Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday Reading

How Stupid Do They Think We Are? — Charles P. Pierce on getting rolled by the Russians.

Well, now we know what Rex Tillerson’s job really is. He tells the administration’s bedtime stories so we can all sleep peacefully because everything is under control, dammit. (Don’t make him come upstairs again!) Friday’s story was of the meeting between El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago and Vladimir Putin of the dead eyes and, according to Daddy Rex, everything went swimmingly. Pressed, old Vladimir was, on the subject of his having allegedly ratfcked the 2016 election on behalf of the president.

Pressed, I tell you. From NBC:

Tillerson said Trump opened the more than two hour meeting by questioning Moscow’s cyber intrusions in America’s political system. The two had a “very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson said. Putin continued to deny Russian involvement.

Pressed, by cracky!

Tillerson departed the briefing room after leaving unanswered questions about whether Trump accepted Putin’s denial of election meddling.

That seems to be something of an omission, at least to this untrained observer.

During the meeting, there was little relitigating of past negativity, Tillerson said adding “We’re unhappy, they’re unhappy.” Instead, the question was “how do we start making this work?”

Wait? How do we make what work? How do we make Russian ratfcking work? How do we keep the Russians from ratfcking our elections? I think Putin might possibly be the wrong person to whom that question should be asked, but I am not an oil baron in charge of the country’s diplomacy.

ABC News has a longer, and even more ambiguous, account from Secretary Tillerson:

“The president opened the meeting by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in 2016 election. Putin denied such involvement as he has done in the past,” Tillerson said during an off-camera briefing today in Hamburg, Germany. “The two leaders agreed this is of substantial hindrance. They agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the U.S. and our democratic process as well as other countries.” Tillerson added that both presidents acknowledged the “interference in the democratic processes” in the United States and other countries and that they would “create a framework” to deal with such cyberthreats and how those tools are used in infrastructure and terrorism.

So I guess we’re going to work with the Russians to keep the Russians from ratfcking future elections. And the president* promises “further work” on getting a commitment from a dead-eyed career spook that he will not ratfck American elections any more? What are the odds of that “further work” ever happening? What are the odds that the president* even remembers this commitment by breakfast tomorrow?

Putin and Trump’s meeting lasted about two hours and 15 minutes — far longer than the planned 30-minute duration — and Tillerson said the meeting was “very constructive” with both leaders possessing a “positive chemistry” and not “relegating” often to one another. First lady Melania Trump came into the meeting after the first-hour mark but “couldn’t get through” to both leaders, Tillerson said. Both presidents exchanged views on the nature of U.S.-Russia relations and the future.

Well, I certainly am relieved to hear that. I’m glad that the president* didn’t allow an attack on our democracy to harsh everyone’s mellow. This is positively surreal, this is. The Russians know what they did and they’re quite happy with the result. With this guy in the White House, they have no earthly reason not to do it again and again, both here and all over Europe. This isn’t Cold War rhetoric. It’s pure power politics of the kind in which Russia has engaged through czars and commissars.

This isn’t Cold War rhetoric. It’s pure power politics.

Vladimir Putin didn’t rise in the KGB, and survive the collapse of the Soviet Union to become his country’s presiding autocrat, by surrendering golden opportunities when they simply are handed to him. Now we are supposed to believe that, not only will Putin stop using tactics that worked so gloriously in 2016, but also that Putin will work with the president* to make sure Putin doesn’t get away with it the next time.

I used to wonder how somebody could go broke running a casino. I don’t wonder that anymore.

Caribbean Tourism on the Block — Juan Cole in The Nation on how climate change will have an impact on the islands.

Philipsburg, Sint Maarten—Franklin, middle-aged inhabitant of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, cocked his head when I asked him about climate change. “There is already a lot of flooding because of storm surges in hurricane season,” he said, his ebony brow creased. “If the sea level rises four feet, then Philipsburg is gone.” Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side of the island, Sint Maarten, a major receiver of cruise ships, with its Front Street a collage of high-end shopping and outlets for island specialties like guavaberry liqueur. The UN estimates that the oceans will rise at least four feet in the next eight decades.

The picturesque Caribbean, with its turquoise waters and sun-kissed white sand beaches, conjures images of happy family vacations, heady rum cocktails, and nighttime calypso rhythms for most outsiders. Its economy has become heavily dependent on tourism, with nearly 30 million arrivals annually—rivaling the number of permanent inhabitants (around 40 million) of these islands. The tourists bring in $35 billion a year. Sint Maarten receives about 1.5 million cruise-ship visitors a year, and half a million tourists who fly in to Princess Juliana International Airport. Tourism now accounts for 80 percent of Sint Maarten’s economy.

Precisely because of this dependency on a tourism centered on beaches and wildlife, the Caribbean is among the areas of the world most vulnerable to the deadly effects of climate change. This menace is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Saint Martin, divided into a French north and a Dutch south, is a poster child for this looming disaster.

Tadzio Bervoets, the energetic young head of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation in Philipsburg with Bruno Martins good looks, told me, “Climate change is already affecting Sint Maarten’s environment.” He points to unusual dry spells and unseasonable torrents. “I have even seen times recently,” he remarked with amazement, “when part of the Great Salt Pond has dried up. I could walk on its bed.”

