Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Short Takes

F.B.I. confirms probe into Trump-Russia connection.

Neil Gorsuch goes before Senate committee.

U.S. to ban electronics on certain flights to and from the Middle East.

Stephen Hawking fears he may not be welcome in Trump’s America.

R.I.P David Rockefeller, 101, last grandchild of John D. Rockefeller.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Takes

Fighting erupts in Syrian capital.

GOP representative says “no evidence” of of Trump-Russia links.

Democratic representative says there’s “circumstantial evidence” of Trump-Russia links.

North Korea holds “high thrust” missile engine test.

Wildfire near Boulder, Colorado, forces thousands to evacuate.

R.I.P. Jimmy Breslin, 88, columnist and writer.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Stanisław Skrowaczewski — 1923-2017

I met him once, in 1975. He was next-door neighbors to my aunt and uncle in Wayzata, Minnesota, and he was out jogging one day when we were out getting the mail.  We chatted and it was only after he went on down the road that I found out who he was.

I went to several concerts when I lived in Minneapolis. I also auditioned as an announcer for a classical music station and part of it was to read a list of the names of composers and conductors. His name was on the list and I nailed it: “Skrow-va-chev-ski” (Didn’t get the job, however.) He was a wonderful conductor and a great gift to music and Minnesota. Peace.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Reading

Back to the Future — Adam Gopnick in The New Yorker on how Orwell’s “1984” applies today.

I have, I’m afraid, a terrible confession to make: I have never been a huge fan of George Orwell’s “1984.” It always seemed, in its extrapolations from present to future, too pat, a little lacking in the imaginative extrapolations we want from dystopian literature. As the British author Anthony Burgess pointed out a long time ago, Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on. That other ninth-grade classic, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where a permanent playground of sex and drugs persists in a fiercely inegalitarian society, seemed to me far more prescient, and so did any work of Philip K. Dick’s that extrapolated forward our bizarre American entertainment obsessions into an ever more brutal future in which Ken and Barbie might be worshipped as gods. “1984” seemed, in contrast, too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens.

An unbidden apology rises to the lips, as Orwell’s book duly climbs high in the Amazon rankings: it was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think. What it took, of course, to change this view was the Presidency of Donald Trump. Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.

There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior. He lies, he repeats the lie, and his listeners either cower in fear, stammer in disbelief, or try to see how they can turn the lie to their own benefit. Every continental wiseguy, from Žižek to Baudrillard, insisted that when they pulled the full totalitarian wool over our eyes next time, we wouldn’t even know it was happening. Not a bit of it. Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation. They are not postmodern traps and temptations; they are primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.

The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance. Trump is pure raging authoritarian id.

And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.

When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters—a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true—he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.

And so CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his credit, may announce boldly that the story is false from beginning to end—but then he is led by his own caution and sense of professionalism to ask Trump whether, if he sees it as true, there ought to be an investigation into it. Tapper, like everyone else, knows perfectly well that a minimally honest investigation would turn up no proof of this absurdity at all. But that, of course, is the trap, the game. Watch: there will be a “commission” consisting of experts borrowed from Breitbart; it will hold no hearings, or hold absurdly closed ones; or hold ones with testimony from frequent callers to “The Alex Jones Show”—and this clownish commission will then baldly conclude that there is, indeed, widespread evidence of voter fraud. And Trump will reassert the lie and point to his commission’s findings as his evidence.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress, thoroughly intimidated, fear shining from one eye and cupidity from the other, will exploit the “question” of voter fraud to pursue policies of actually suppressing minority voters. Caligula, the mad Roman emperor, infamously appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, and that has been for millennia a byword for cracked authoritarian action. But we now know what would happen if Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate if the modern Republican Party happened to be in the majority there: first the Republicans would say that they didn’t want to get into disputes about the Emperor’s personnel choices, and then they’d quickly see how the presence of the horse could help justify dismantling regulations in the horse-chariot industry. (“Well, you know, he’s an unorthodox kind of Emperor, so I don’t want to get into that, Jake—but I will say that, whatever the Emperor’s beliefs, we have a very inclusive party, and, if we’re slackening regulations on the stables, I want to point out it’s with the full and welcome participation of a horse.”) The Emperor’s lunacy and the senators’ larceny match perfectly.

