s business but our own.

Those conversations are more nuanced and don’t have the same dramatic effect as banging on pots and pans. They are complex and harder to fit into whatever you write within hours of learning that the dictator who has literally and symbolically represented oppression your entire life is finally gone: Tu día llegó – your day has come – and yes, the shirt fits, but each of us knows there is so much more behind those words that is impossible to distill.

Many of us out on the streets last night and this morning are here as witnesses, as bearers of memory, as symbols ourselves. Many of us are out because we have family that can’t be here — mothers, abuelos, cousins who died at the hands of the Castro regime. We are here to comfort each other and to honor the sacrifices these family members made. This morning in Miami, in the house in Westchester, we were calling each other around the city and the country and saying, “I am thinking of you.”

In one call, ten minutes into the play-by-play of where we all were when we heard the news, my partner’s grandfather, who was born in Cuba but now lives in Puerto Rico, asked us over speaker phone, “Now are you gonna get married?” I lifted a mug to my mouth and began chugging coffee with sudden intensity, and in the laughter around the moment, someone chimed in that we’d stick to the day’s plan of getting a Christmas tree. But his response is proof that there is hope and optimism and excitement at the base of many of these new conversations.

Today I awoke to stories we’d heard a thousand times, stories about the family left behind in Cuba, about survival and exile, about first weeks in the United States, stories honoring those who did not live to see this moment — all being told with more verve and energy than they’ve been told for a long time. I cannot speak for every Cuban and have never embraced the chance to do so. This was my immediate reaction to hearing about Fidel Castro’s death: That’s impossible, he will never die. Turns out even I’d fallen for the hype.

Broadway Recommendations for Mike Pence — Michael Schulman at The New Yorker has his picks.

Dear Vice-President-elect Pence,

Congratulations on scoring tickets for “Hamilton”! Not an easy task. Hopefully you enjoyed the title performance by Javier Muñoz, a gay, H.I.V.-positive Puerto Rican.

Here are some suggestions for other Broadway shows to check out—or avoid, for your own safety. As you know, the theatre is a “safe place,” except if you’re a virulent homophobe or texting in the presence of Patti LuPone.

So get on that TKTS line and remember: if you’re molested by a Times Square Elmo, you have Rudy Giuliani to thank.

“Aladdin”

A stage version of the Disney classic about an Arab street criminal who infiltrates the government under a false identity and employs black magic to bring down the wise Royal Vizir. Skip.

“The Book of Mormon”

An inspirational drama about two white Christians spreading God’s word to deepest, darkest Africa. The showstopper is about young men using religion to repress their homosexual thoughts. No wonder audiences are smiling!

“The Phantom of the Opera”

A psychopathic troll terrorizes the cosmopolitan élite. Donald Trump called it “great”!

“Wicked”

A well-intentioned and intelligent woman is smeared with false accusations until the public is convinced that she’s a malevolent witch. A+

“Falsettos”

A musical about gay Jewish New Yorkers who have lesbian neighbors and sing songs like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” At the end, one of them gets AIDS and dies. AVOID.

“Chicago”

An eye-opening portrait of crime and corruption in Barack Obama’s home city. The hero is the brilliant defense attorney Billy Flynn, who bamboozles the public with sensationalist lies and sings, “How can they hear the truth above the roar?” Bonus: jailed women.

“Holiday Inn”

A throwback to when America was truly great, 1942. Men were men, women were women, and barns were red. Includes the greatest song ever written by a Jew, “White Christmas.”

“Fiddler on the Roof”

A musical about members of a despised minority who are forced to leave their homes after being targeted by violent hate groups under a repressive czar. A heart-warmer!

“The Color Purple”

A wistful portrait of being a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South, a.k.a. the good old days.

“The Front Page”

An exposé of the corrupt mainstream media as it distorts the truth and undermines law and order. Needless to say, Nathan Lane is a hoot!

“Waitress”

This portrait of working-class women in America’s heartland starts off O.K., when the title character chooses to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. But she winds up committing adultery and taking control of her own life choices. Recommendation: leave at intermission.

“Kinky Boots”

A black drag queen helps the white working class bring back manufacturing jobs by producing bedazzled red footwear. This musical must be stopped.

“Cats”

The Donald Trump of musicals: it’s tacky, it’s nonsensical, and it’s from the eighties. The cats live in the streets without a social safety net. And, since they’re competing for a chance at reincarnation, all the characters are potentially unborn. Go!

Doonesbury — It’s an honor.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sunday Reading

Racial Epithet — Charles P. Pierce on going public with racism.

Out in the country, how’s that transition going? That well, eh, Medium? That’s quite a gallery you’ve got going there, and Shaun King on the electric Twitter machine is doing a good job collecting the True Horror Tales, too.

Look, I’m not sure how much good politically the mass marches that broke out in a number of cities on Wednesday night ultimately will do. A part of me—the pragmatic, cynical part—agrees that it will set deeper in concrete the hatred and dread common to those voters who lined up behind El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago and expressed their economic insecurity in such interesting ways. I mean, I get that argument, and I agree with its fundamental premises.

But what I think about it shouldn’t really matter a damn to those people in the streets. I’m not going to get harassed at a gas station. My kids aren’t going to be tormented on the playground. Nobody’s going to spray-paint a swastika on my garage or tell me to hustle my ass to the ovens. Nobody’s going to ship my abuela back to El Salvador. I can’t begin to plumb the depth of the fear that the targets of this unmoored ferocity must be feeling. I am sorry flags got burned and that property was damaged and that CNN found a marcher saying untoward things about civil war—the kind of loose talk, by the way, that was commonplace among supporters of the president-elect before the returns rolled in Tuesday night.

Which brings me to another point.

Ever since it became plain that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States, there’s been an awful lot of chin-stroking about how the “coastal elites” had failed to articulate the economic anxiety of the white working class and/or the rural proletariat. (Somebody should tell me why the white working-class and the black working-class are different. Never mind. I think I figured it out.) This rather mystifies me since it seemed that the elite political media spent an awful lot of money sending people out to take the temperature of the people in the body shops and battered farms of the lost exurban paradises. Every other day, some member of that ol’ debbil media was out there, buying them all a cookie. These people were not ignored. They were as well-represented in the coverage of this election as any group was. Long ago, the indispensable Alec MacGillis determined that this was the story of the election and he’s spent a lot of times listening to the folks out there and bringing their stories back to us. Via ProPublica:

And yet St. Martin was leaning toward Trump. Her explanation for this was halting but vehement, spoken with pauses and in bursts. She was disappointed in Obama after having voted for him. “I don’t like the Obama persona, his public appearance and demeanor,” she said. “I wanted people like me to be cared about. People don’t realize there’s nothing without a blue-collar worker.” She regretted that she did not have a deeper grasp of public affairs. “No one that’s voting knows all the facts,” she said. “It’s a shame. They keep us so fucking busy and poor that we don’t have the time.” When she addressed Clinton herself, it was in a stream that seemed to refer to, but not explicitly name, several of the charges thrown against Clinton by that point in time, including her handling of the deadly 2012 attack by Islamic militants on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya; the potential conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation; and her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State, mixing national security business with emails to her daughter, Chelsea. “To have lives be sacrificed because of corporate greed and warmongering, it’s too much for me — and I realize I don’t have all the facts — that there’s just too much sidestepping on her. I don’t trust her. I don’t think that — I know there’s casualties of war in conflict, I’m a big girl, I know that. But I lived my life with no secrets. There’s no shame in the truth. There’s mistakes made. We all grow. She’s a mature woman and she should know that. You don’t email your fucking daughter when you’re a leader. Leaders need to make decisions, they need to be focused. You don’t hide stuff. “That’s why I like Trump,” she continued. “He’s not perfect. He’s a human being. We all make mistakes. We can all change our mind. We get educated, but once you have the knowledge, you still have to go with your gut.”

I advise everyone who has lurched from one simple explanation for Trumpism (“Those people be stooopid.”) to another simple explanation (“Why won’t the Democrats reach out more?”) to read that passage carefully. There literally is no innovative political strategy, and there is no creative policy prescription, that would have convinced that woman to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is so deeply sunk in the mire of misinformation that she never will be pulled out again. Who is it, precisely, that doesn’t care about her, and how was that manifested in her daily life? How, precisely, would Donald Trump care about her? The piece is replete with these kind of moments. What should the Democrats do to meet halfway the guy who believes the nation is being “pussified”? What’s precisely the political outreach strategy that will bring back a guy who says this?

“If I say anything about that, I’m a racist,” he said. “I can’t stand that politically correct bullshit.” He had, he said, taken great solace in confiding recently in an older black man at a bar who had agreed with his musing on race and crime. “It was like a big burden lifted from me — here was this black man agreeing with me!”

And if, as has been suggested, HRC had switched her strategy from talking about Trump’s manifest unfitness to office to a pitch that she was on their side, would that have sold?

“They feel like this is a forgotten area that’s suffering, that has been forgotten by Columbus and Washington and then they hear someone say, we can turn this place around, they feel it viscerally.” And he feared that the national Democratic Party did not realize how little it could afford such a loss, or even realize how well it had those voters in the fold as recently as 2012. “I’m a believer in the Democratic coalition, but they’re writing off folks and it’s going to hurt them,” he said. “To write them off is reckless.”

Again, in what way had the Democratic coalition been “writing off” these people? It wasn’t the Democratic coalition who stymied actual stimulus spending in 2009. It wasn’t the Democratic coalition that hamstrung the Affordable Care Act so that Republican governors could refuse to take FREE MONEY! to implement it. I wish there was a political fix for these folks but the fact is that, more than anything else, they have been victimized by a stratagem through which people refused to allow government to work and then blamed it for being ineffective. Old dog, as the late Ms. Ivins used to say, still hunts.