Bervoets’s personal experience with the Great Salt Pond, a landmark in Philipsburg, is supported by scientific research. Data collected on the island of Barbados over 40 years show that both daytime and nighttime temperatures have steadily increased. Scientists say that as the islands heat up more moisture will evaporate from the soil and from ponds, and fresh-water aquifers may not be so easily replenished. Clay soils will dry out and crack, which will cause them to lose even more moisture.

Environmentalist Victor Peterson concurred about the issues. A former politician and now building engineer for the Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, he complains, “Simpson Bay has been filled in to some extent by developers. The lagoon has shrunk and marine life has been damaged.”

The concerned citizen, Franklin, took me along the main artery connecting downtown Philipsburg with the resort area of Simpson Bay, stopping to show me the artificial stone culverts installed by the local government to drain off flood waters, which sometimes make the road impassable. He was clearly skeptical that Sint Maarten’s government would be able to deal with the substantially increased storm surges that will be caused by sea-level rise and stronger hurricanes. (Hurricanes are produced by warm water, and the warmer the water, the greater their intensity). In 1995, the island was wrecked by Hurricane Luis, and it took years to rebuild.

Storm surges also threaten public health, inasmuch as they can release polluted water. The Great Salt Pond, Sint Maarten’s largest inland lagoon, now suffers from an inflow of sewage and leakage from a trash landfill on Pond Island in its center. This pollution, including heavy metals, menaces the birds that stop over and breed there, such as the laughing gull, and threatened local species, including the white-cheeked pintail, Caribbean coot, and ruddy duck. “There have been massive marine-life die-offs in recent years,” Bervoets said, possibly from a lack of oxygen in the pond. Because of landfill leakage, when the pond is occasionally drained into the ocean, “toxins go into the sea and beaches have to be closed,” he explained.

Bervoets argues that in Sint Maarten “we must mitigate climate impacts. We have to protect coral reefs and mangroves, which offer protection from storm surges.” His organization is monitoring a government-designated Marine Park a mile and a half offshore, especially its coral reefs. He says, “It is important to put a dollar amount to the value of such resources.” The Nature Foundation estimates that the resources in the Marine Park are worth at least $50 million. Peterson over at the Westin agrees about the issues, blaming development in part and warmer seas in part. “Conch beds and other marine habitats have already been damaged compared to when I was a boy,” he said. “Mangroves have been removed.”

Coral reefs attract and protect fish, helping fishermen, and are a favorite tourist feature for snorkelers and divers. A Nature Foundation report noted of Sint Maarten’s reefs, “They are also a very important ecosystem for the local and global biodiversity.” Bervoets said, “We have seen coral bleaching because of heat stress.”

Corals are symbiotic, cohabiting with a kind of algae that live in the coral’s tissue, and are capable of photosynthesis, turning light into energy. These single-celled algae also promote calcium formation, extending the coral reef. Unfortunately, they do not deal well with extra-warm water. And the industrialized world’s addiction to burning gasoline in automobiles and coal and natural gas for electricity is heating up the earth, including its oceans. The high temperatures interfere in the algae’s ability to carry out photosynthesis, thus damaging the coral.

Another threat to Sint Maarten’s rich marine life is an increasingly acidic ocean. Bervoets says, “We have seen lobster and conch shells thinning because of acidification.” Conch fritters and lobster feature prominently in Sint Maarten’s cuisine, and tourists on travel sites can often be observed asking which restaurants prepare them most tastily. Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed over time by the oceans, though much will remain up there for tens of thousands of years. When it goes into the sea, CO2 produces acidity, threatening marine life (sort of like pouring hydrochloric acid in a goldfish bowl, but on a global scale). The middle-aged Peterson agrees about the deterioration.

At the Sint Maarten Westin resort, Peterson is responsible for overseeing one of the island’s (and the Caribbean’s) major green-energy projects so far, the 2,600 Lightway solar panels on its roof. He said that the owner, Columbia Sussex Corporation, had them installed in 2013-14 for some $5 million, having become convinced they would pay for themselves in as little as four years. The panels, from China, have a capacity of nearly 800 kilowatts and produce 1.2 million kilowatt hours a year (enough to power 100 homes). Most Caribbean islands, Saint Martin included, depend on expensive imported petroleum for electricity generation. Of course, burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, so the Caribbean is unwise to feed this beast.

Unlike Aruba, St. Eustatius, and some other islands, Sint Maarten has made few strides toward implementing green energy outside the one resort. Peterson blamed the lack of general progress on solar energy on the government-owned Sint Maarten electrical utility, GEBE, saying it was his impression they feared a loss of revenue. Bervoets observed that Sint Maarten has plans to get two megawatts from solar panels. “Land is at a premium, so we will concentrate on rooftop installations,” he said. He was referring to GEBE’s letter of intent on the installation of 2 megawatts of solar, which it could triple over time to 6 megawatts. The Sint Maarten side of the island has an installed capacity of about 100 megawatts, so at this pace it will be a while before the island’s energy is green.