Starting this week, it’s vital that everyone who is trying to maintain sanity understand that this is so—that it is a myth that reason, as normally undertaken, is going to affect this process or that “consequences,” as they are normally understood, will, either. Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason. Conservative intellectuals, as a reading of the Times each day reveals, turn out to share these resentments far more deeply than they value the rational practices. Having experienced this condescension, or so they imagine, on the larger stage of universities and publishing houses, they may mistrust the demagogue, but they actively hate those who demonstrate against him. The demagogue they regard only with disdain; his critics are an ancient object of hatred and contempt. If forced to choose, they will always choose the demagogue before the demonstrators. If there’s one thing we really do know from social science, it’s that people are far more determined to see their ancient enemies made miserable than themselves made happier.

On the positive side, well, there were the women’s marches last weekend, which filled any sane heart with hope. What had seemed doubtful a short week before—that there could be unified, peaceful, indeed joyous mass action against the madness—was fully realized, and for what one hopes will be only the first of many times. It left our minds inspired with simple slogans that did not oversimplify: Community is the only cure for catastrophe. Action is the only antidote to anger. If these sound a bit like Winston’s private mutterings in “1984”—when he writes secretly, for instance, that sanity is not statistical—at least they are, for the moment, still fully public truths. Pray that they remain so.

Their Lying’ Eyes — Alan Levinovitz in Slate on why Trump supporters insist on believing the lies.

The most frightening part of the otherwise ridiculous story about Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd size is not whether he believes his lie that his crowd was the biggest ever. It’s that a portion of his supporters bought it—and seem to still support it even when directly presented with photographic evidence to the contrary.

Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks asked 1,388 Americans questions about inauguration crowd sizes after showing participants two pictures—one from Obama’s 2009 inauguration and one from Trump’s. They asked half of the participants which (unlabeled) photo was from which inauguration and found that 41 percent of Trump supporters picked wrong. That was not terribly surprising. But the question they asked the second half of participants revealed something scary: They asked these people to just assess which photo showed more people. A full 15 percent of Trump supporters said his inauguration displayed more people, despite looking at direct photographic evidence to the contrary. (Read the researchers’ full write-up in the Washington Post.)

In the analysis of the research, the authors suggest that Trump supporters don’t actually believe the photo of his inauguration shows more people. “If there were no political controversy,” they write, “any respondent would see more people” in the Obama inauguration picture. Instead, Trump supporters are engaging in “expressive signaling,” where people purposely give the wrong answer as an ideological gesture.

There’s actually good reason to think that at least some Trump supporters really do believe there are more people in Trump’s inauguration photo. In the landmark 1956 sociological study, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter join an apocalyptic UFO cult. When the prophesied time comes and goes, the cult members do not lose faith. Instead, they came up with an alternative explanation—God saved the world thanks to their work—and continued to preach their message with even greater vigor. The same thing happened in 2011 with doomsday prophet Harold Camping, whose followers eagerly awaited the end of the world on May 21, despite Camping’s repeated failures in the past.

Trump and his vision actually have a lot in common with UFO-enthusiast cults. They’re both charlatans, selling snake oil. His appeal lies in the salvific vision he has sold to his supporters, a compelling narrative of paradise past, the fallen present, and a glorious future. For his followers, it is essential to reinterpret apparent facts so they fit this narrative—otherwise they lose the hope it provides and the dignity they’ve invested in its truth.

I’ve made this argument before. And here’s one major problem with charlatans:

The process of embracing a charlatan’s empowering vision is not rational, which means that rational arguments are unlikely, in isolation, to dispel it. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people cling tenaciously to their worldviews, and conflicting data may actually strengthen their beliefs. (Just look at this family who thinks Trump is “a man of faith who will bring Godliness back.”) To renounce Trump would mean admitting that one’s worldview—of a country wracked by carnage, as the president put it in his inaugural address, and a truth-telling hero who can heal it—is fundamentally mistaken. And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea. It is much easier to forgive Trump for not locking her up than to wrestle with such truths.

It’s also much easier to convince yourself that a crowd is larger than it appears, particularly when the man you’ve put your faith in is arguing the same thing. And in the case of the photographs, it didn’t take much to come up with an explanation for the apparent discrepancy. Trump himself supplied it: Mainstream media manipulated both images to make it appear as if Obama’s had more. Trump even asked the National Park Service, which oversees the National Mall, for other aerial shots so that he could better assess the crowd sizes.

If Trump is really more like a false prophet than a political leader, we should expect his supporters to deny reality—not for the sake of expressive signaling, but because the coherence of their worldview depends on it. Once a false prophet has succeeded in gathering true believers, even doomsday can come and go without any repercussions, and the size of a crowd is whatever you want it to be. After all, that’s clearly how it works for Trump.

Throw Your Hat in the Air — Charlie Pierce pays tribute to Mary Tyler Moore.