And, of course, there is the Other Thing.

Jones, 30, who worked part-time at a pizza shop and delivering medicines to nursing homes, joked at first that his vote for Obama might have had to do with his having been doing a lot of drugs at the time. He grew serious when he talked about how much the Black Lives Matter protests against shootings by police officers grated on him. Chicago was experiencing soaring homicide rates, he said — why weren’t more people talking about that?

People were. Lots of people were. The quick retort to people (like me) who argue that nativist racism played a decisive role in the election generally point to counties that voted for Obama in 2008 (and, occasionally, in 2012, too) but flipped to Trump in 2016. This, they say, is proof that the vague sense of having been “written off” in those places was a more powerful motivator there than race. But I tend to agree with Jamelle Bouie, who wrote that a big part of the reason these places went for Obama was that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney were racially inflammatory enough. That, in this painful area, they didn’t “tell it like it is.” Trump did. Via Slate:

There’s an easy rejoinder here: How can this be about race when Trump won some Obama voters? There’s an equally easy answer: John McCain indulged racial fears, and Mitt Romney played on racial resentment, but they refused to go further. To borrow from George Wallace, they refused to cry “nigger.” This is important. By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it’s unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente. And Trump shattered it.

Those people who felt “forgotten” and “left behind”? Where do they stand on right-to-work laws? Where do they stand on voter suppression laws, which go out of their way to prevent a solid voting bloc of white and black working-class voters? Where do they really stand on trade, with Bernie Sanders or with the Wal-Mart to which they go every weekend?

I would like someone to convince me that economic populism without the accelerant of racial animosity would have changed the results materially on Tuesday. It never has before. The Jacksonian Democrats successfully rebelled against the effete establishment and the eastern speculators, and some of them even embraced the new white immigrants from Europe, but they did so while being stalwart defenders of the slave power and by conducting genocide by a number of means against the indigenous populations of North America. Under the Jackson administration, the Southerners took every opportunity to hijack lands that belonged to the Creek and Cherokee peoples and ol’ Andy, who got all up in John C. Calhoun’s grill when that worthy threatened nullification over the tariff, found his inner Tenther when it came to land grabs by the Georgia legislature. The reason he had the political space to do so was because Americans considered the Native peoples less than human. That was how populism worked back then.

I would like someone to convince me that economic populism without the accelerant of racial animosity would have changed the results materially on Tuesday.

In the late 19th century, populism of all sorts flared in reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age and the political consequences of the industrial money power. For a time, this reaction included millworkers and farmers, men and women, and even black and white citizens. In the early 1890s, a Georgia congressman named Tom Watson created what was called the Farmer’s Alliance which, eventually, got folded into a populist political party that splintered off from the Georgia Democratic Party. He supported African-American suffrage and, in 1892, Watson ran for re-election on a platform that included an anti-lynching law. He was beaten. And then he was beaten again in 1894. He entered a period of exile and emerged as a virulent racist and anti-Catholic. From the New Georgia Encyclopedia:

Through his Jeffersonian Publishing Company, Watson also produced a magazine and a weekly newspaper that achieved widespread circulation throughout the South and in New York. Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine in particular became an outlet for lengthy editorials on anti-capitalistic political philosophies and for strong diatribes reflecting his increasing racial and religious bigotry. Although Watson had long supported black enfranchisement in Georgia and throughout the South, he changed his stance by 1904. Resentful of Democratic manipulation and exploitation of black voters and strongly opposed to the increased visibility and influence of such leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Watson endorsed the disenfranchisement of African American voters, and no longer defined Populism in racially inclusive terms. Watson supported Hoke Smith in the 1906 Georgia’s governor’s race only on the condition that Smith support black disenfranchisement, and the inflammatory rhetoric that surrounded the issue was partially responsible for sparking the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. Governor Smith later delivered on his promise to Watson by leading the successful adoption of a constitutional amendment that effectively disenfranchised black Georgia voters. During his 1908 presidential bid Watson ran as a white supremacist and launched vehement diatribes in his magazine and newspaper against blacks. Watson also launched an aggressive campaign against the Catholic Church. He took issue with the hierarchy of the church and railed against abuses by its leaders. He mistrusted the church’s foreign missions and its historic political activities. The Catholic Church responded by putting pressure on businesses that advertised in Watson’s publications, resulting in an effective boycott. In 1913, during the trial of Leo Frank, Watson’s strong attacks on Frank and on the pervasive influence of Jewish and northern interests in the state heavily influenced negative sentiment against Frank, who was lynched by a mob in 1915.

By 1922, Watson got himself elected to the United States Senate. He knew where the power was.

The tragedy of American populism—whether it’s in the previous Gilded Age or the current one—is that the country’s original sin makes populism’s success almost impossible without some sort of us-versus-them dynamic. Since the myth of the American Dream almost always makes a true class-based politics impossible, the search for that essential dynamic almost invariably becomes white-vs-black or native-vs-immigrant.

That’s happening again, with another “populist” champion and the people who now have followed him into whatever future they imagine he will bring them. I wish to god this weren’t the case, but it is.

The Assault on LGBTQ Rights Is Already Underway — Michelangelo Signorile in the Huffington Post.

I’m not going to sugar-coat this at all. We are in for a full-blown assault on LGBTQ rights the likes of which many, particularly younger LGBTQ people, have not seen. Progress will most certainly be halted completely, likely rolled back. And it’s already underway.

First, forget any of your thinking that Donald Trump is from New York City, probably has gay friends, sent Elton John a congratulatory note on his civil union in 2005, used the acronym “LGBTQ” (in pitting gays against Muslims at the Republican National Convention, when he vowed only to protect us from a “hateful foreign ideology”) or any other superficial things you may have read or heard.

Ronald Reagan was from Hollywood, and he, too, had many gay friends, including legendary actor Rock Hudson. Reagan even came out against an anti-gay state initiative while he was governor of California. But once Reagan made his pact with the religious right in his run for the presidency ― for him it was Jerry Falwell, Sr., for Trump it’s Jerry Falwell Jr.― he had to bow to them if he wanted to get re-elected. That meant letting thousands of gay men, transgender women, African-Americans and other affected groups die from AIDS (including his friend Hudson) without even saying the word “AIDS” until years into the plague, let alone take leadership on fighting the epidemic with government dollars and research.

That was then, and this is now: Earlier in the year, before Mike Pence was chosen as Donald Trump’s running mate, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, using Trump’s analogy of running a business to explain how he’d run the country, told HuffPost’s Howard Fineman that the vice president of the Trump administration would really be the “CEO” or “COO” ― or, the president of the company ― while Trump would be more like the “chairman of the board”:

“He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He seems himself more as the chairman of the board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO…There is a long list of who that person could be.”

That person turned out to be Pence, and, before and after the election, there’s been some analysis and commentary suggesting that Mike Pence could be “the most powerful vice president ever.” And now, just days after the election, his power has increased tenfold as he is replacing Chris Christie as chairman of Trump’s transition team, filling all the major positions in the incoming Trump administration.

Mike Pence is perhaps one of the most anti-LGBTQ political crusaders to serve in Congress and as governor of a state. Long before he signed the draconian anti-LGBTQ “religious liberty” law in Indiana last year, he supported “conversion therapy” as a member of Congress, and later, as a columnist and radio host, he gave a speech in which he said that marriage equality would lead to “societal collapse,” and called homosexuality “a choice.” Stopping gays from marrying wasn’t biased, he said, but was rather about compelling “God’s idea.”

Ben Carson, who compared homosexuality to pedophilia and incest, is a vice chairman of the transition team and so is Newt Gingrich, who has attacked what he called “gay fascism” and, in 2014, “the new fascism” around LGBTQ rights.

And right on cue, already appointed to lead domestic policy on the transition team is Ken Blackwell, formerly the Ohio secretary of state. Blackwell compared homosexuality to arson and kleptomania, which he called “compulsions.” In an interview with me at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2004, he explained:

“Well, the fact is, you can choose to restrain that compulsion. And so I think in fact you don’t have to give in to the compulsion to be homosexual. I think that’s been proven in case after case after case…I believe homosexuality is a compulsion that can be contained, repressed or changed…[T]hat is what I’m saying in the clearest of terms.”

Expect each of these individuals and more bigots to have prominent positions in the Trump administration.

As I‘ve written over and over again throughout the election campaign ― as the media had bizarrely and irresponsibly portrayed Trump as “more accepting on gay issues” ― Trump met with religious extremists, and made promises to them. He promised he would put justices on the Supreme Court who would overturn marriage equality (and the list of 20 candidates he has offered, certainly fit the bill), which he’s consistently opposed himself since 2000. He promised that he would sign the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which would allow for discrimination against LGBT people by government employees and others.

It may or may not be difficult or unrealistic to overturn marriage equality over time, though the anti-equality National Organization for Marriage has sent Trump a plan. But by passing bills like FADA ― already introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate and House ― and others yet to come, gay marriage can be made into a kind of second-class marriage. Clerks like Kim Davis can be given exemptions from giving marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Federal employees would be able to decline interactions with gay and lesbian married couples. Businesses such as bakers and florists, who’ve become flash points in some states where they refused to serve gays, could be granted the ability to turn away gays under federal law, and all that could head to a much more conservative Supreme Court if challenged.