The new administrative offices of the government of Sint Maarten, since 2010 a distinct country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sit on Pond Island in Philipsburg in the middle of the Great Salt Pond. Across the street, at the Festival Village concert venue, youth staged a pulse-pounding “Buss da Chains” concert on the eve of July 1, Sint Maarten’s Emancipation Day. But Bervoets complained that since it became constituent country of the Kingdom, there have been frequent changes of government on the island, which have interfered with consistent environmental policy. “We therefore need voter education,” he said, on the challenges this generation faces.

Speaking of needing voter education, read this and weep.

You’re Too Young to Retire — Carl Reiner has some advice for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Dear Justice Anthony Kennedy,

I would like to start with congratulatory wishes on your forthcoming 81st birthday.

As someone who has almost a decade and a half on you, I can tell you this: It may well be that the best part of your career has just begun. As a nonagenarian who has just completed the most prolific, productive five years of my life, I feel it incumbent upon me to urge a hearty octogenarian such as yourself not to put your feet up on the ottoman just yet. You have important and fulfilling work ahead of you.

When I turned 81, I had finished “Oceans Eleven” and was gearing up for “Oceans Twelve” while also writing another book, which led me to a cross-country book tour.

I know what it means to be your age. I know the problems that come with the journey. But these are not ordinary times, and you, sir, are anything but an ordinary man.

The country needs justices like you who decide each case with fairness and humanity, and whose allegiance is to the Constitution of the United States of America, not to a party line. You have always voted your conscience, and defended the rights and liberties of all our citizens.

I’m sure you’ve considered the various options, as we all do when we reach a certain age. After all, although our lives are different, I’m sure there are similarities. I get up in the morning, and if I’m not in the obits, I eat breakfast. You get up, meet with your clerks and engage with them in spirited discussion about the constitutional ramifications of the important cases at hand. I engage in spirited discussion with my publisher about the release order of my next three books.

You have lunch and I have lunch. You return to your chambers and I to my desk. At day’s end, you go home to ponder the important decisions you will be making tomorrow. I go downstairs and join my friend Mel in front of the television, and we ponder out loud how many steps Vanna White will take when walking over to the letter board tonight after leaving Pat Sajak’s side. (F.Y.I., it is usually six, sometimes seven, rarely eight, but never nine.)

Imagine if you retired from the bench. What would your days be like? Here’s a scenario: You revisit your carefree years, rent a red Volkswagen and travel through Europe, stopping in Paris for coffee and a croissant on the Champs-Élysées, then on to the Amalfi coast, where you’ll sail to the waterfalls of Marmorata and the Emerald Grotto.

How would you feel, while reading your newspaper, seeing a headline that read “Roe v. Wade Overturned”? Do you see how this could ruin a good meal? A good life? A great country?

I believe I’ve made my case. It’s now 1 a.m., and I am going upstairs to my computer to tweet out my thought of the day, because I can. I have the freedom to do that because of people like you who are committed to protecting our liberties and our Constitution.

I thank you, as all our fellow citizens will.

Respectfully,

Carl Reiner

 Doonesbury — On the market.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Monday, July 3, 2017

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Short Takes

Italy may stop ship unloading migrants.

Forty arrested for protesting healthcare bill on Capitol Hill.

U.S. to hold off on further airline laptop bans.

Miami-Dade public schools achieve no “F” schools status.

Arkansas Ten Commandments monument run over.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Short Takes

SCOTUS partially lifts Trump travel ban and says states cannot restrict financial aid to churches.

Russian ambassador called back to Moscow.

Philando Castile family receives $3 million settlement from city.

School prayer in Canada runs into controversy.

Hello, Dali: Artist’s body to be exhumed for paternity test.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday Reading

Why We Must Mock Trump — Howard Jacobson in the New York Times.

Let’s look on the bright side: The spectacle of ireful Donald Trump supporters disrupting Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Julius Caesar” and the subsequent tweetstorm of abuse directed at any company with Shakespeare in its name prove that plays retain the power to shock and enrage. Who said the theater is all anodyne, feel-good musicals?

I didn’t see the production that turned Julius Caesar into a Donald Trump look-alike, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the impersonation or the violence against the president that some people believe it meant to incite. But there are a few things about the nature of Shakespearean drama in general — its subtle shifts in sympathy, the shocks it administers to our prejudices, its suspension of the drives to definitive political action — that obviously weren’t apparent to protesters.

The first of these is that a play, however incendiary its plot, is a very different thing from a political speech. A speech asks us to go out and do, or at least to go away and believe; a play by Shakespeare moves through time, measures action against motive and shows us consequence. We might enter the theater in rash spirits, but we leave it consumed by thought.

Mr. Trump never, in so many words, promoted the assassination of Hillary Clinton when addressing an election rally about the likely effect of her tinkering with the gun laws, but he avoided incitement only by making a sort of comic drama of his words — imagining what others might think or do, playing with future and conditional tenses, painting himself as innocent of any such intention himself. This wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a departure from the usual blunt declamations of the “Lock her up!” variety. Deep down in Mr. Trump’s ungrammatical subconscious, some ancient understanding of the nature of dramaturgical, as opposed to oratorical, discourse briefly stirred. No, he had not called for Mrs. Clinton to be shot.

