Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Reading

It’s Mueller Time — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Late last year, Vintage Books reissued “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller from 1965 that seemed to rhyme with the strangeness of our era. The novel centers on a Commander-in-Chief named Mark Hollenbach, who is gradually coming unwound. President Hollenbach is in the habit of summoning confidants to his cabin in the Maryland woods, where, at night, he turns off the lights and rants until dawn about the conspirators encircling him. He rails against pernicious legislators, disloyal appointees, and craven reporters. For no coherent reason, he intends to distance the United States from Western European allies and make common cause with a Kremlin leader named Zuchek. He also wants to tap every telephone in the country, declaring, “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we’re after.” Lacking Twitter, he writes deranged letters. One key character is a Supreme Court Justice by the name of Cavanaugh. The marketers at Vintage shrewdly wrapped the reissue in a black-and-white cover emblazoned with a question intended to play upon the country’s collective jitters: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?”

The author, Fletcher Knebel, wrote a popular syndicated column in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, called “Potomac Fever,” before turning full time to fiction. “Night of Camp David” was published the same year that Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which clarified the procedure for removing a President who is no longer able to carry out his duties. Half a century later, Potomac Fever has reached new heights; for the past two years and two months, it has been hard not to think periodically about that crucial addition to the Constitution.

The Trump Presidency has, from the first, represented a threat to truth, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Donald Trump’s contempt for basic norms of governance is accompanied by a lack of decency, empathy, and psychological stability. This was never more evident than this week, when Trump, seemingly rattled by the imminence of the Mueller report, set off a fusillade of unhinged tweets, called the spouse of one of his senior advisers a “whack job,” raged about the late Senator John McCain in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and pronounced the Democratic Party “anti-Jewish,” deepening, at every turn, the impression that he is unfit for government work.

The perils of such instability are incalculable. Sidney Karper, the wizened Defense Secretary in “Night of Camp David,” says of Hollenbach, “It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery.” In the novel, a self-appointed council of party leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the security establishment secretly deliberates on how to deal with the delusional President, and catastrophe is averted. Hollenbach coöperates in his own removal from office, and, in the end, he is deemed to have “the finest heart in America.”

Current realities offer no such reassurance. Trump has the psyche of an emotionally damaged toddler. You hear this not only from his ideological opponents but from countless departing confidants, lawyers, and advisers. He is devoted not to public service but to feeding the demands of his ego and his appetites.

The pressures on Trump will inevitably increase now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, a raft of investigators on various congressional committees and in outposts of the Justice Department are accelerating their searches into matters including hush-money payments, money laundering, irregular security clearances, foreign interference in the 2016 election, illegal use of inaugural funds, and improper use of foundation money. And yet it is impossible to imagine Trump changing his behavior. He retains the support of the Republican leadership; the odds of his completing his term are considerable. Trump’s affinity for the autocratic likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin suggests that he might refuse—as his former satrap and attorney Michael Cohen warned he would—to give up power without trying to undermine the legitimacy of the American political system. What’s more, given Trump’s skills in the dark arts of campaigning and the general public satisfaction with the economy, no matter its inequities or vulnerabilities, it would be foolhardy to discount his chance of winning reëlection.

The emergency that the Trump Presidency represents leaves the Democratic Party’s cast of candidates with a singular responsibility—to win the election—and two colossal reclamation projects. The first involves the environment. Presidential debates in past elections have largely ignored the costs of climate change. But public opinion on the topic is moving, and there is cause for at least some political optimism in the fact that many Democrats have gotten behind the idea of a New Deal-scale effort to address the issue. Candidates who can best give shape to that impulse and find a plausible way to make it a legislative reality deserve the most urgent attention.

The second reclamation concerns Trumpism. Somehow, sometime, Trump will leave the political stage; but the moral and material corruption he has inflicted will be with us for a long while. Who has the vision and the language to confront xenophobia and white-supremacist ideology? Who has the dexterity and the pragmatism to enact reforms on voting rights, health care, immigration, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, and so strengthen a stressed democracy? Who has the political acumen to argue for policies adequate to resolve our crises and, at the same time, to win back the millions of voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and then shifted to Trump?