No television show ever has meant as much to me as did The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I back up to nobody in my love for the original Law and Order or the original Star Trek. I have binged away on the various and glorious productions brought to us by HBO. But MTM holds a special place in my heart. I am not prepared to say why. The early shows, before it caught its stride, have not aged well. There’s too much of the old Laura (“Ohhhhh, Rawwwwwb!”) Petrie to Mary’s character. And I never could stand Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom.

But, as the show moved away from the apartment with the big white “M” on the wall and into the thickly linoleum’ed newsroom of WJM-TV, these problems melted away. The writing was sharpened and the characters made real and indelible. And it was not merely Mary Richards and Lou Grant, although their relationship became the heart of the show the moment that Ed Asner delivered the classic “I hate spunk!” in the series’ pilot.

They all had more than their share of moments, and Ted Knight made Ted Baxter the accepted shorthand for the vain, dim anchorman long before Will Ferrell ever got around to it. Sue Ann Nivens was the character that kicked off Betty White’s drive for immortality. (The scene in her Arabian Nights-meets-Tara-meets-The Bunny Ranch bedroom alone was enough to do that.) And, of course, it all came together in the unfortunate demise of Chuckles The Clown, which I will go to my grave believing is the funniest single half-hour of television comedy ever filmed.

It was perfect—from Sue Ann’s special, What’s All This Fuss About Famine?, to Ted’s anguish at being denied the chance to ride in the circus parade, to Lou’s old wire-service training kicking in (“The elephant’s name was Jocko!”), to Chuckles’ deathless sign-off:

A little song, a little dance/A little seltzer down your pants.”

But it was Mary’s show, always. She was occasionally wobbly, but ultimately the steadily beating heart of all the lives around her. She gave terrible parties—Johnny Carson and a pre-Fonz Henry Winkler were honored guests at two of the catastrophes—and she ended up entangled with Ted Bessell, of all people, at the end of things. And, in the last show, when everyone but Ted gets fired and they’re all leaving WJM for the last time, she spoke for all of them and for all of us, too:

“Well I just wanted to let you know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought what is family anyway? It’s the people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.”

Mary Tyler Moore died on Wednesday. She was 80 years old. Excuse me now, I’m going to go outside and throw my hat in the air.

Doonesbury — The doctor is out of it.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

More Than Funny

Most of us remember Mary Tyler Moore as a gifted comic actor in her roles as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and her eponymous TV series from 1970 to 1977.  But she was able to do brilliant work in serious roles such as her Oscar-nominated portrayal of an icy mother in “Ordinary People” in 1980.

Directed by Robert Redford and co-starring Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, and Judd Hirsch, it showed the quiet desperation of the upper middle class’s inability to deal with the tragedies of ordinary life.  Ms. Moore’s portrayal is amazing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Short Takes

Dozens killed when Turkish cargo plane crashes into village.

FBI arrests wife of Pulse nightclub shooter.

Shootings in Miami MLK festival leave 8 injured.

Suspect in shooting in New Year’s Day Istanbul arrested.

Ten more detainees transferred out of Gitmo.

R.I.P. Eugene Cernan, 82, the last man to walk on the moon.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back/Looking Forward

It’s time for my annual re-cap and prognostication for the past year and the year coming up.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

  • Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea who she will beat; I don’t think the Republicans know, either, but she will win, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it will be a decisive win.  The GOP will blame everybody else and become even more cranky, self-injuring, and irresponsible.
  • The Democrats down-ticket will do better than expected by taking back the Senate and narrowing their gap in the House.  This will be achieved by the number of voters who will turn out to vote for them in order to hold off the GOP’s attempt to turn the country back over to the control of white Christian males.

Both of those were spot-on until sometime in the late evening of November 8.  And I’m not the only one who blew that one.

  • The economy will continue to improve; maybe this is the year the Dow will hit 19,000.  The limiting factor will be how the rest of the world, mainly China, deals with their economic bubble.  I think a lot of the economic news will be based on the outcome of the U.S. election and the reaction to it.  If by some horrifying chance Donald Trump wins, all bets are off.  Economists and world markets like stability and sanity, and turning the U.S. over to a guy who acts like a used car hustler crossed with a casino pit boss will not instill confidence.

I covered my ass on that one but I think it’s still true.  By the way, the Dow did hit 19,000 in 2016.

  • ISIS, which barely registered on the radar as an existential threat to the U.S. and the west a year ago, will be contained.  There will not be a large American troop presence in Syria and Iraq thanks in part to the response by the countries that themselves are being invaded by ISIS.  Finally.
  • Refugees will still be pouring out of the Middle East, putting the strain on countries that have taken them in.  It will be a test of both infrastructure and moral obligation, and some, such as Canada, will set the example of how to be humane.