Trump has said he would overturn what he saw as President Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders, and those could include Obama’s orders on LGBTQ rights, such as banning employment discrimination among federal contractors.

Mike Pence, as Dominic Holden at Buzzfeed points out, has already said that he and Trump plan to withdraw federal guidance to the states issued by the Obama administration protecting transgender students:

 “Donald Trump and I simply believe that all of these issues are best resolved at the state level,” he said in an October radio show with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. “Washington has no business intruding on the operation of our local schools.”

No one should take solace in the fact that gay billionaire Peter Thiel, who spoke at the GOP convention, is on the transition team. Thiel has never been a champion of LGBTQ rights, and is now most noted for bankrolling a lawsuit against Gawker -– shutting it down ― in an act of revenge because the publication reported the widely-known fact that he is gay.

If Trump treats the presidency the same way he treated the GOP convention in Cleveland, he’ll make gestures ― like giving Thiel a role in his administration or using the acronym “LGBTQ”― that will feed the media notion that he is somewhat pro-LGBTQ, while giving the nuts and bolts of rolling back or halting LGBTQ rights to others. While Trump was onstage at the convention uttering the acronym “LGBTQ” (and had used Thiel’s speaking slot as a bit of window dressing too), the platform committee of the RNC had just hammered out the most anti-LGBTQ platform in history in the basement of the convention center. Tony Perkins, head of the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, told me at the RNC that he was “very happy” with the platform, which, as a member of the committee, he made sure included the promotion of “conversion therapy.”

Trump was hands-off on the platform when it came to queer issues (unlike on the issue of trade or, in what seemed like deference to Russia, on aid to Ukraine), letting people like Perkins push an extreme agenda, and knowing he needed to court them. He spoke at the FRC’s Values Voter Summit in September, promising to uphold “religious liberty,” and white evangelicals did turn out in huge numbers to vote for him on Tuesday ― comparable to, or greater than, every other GOP presidential candidate in recent years. He will need them if he wants to get re-elected, and that means he’ll have to give them some big things now. And evangelical leaders told The New York Times this week they expect him to deliver:

[W]ith Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, an evangelical with a record of legislating against abortion and same-sex marriage, as vice president, Christian leaders say they feel reassured they will have access to the White House and a seat at the table. “I am confident he will do as president what he said he would do as a candidate,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who helped mobilize Christian voters for Mr. Trump.

If Trump is thus as hands-off on LGBTQ issues as president as he was at the RNC, letting people like Pence ― again, possibly the most powerful vice president ever ― get his way, along with people like Carson, Blackwell, Gingrich and likely many others, you can bet that the assault on LGBTQ rights is already underway. It’s only a matter of time before we know the full magnitude. And that’s why we must pull ourselves out of grief, get fired up, and begin the fight right now.

Trump Googles Obamacare — Humor from Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—Speaking to reporters late Friday night, President-elect Donald Trump revealed that he had Googled Obamacare for the first time earlier in the day.

“I Googled it, and, I must say, I was surprised,” he said. “There was a lot in it that really made sense, to be honest.”

He said that he regretted that the frenetic pace of the presidential campaign had prevented him from Googling Obamacare earlier. “You’re always running, running, running,” he said. “There were so many times that I made a mental note to Google Obamacare but I just never got around to it.”

Trump also told the reporters that, now that the campaign was over, he had finally found the time to Google Mexico.

“Really eye-opening,” he said. “A lot of the Mexicans are terrific. They do just terrific things.”

When asked if Googling Mexico had affected his position on building a wall, Trump said, “Quite frankly, it did make me wonder a bit about that. A lot of these terrific Mexicans could come in and make a real contribution to our country and, in exchange, I think they’d really benefit from Obamacare.”

The President-elect also said that he had put Mike Pence in charge of the transition team “to give me more time for my conversion to Islam.”

Doonesbury — Ladies man.

Friday, October 21, 2016

If Only

Wishful thinking from Andy Borowitz at The New Yorker:

WASHINGTON (News Satire from The Borowitz Report)—In an Oval Office ceremony on Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring the loser of the 2016 Presidential election to leave the country forever.

“This will help the healing begin,” the President said.

The executive order calls for the loser of the November 8th election to depart the country on the morning of November 9th and never return.

“Whoever that turns out to be,” the President said.

Obama acknowledged that the executive order marked a departure from American electoral tradition, but added, “A lot of good will come of this.”

The two most recent losers of U.S. Presidential elections, John McCain and Mitt Romney, issued a joint statement in reaction to the executive order. “We’re O.K. with it,” the statement read.

And take all the folks waiting for the Rapture with them.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Reading

Sickly Sweet — David Singerman on the shady history of Big Sugar.

On Monday, an article in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to publish a study blaming fat and cholesterol for coronary heart disease while largely exculpating sugar. This study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, helped set the agenda for decades of public health policy designed to steer Americans into low-fat foods, which increased carbohydrate consumption and exacerbated our obesity epidemic.

This revelation rightly reminds us to view industry-funded nutrition science with skepticism and to continue to demand transparency in scientific research. But ending Big Sugar’s hold on the American diet will require a broader understanding of the various ways in which the industry, for 150 years, has shaped government policy in order to fuel our sugar addiction.

Today’s sugar industry is a product of the 19th century, when the key federal sugar policy was not a dietary guideline but a tariff on sugar imports. In the decades after the Civil War, Americans’ per capita consumption of sugar more than doubled, from 32 pounds in 1870 to 80 pounds in 1910. As a result, the government got hooked on sugar, too: By 1880, sugar accounted for a sixth of the federal budget.

To protect domestic refiners, then the largest manufacturing employer in Northern cities, the tariff distinguished between two kinds of sugar: “refined” and “raw.” Refined sugar that was meant for direct consumption paid a much higher rate than did raw sugar crystals intended for further refining and whitening. But by the late 1870s, new industrial sugar factories in the Caribbean began to jeopardize this protectionist structure. Technologically sophisticated, these factories could produce sugar that, while raw by the government’s standard, was consistently much closer to refined sugar than ever before (akin to sweeteners such as Sugar in the Raw today). The American industry now faced potential competition from abroad.

The country’s largest refiners mobilized on several fronts. They lobbied the United States Congress to adopt chemical instruments that could measure the percentage of sucrose in a sugar cargo, and to deem sugar refined when its sucrose content was sufficiently high. Previously, customs officers had judged the purpose of a sugar cargo by its color, smell, taste and texture, as people throughout the sugar trade had done for centuries. Now refiners argued that such sensory methods were ripe for abuse because they depended on a subjective appraisal. They demanded a scientific standard instead — one that would reveal some “raw” sugar to be nearly pure and thus subject to higher tariffs — and they prevailed.

Their plea for scientific objectivity may have sounded sensible, but it masked nefarious aims. Like the tobacco industry in the 1960s, these refiners knew that scientific questions were hard for outsiders to adjudicate, and thus easier to manipulate to an industry’s advantage. If refiners were to bribe a customs chemist to shade his results in their favor — as they were routinely accused of doing for decades, beginning in the 1870s — such corruption would be much harder for the government to detect than it had been when everyone could see and smell the same sugar.

In addition to their lobbying, refiners waged a public campaign to dissuade Americans from eating raw sugar. One of their common advertisements featured a disgusting insect that supposedly inhabited raw sugar and caused an ailment called “grocer’s itch” in those who handled it. Other pamphlets suggested that Cuban factories operated by slaves or Chinese indentured workers would “give the people sugar teeming with animals and Cuban dirt.”

The refiners’ real agenda, of course, was not Americans’ health; it was to maximize their profits from selling sugar. Thanks in part to their influence over both tariff policy and the new methods of customs collection, the big refiners were soon able to form the Sugar Trust, one of the most notorious and successful monopolies of the Gilded Age. By the early 20th century, belief in the health benefits of refined sugar was so widespread that increasing Americans’ consumption of it actually became a goal of federal policy.

Looking back at the industry’s transformation of sugar (an edible substance derived from a plant) into sucrose (a molecule), we also see the roots of “nutritionism” in United States policy. That’s the idea that what matters to human health is not food per se but rather a handful of isolable biochemical factors. As food critics like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle have argued, nutritionism is better at helping processed-food companies market their products as healthy (“with Omega-3 added!”) than it is at promoting our well-being.

Today, the sugar industry remains politically powerful, with consequences for both public health and the environment. The Miami Herald reported this summer, for example, that the industry contributed $57 million to Florida elections in the last 22 years; meanwhile, state officials have resisted efforts to make sugar companies pay for their damage to the Everglades.

If we want to check the power of Big Sugar, we’d be well served to acknowledge the long record — past as well as present — of the industry’s machinations.

The Astringent Power of Edward Albee — Hilton Als in The New Yorker.

Writing that gets under your skin, in your bones, will play in your head and memory like nothing else. While painting, photography, and movies can come at you with a very particular force—an in-your-face power that, when done correctly, unearths hitherto unexamined or marginalized feelings—dramatic literature lives in your ear, and, when it’s truly great, shapes how you shape words yourself.

As a very young writer or, at any rate, as a young person who longed to write, I was especially taken by Edward Albee’s plays, the astringent power of all those speeches and curt one-liners that disinfected or seemed to scour a stage world lousy with illusions. He was a different kind of realist. As the youngest of the three artists who reshaped the architecture of the postwar American theatre—Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller completed the trinity, and were more than a decade older than their younger colleague—Albee didn’t make work that believed only in the story. That is, the playwright wasn’t entirely convinced that telling a story led to anything as trite as catharsis. While Williams and Miller believed their protagonists—and often identified with them—Albee was just as often skeptical if not down right distrustful of what his characters said, and how they said it.