Plays don’t tell you what to think, let alone how to act. A good play won’t even tell you what the playwright thinks. What did Shakespeare believe? We don’t know. Meaning emerges, in a drama, suspensefully, out of the interplay of forces, from the collision of voices. There is no such thing, in art, as non-contingent truth.

That Trumpists don’t recognize this process is not surprising. Mr. Trump’s appeal is to those who think truth comes in a capsule. But their rage at the depiction of the president as the soon-to-be-assassinated Caesar is encouraging to the satirist. Satire is less subtle than Shakespearean drama. It lowers its head and charges. The questions always asked of it — will it do any good, will it change minds, will it even be noticed by the people satirized? — are hereby answered. Yes, no and yes.

Vexation is its own reward. It is consoling to see how thin-skinned the partisans of Mr. Trump are. But in truth, we’ve always known this about people of an absolutist bent. Just before the war, Adolf Hitler tried diplomatic means to get the British cartoonist David Low barred from drawing cartoons of the Führer. It has even been suggested that Mr. Low’s name was on a list of people to be killed when the Nazis occupied Britain.

Communism’s failure of humor is the subject of Milan Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke.” For writing the words “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” on the back of a postcard to a girlfriend, Ludvik Jahn is expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and sent to work in the mines.

The more monocratic the regime, the less it can bear criticism. And of all criticism, satire — with its single ambition of ridiculing vanity and delusion — is the most potent.

This can be only because the boastful are thin-skinned and the intolerant are forever looking over their shoulders. Mr. Trump himself is visibly easy to wound. Should this be a reason to hold back? “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” the great satirist Alexander Pope asked. The question was rhetorical. Wounding the vainglorious is a pleasing pastime in itself and contributes to their demoralization. Fire enough salvos of comedy and their solemn edifices start to crumble. It might be a slow process, but it is at least the beginning.

Derision is a societal necessity. In an age of conformity and populist hysteria, it creates a climate of skepticism and distrust of authority. If mercy droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, derision spurts up as though from a pantomime geyser, drenching the braggart and the fool in the foulest ordures.

[Photo by Sarah Krulwich, New York Times]

Past Is Prologue — Richard Ben-Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, has a warning for Trump.

Watching the national controversy over the White House and Russia unfold, I’m reminded of Karl Marx’s oft-quoted observation: “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.” I was a close witness to the national tragedy that was Richard Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall as president, and I’ve recently contemplated whether a repeat of his “Saturday Night Massacre” may already be in the offing. Given how that incident doomed one president, Trump would do well to resist repeating his predecessor’s mistakes—and avoid his presidency’s descent into a quasi-Watergate parody.

The massacre began when Nixon gave the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a desperate effort to prevent him from hearing tape-recorded evidence that proved the White House’s involvement in a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Nixon’s misuse of executive power backfired, immediately costing him two highly respected members of his administration: Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s directive. Third in command at the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to do the dirty deed and fired Cox.

At the time, I had been working on Cox’s team for only four months and had just been promoted to chief of the task force investigating obstruction-of-justice allegations against Nixon. It was one of five such task forces that Cox organized to carry out his broad mandate. Although Nixon ordered the special prosecutor’s office abolished and commanded the FBI to seize our office and files, we remained employed by the Justice Department. Homeless, leaderless, and dazed by our proximity to the explosion the president had detonated in our midst, we brushed ourselves off and vowed to continue our work in whatever capacity we could.

It was only a matter of days, though, until the firestorm of public and congressional outrage over Cox’s firing forced Nixon to reverse course and promise to obey court orders that compelled his release of eight tape recordings. We returned to our office and were reunited with our files, and a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was soon appointed to lead the Watergate inquiry. Amid all the furor—which didn’t end there—the public correctly asked the question “What was Nixon hiding?” The answer was not long in coming: a lot. The tapes proved Nixon was not only a liar, but also an early leader of a plot to obstruct the investigation of those who organized and financed the DNC break-in. Nixon’s choice was either to face the music—likely impeachment, conviction, and removal from office—or resign.

In Watergate’s aftermath, I thought the unique circumstances that led to Nixon’s resignation in disgrace could never be replicated. But after just six months in office, the comparisons between Presidents Trump and Nixon are mounting:

Watergate involved political espionage and electronic wiretapping by the Republican candidate’s campaign committee against the DNC. “Russiagate” involves political espionage by the Russians against the Democrats, with possible collusion by members of the GOP candidate’s campaign or advisers.

Watergate saw the president’s firing of a special prosecutor. In Russiagate, FBI Director James Comey was fired after, in the president’s own words, the bureau’s investigation had put “great pressure” on him.

Nixon called the Senate Watergate hearings a “witch hunt,” and Trump repeatedly uses the same term to criticize the ongoing special-counsel investigation.