I’ll give myself a gentleman’s C on the first one because ISIS is still in play and Syria is looking like the horror that war brings and we’re no closer to an end to it.  As for the refugees, I underestimated the venality and xenophobia of some of the countries — including our own — in taking in the refugees.

  • Maybe this will be the year that Fidel Castro finally takes a dirt nap.

Got that one right, finally.

  • The Supreme Court will narrowly uphold affirmative action but leave room for gutting it later on.  They will also narrowly rule against further restrictions on reproductive rights.  And I am going out on a limb by predicting that President Obama will get to choose at least one more new justice for the Court, an appointment that will languish in the Senate until after the election.

I got that one right, including my out-on-a-limb one about President Obama having to pick a new justice for the court and the GOP sitting on it.  I hate it when I’m right about something like that.

  • Violence against our fellow citizens such as mass shootings will continue.  The difference now is that we have become numb to them and in an election year expecting any meaningful change to the gun laws or the mindset is right up there with flying pigs over downtown Miami.
  • Marriage equality will gain acceptance as it fades from the headlines, but the LGBTQ community’s next front will be anti-discrimination battles for jobs and housing.  It’s not over yet, honey.
  • We’re going to see more wild weather patterns but none of it will convince the hard-core deniers that it’s either really happening or that there’s anything we can do about it.

I’m sorry that those were right.

  • The Tigers will not win the division in 2016.  (Caution: reverse psychology at play.)

But the Cubs won the World Series so that makes up for it.

  • On a personal level, this could be a break-out year for my writing and play production.  I don’t say that every year.

One of my plays won a playwriting contest and I actually got a cash prize for it.  It has been submitted for a full production at a theatre in Boca Raton in their 2017-2018 season.  So that worked out.

Okay, predictions for 2017.

  • I have no earthly idea what will happen with Trump in the White House.  But I can say that for the first time in my life — and I will hit 65 this year — I am frightened both for myself and my country.
  • At some point in 2017 elements of the electorate will realize that they got conned into voting for Trump and that they were played for fools.  The backlash will begin when they find out he can’t follow through on his bullshit promises, and reach a peak when they find out that repealing Obamacare and deporting 11 million people effects them personally.  When it happens, it will not be pretty.
  • There will be a downturn in the economy thanks to the cyclical nature of economics and the instability in the market by the Twitter-In-Chief.  He will, of course, blame it on Barack Obama.
  • A year from now the Syrian civil war will still be dragging on.  ISIS will still be a factor, and if Trump does what he says he will do with the Iran nuclear deal, expect to see them re-start their nuclear program.  “Dr. Strangelove” will be seen by historians as a documentary.
  • The refugee crisis will continue and fester once nativists and right-wing elements win majorities in western European countries.
  • Our diplomatic thaw with Cuba will freeze as the attempts to end the blockade will not get through Congress.  Only until Trump gets permission to open a casino in Varadero Beach will there be any progress.
  • Violence against our fellow citizens will continue and take on a more xenophobic tone as the white supremacists think they are now in control.  The attorney general will do nothing to put an end to it because, in his words, “they had it coming.”
  • We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. 2016 was an especially painful year.  As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.
  • The Tigers will finish second in their division.
  • A year from today I will write this same post and review what I got right and what I didn’t.  But stick around and see how I do on a daily basis.

Okay, your turn.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Death, Take A Holiday

This year has been long on the number of people I have admired from afar being taken from us.  And now this.

carrie-fisher-12-27-16Carrie Fisher, the iconic actress who portrayed Princess Leia in the Star Wars series, died Tuesday following a massive heart attack last week. She was 60.

“It is with a very deep sadness that Billie Lourd confirms that her beloved mother Carrie Fisher passed away at 8:55 this morning,” Simon Halls, a spokesperson for Fisher’s family, said in a statement to People.

“I’m deeply saddened at the news of Carrie’s passing,” Fisher’s Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi co-star Billy Dee Williams wrote on Twitter. “She was a dear friend, whom I greatly respected and admired. The force is dark today!”

The daughter of screen legend Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, the actress made her Broadway debut as a teenager in Irene, which starred her mother. After making her big screen debut in 1975’s Shampoo and briefly enrolling in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and then St. Lawrence College, Fisher dropped out, at the age of 19, after landing the role of Princess Leia in George Lucas’ 1977 space epic Star Wars.

“She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds – along with her hairdresser – so all she has is a cause,” Fisher told Rolling Stone in 1983 of the role. “From the first film [A New Hope], she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry. In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.”