Trump will be dropping loaded hooks in the water every day, but Democratic candidates ought not take his bait. He’ll use “socialism,” “Jexodus,” or whatever comes to mind as a means of distraction and division. It is perfectly legitimate to test the candidates and their potential weaknesses: Are Biden and Warren and Sanders too old? Is Beto O’Rourke the second coming of Robert Kennedy, or does he just look like him when you squint? And so on. But the kind of serious campaigns and debates that are never found in political novels are precisely what’s now required.

Spring Elsewhere — Marina Koren in The Atlantic finds out what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

Ah, spring.

The season of vibrant flowers lining the sidewalk on the commute home, their gentle fragrance wafting into the air. Of sunshine that calls for a light jacket instead of a bulky coat. Of the passionate urge to clean everything in sight.

Outside The Atlantic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, it’s about 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius)—not warm enough for open-toed shoes, but still more pleasant than, say, a polar vortex. I’ve been longing for this day, and it got me thinking about spring on other planets, and whether it even exists.

We owe the seasons to Earth’s axis, which stays tilted at about 23 degrees as the Earth loops around the sun. But the orientation of the planet’s hemispheres in relation to the sun changes; different parts of the Earth lean toward or away from the sun at different times of the year, and receive varying amounts of sunlight.

But how do other planets work? To find out, and also to procrastinate my spring cleaning, I reached out to some scientists who spend their days thinking about other worlds.

Mercury

“Mercury doesn’t really have anything approaching spring, or any season for that matter,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University. The planet’s axial tilt, a fraction of a degree, is negligible. “The amount of daylight at a given latitude on Mercury is essentially fixed during the entire year.”

The daylight is relentless and scorching. But the orientation produces a rather cool phenomenon. “It lets Mercury have regions of permanent shadow near its poles that are never sunlit, and lets ice be present in those regions—even on the planet closest to the sun,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“It’s one weird little planet,” Byrne adds.

Venus

“There is no springtime on Venus, nor any other season—no seasons in hell!” says Allan Treiman, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

It’s difficult to sugarcoat the environment on Venus. Surface temperatures are a sizzling 870 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead, all year round. Like Mercury’s, Venus’s axis isn’t tilted enough to produce a noticeable difference.

But the real reason the planet doesn’t have any seasons is its atmosphere, which is choked with clouds. “The clouds are so thick that its surface gets nearly no light or heat from the sun. Nearly all the sunlight and heat are absorbed by clouds, which then radiate heat down to the surface—the famous greenhouse effect,” Tremain says. “Venus clouds circulate faster than the surface does, so all the greenhouse heat is spread around the planet, whether it’s day or night.”

That’s not all. “To top everything else off, Venus’ day is longer than her year,” says Vicki Hansen, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. (It takes 243 Earth days for Venus to rotate once on its axis, but 225 Earth days for the planet to loop around the sun.) “So if she had spring, it would be hard to say what day it happened.”

Mars

Mars’s axis is tilted slightly more than Earth’s—about 25 degrees—which means the planet experiences distinct seasons, too. In fact, like the Northern hemisphere here, the Northern hemisphere on Mars is entering spring now.

“The Northern hemisphere is starting to heat up; the Southern hemisphere cooling off—just like on Earth,” says Don Banfield, a scientist at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science.

Well, not just like on Earth. Orbits affect seasons, too; the Martian year is twice as long as a terrestrial year, so the seasons stretch out longer. There are seasonal trends, such as summer dust storms, “but without rain and plants, they aren’t quite as obvious,” says Banfield.

Jupiter

“Jupiter does not have a springtime,” says Cheng Li, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like Mercury, Jupiter’s axial tilt is too small to matter.

Saturn

Saturn does have spring: Its axial tilt is similar to that of Earth and Mars.

“Saturn is warm in the summer and cold in the winter,” says Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester. “The clouds and chemicals respond to these changes in sunlight. Perhaps the best example is the color of Saturn’s atmosphere, which shifts from blue hues in the winter—relatively clear skies with very few hazes—to golden hues in summer—a more smoggy atmosphere with lots of hazes.”

Saturnian spring also provides the most visibility for a massive, hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole that has mesmerized scientists for years. Some parts of Saturn can even experience miniature versions of seasons, thanks to its shimmering rings.