Nixon ordered CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters to tell Acting FBI Director Pat Gray to back off the investigation tracing cash found on the arrested burglars at the scene of the crime. According to Comey’s sworn testimony before the Senate, Trump told him to go easy on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is being investigated in part for lying about his contacts with Russian officials.

Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a secret White House taping system in Senate testimony. Trump once suggested that he may have covertly taped his conversations with Comey, though on Thursday he denied doing so.

Nixon claimed the special prosecutor’s office was made up of political partisans out to get him, and Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff “very bad and conflicted people.” Both presidents have also sharply criticized the press, calling it the “enemy.”

As if all these parallels are not enough, Trump’s surrogates have raised the possibility that he will fire Mueller, too. Presidential confidant and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told reporters earlier this month he believed Trump was considering the dismissal. Incredibly, longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone, who himself worked on Nixon’s reelection campaign, has loudly encouraged Trump to reprise the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Mueller. This despite the fact that Mueller—tapped to lead the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 and selected by Trump’s own deputy attorney general to lead the Russia inquiry, has been on the job for only a month and is still hiring staff.

If Trump’s actions seem like a ham-fisted imitation of Nixon’s, they are no laughing matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire Mueller, and send a message that he “believes the law doesn’t apply to him, and that anyone who believes otherwise will be fired”—a perhaps unintentional allusion to Nixon himself, who once said that when a president does something, “that means that it is not illegal.” The usual limits on presidential power must apply to Trump, Feinstein argued: “The Senate should not let that happen. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.”

The question is not whether Trump can fire Mueller—it is whether it would be a misuse of executive power for him to do so. Should Trump let Mueller go, it would spark a constitutional crisis the likes of which the country has not seen in four decades. The business of Congress would grind to a halt and the stock market would suffer a shock. With Comey’s dismissal as the backdrop, there could be an immediate resolution introduced in the House for Trump’s impeachment for attempting to obstruct a lawful, ongoing criminal investigation.

Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general, followed the law in appointing Mueller to be special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and related matters. It should be remembered that Nixon was named by the Watergate grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and that the House Judiciary Committee cited his interference with Cox’s investigation among the grounds for voting in favor of impeachment. And only former President Gerald Ford’s pardon precluded an indictment of citizen Nixon for obstruction.

In Watergate, there were several Republicans in both houses who are remembered for putting country above party loyalty. The die-hards who stood with Nixon until the end—not so much. If Trump were to fire Mueller to cut off a full investigation, it would fall to congressional Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to determine whether the United States continues to be a nation of laws. Americans would see whether a new Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, Tom Railsback, Bill Cohen, Caldwell Butler, or Hamilton Fish would step forward and join with Democrats, who would no doubt sponsor an impeachment resolution. Or would GOP lawmakers simply go along with a foolhardy reenactment of the Watergate scandal’s Saturday Night Massacre?

O Canada? — Stephen Marche on his home and native land’s inability to celebrate itself.

July 1 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, but nobody seems particularly eager to join the party. The muted attempts at celebration have so far produced either awkwardness or embarrassment. A giant rubber duck, six stories tall, is supposed to arrive in Toronto Harbor on Canada Day, but its imminent appearance has been greeted by outrage over costs and suspicions of plagiarism. In March, the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, began televising a documentary series called “The Story of Us” to the almost instantaneous howling of Quebec and Nova Scotia politicians at what they regarded as significant omissions in our supposedly collective narrative. Resistance 150, an indigenous political movement, is planning to disrupt the anniversary itself.

The principal excitement of our sesquicentennial so far has been the fury of national self-critique it has inspired.

The irony is that Canada, at the moment, has a lot to celebrate. Our prime minister is glamorous and internationally recognized as a celebrity of progressive politics. We are among the last societies in the West not totally consumed by loathing of others. Canada leads the Group of 7 countries in economic growth. Our cultural power is real: Drake recently had 24 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time — for one shining moment he was nearly a quarter of popular music. Frankly, it’s not going to get much better than this for little old Canada.

So why is Canada so bad at celebrating itself? The nationalism that defined the country during the last major anniversary, the centenary in 1967, has evaporated. The election of Justin Trudeau has brought a new generation to power, a generation raised on a vision of history more critical than laudatory. We dream of reconciliation with the victims of our ancestors’ crimes rather than memorialization of their triumphs.

Mr. Trudeau has described the country he leads as “the first postnational state,” with “no core identity, no mainstream.” He may be right. But if we are a postnational state, then why are we even mentioning the formation of a national state in the first place? It seems so arbitrary.

The historical moment we will commemorate next Saturday is Confederation — a bunch of old white guys signing a document that bound a loose collection of provinces controlled by the British Empire into a vague and discontented unity without the slightest consideration of or participation by the First Peoples. It doesn’t seem ideal, or even accurate, as an origin. Needless to say, native people were here for thousands of years before that. And Canada managed to reach proper independence, with the right to amend our Constitution without approval from Britain, only in 1982.

Nonetheless, I will be celebrating. The British North America Act, which I was forced to study in school and which, at the time, I considered the single most boring object ever produced by human consciousness, has grown on me. Maybe I’ve aged. But so has the world. Confederation was an attempt at compromise between peoples within a unified political framework. In this way at least, a moldy 19th-century document has, oddly, prepared Canada for the 21st century surprisingly well.