“Lucas always had to remind me to ‘Stand up! Be a princess!’ And I would act like a Jewish princess and lean forward, slouching, chewing gum,” Fisher once joked.

Fisher also saw parallels between Princess Leia, the lost daughter of the series’ villain Darth Vader, and her own unique childhood as the daughter of two Fifties superstars; Fisher endured both her mother’s highly publicized divorces as well as her father’s own issues with substance abuse (“He’s a little shellshocked from 13 years of doing speed, but he’s real friendly,” she said in 1980 of Eddie Fisher, who died in 2010.)

“Leia’s real father left her mother when she was pregnant, so her mother married this King Organa. I was adopted and grew up set apart from other people because I was a princess,” Fisher said. “A lot of parallels, me and Leia. Dad goes off to the dark side, and Mom marries a millionaire. My brother and I went in different directions on the Debbie and Eddie issue. He’s gotten involved with Jesus, and I do active work on myself, trying to make myself better and better. It’s funny.”

Peace be with you and always.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Friday, December 16, 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday Reading

No Surprise — Charles P. Pierce on Russia’s interference with the 2016 election.

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

—Graham Greene, The Quiet American

In the mid-1980s, the aides to the president of the United States committed serious crimes in their efforts to send sophisticated weapons to a state sponsor of international terrorism. The president of the United States likely committed impeachable offenses. We were told to get beyond it, that the “country” couldn’t afford another presidency crippled by its own crimes so soon after Richard Nixon had hobbled his. We got beyond it. We moved on.

In 1998, the House of Representatives impeached a president on the most spurious of grounds and full in the knowledge that the charges had no chance of prevailing in the Senate. There were many grand and glorious speeches on the floor of the House about the rule of law and about the House’s constitutional duties. It was a proud moment and many an ambitious young politician thumped his chest over the righteousness of his cause. By 2000, nobody in the political party that had brought the charges even mentioned it any more. We got beyond it. We moved on.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States interfered in a presidential election in an extra-constitutional and unprecedented way. It essentially installed a man in that office who had lost the popular vote by half-a-million and likely had lost the crucial state of Florida, too, which would have denied him a majority in the electoral college. From all sides, even from the candidate who was so badly wronged, we were told that “the country” needed to “heal” from this terrible crisis, even though the country seemed to be rocking right along. We got beyond it. We moved on.

In 2008, we elected a president after eight years in which the country’s moral foundation had been winnowed away by faceless bureaucrats and torturers in black sites in Thailand and shipping crates in Bagram, and eight years in which much of the national wealth was stolen by brigands in expensive suits on Wall Street. The new president was a good man. He wanted to look forward and not back. We got beyond all of it. We moved on.

In all of these matters, both subtly and directly, and by many of our institutions, including the press, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as frightened children and our democratic republic as something made of candy glass that would shatter from the vibrations if our constitutional engines were revved up too highly or if they performed their essential functions too vigorously. We were convinced that our faith in our values was a fragile and breathless thing that would collapse if exercised too strenuously.

We were persuaded that we were far too delicate these days for the kind of brawling politics in which this country had been born, and for which the Founders had set up the Constitution to maintain something resembling boundaries. We were fed cheap junk food instead of actual information until we developed a serious jones for it. Our belief in our counterfeit national innocence was that with which we washed it all down. We became a fat and lazy excuse for a democratic republic.

So don’t tell me to be surprised by the blockbuster story that The Washington Post published about the involvement of the Russian government in the 2016 presidential election. This kind of thing has been a long time coming.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances. “It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

(By the way, I warned El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago months ago that he was fcking with the wrong executive editor, but would he listen?)

Do I believe the story? Of course, I do. Do I trust the CIA? Not implicitly, but I trust Marty Baron, and he wouldn’t have come within 10 miles of publishing this story unless he was extremely sure of its sourcing and its material. I also believe the story because of the truthless and lame-assed rapid response that came from the Trump transition team.

These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’

Every dipthong of that is a lie. The election was barely a month ago. Trump’s victory in the Electoral College was one of the slimmest in history. And, as for the shot at the CIA, it’s important to remember that a lot of the great work done by the McClatchy newspapers and others that debunked the case for WMDs in Iraq, the stories that nobody in the elite political media cared about at the time, also came from the intelligence community. Generally, intramural pissing matches among intelligence services are a boon to investigative journalism. For example, what was Mark Felt’s motive for going to Bob Woodward on Watergate if not Felt’s dissatisfaction with the way the FBI and the local federal prosecutors were handling the case? That statement is so transparently false and evasive that it inadvertently confirms what the Post reported.