“A fixed point in Saturn’s atmosphere would experience additional periods when the rings shade the sun,” says Mike Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We actually have something like this at my house, because the neighboring building has a billboard on top. From a certain date in November to a certain date in February, our roof is in constant shade because the billboard blocks the sun, so our house gets colder.”

Uranus

With a 98-degree tilt of its axis, Uranus basically spins on its side. This alignment means the planet experiences the most extreme seasonal contrasts in the solar system.

“The poles get a great deal of illumination from an overhead sun that barely seems to move in the sky during local summer and a great deal of darkness in winter,” says Glenn Orton, a scientist at NASA’s JPL. “As spring begins, the sun is virtually always at the horizon for anyone living at the poles and virtually straight overhead for a Uranian in the low-latitude tropics.” (We should clarify: These are fictional Uranian residents. Alien life hasn’t been discovered there.)

During spring, a giant white cap emerges over the north pole, standing out against the planet’s usual blue hues. Scientists suspect the warming temperatures produce atmospheric changes.

This far out in the solar system—where orbits are vastly longer—seasons stretch out for years. A Uranus spring lasts 21.

Neptune

Spring on Neptune is twice as long. The planet experiences distinct seasons, but “I don’t think we’ve been able to observe Neptune long enough with enough detail to say for sure how spring in one hemisphere differs from any other season in terms of atmospheric activity,” says Anne Verbiscer, a planetary scientist at the University of Virginia.

Pluto

“Why yes, it’s springtime on Pluto right now, at least in the northern hemisphere!” says David Grinspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “And it has been since 1990.”

(Please don’t overthink the inclusion of Pluto on this list. Scientists have spent years arguing over the correct categorization of this celestial body. For some of them, the 2006 decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet is not the final word. We’ll leave the debating to them.)

Pluto’s orbit around the sun is highly elliptical. “The distance to the sun is quite different for the same season in the south versus the north,” Grinspoon says. “This creates asymmetrical and extreme climate behavior where, over the timescale of the seasons—which are many decades long—the atmosphere goes through the magnitude of changes that on other planets we would call climate changes.”

Spring sounds mild compared with colder seasons. Without enough exposure to sunlight, Pluto can get so cold that its atmosphere freezes and falls on the surface. “You can imagine what life would be like if we had that experience on Earth,” says Bob West, a scientist at JPL. “The air we breathe and which sustains all life on the dry land would form crystals of water, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide and fall to the ground as snow, leaving a near vacuum where once there was air.”

Wow. A little spring cleaning doesn’t sound so bad now.

Doonesbury — Origin stories.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Reality Check

Other than the fact that Robert Mueller has delivered his report to the Attorney General and no new indictments are forthcoming from him, none of us knows any more than we did before 5 p.m. Friday, March 22, 2019.

So you might as well just turn off the cable chatter and read a book, take a walk, do the crossword puzzle, clean the kitchen, or whatever.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Fast Action

It took New Zealand less than a week to immediately ban the weapons used in the mosque massacres last Friday.

Even if it could pass constitutional muster — which it probably could since the 2nd Amendment talks about “well regulated” — nothing like the swiftness and surety of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s actions could happen here.  American politicians are too enamored of the money — or the threat of the lack of it — from lobbyists and PAC’s to do any more than offer thoughts and prayers.  And even those come at a cost.

So while the thoughtful and caring people of the world deal with problems like this with dispatch, we worry where our next electoral victory will come from.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Speaking Ill Of The Dead

I was never a big fan of John McCain politically, and I think his nomination of Sarah Palin as his VP choice in 2008 led in part to Trumpism, but the man is dead.  Trump is a coward for attacking him.  But even more cowardly is the Republican leadership’s silence in response.

We always knew Trump was a jerk and a bully, so his craven bigotry and shallowness is no real shock.  But for the folks who less than ten years ago championed Sen. McCain and his “mavericky” style as the leader of their party to suddenly cower in the corner because a barroom drunk starts bellowing says a lot more about them than it does about the drunk.

It’s just more proof — as if we needed it — that Republicans will say anything, tolerate anything, and enable anyone, no matter how loathsome, who will somehow keep them in power.  And that’s more disgusting than Trump’s routine.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Keep Marching

Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

The Women’s Marches over-awed Donald Trump’s Inauguration. Protesters at airports checked the initial version of Trump’s travel bans. Ordinary Americans’ phone calls and door knocks defeated multiple attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act. It all sent a clear message during Trump’s first two years in office: Resistance works.