Despite the violence of their words, Albee’s characters do not speak freely; they are always hedging their bets because life is disappointing, and who wants to have less of what they already have? The best that Albee’s characters manage to do is steel themselves or bulwark themselves against the fake, often within hollow conventions like marriage that his domineering women and seemingly passive men cling to and talk about wryly, and with more longing than their shared bitchiness would ever let on. Like many of us, Albee learned to cope—to build the defenses he felt were necessary to survive—while sitting on his mother’s knee. But he was rarely, if ever, coddled as a child. In an interview with Lillian Ross that appeared in this magazine in 1961, after three of his first short plays were performed in New York and abroad—1959’s “The Zoo Story”; and “The Death of Bessie Smith” and “The American Dream,” both from 1961—Albee told the reporter a bit about his background:

Born in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928, and came to New York when I was two weeks old . . . I have no idea who my natural parents were, although I’m sure my father wasn’t a President, or anything like that. I was adopted by my father, Reed A. Albee, who worked for his father, Edward Franklin Albee, who started a chain of theatres with B. F. Keith and then sold out to R.K.O. My father is retired now. My mother is a remarkable woman. An excellent horsewoman and saddle-horse judge. I was riding from the time I was able to walk. My parents had a stable of horses in Larchmont or Scarsdale or Rye, one of those places. I don’t ride anymore. Just sort of lost interest in it. My parents gave me a good home and a good education. . . . I went to Choate. . . . I was very happy there. I went on to Trinity College, in Hartford, for a year and a half. I didn’t have enough interest in it to stick it out for four years. . . . After a year and a half, the college suggested that I not come back, which was fine with me.

Memory has a way of trivializing the truth—and smoothing over the past—in a way that is misleading. Albee’s mother may have been an excellent horsewoman, but her skills did not extend to mothering. She treated her only child as something of an accessory, and lived for herself—for her idea of power. The best and most troublesome of Albee’s female characters are her. After Albee left home, he never saw his father again, and he had no real contact with his mother until seventeen years before her death. By then he had made a different kind of family—with like-minded gay men such as the poets Richard Howard and James Merrill, who had troubled relationships with their mothers, too, men who could go toe to toe with Albee in the Village bars they frequented, places where language was a performance in itself, and cruelty a badge of honor.

One gets the sense that, growing up and beyond, Albee was rather proud of his put-downs; he wanted to hurt the world he could never show had hurt him. For all the tension and confrontation in his plays, there’s a lot of avoidance. Mystery informs his best-known play, the 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” While Pamela McKinnon’s superlative 2012 production brought out so much in the famous text—including the fact that the warring married couple, George and Martha, were very turned on by one another—it only increased our interest in why, for instance, Martha drank, lied, cheated. Unlike Williams and Miller, Albee did not believe in backstories—that the child was, artistically speaking, father to the man—and when his characters “share,” none of it is cozy. It’s as if, when he left home, Albee wanted to be a different person—a person who would not describe his past as the past was attached to other people.

But, of course, we are always attached to other people: our relationships to them are, to some extent, who we are. Albee learned cruelty at home—one could call his domestic dramas the living room of cruelty—and he wrote most exquisitely about how cruelty can, for some, make a home. As a young artist, he borrowed too heavily from Ionesco—an early and permanent influence, along with Beckett—who thought characters existed for the sole purpose of making theatre. Albee was attracted to that idea, but he was also an American, which meant that storytelling of one sort or another was in his blood. He erred on the side of theatre as theatre when he came out with “Tiny Alice,” in 1964. I am very fond of this piece, which purports to be about the richest woman in the world—the Alice of the title—but what it’s really about is unfathomable. (Sir John Gielgud, who starred in the original production, told Albee that he didn’t know what the play was about. Albee said he didn’t really, either.) To my mind, the play is about meta theater, and role-playing; it borrows quite a bit from Jean Genet’s 1957 masterpiece, “The Balcony,” especially when it zeroes in on organized religion, another form of theatre. Here’s how it opens:

Lawyer: Oomm, yoom, yoom, yoom, Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Um? You do-do-do-do-um?. . . .

The Cardinal enters

Cardinal: Saint Francis?
Lawyer: Your eminence!
Cardinal: Our dear Saint Francis, who wandered in the fields and forests, talked to all the . . .
Lawyer: Your eminence, we appreciate your kindness in making the time to see us; we know how heavy a schedule you . . .
Cardinal: We are pleased. . . . We are pleased to be your servant . . . if we can be your servant. We addressed you as Saint Francis . . .
Lawyer: Oh, but surely . . .
Cardinal: . . . as Saint Francis . . . who did talk to the birds so, did he not. And here we find you, who talk not only to the birds but to—you must forgive us—to cardinals we well . . . . To cardinals? As well?
Lawyer: We . . . we understood.
Cardinal: Did we.
Lawyer: We find it droll—if altogether appropriate in this setting—that there should be two cardinals . . . uh, together . . . in conversation, as it were.
Cardinal: Ah, well, they are a comfort to each other . . . companionship. And they have so much to say. They . . . understand each other so much better than they would . . . uh, other birds.

Given Albee’s interest in the stage as an arena for ideas, it seems strange that critics and audiences rejected important works such as “Box” and “Quotations From Mao Tse-Tung.” Those short plays are all about voice—indeed, “Box” is a monologue starring a woman we never see—and also the logical extension of an experimentalist who, throughout his life, worked within fairly conventional structures. Albee continued to work hard even as, inevitably, he began to lose favor with the critics. He knew theatre was as much subject to trends as anything. In his 1962 essay “Some Notes on Nonconformity,” he put out this warning: “One must always mistrust fashion, because it is, as often as not, arbitrary; and the assumption that one can become informed of, and participate in, the intellectual temper of our time through reliance on any breathlessly composed list of fashionable far outs is funny and sad—and, what is much worse, terribly conformist.”

Albee did like plot and ideas, and often in his work the idea was the story. Listen carefully to Agnes at the beginning of “A Delicate Balance,” from 1966. The drama is about her body—and her mind. In no uncertain terms, she lets Tobias, her husband of many years, know how much he disgusted her at one point, but not before she talks about a thought she has had: What would happen if she lost her mind? Agnes is sister to Nancy in Albee’s underrated and fantastic, in all senses of the word, “Seascape” (1975). There Nancy sits on a beach with another husband of many years, and it doesn’t take her long to goad him into talking about a past that he doesn’t want to share while she belittles him for taking more risks—risks she probably would have been averse to when she was younger. What Nancy is really talking about, though, is her life. And the bitterness of compromise that is part of life:

Charlie: Well, we’ve earned a little . . .

Nancy: . . . rest. We’ve earned a little rest. Well, why don’t we act like the old folks, why don’t we sell off, and take one bag apiece and go to California, or in the desert where they have the farms—the retirement farms, the old folks’ cities? Why don’t we settle in to waiting, like . . . like the camels that we saw in Egypt—groan down on all fours, sigh, and eat the grass, or whatever it is. Why don’t we go and wait the judgment with our peers? Take our teeth out, throw away our corset, give to the palsy . . . the purgatory before purgatory.

Life as a way station between the worse and the worst. Marriage and security as a holding pattern between many kinds of deaths. I don’t think Albee ever wrote an “out” gay play, though “The Zoo Story” and his 1966 adaptation of James Purdy’s “Malcolm” contain more than their share of homoerotic feeling. But, for me, the gayness was always there—the high-dudgeon witchery of a very smart queen who “read” the world. (One wonders what Albee made of gay marriage.)

Part of Albee’s genius was figuring out ways to bring his brilliant gay talk to an audience that, at the time, may not have known what informed his ice-cold torrent of words against coupling, against convention. But his gay fans knew what was going on. We unearthed Albee’s aesthetic by putting his words in our queer mouths and laughing. Once, long ago, on a trip to Amsterdam with my closest friend, we read aloud from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” over and over again. Calling ourselves George and Martha during the readings was, of course, part of the camp. The names didn’t matter. What did was Albee’s revenge against a world that said George and Martha, in all their awfulness and vindictiveness, were normal, while we weren’t.

Thank You — Andy Borowitz

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling this “the greatest day of my life,” a visibly moved Barack Obama held a news conference on Friday to thank Donald Trump for granting him U.S. citizenship.

“The issue of whether or not I was a U.S. citizen has been a dark cloud over my existence for as long as I can remember,” a tearful Obama told the press corps. “Only one man had the courage, wisdom, and doggedness to make that cloud go away: Donald J. Trump.”

The President, who had to halt several times during his remarks to compose himself, praised the Republican Presidential nominee for “never giving up” in his quest to prove that Obama was born in the U.S.

“A weaker man would have said, ‘I don’t need this in my life,’ but Donald Trump was always there for me,” the President said. “Over the past five years, barely a day went by when he didn’t call me and say, ‘Barack, I don’t care what a bunch of crackpots say. You were born here, and I’m going to prove it once and for all.’ “

The President said he planned to spend the day celebrating his U.S. citizenship with his family. “It’s great to be an American, at last,” he said.

When asked if he had any message for Trump, the President paused for a moment. “Just this: I love you,” he said, a tear trickling down his cheek.

Doonesbury — Welcome aboard Trump Airlines.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday Reading

Planning Ahead — Charlie Pierce on how the GOP will undermine Hillary Clinton, just like they did Barack Obama.

Well, I’ll be needing a Prestone gimlet or five.