Nationally, Canada has been spared the populism that has swallowed the rest of the Western world because there is not, and has never been, such a thing as a “real Canadian.” Kevin O’Leary — Canada’s supposed answer to Donald Trump — ended his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, even though he was leading in the polls, because he couldn’t speak French well enough to win an election. To lead this country, you must be able to navigate multiple languages and multiple cultures. Our longstanding identity crisis has suddenly turned to a huge advantage — we come, in a sense, pre-broken.

Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, articulated Canada’s difference from other countries perfectly: “There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian,” he said when he was prime minister in 1971. “What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.” Despite this country’s manifold failures to uphold its ideals, its core vision has turned out to be much more sophisticated than America’s “E pluribus unum.”

Not that the pre-broken post-national condition is without its agonies. Colonized self-loathing seems to be a national trait we will never fully shake off. Canadian self-flagellation results always in the same warm, comfortingly smug sense of virtue. Self-righteousness is to Canada what violence is to America. It transcends the political spectrum. Whether it is Conservative insistence on frugality and small-town values or the furious outrage of identity politics on the left, everyone has the same point to make: We’re not as good as we think we are, and the government should do something about it.

The virtues of this country are mostly negative anyway, which may also make overt celebration difficult. Canada’s real glories are its hospitals and its public schools, but those, unlike the Marine Corps, cannot be paraded. Canada is, according to several international surveys, the most tolerant country in the world. But it’s absurd to celebrate not being quite as insane as the rest of the world. You don’t get a cookie because you hate people on the basis of their skin color a little less than everybody else.

None of what I have written should be taken to imply that Canadians don’t love their country, or that I don’t love my country. I do. Most Canadians do, too. They just love it quietly. They don’t want to make a big fuss. Britain made a big fuss with Brexit and look what’s happening to it. America at the moment seems full of dedicated, flag-waving patriots who love their country passionately, vociferously; they just can’t stand their fellow citizens or their government.

Canada’s reluctance to celebrate itself is actually something worth celebrating. It has become abundantly clear in 2017 that patriotism is for losers. Patriotism is for people and for countries that need to justify their existence through symbols rather than achievements. Canada is doing well enough that it doesn’t require spackled vanity. It doesn’t need six-story-high rubber ducks.

This is the most Canadian thing I will ever write, I know, but I’m proud of my country for its lack of pride.

 Doonesbury — He’s back.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Short Takes

Otto Warmbier, sent home by North Korea after lapsing into a coma, dies.

Police identify London mosque attacker.

Russia not happy that U.S. downed Syrian jet.

Largest ever breach of U.S. voter data reported.

Supreme Court to rule on Wisconsin gerrymandering.

Tropical Update: Two storms form in the Gulf: PTC Three and TS Bret.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Short Takes

Victims identified in deadly USS Fitzgerald collision.

Voters in France elect pro-Macron parliament.

Another traffic attack in London.

Casualties and deaths in forest fires in Portugal.

History: Memos show Watergate prosecutors had evidence Nixon plotted violence.

Six experts resign from White House HIV/AIDS panel.

Not a good week as the Tigers sink below .500.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Reading

“The Meddlesome Priest” — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on the White House’s conundrum on how to deal with James Comey.

“Should I take one of the killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news—should I do that?” Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. It didn’t matter which correspondent he called on. Every one of them wanted to ask about the same thing: the testimony that the former F.B.I. director James Comey had given on Thursday. “Go ahead, Jon,” he said, gesturing toward Jonathan Karl, of ABC News. Since he took office, the President’s personality hasn’t changed much, but his King Lear tendency is deepening. Before Karl could ask his question, Trump started musing aloud. “Be fair, Jon,” he said. “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”

“Always fair, Mr. President,” Karl said, and then he asked Trump about Comey, who had testified under oath that the President had spoken to him about the Bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, and had urged him to “let this go.” Karl wanted to know whether Trump agreed with Comey’s account of their conversation. “I didn’t say that,” Trump said. So had Comey lied? “There’d be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody I’ve read today, but I did not say that,” Trump said. This muddied his defense. If he hadn’t tried to get Comey to squash the investigation, why mention that it wouldn’t have been a big deal if he had?

Karl pressed on. Comey had also testified that, at a private dinner in January, Trump had asked for his personal loyalty. Trump said that this was not true either. Karl asked if the President would be willing to testify under oath to this. “One hundred per cent,” Trump said. And that gave the situation a useful clarity: either Comey was lying or Trump was. The President started gesticulating. “I hardly know the man,” he said. “Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense.”

In the wake of Thursday’s testimony, the White House is going after Comey, trying to neutralize the threat that his words pose. But the attacks have been convoluted. It has been clear since Trump fired Comey that the former F.B.I. director would have a central and threatening role in the theatre of this Presidency, yet neither Trump nor his advisers and allies seem to have figured out what to say about him.