And the fact remains that the embryonic Trump administration is lousy with Russian connections, right up to the oil baron who is expected to be nominated as secretary of state. (Did you know that Paul Manafort lives in Trump Tower? I didn’t.) The fact remains that the president-elect was noticeably touchy about his relationship with Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign. (“No puppet. You’re the puppet.” A legendary moment in American political rhetoric.) The fact remains that Putin is an authoritarian thug with no qualms at all about getting what he wants when he wants it, and the fact remains that Russian international ambitions do not change whether the government is Tsarist, Communist, or oligarchy.

The fact remains that we do not know fck-all about those to whom the president-elect owes money. The fact remains that, in October, the director of national intelligence accused the Russian government of hacking political organizations in this country. The fact remains that, less than a month ago, the director of the National Security Agency said pretty much the same thing, on the record, as the Post story reports that the CIA believes. Many facts remain. Many, many facts remain.

But, again, it seems, all of these facts that remain were less important than a desire to keep the real, grungy reality hushed up, lest it frighten the children. This is the most distressing passage in the Post’s story.

In a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information, administration officials broadly laid out the evidence U.S. spy agencies had collected, showing Russia’s role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking the emails of the Democratic organizations and individuals. And they made a case for a united, bipartisan front in response to what one official described as “the threat posed by unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.” The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests. According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics. Some of the Republicans in the briefing also seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such explosive allegations in the final stages of an election, a move that they argued would only rattle public confidence and play into Moscow’s hands.

This president has been a good one, probably the most progressive politician we’ve seen in that office since LBJ was kicking ass in 1965. But he has made mistakes, and every single serious mistake he’s made has been because he assumed good faith on the part of his political opposition, misjudged the depth and virulence of his political opposition, or both. It’s 2016. Why would he still believe Mitch McConnell would act with dispassionate patriotism instead of partisan obstruction on anything? Why would he believe it of anyone in the congressional Republican leadership? Hell, he even admitted as much in an interview on NPR last July. I respect the president’s confidence in the better angels of our nature, but those angels have been deathly quiet since 2009.

El Centro — Gabe Ulla at The New Yorker profiles Versailles, the center of life in Little Havana now that Fidel Castro is dead.

On the night of November 25th, the owners of Versailles, Miami’s most famous Cuban restaurant, were at a Thanksgiving gathering when their phones buzzed with a news alert: Fidel Castro was dead. Nicole Valls, who helps run the restaurant with her father and grandfather, was used to false alarms; since 2006, when rumors of the leader’s ill health first circulated, she’d been keeping a folder in the trunk of her car containing protocol for Versailles in the event of Castro’s passing. Now, once she’d confirmed that Castro was really dead this time, she ran to grab the folder from her car and texted the restaurant’s managers with instructions: the parking lot would have to be cleared to make room for the many news vans that had reserved spaces for the occasion. In the early hours of the 26th, crowds surrounded Versailles, waving Cuban flags, banging out clave rhythms on pots and pans, and joining in chants in Spanish, including “Parriba, p’abajo, los Castros p’al carajo”—“Up and down, and the Castro brothers can go to hell.” The next day, when celebrations resumed, the restaurant ran out of croquetas by noon.

Nicole’s paternal grandfather, Felipe Valls, Sr., opened Versailles, on Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, in 1971, and in the decades since the restaurant has outlasted most of the local competition. The family today owns forty restaurants around the city, including one just down the block. But it’s their flagship restaurant that has become a de-facto town square for generations of Miami’s Cuban community, and the media’s go-to place for assessing the state of Cuban-American relations. The Cuban author Carlos Alberto Montaner, a close friend of the Valls family, told me, “How can you effectively reach the exiled community, an abstract concept of two million people spread throughout the world? Versailles is a concrete place that gives sense and form to that abstraction, and the media understand that.”

The restaurant has been an obligatory stop for politicians on the campaign trail since 1986, when the Florida politician Bob Graham, during his run for governor, put on a busboy uniform and worked a shift, wiping down tables and refilling water glasses. In 2000, the restaurant became a fixture of TV news segments during the custody battle over Elián González, when Cuban-Americans in the region rallied behind the boy’s family members in Miami. And in March, when Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba, a group of protesters set up shop across the street from the restaurant, holding signs with messages like “Obama Miserable Comunista.” If Donald Trump attempts to undo Obama’s thawing of relations, as he has suggested he might, media outlets will look to the reactions of Versailles patrons.

But the Valls family knew that the most frenzied activity would come in the wake of Castro’s death. In “The Versailles Restaurant Cookbook,” published two years ago, Nicole Valls and her co-author, the local food and television personality Ana Quincoces, explained that one of the traditions of Versailles customers, especially at its outdoor café window, or ventanita, is “plotting Fidel Castro’s death.” Each time rumors surfaced that Castro had died, they wrote, “people flocked to the restaurant in droves to confirm the story and to celebrate the possibility that it might be true.”