Not that anybody will remember this little thing from Tiger Beat On The Potomac in March of 2017, when everybody will be writing about how Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strident rhetoric during the campaign has crippled her ability to govern effectively, or to “reach across the aisle,” or to “create bipartisan solutions.” But I thought it ought to be noted for the record that the Republican commitment to institutional vandalism will not be going anywhere any time soon, and that there are Republicans—and a few Democrats and faux independents—who see an inert executive to be a political opportunity.

That means the bipartisan show of support she has now—thanks to Donald Trump and the “alt-right,” conspiracy-driven campaign Clinton attacked Thursday in Reno—is likely to evaporate as soon as the race is called. If she wins the presidency, Clinton would likely enjoy the shortest honeymoon period of any incoming commander-in-chief in recent history, according to Washington strategists, confronting major roadblocks to enacting her ambitious agenda, as well as Republican attacks that have been muted courtesy of the GOP nominee. “It will be the defining fact of her presidency,” Jonathan Cowan, president of the moderate think tank Third Way, said of Clinton’s problem of entering office with a divided Congress. “It’s unprecedented.”

Good Lord, not these people again. They represent nobody. There is no viable constituency for anything they represent. The Republicans are going to be bad enough, but all HRC is going to need is to be heckled from the Joe Lieberman Memorial Peanut Gallery, especially with Zombie Evan Bayh on the verge of reappearing in the Senate, after his sabbatical during which he helped save representative democracy by being a lobbyist.

And check out the example cited in the piece.

Republicans operatives on the Hill, for instance, are already planning to block Clinton’s agenda by strategically targeting individual Democratic senators who will be up for reelection in 2018. “Take Joe Manchin in West Virginia,” explained one GOP operative of the strategy. “If Hillary puts up an anti-coal pro-EPA judge for the Supreme Court, the smart play is to start pressuring him with an advocacy campaign to vote no.” Voting with Clinton would jeopardize his reelection chances, and voting against her would rob her of a Democratic Senate vote she couldn’t afford to lose without the 60 votes needed to filibuster.

Yes, One GOP Operative, this is just the week to be concerned about the political viability of the Manchin clan.

If HRC wins the election, it is going to be in great part because a Republican Party that ate the monkeybrains 40 years ago has developed within itself a prion disease that has produced a public hallucination instead of a candidate. She should not govern by pretending that the prion disease will disappear because El Caudillo de Mar-A-Lago cratered. If the Republicans decide to freeze the agenda, to the detriment of the country, that has to be framed by the administration as a further example of the political dementia that also produced Donald Trump.

Short-Arm Inspection — Molly Stier in The Nation on the hard-core reaction to Texas’ law allowing open carry on college campuses.

College senior Julia Dixon stuck a dildo in the side pocket of her backpack as she headed to campus, setting out to conquer her final first day of classes as an undergraduate student. A sex toy might be the last thing you’d expect to see in a college lecture hall, but on Wednesday, August 24, Dixon and thousands of University of Texas students were participating in what some are calling the largest anti-gun protest in Texas history.

“As much fun and hilarious protesting with dildos may be, the issue behind it all is nothing to joke about,” Dixon said.

Dixon is referring to Texas’s passage of Senate Bill 11—commonly known as campus carry—which permits concealed handgun license holders to carry guns in all public universities in the state. The legislation went into effect on August 1. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas tower massacre, an event widely regarded as the first mass shooting in the country, where a sniper perched atop the campus’s main building shot 43 people, 13 of whom were killed. To fight the bill, students, faculty, staff, and parents gathered on the UT Austin campus on Wednesday to participate in an event called “Cocks Not Glocks.”

“If you’re uncomfortable with dildos, how do you think I feel about your gun?” student protester Rosie Zander shouted to the crowd gathered on the west side of the UT tower.

The protesters—dildos in hand, on backpacks, strapped to waists, suction-cupped to foreheads—gathered to listen to local progressive leaders, like Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo and Democratic candidate for state representative Gina Hinojosa, as well as members from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Cocks Not Glocks leaders Jessica Jin and Ana López.

Jin, a UT alum working for a tech startup in San Francisco, had her work cut out for her as soon as her plane touched down in Austin this week. She teamed up with allies to promote the event, making videos with dramatic Shakespearean monologues and jazz bands whose sets were decked out in dildos swinging from the ceiling. Days before classes started, she got word that the The Daily Show would be sending a correspondent to cover the event. She had more than 4,000 sex toys sitting in boxes crowding the apartments of her co-organizers, waiting to be distributed before Wednesday.

To deal with the latter, Jin, López, and co-organizer Kailey Moore held a dildo distribution rally the day before classes began. They liquidated their sex toy stock, all donated by companies based everywhere from Austin to Singapore, in 23 minutes.

The popularity of the event can be credited, in part, to how long it was planned in advance. Cocks Not Glocks has been in the works since October, after Jin learned that her home state would become the eighth in the country to allow students to carry guns on campuses.

As a Texan hailing from San Antonio, Jin got the gun thing. She understood that it was fun to go out shooting on a friend’s ranch, and she saw the value in getting a concealed-handgun license, having considered getting one herself. But with guns now making their way into classrooms, she thought enough was enough.

The idea came shortly after the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, where a gunman killed nine and injured nine others before turning the gun on himself. Jin sat in Austin traffic and listened to an uninspiring discussion on gun violence in this country.

“What a bunch of dildos,” she called the commentators—and then something clicked.

After digging into the UT code of conduct, she found that the university defaults to Texas law in prohibiting obscenity, which is defined as making public “a dildo or artificial vagina, designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”

She took to Facebook to create an event she titled “Cocks Not Glocks”—calling on the UT Austin community to strap sex toys to their backpacks on the first day of classes.

“You’re carrying a gun to class? Yeah well I’m carrying a HUGE DILDO,” Jin wrote on the event page. “Just about as effective at protecting us from sociopathic shooters, but much safer for recreational play.”

Jin, proud of what she thought would be a small joke, shut her laptop, went to bed, and woke up to find that her event had gone viral. She went from being indifferent to gun issues, to being thrown into the arena of gun activism overnight.

In the following months, Jin’s Facebook event garnered 10,000 members. She flipped her once-neutral stance on gun issues, and began attending gun safety–advocacy gatherings, meeting professors, students, and people personally affected by gun violence. She actively confronted her trolls, who argued that guns would protect her from being assaulted or raped. One Second Amendment enthusiast went so far as to publish her address online, instructing people to “let her know how they felt” about her protest.

“Nobody really wants to be an activist in this space because of the amount of hate that you get and the amount of abuse that you have to undergo,” Jin said.

Gun rights zealots threatened the demonstration, but to no avail. Rather than using aggression, one member of the national pro-gun group Students for Concealed Carry carried a sign reading “Coexist,” intended to communicate solidarity with the right to free speech and to also highlight its ability to exist with concealed carry.

“It’s an issue of personal liberty,” said Brian Bensimon, a UT student and the organization’s Texas director. “It’s a matter of rights and when you consider that concealed carry is allowed in museums, grocery stores, and even at our own state capitol, that there’s not really a reason to ban it from colleges.”

Other Texan students echoed this sentiment. C.J. Grisham, a Texas A&M student and army veteran who carries his gun on campus, specifically challenged a growing concern held especially by faculty.

“This idea that it’s going to stifle debate is asinine and absurd,” Grisham said. “It’s just a narrative by anti-gun, liberal professors to undermine our rights.”

Professors are among the most vocal about their opposition to the law, their most common worry being that the presence of guns in classrooms will chill academic discourse. Over the past few months, thousands of professors have signed petitions and begun discussions on Facebook about the new policy, debating how to word their syllabi and the extent of their obligation to observe the law. Three UT Austin professors went so far as to file a lawsuit against the university and the state. Their request for a preliminary injunction, which would have blocked implementation of the law before the first day of class, was denied on August 21, but the case will continue on to trial.

“This is a fight that needs to happen in Texas,” said Mia Carter, UT Austin literature professor and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

In a similar spirit, Jin is instructing students to keep the movement going until the law is repealed.

“Dildos should be on backpacks as long as there are guns in backpacks,” she said.

Almost Got Away — Humor from Andy Borowitz.

VIRGINIA (The Borowitz Report)—Calling it a “scary moment” and a “close call,” Donald Trump’s campaign officials confirmed that they had recaptured Mike Pence after the Indiana governor attempted to flee the campaign bus in the early hours of Friday morning.

According to the campaign, Pence had asked to stop at a McDonald’s in rural Virginia so that he could use the bathroom, but aides grew concerned when the governor failed to reappear after twenty minutes.

After determining that Pence had given them the slip, Trump staffers fanned out across the Virginia backcountry, where the governor was believed to have fled.

News that Pence had vanished touched off a panic in Indiana, where residents feared that he might return to resume his political career.

After forty-five minutes of searching, however, campaign officials located a bedraggled and dazed Pence walking along Virginia State Route 287, where the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee was attempting unsuccessfully to hitch a ride.

A confrontation that Trump aides characterized as “tense” ensued, after which a sobbing Pence returned to the bus.

In the aftermath of Pence’s disappearance, Hope Hicks, Trump’s press secretary, attempted to downplay the severity of the incident. “This is the kind of thing that happens in the course of a long and demanding campaign,” she said. “Having said that, we’re grateful to have Mike Pence back with us, and we won’t let him get away again.”

Reportedly, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie offered to fill in for Pence in the event that he became unable to fulfill his duties. That offer was declined.

Doonesbury — Daydreamin’.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Reading

An abbreviated version while I’m on vacation…

That Should Work — James Fallows on Donald Trump’s latest appeal to African-American voters.