On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway filibustered her way through an interview on Fox News, insisting that, while Washington was in a tizzy over Comey, the White House was diligently working on policy. She was evidently the good cop. The bad cop was Corey Lewandowski, apparently back in Trump’s good graces, dispatched to the morning shows on Friday to explain that Comey was part of “the deep state” that is out to humiliate Trump. In a tweet, Trump called Comey a “leaker.” Later, at the press conference, Trump described him as both a liar and a tool of Democratic Party. “That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election they shouldn’t have lost,” Trump said.

Comey’s advantage over the President is that he paid close attention during their conversations, wrote down his impressions immediately after the conversations took place, and then shared these notes with others. Comey noticed the way that the President asked the Vice-President, the Attorney General, and his own son-in-law to leave the room before talking to him about the Flynn investigation. Comey noticed when the President was trying to hug him and when he was putting his future as F.B.I. director in question. He noticed the exact words that the President used when he tried to goad him to “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” He noticed the grandfather clock in the Oval Office, and the Navy stewards, and the time Trump called his cell phone when he was getting into a helicopter with the head of the D.E.A., and how he once had to return a call from the President through the White House switchboard.

Comey is hard to miss—six feet eight, with popped marionette eyes. But it seems that the White House never really got a good look at him. Was he a Democratic partisan, or an agent of the deep state, or the star of some self-aggrandizing melodrama (a “showboat,” the President told NBC’s Lester Holt a few weeks ago, and a “grandstander”)? Maybe if Trump had noticed the awkwardness with which (if we believe Comey’s account) the F.B.I. director ducked out of a hug, or the belabored way in which he avoided pledging his loyalty, Trump would have realized sooner that Comey was not his friend, and not part of his cadre. And perhaps his aides would have a clearer way of describing the man they are now trying to impugn.

At the press conference on Friday—on a bright June afternoon—Trump stood podium to podium with President Klaus Iohannis, of Romania, a muscular former physics teacher from Transylvania. The Comey-centered questions emanating from the American press corps alternated with wider-ranging queries from the travelling press.

One Romanian journalist, a young woman, asked the two Presidents whether, in their one-on-one meeting, they had talked about giving Romania access to a visa-waiver program. “We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said, and then, after saying he’d be open to accommodating Romania, gestured over to Iohannis.

“I mentioned this,” the Romanian President said, perhaps trying to be politic. To his left, Trump just nodded. Had he noticed the difference?

Could Jon Ossoff Win?  — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the special election in Georgia.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped a new poll of the most expensive special congressional election in history, and it is good news for Democrat Jon Ossoff and liberals across the country who have placed inordinately high stakes on Georgia’s 6th District just six months after a Republican cruised to reelection there by 23 points. According to the AJC, Ossoff leads Republican Karen Handel by 7 points, 51 to 44, which is outside the margin of error. Another poll released Thursday showed Ossoff with a 3-point lead, 50 to 47.

The election is still 11 days away, but early voting began a week and a half ago and is proceeding at a rapid clip that is almost on par with the early-voting turnout of the 2016 presidential election.

An Ossoff win wouldn’t make much of a dent in the Republican majority in the House, and after raising $23 million (a record for a House candidate who is not self-funding), he’d likely to have to raise a ton of money again as a top Republican target in 18 months. But Democrats have latched onto the seat, previously held by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (and, years earlier, Newt Gingrich), as a way to make a major statement months into President Donald Trump’s term. Hillary Clinton nearly carried the district during her presidential campaign, and the Democrats’ strategy for retaking the House hinges on replicating that success—not just in Georgia’s 6th but in similar affluent suburban districts in California, Kansas, Texas, and elsewhere. An Ossoff win would be a strong signal that they can, and it would hand an energized grassroots a badly needed breakthrough.

Republican criticism of Ossoff has mostly focused on personal issues, such as his youth, his support from national Democrats, a brief stint making documentaries for Al Jazeera, and, bizarrely, a video of a college-age Ossoff dressed as Han Solo. To the disappointment of some on the party’s left flank, Ossoff has run openly as a moderate; he told reporters recently that he opposed a single-payer health care plan (which is fast becoming the party’s new standard) and in a historically conservative district has focused on issues like cutting government waste and promoting the tech industry.

But one big progressive plank he has adopted—support for a living wage—produced one of the campaign’s signature moments. At a debate on Monday, Ossoff and Handel were asked if they supported raising the minimum wage to a “livable wage.” (The questioner did not specify an amount, but the most common figure thrown out by proponents is $15 an hour.) Ossoff said yes. Handel very much did not.

“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative: I do not support a livable wage,” she said. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”

Meanwhile, Democrats seem encouraged enough by Ossoff’s performance in the suburbs north of Atlanta to have recently added another suburban Georgia seat to their target list next year: the 7th District, currently represented by Republican Rob Woodall. This week, Woodall got his first Democratic opponent.

Policies?  What Policies? — Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on what Trump isn’t going to be doing.

It’s “Infrastructure Week” at the White House. Theoretically.

On Monday, the administration announced a plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure and overhaul U.S. air traffic control. There was a high-profile signing in the East Wing before dozens of cheering lawmakers and industry titans. It was supposed to be the beginning of a weeklong push to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports.