Though my own father liked to slyly refer to Versailles by the nickname El Pentágono, for much of my early life I viewed the restaurant less as a political nerve center than as a place to get consistently good plates of ropa vieja with rice and sweet plantains. Versailles is where my parents, Cuban exiles who left the island in the early sixties and eventually settled in New York, would take the family for dinner whenever we visited cousins in Miami. The restaurant is open until 1 A.M. Sunday through Thursday and even later on weekends, so we’d go there after parties when every other place was closed. The restaurant’s many dining rooms are adorned with chandeliers and other faux-opulent homages to pre-revolutionary Havana, but Versailles, which has about four hundred seats, is really a cafeteria, a protean meeting ground with an inexpensive and expansive menu, plastic breadbaskets, and vinyl chairs. Like the long-standing Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans, it is a place for regulars who like to stick to their habits. A group of elderly exiles known as the Teen-agers eats lunch there every weekday, and devotees request specific tables based on the strength of the air-conditioning.

It is these old-timers whose political sentiments help to set the tone of Versailles’s coverage in the media. On Election Night, when it became clear that Trump would be the victor, a celebration erupted outside of the restaurant. Though the Cuban-American vote in Florida tipped in favor of the Republican candidate, a majority of Cuban-Americans support Obama’s policies toward the island. But the news stories from Versailles depicted a scene of pro-Trump fervor. Ana María Dopico, a Cuban-American professor at N.Y.U., told me that the media’s relentless focus on Versailles ends up selling a “caricature” of Cuban-American political feeling. The population of the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade, a Democratic county, hovers close to a million. “The illusion of Versailles as a village square obscures how varied Cuban Miami is, and that Cuban-Americans are not a monolith,” she said.

The Mexican-American journalist and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who has lived in Miami since 1986, told me he’d found the post-Castro moment in Little Havana surprisingly subdued. Twenty years ago, when Castro seemed “all-powerful on the island,” there was a feeling that his passing could instantly provoke change, and inspire a mass immigration back to the island. “There is honor and dignity in confronting the dictator and outlasting the dictator,” Ramos said. But Castro ceded power to his brother Raúl in 2008, and the lessons of post-Hugo Chávez Venezuela made clear that a Cuba without Fidel wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of Castrismo. Felipe Valls, Jr., Nicole’s father and the current head of the company, suggested a similar sense of ruefulness: “Castro lived a long time, and we weren’t able to say, in his face, ‘This is the new Cuba, and screw you.’ ” Exactly what Castro’s death, and Trump’s rise, will mean for Cuban-American relations remains uncertain. Versailles, more than providing campaign stops or media sound bites, will be most useful as a place for Cuban-Americans to process their continued sense of displacement—the trauma and complicated pride that stem from having roots in a country that an increasing number of Miamians never experienced firsthand.

A week and a half after Castro’s death, my parents and I all happened to be in Miami, and I went to sit with them one evening as they ate dinner at Versailles. The room was full. At one table nearby, four grandmothers drank batidos, or milkshakes, with their main courses. I picked at some croquettes, while my dad inhaled a plate of braised oxtail and my mom had filet mignon. At one point, our waiter, a man in his forties wearing the staff’s signature white dress shirt and green cravat, came by to check on us. I asked him about the celebrations earlier in the week, and when he expected Versailles’s next big party would be. “When Raúl goes, I guess,” he said.

The Highs and Lows — Daniel Wenger on the life of John Glenn.

“What is the reason for this?” John Glenn radioed from the threshold of outer space. “Do you have a reason?” The date was February 20, 1962, and the forty-year-old Glenn—then circling Earth at more than seventeen thousand miles per hour in Friendship 7, a capsule about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle—was responding to a set of rather unhappy instructions from ground control. In the next four and a half minutes, as Glenn reëntered the planet’s atmosphere, he was to perform a series of potentially life-threatening manual overrides. It appeared that Glenn’s heat shield had loosened, and the overrides were intended to secure it, so that he would not be incinerated. But ground control first wanted to insure that he understood the instructions, promising to “give you the reasons for this action when you are in view.” Glenn made the adjustments, and, during the topsy-turvy final stretch of his descent (he later reported that he felt like “a falling leaf”), he piloted the craft himself. This was a notable achievement even for a former Marine colonel who had flown a hundred and forty-nine missions in two wars, and who could maneuver himself “alongside you and tap a wing tip gently against yours,” according to a former squadron mate.