Donald Trump’s comments [Friday] night in Dimondale, Michigan, have already received a lot of attention. They’re worth noting as part of his campaign’s evolution, and worth watching in the video below, for these reasons:

  • They come after, not before, the latest “pivot” to a more compassionate, more general-election-minded tone in the campaign. This is the nice Trump.
  • They resemble appeals with a long and sometimes honorable history. Some black conservatives, and more whites, have argued over the decades that the taken-for-granted status of black support for Democratic candidates leaves the African-American vote, well, taken for granted. The most heartfelt and appealing version of the argument that black voters should consider voting Republican came from the late Jack Kemp, due to his sunny bearing and his own bona fides from a career in the very integrated world of sports. It was different from the version Trump presented here.
  • Trump ostensibly made his argument to black voters, asking “what do you have to lose?” But if you watch the clip you’ll see that in context he is talking about black people, to an audience that was mainly white. (Audience composition is something you can control, or at least foresee and influence, if you’re running a national campaign. Where you hold the event, where you drum up attendance, whom you seat in the prominent on-camera places behind the candidate and in the front of the crowd—these all have an effect and can be tuned.)
  • Most remarkable was a tone that amounted to treating black America as a problem, rather than as a group that has some problems. The tension between statement and insinuation was similar to Trump’s inaugural statement last year about Mexicans: “they’re sending rapists.” He wasn’t explicitly saying, “Mexicans are rapists.” But the tone and insinuation were those you would never use about a group you cared about, or respected.

    Listen to the passage starting at time 1:05 of the clip below. To me the unavoidable tone is the same: What is wrong with “you people”?

  • Trump rounds out this appeal by saying that if he’s elected, he’ll get 95% black support for his re-election. “I guarantee it!” This will probably end up being classified in the “sarcastic” bin, given that not even Barack Obama got that large a share of the black vote in his re-election run. He got about 93% in 2012; Trump right now is running between 1% and 3% black support, depending on the polls.

Update Trump has said similar things, more clearly, on Fox News. It’s worth reading the report on  Think Progress. “Total catastrophe” is one of the terms he uses to describe the achievements and situation of black Americans.

Unruly Mob — James Folta in The New Yorker explains why the Mafia is in decline.

INTERNAL/CLASSIFIED

After extensive investigation, our specialized team, the F.B.I. New-Media Task Force, has determined that organized-crime syndicates are being increasingly hampered by an inability to communicate effectively through text messages and e-mails. Agents have found that the Mafia and other large criminal groups are having difficulty planning crimes as a result of overly long strings of messages that are derailed by unrelated jokes and GIFs. Our investigators are pleased to report that this pattern has led to a decrease in crime and an increase in criminal organizations’ cellular overage charges.

The bulk of this investigation involved the interception and analysis of Mafia members’ text messages. It was observed that poor texting habits led to many issues. For instance, unrecognized abbreviations often had to be explained (LOL = Lots of Larceny, CSP = Cement Shoes Please, BHK = Break His Knees, etc.). Mobsters who own different brands of phones were inadvertently left out of group texts, and as a result crimes were understaffed and failed. Winking emojis that were meant to subtly imply something illegal were often interpreted as flirtatious, and vice versa.

Combing through Mafia conversations has revealed an organization that is overly chatty, unable to make basic criminal decisions in fewer than fifty logistical messages. Consider this transcript from a group text chain labelled “Legitimate Businessmen”:

Joey Three Snaps: did you get it?
Hambone Harry: yah, where can I can hand it off?
Joey Three Snaps: Tito’s?
Hambone Harry: eh I don’t feel like that, had mexican last night
Gus Gus: we don’t have to eat for this meeting
Joey Three Snaps: wat do you feel like?
Hambone Harry: not Tito’s
Gus Gus: guys what about just Starbucks
Joey Three Snaps: nah I need to eat
Gus Gus: they have muffins n stuff
Hambone Harry: guys come on, pick something
Gus Gus: sidebar: where’s a good place to start with don delillo?

This particular text conversation continues for another sixty-four minutes until its participants decide to abandon the plan altogether, and to start with “White Noise.” We believe that, in this instance, inept texting combined with numerous long-winded tangents about what constitutes a “low-key date spot” prevented or delayed a serious crime.

E-mails provided another source of disorganization for criminals. We uncovered chains so long that mobsters were unable to locate vital information (the names of targets, bribery amounts, restaurant recommendations, etc.) among all the correspondence. Hundreds of unrelated comments, tips about how to slice garlic, and “Sad Mobcat Memes” (see attached appendix) time and again brought e-mail communication to an effective halt.

An undercover agent recorded this telling exchange during a game of medium-stakes poker:

[Unintelligible] God, this is getting really bad. We’re trying to plan a weekend trip to, uh, talk to that upstate judge, but Manny only just now, on Friday morning, replied that we can take his car. [Unintelligible] then Donny e-mailed that actually he had a thing with his cousin that he forgot about so he had to bail, and then Gerald chimed in that he’s feeling drained this week, so now we don’t have enough guys to make this happen before the trial. I’ve been suggesting a Doodle but—[cell-phone alert sound] O.K., jeez, I guess now we’re trying again for next weekend. For Christ’s sake, I said I couldn’t get away then.

This same undercover agent was able to increase confusion in group communications by interjecting flaky R.S.V.P.s, links to provocative Op-Eds, and the question “new phone, who’s on this thread?” This tactic proved so successful that we are now urging other F.B.I. agents to take similar steps to infiltrate criminal communication networks (Operation Rolling Tangent).

If this trend continues, we believe that we will be closer than ever to effectively stamping out organized crime. The New-Media Task Force will be holding briefing meetings to provide more detailed information. If you are interested in attending, please reply-all to this memo with the times that you are not available next week. We will be sending out coördinating e-mails as soon as enough agents respond.

Doonesbury — Such babies.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Reading

One Of The Greats — Jim Nelson in GQ on the legacy of Barack Obama.

Something is dawning on us—it’s almost too soon for us to admit, but it’s there, a half-considered thought only now blooming in our brains. Maybe we dismiss it with one of those quick cognitive fly swats. Nah, too early to say or I hate that guy. But the truth is coming, and it sounds like this: Barack Obama will be inducted into the league of Great Presidents.

Wait. One of the Greatest? you ask, your thumb emoticon poised to turn up or down on me. The guy haters love to hate with their very best hate game? Like 20-Dollar Bill great? Like Mount Rushmore great?

Yep. (We just won’t build Mount Rushmores anymore.) In so many ways, Obama was better than we imagined, better than the body politic deserved, and far, far better than his enemies will ever concede, but the great thing about being great is that the verdict of enemies doesn’t matter.

In fact, and I say this as a Bill Clinton fan, I now feel certain that, in the coming decades, Obama’s star will rise higher than Clinton’s, and he’ll replace Bill in the public mind as the Greatest Democrat since FDR.

This has to do with the nature of Obama’s leadership, which is to play to legacy (and Clinton’s impulse, which is to play to the room). Bill Clinton will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the presidency. He’s simply bigger than Bill.

More to the point, Obama’s legacy is the sort that gets canonized. Because the first rule of Hall of Fame-dom: The times have to suck for the president not to. Civil wars, World Wars, depressions and recessions. You got to have ’em if you wanna be great. That’s why we rate the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts over That Fat Guy with the Walrus Mustache. Like Obama, these Great Men were dealt sucky hands, won big, and left the country better off than it was before.

But it’s also why we downgrade the Jimmy Carters and Herbert Hoovers. Were they as bad in real time as we remember them in history? Probably not. But they were dealt sucky hands, only played one round, and left the country feeling worse off. Legacy Game over. (Hoover reminds me more and more of Donald Trump! Elected with little political experience, Hoover was a rich bastard whose central theme was that government was wasteful. His answer to the Great Depression was to start a trade war and build a massive project called the Hoover Dam. The dam turned out to be a giant wall that did not stop or solve larger problems. Déjà vu, thy name is Trump Wall!)

Obama has a few other edges in the long haul of history, beyond specific hurrah moments like Obamacare, rescuing the economy, and making America way more bi-curious. Being the first black president of course secures a certain legacy. But what now feels distinctly possible is that, just as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, over time he may be judged less for the color of his skin than for the content of his character. That character came across every time haters or Trumpers or birthers tried to pull him down into the mud or question his American-ness. He just flew above it all. And, luckily, he took most of us with him. He was the Leader not only of our country but of our mood and disposition, which is harder to rule. At a time when we became more polarized, our discourse pettier and more poisoned, Obama always came across as the Adult in the Room, the one we wanted to be and follow.

Ironically, one of the lock-ins to his Hall of Fame Greatness was originally supposed to be his Achilles’ heel, the shallow thing critics loved to smear him with: his eloquence, his “reliance” on speeches and teleprompters (Sarah Palin once famously screeched, “Mr. President…step away from the teleprompter and do your job!” while herself reading from a teleprompter), as if addressing the country as a whole, trying to unify or inspire people, were a superficial thing. But pivotal words at pivotal moments are not only how we come to admire great leaders, it’s the primary way we remember them. The first thing most people can recall about Lincoln? The Gettysburg Address. FDR? Fireside chats. George Washington? His amazing Snapchats. (George was first with everything.)

With Obama, each thoughtful step of the way, from his soaring acceptance speech (“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep…”) to his epic speeches on race and religion, his responses to the shootings in Tucson and Newtown, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the opening of Cuba (“Todos somos Americanos!”), and countless other momentous occasions, he knew how to speak to our better angels at a time when it was hard to locate any angels.