But in the next two days, Trump spent more energy burning metaphorical bridges than trying to build literal ones. He could have stayed on message for several hours, gathered Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan agreement, and announced a timeframe. Instead he quickly turned his attention to Twitter to accuse media companies of “Fake News” while undermining an alliance with Qatar based on what may be, fittingly, a fake news story.

It’s a microcosm of this administration’s approach to public policy. A high-profile announcement, coupled with an ambitious promise, subsumed by an unrelated, self-inflicted public-relations crisis, followed by … nothing.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

Consider the purported focus of this week. An infrastructure plan ought to include actual proposals, like revenue-and-spending details and timetables. The Trump infrastructure plan has little of that. Even the president’s speech on Monday was devoid of specifics. (An actual line was: “We have studied numerous countries, one in particular, they have a very, very good system; ours is going to top it by a lot.”) The ceremonial signing on Monday was pure theater. The president, flanked by politicians and businesspeople smiling before the twinkling of camera flashes, signed a paper that merely asks Congress to work on a bill. An assistant could have done that via email. Meanwhile, Congress isn’t working on infrastructure at all, according to Politico, and Republicans have shown no interest in a $200 billion spending bill.

In short, this “plan” is not a plan, so much as a Potemkin policy, a presentation devised to show the press and the public that the president has an economic agenda. The show continued on Wednesday, as the president delivered an infrastructure speech in Cincinnati that criticized Obamacare, hailed his Middle East trip, and offered no new details on how his plan would work. Infrastructure Week is a series of scheduled performances to make it look as if the president is hard at work on a domestic agenda that cannot move forward because it does not exist.

Journalists are beginning to catch on. The administration’s policy drought has so far been obscured by a formulaic bait-and-switch strategy one could call the Two-Week Two-Step. Bloomberg has compiled several examples of the president promising major proposals or decisions on everything from climate-change policy to infrastructure “in two weeks.” He has missed the fortnight deadline almost every time.

The starkest false promise has been taxes. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks,” Trump said of tax reform in early February. Eleven weeks later, in late April, the White House finally released a tax proposal. It was hardly one page long.

Arriving nine weeks late, the document was so vague that tax analysts marveled that they couldn’t even say how it would work. Even its authors are confused: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly declined to say whether the plan will cut taxes on the rich, even though cutting taxes on the rich is ostensibly the centerpiece. Perhaps it’s because he needs more help: None of the key positions for making domestic tax policy have been filled. There is no assistant secretary for tax policy, nor deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, according to the Treasury Department.

Once again, the simplest summary of White House tax policy is: There is no plan. There isn’t even a complete staff to compose one.

The story is slightly different for the White House budget, but no more favorable. The budget suffers, not from a lack of details, but from a failure of numeracy that speaks to the administration’s indifference toward serious public policy. The authors double-counted a projected benefit from higher GDP growth, leading to $2 trillion math error, perhaps the largest ever in a White House proposal. The plan included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the estate tax, which appears to be another mistake, since the White House has separately proposed eliminating it.

Does the president’s budget represent what the president’s policies will be? It should, after all. But asked this very question, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made perhaps the strangest claim of all: “I wouldn’t take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are,” he said.

This haphazard approach extends to the repeal of Obamacare, which may yet pass the Senate, but with little help or guidance from the president. Trump has allowed House Speaker Paul Ryan to steer the Obamacare-replacement bill, even though it violates the president’s campaign promises to expand coverage and protect Medicaid. After its surprising passage in the House, he directly undercut it on Twitter by suggesting he wants to raise federal health spending. Even on the most basic question of health-care policy—should spending go up, or down?—the president’s Twitter account and his favored law are irreconcilable. A law cannot raise and slash health care funding at the same time. The Trump health care plan does not exist.

It would be a mistake to call this a policy-free presidency. Trump has signed several executive orders undoing Obama-era regulations, removing environmental protections, and banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He has challenged NATO and pulled out of the Paris Accords. But these accomplishments all have one thing in common: Trump was able to do them alone. Signing executive orders and making a speech don’t require the participation of anybody in government except for the president.

It’s no surprise that a former chief executive of a private company would be more familiar with the presumption of omnipotence than the reality of divided powers. As the head of his own organization, Trump could make unilateral orders that subordinates would have to follow. But passing a law requires tireless persuasion and the cooperation of hundreds of representatives in the House and Senate who cannot be fired for insubordination. Being the president of the United States is nothing like being a CEO, especially not one of an eponymous family company.

Republicans in the House and Senate don’t need the president’s permission to write laws, either. Still, they too have struggled to get anything done. Several GOP senators say they may not repeal Obamacare this year—or ever. It is as if, after seven years of protesting Obamacare, the party lost the muscle memory to publicly defend and enact legislation.

In this respect, Trump and his party are alike—united in their antagonism toward Obama-era policies and united in their inability to articulate what should come next. Republicans are trapped by campaign promises that they cannot fulfill. The White House is trapped inside of the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of economic promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation. With an administration that uses public policy as little more than a photo op, get ready for many sequels to this summer’s Infrastructure Week.

 Doonesbury — Despatches.