Glenn survived, of course, and for the rest of his ninety-five years he wore the halo of the pioneer astronaut—the sort of person who was “preselected by a committee of physicians, psychiatrists, and other experts looking for the healthiest, sanest, most highly motivated, and intelligent men they could find,” as Loudon Wainwright, Jr., a Life journalist who covered the early space program, wrote. The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci once called him “the most perfect fantastic Boy Scout in a nation of Boy Scouts.” Yesterday, when Glenn died, it was in suitably wholesome fashion—in the company of his children and his wife of seven decades, Annie, whom he had known, he once said, since they were “literally sharing a playpen” in New Concord, Ohio.

As befits a canonical twentieth-century American, Glenn, who was born in 1921, grew up during the Great Depression. He was close with his father, who took him flying for the first time, in an open-cockpit biplane, and brought him up Presbyterian. His engineering studies were interrupted by Pearl Harbor, which prompted him to enlist. After twenty-three years in the Marines, he gained national fame by flying a fighter jet from California to New York in three hours and twenty-three minutes, breaking the transcontinental air-speed record. Soon after, he was picked as one of the first crop of astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven.

After the Friendship mission, John F. Kennedy encouraged Glenn to retire from NASA and run for office. In 1964, Glenn made his first bid for a Senate seat, in Ohio, calling it “the best opportunity to make use of the experience I have gained in twenty-two years of public service.” The country had certainly seen military incursions on civilian office before, but Glenn’s announcement was archly received in certain quarters. “If our latter-day folk heroes take over the Congress, our legislators will all be out of work,” an unnamed New Yorker staffer wrote at the time. It took Glenn two more tries to get to the Senate—in the meantime, he worked as an executive at Royal Crown Cola—but almost as soon as he did, in 1974, he began to contemplate even higher positions. Two years later, he went into the Democratic National Convention as the favorite for the Vice-Presidential nomination, until his tepid keynote address apparently tipped the scales in Walter Mondale’s favor.

Glenn was a good legislator, in the end, more comfortable operating the machinery of government than he was selling it. His greatest success came in 1978, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, a bill that was designed by one of his top aides, Leonard Weiss, became law. The act provided a framework for nations that were not bound by international treaties—India, Brazil, South Africa—to safely acquire nuclear-energy technology. In Glenn’s 1980 reëlection campaign, he portrayed himself as a man who “understands war but loves peace,” and he knew well how intertwined the two often were: the peaceful exploration of space grew out of military competition between Russia and the United States, and the rocket that had launched Glenn into orbit was derived from an intercontinental ballistic missile. Glenn, with his steady, stolid military voice and his socially liberal credentials—he was pro-choice and supported the Equal Rights Amendment—won a second term resoundingly. Reagan had taken Ohio the same year, and, in Democratic Party circles, there was immediate chatter about Glenn challenging the new President four years hence. When the 1984 primary rolled around, though, Glenn ended up playing the Martin O’Malley to Mondale’s Hillary and Gary Hart’s Bernie Sanders.

In the nineties, toward the end of Glenn’s Senate tenure, he took on campaign-finance reform, perhaps a kind of recompense for being tarred, during a 1990 Senate Ethics Committee investigation, as one of the so-called Keating Five—a group of senators who had received campaign contributions from Charles H. Keating, Jr., the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, and appeared to have intervened with regulators on Lincoln’s behalf. In 1991, after Glenn had spent half a million dollars to defend his “honor,” as he put it, he was let off with the lightest possible censure: “poor judgment.” These events were, Glenn later reflected, the low point of his career.

If great lives have their own grading curves, it might be said that Glenn never quite aced his self-examination. He once admitted to being jealous of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong for landing on the moon. Perhaps that’s why, in 1998, as he prepared to retire from the Senate, he persuaded NASA to return him to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest person ever to have escaped Earth’s gravity. “It is hard to beat a day in which you are permitted the luxury of seeing four sunsets,” he had said during a joint address to Congress, in 1962. Finally, after waiting more than thirty years, he was permitted eight more days—and, because they were orbiting so quickly, a hundred and thirty-four more sunsets.

 Doonesbury — The name game.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Monday, November 28, 2016

Short Takes

Trump says he would have won the popular vote if millions hadn’t voted “illegally.”

Bernie Sanders tells GOP to can it about the recount objections.

Gun sales to blacks, minorities soar after Trump’s election.

South Korean leader digs in amid calls for impeachment.

R.I.P. Ron Glass, 71, Detective Harris on Barney Miller; Florence Henderson, Mrs. Brady of The Brady Bunch.