Lastly, there’s the arc of history, bound to bend downward. As our unity becomes more frayed, more tenuous, and the ability for any politician to get anything done more unlikely, the job of president will become less LBJ tactical and less FDR big-dealer. The job will largely be to preside. To unify where and however we can. In this way, too, Obama pointed the way forward.

It may be hard to imagine now, but in the face of rising chaos, we’ll crave unity all the more, and in future years whoever can speak most convincingly of unity will rise to the top. (It’s also hard to imagine many beating Obama at the game.) This year’s carnival election, with Trump as a kind of debauched circus barker, only makes the distinction clearer. The absurdity and car-crash spectacle of it all have already lent Obama an out-of-time quality, as if he were a creature from another, loftier century. Whatever happens next, I feel this in my bones: We’ll look back at history, hopefully when we’re zooming down the Barack Obama Hyperloop Transport System, and think: That man was rare. And we were damn lucky to have him.

Hail New Columbia — Clare Foran in The Atlantic looks at the case for Washington, D.C. statehood.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is working to breathe life into a longstanding, but controversial, effort to convert the nation’s capital into America’s 51st state.

The mayor ​doubled down on the fight for D.C. statehood on Friday, pledging on Twitter to introduce legislation that would put statehood on the ballot in November 2016. Bowser also called for a citywide vote on the matter at a gathering of Democratic and civil rights leaders and D.C. residents, The Washington Post reports, an event that took place at around the same time that protesters were descending on D.C. to rally for statehood.

It’s practically an official District of Columbia past time to lament the fact that residents of the nation’s capital pay taxes but lack full voting representation in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to Congress, is barred from voting on final passage of legislation. The somewhat odd state of affairs is a sore subject. License plates in the District defiantly read “Taxation Without Representation.”Advocates for statehood have been kicking around ideas to achieve their aim for years. Supporters have even proposed naming the 51st state, if it ever comes into existence, “New Columbia.”

The statehood fight highlights some of the disparities and apparent contradictions of the nation’s capital. D.C. plays host to the country’s powerful political elite. It is also a city where many residents live in abject poverty, and where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is stark, and often overlooked by the political class. For statehood supporters, the fact that D.C. residents lack a voice in Congress on par with residents of states across the country is an egregious embodiment of that disparity. Nevertheless, the renewed push for D.C. statehood will undoubtedly be an uphill battle, and one that likely puts the Democratic mayor on a collision course with Republican congressional leaders.

Congressional Republicans tend to bristle at the notion that the District of Columbia should become the 51st state. Conservative critics often invoke the Constitution to make their claim. “Voting Representation for the District of Columbia: Violating the Framers’ Vision and Constitutional Commands,” reads the title of a legal memorandum published in 2009 by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Since D.C. is a liberal stronghold, if it were to achieve statehood that could also help Democrats consolidate power in Congress.

Aides for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not immediately return requests for comment.

The mayor appears to be setting an ambitious statehood agenda, championing a plan to achieve greater fiscal independence from Congress for the nation’s capital as well. The wonky fiscal plan would, the Post writes, amount to a “declaration of independence by the District of Columbia” and stand as a “clear challenge to the ‘absolute supremacy’ that Congress has wielded over the District since it was created in 1790.”

The future of the fight is unclear, and it could fail to gain much traction. But the mayor’s efforts are sure to raise the profile of the issue even if they ultimately fall short of transforming D.C. into the 51st state . The campaign might also endear Bowser to D.C. residents who seem to be increasingly in favor of statehood. A Post poll released last year found that: “Nearly 3 in 4 residents say they are upset that the District has no voting representation in Congress, and about half describe themselves as ‘very upset’ over the absence.” For now, the more immediate question is how far the mayor is willing to take the fight, and how forceful the pushback will be.

Remember Ben Carson? — Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

WEST PALM BEACH (Satire from The Borowitz Report)—Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, stirred controversy on Thursday by saying in a televised interview that he had no recollection of running for President of the United States.

Appearing on the Fox News Channel, Dr. Carson responded to host Sean Hannity’s question about his ten-month-long candidacy by saying, “I do not recall any of that occurring.”

“I’ve been told that I did it, but I find it impossible to believe,” he said. “I don’t think I’d forget a thing like that.”

Dr. Carson said he had seen photographs and videos of him campaigning for the Republican nomination but called them “the work of an evil person who is really good at PhotoShop and whatnot.”

He said he did not know who would create such an elaborate hoax to convince him that he had run for President “when I clearly did not,” but he speculated about the person’s motives.

“Someone is trying to mess with my mind,” he said. “And when I find out who is doing that I will make them pay dearly.”

While Carson insisted that “there is no way I ran for President,” he did not rule out running for the Republican nomination in the future.

“I think I’d be really good at it,” he said.

Doonesbury — “Words, words, mere words.”

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday Reading

Teach Your Children Well — Jonathan Zimmerman in The Atlantic on the poor state of civics education in public schools.

Little hands. A bad tan. And blood coming from wherever.

If you’re put off by the crude tone of politics in the Age of Trump, you’re not alone. According to a recent poll by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research, 70 percent of Americans think that political incivility has reached “crisis” levels.

The poll also found that Americans avoid discussing controversial questions, out of fear they too will be perceived as uncivil. The findings speak to a flaw with civic education, especially in the main institution charged with delivering it: public schools. Put simply, schools in the United States don’t teach the country’s future citizens how to engage respectfully across their political differences. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they can’t, or that that they don’t.

Schools have sometimes been blamed for the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, whose legions of supporters allegedly lack the civic knowledge to see through his proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States or to kill family members of terrorists in the fight against ISIS. But it’s hardly clear that Trump supporters are less knowledgeable than anyone else. In six state GOP exit polls, Trump was the most popular candidate among college-educated voters and came in second in another six polls.

Indeed, the facile dismissal of all Trump enthusiasts as bigots or ignoramuses speaks to the most urgent problem in American civic life: the inability to communicate with people who do not share the same opinion. Trump himself epitomizes that trend, routinely vilifying his opponents as “losers” or “dummies,” or worse. And yet Trump’s critics often use similar terms to tar his diverse array of devotees. This isn’t a discussion; it’s a shouting match.Public schools aren’t merely expected to teach young people the mechanics of government: how a bill is signed into law, what the Supreme Court does, and so on. They’re also responsible for teaching the skills and habits of democratic life, especially how to engage civilly with people from a different political camp.

Many districts have written policies promoting the teaching of “controversial issues” in schools. Typically, these policies affirm students’ right to discuss such issues as part of their preparation for citizenship. They also warn teachers against imposing their own point of view on students.But there’s an enormous gap between policy and practice. Many teachers say they’d like to address controversial issues but lack the time; in poorer districts, especially, every available minute is devoted to preparing students for high-stakes standardized tests. Others admitted that they were not prepared to lead such discussions, which require deep background knowledge on the issues as well as the skill to manage diverse opinions about them.

Still other teachers said that their districts discouraged or even barred them from addressing controversial issues, particularly if the teacher displayed a liberal or unorthodox bent. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, for example, two teachers and a counselor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were suspended without pay for hanging posters in their classrooms urging “No War Against Iraq.” School officials invoked the district’s “controversial-issues” policy, which declared that teachers “will not attempt, directly or indirectly, to limit or control the opinions of pupils.”

As later court filings confirmed, however, the district offered no evidence that the teachers were trying to do that; instead, the mere expression of their opinion was taken as proof of their propagandistic intent. Never mind that military recruiting posters festooned other parts of the school, or that one of the suspended teachers had organized a debate between herself and a pro-war colleague. Her poster was an act of indoctrination rather than education, officials said, and it had to be stopped.

[…]

To be sure, it’s easy to imagine situations where teachers might impose their views instead of assisting students in formulating their own. But many school leaders simply don’t trust teachers to know the difference. After the Ferguson riots, a superintendent in nearby Edwardsville, Illinois, prohibited teachers from mentioning the subject, lest they sway students in one direction or another. “We all have opinions on what should be done,” the superintendent explained. “We don’t need to voice those opinions or engage those opinions in the classroom.”

But how will children learn to “engage those opinions” unless they do so in the classroom? That’s become even more urgent over the past few decades, when Americans increasingly segregated themselves into communities of the like-minded. In 1976, 27 percent of Americans made their homes in so-called “landslide counties” that voted either Democrat or Republican by 20 percent or more; by 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in such environments.

When divisive subjects do arise, Americans don’t know how to discuss them. In the same KRC survey that revealed overwhelming concern about the incivility of modern politics, over a third of respondents said they avoid talking about racial inequality, abortion rights, or same-sex marriage for fear of the discussion turning “uncivil.” And only one-third said that they do not avoid any issues because of worries about incivility.

Trump has played on that anxiety in his frequent broadsides against “political correctness,” encouraging people to follow his lead and say whatever they think. And while there’s a certain attractiveness to that kind of blunt candor, it’s a poor formula for civic discourse. Nearly three-quarters of the people replying to the KRC survey said they supported “civility training” in schools. Let’s hope they prevail on the schools to provide it.

Why It’s The Worst — Katherine Stewart in The Nation on Mississippi’s gay-bashing law.

On Tuesday morning, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law HB 1523—the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act”—one of the most sweeping of the nation’s “religious liberty” bills that are making the rounds in numerous red-state capitals this year. In the press they are often referred to as “anti-LGBT bills,” because they would give legal cover to those who want to discriminate against LGBT people out of “sincerely held religious belief.” Critics such as Ben Needham, director of Human Rights Campaign’s Project One America, has said the measure is “probably the worst religious freedom bill to date.” But there is an even more radical agenda behind these bills, and the atrocious attempt to deprive LGBT Americans of their rights is only a part of it.

According to State Senator Jennifer Branning, one of the Mississippi law’s original backers, the real victims of the story are not the LGBT couples denied services but people “who cannot in good conscience provide services for a same-sex marriage.” These are the true targets of discrimination, and we are invited to sympathize with the proverbial florist who balks at providing flowers at a gay wedding or the restaurant owner who refuses to serve a same-sex couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. But the text of the law also specifically protects the “sincerely held religious belief” that “sexual relations are properly reserved to” a marriage between a woman and a man. So if you are religiously opposed to other people having non-marital sex, this could be the law for you.

It is also inaccurate to think that this law is just about those who wish to refuse to perform a service. One of the more disconcerting sections of the law is that which discusses people who provide foster-care services. The government, we are told, will no longer be allowed to take action against any foster parent that “guides, instructs, or raises a child…in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief.” If you want to know what that could mean, check out Focus on the Family’s “spare the rod” philosophy of child rearing. On its website, the religious-right advocacy group offers handy tips on “the Biblical Approach to Spanking.”

If the point were only to spare the fine moral sentiments of a few florists, why would the law’s sponsors seek such a wide-ranging exemption from the laws and norms that apply to the rest of society? A helpful clue can be found in a letter that the American Family Association sent out in support of the Mississippi bill before it was passed. (The AFA has been named a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2010.) The bill, said the AFA, is crucial because it protects the AFA, and groups like it, from the “governmental threat of losing their tax exempt status.”

There is a revealing irony in that statement. Tax exemption is a kind of gift from the government, a privilege. It is an indirect way of funneling money from taxpayers to groups that engage in certain kinds of activities (like charity work or nonprofit education)—and not other kinds of activities (like political activism). The AFA is right to worry about the governmental threat to their governmental subsidy. As our society views the kinds of activities they endorse with increasing skepticism, the justification for continued subsidies and privileges from the government will diminish.

The people who drafted the bill on behalf of the Mississippi legislators get it. (Most of the red-state “religious liberty” bills were either drafted or, to some degree, inspired by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the “800-pound gorilla” of religious-right legal advocacy and itself a beneficiary of the great tax exemption game.) This is why the very first “discriminatory action” by the government the law prohibits is “to alter in any way the tax treatment” of any person or organization that abides by the newly sanctioned religious beliefs.

It’s about more than money, of course. The AFA and its allies on the religious right want to carve out a sphere in American public life where religion—their religion—trumps the law. It’s a breathtakingly radical ambition. And it upends the principles on which our constitutional democracy is based.

None other than the late Antonin Scalia put his finger on the problem. To make an individual’s obedience to the law “contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs” amounts to “permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’” he said. It “contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.” Scalia made these comments in his 1990 majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith. In that case, the majority ruled that the state of Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to a pair of individuals who violated a state ban on the use of peyote, even though their use of the drug was part of a religious ritual. It was the overreaction to that verdict—on both the left and the right—that produced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. Though intended only to ensure that laws did not needlessly burden the religious liberty of individuals, the RFRA sparked a wave of unintended consequences. It effectively planted the demon seeds of the current crop of “religious liberty” bills.

Employment Division, as it happened, involved a religion—that practiced by the Native American Church—with which Scalia likely did not identify. Which brings up a crucial point about the Mississippi law and its numerous cousins. These “religious liberty” bills are really intended only for a particular variety of religion. Indeed, HB 1523 protects you only if your religion involves a specific set of beliefs—such as the religious belief that “man” and “woman” “refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex,” and that “sexual relations are properly reserved to” marriage. To speak frankly, the law was designed to advance the claims of conservative Christians, and it would never have become law otherwise. If you think that every religion will find as much liberty in the laws of Mississippi, then I have a Satanic temple to sell you.

Donald Trump Performs Shakespeare — Aryah Cohen-Wade in The New Yorker.

“Hamlet”

Listen—to be, not to be, this is a tough question, O.K.? Very tough. A lot of people come up to me and ask, “Donald, what’s more noble? Getting hit every day with the slings, the bows, the arrows, the sea of troubles—or just giving up?” I mean, smart people, the best Ivy League schools.

But I say to them, “Have you ever thought that we don’t know—we don’t know—what dreams may come? Have you ever thought about that?” Ay yi yi—there’s the rub! There’s the rub right there. When we shuffle off this mortal whatever it is—coil? They say to me, “Donald, you’ve built this fantastic company, how’d you do it? How?” And I say one word: “leadership.” Because that’s what it’s all about, is leadership. And people are so grateful whenever I bring up this whole “perchance to dream” thing. So grateful.

And on and on with the whips and the scorns of time and the contumely and the fardels and the blah blah blah.

Then I see a bare bodkin and I’m like—a bodkin? What the hell is this thing, a bodkin? Listen, I run a very successful business, I employ thousands of people and I’m supposed to care whether this bodkin is bare or not? Sad!

And when people say I don’t have a conscience—trust me, I have a conscience, and it’s a very big conscience, O.K.? And the native hue of my resolution is not sicklied o’er, that’s a lie! If anyone tells you that the native hue of my resolution is sicklied o’er, they’re trying to sell you a load of you-know-what. And enterprises of great pith—listen, my enterprises are so pithy. So pithy. Fantastic pith. But sometimes, hey, they lose the name of action, right? I mean, it happens—it happens.

“Romeo and Juliet”

Quiet, quiet—shut up, over there! What’s coming through that window? A light, it is the east, and Melania—you know, people are always telling me, they say, “Mr. Trump, you’ve got a wonderful wife”—Melania, she’s sitting right there. Stand up, sweetheart. Isn’t she a beautiful woman, Melania? Gorgeous. I love women, they love me—and I think we all know what I mean, folks! I’m gonna do so well with the women in November. So well.

Melania’s the sun, is what a lot of people are saying. Hillary Clinton? I mean, with that face? She looks like the moon! She’s very envious, if you ask me, very envious, but can you blame her? Visit Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue—which is the best street in New York, by the way—I mean, who wouldn’t be envious? This moon, Hillary, is sick and pale with grief when she compares herself to Melania, who is a very beautiful woman, I have to admit.

Melania, she’s got a great cheek, it’s a wonderful cheek, a bright cheek, everyone knows it, the stars ought to be ashamed of themselves, ashamed. The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars. As daylight doth a lamp! Look at this, folks, how she leans her cheek upon her hand. If I were a glove upon that hand—first, let me tell you, I think we all know what I would do, because I bought the Miss Universe Pageant, very successful, so I know a thing or two about gorgeous women. And all this stuff about the gloves, and my hands—I have great hands, O.K.? Gimme a break.

“Julius Caesar”

Friends, Romans, folks—listen up. The reason I’m here is to bury Julius. It’s not to praise him. It’s just not. Brutus over there—we all know he’s a good guy, right? And he says Julius was low-energy. Is it a crime to be low-energy? Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t—who knows?

The point is, Brutus is a good guy, all these guys over there, the ones who did this, they’re all good guys—and Julius, Julius was my friend, a really terrific friend to me.

Julius—he brought a lot of captives home to Rome, filled a lot of coffers. Really fantastic coffers. Does that sound low-energy to you? And when the poor people, regular, hardworking, everyday Romans, cried—Julius did, too. He cried. I saw it with my own eyes—many, many times. But Brutus—Brutus says Julius was low-energy. And everyone knows that Brutus is a good guy, right?

You all saw that on the Lupercal, three times—three times—I tried to give Julius a kingly crown. And you should’ve seen this crown—this was a great crown, O.K.? Very, very kingly. And three times he said, “Nope.” Is this low-energy? Yet Brutus says he was low-energy—and, sure, sure, Brutus is a good guy.

I’m not here to say Brutus is lying, but I am here to speak what I do know. You all loved Julius once—so why not be a little sad, now that he’s dead? Just a little sad.

I’m sorry to say that the Roman Senate has been run by a bunch of morons for a long, long time. Morons! A lot of bad decisions—these guys, they’re like a bunch of animals. It makes me so sad. So sad. And I’m looking here at the coffin of my good friend, Mr. Caesar. Just a minute. (He pauses to wipe a tear from his eye.)

So we’re gonna build a wall! And who’s gonna pay for it? (The crowd shouts, “The Visigoths!”)

“Macbeth”

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and yadda yadda, the days are going by—what I’m saying is this is gonna last a long time, believe you me. Long. I see this candle, and I say—should I blow it out?

Should I? Because, when you think about it, and there’s been some great polling on this, in fact there’s a new poll out from the Wall Street Journal—which is a terrific paper, by the way, they’ve won a lot of prizes—listen to this, they say blow out the candle. They do, they say blow it out.

People come up to me and say, “Mr. Trump, life is like a shadow,” and I’m like, “What? A shadow? I don’t get it, and, listen, I went to Wharton, O.K.—the top business school in the country. So I’m a smart guy, I’m a smart guy, it’s no secret.”

And what’s really interesting is I like to talk, and tell a tale, and that tale is gonna have a whole lotta sound, and a whole lotta fury, because that’s what the American people want to hear! They want to hear some sound and some fury sent to Washington for once in their lives, and, I mean, is that too much to ask? They want to hear me tell it, and they can decide what it signifies, but I’m saying right now—it’s gonna sound great, I guarantee it. Absolutely, a hundred and ten per cent, just really, really great. O.K.?

Doonesbury — Future shock.

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