Engaged protesters were not able to block the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act or Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, but they did render both toxically unpopular. The resistance spurred an unprecedented level of interest in special elections, swinging seats across the country, and powered Democrats to sweeping wins in the 2018 midterms.

And then it stopped. There was no mass mobilization to call senators in advance of the resolution blocking Trump’s border emergency declaration. There were no crowds on Capitol Hill. There are no reports of Republican senators canceling town halls because they’re afraid to face angry crowds demanding a floor vote on the anti-corruption bill HR 1. There are no protesters demanding that Trump accede to Congress’s request for his tax returns in part because no request has been made.

The resistance has demobilized. And for Democrats, it’s probably a huge mistake.

It’s perhaps more a matter of how people look at life in general that has led to this.  Conservatives not only see the glass half-empty, they’re on the lookout for someone, somewhere, to dash it from their lips.  They live in a world of suspicion and hyped-up tension; every stranger is a danger; every person that doesn’t look or sound like them is up to no good, so no matter what the reality is, you can’t trust anybody.  That explains why even after winning elections the right-wingers never stop complaining and campaigning.

Progressives see it the other way: everything has the potential for beauty and comity; we can just all get along if only we’d trust our inner goodness.  Electing their people will turn everything right and we can all take a deep cleansing breath and relax.

But you cannot stop and rest on your laurels and think the defeated will retreat, having learned their lesson.  They’ll be back with a vengeance because that is what they do.  That’s why after the election of the first African-American president so many people pronounced racism was dead and believed we had at last grown past the original sin of slavery and institutional bigotry, only to have it made abundantly clear that not only was prejudice and paranoia still alive and well, it could elect the most dangerous threat to American democracy since Fort Sumter.

It’s easier to scare people with a siege mentality, and it’s a great control mechanism; keep the followers in line (and getting their money) with fear and loathing.  (Organized religion figured that out thousands of years ago.)  The Democrats cannot let their guard down, and they don’t have to make up fake news or gin up paranoia to show the world that they need to keep up the marching.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

That’s A Lot

It is way too early to pay much attention to the Democratic candidates as they tune up and take warm-up laps, but seeing Beto O’Rourke bring in over $6 million in his first 24 hours of “official” campaigning is impressive.

As of now there are fourteen other candidates vying for attention, and if my e-mail inbox is any indication, they’re all after me for money.  That’s how it works.  (Sorry, folks, you’re not getting any until after the Iowa caucuses, and even then.)  And Joe Biden is still playing peek-a-boo with his (possible) candidacy as if the race needs to fill out every demographic that checks off the D box: women, POC, gay, young, old, ethnic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, single-issue (climate, health care, take your pick); mash them all together into one in some transporter malfunction and you’ve got the perfect candidate to run against Trump, or at least fill out the application at the HR office of the DNC.

I don’t know if Beto O’Rourke is it, or the $6.1 million is just an indicator of a lot of people ready to cast their lot, if not their PayPal account, with someone who seems to be the antithesis of everything that Trump and the Republicans have stood for in the last thirty years: greed, xenophobia, nationalism, ignorance, bullying, hypocrisy, and self-loathing.  And while the base is solidly with Trump, just as there were those who objected to Nixon resigning, the GOP numbers, both polling and actual people who identify as Republican, are shrinking.  Having 93% of support in a party that represents less than 40% of the voters isn’t exactly a strong place to plant your burning cross flag.

It’s going to be at least a year before we really know who the Democratic candidate will be, and a lot can change in a year.  My estimation is by then we’ll be down to four or five contenders (any bets on who will be the first to drop out?  My money’s on John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado).  But after seeing how he ran against Ted Cruz in Texas, I would not be surprised to see Mr. O’Rourke still at it, still going, and that first $6 million is just the beginning.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Better Things To Do

You would think that with all of the things going on in the world today, including natural disasters such as flooding the Iowa and Nebraska, an entire fleet of aircraft grounded, North Korea rattling their sabre (again), white supremacists shooting up mosques in New Zealand, an American president would have more important things to worry about than a late-night comedy program on TV putting up a re-run that made fun of him.

But no.

Other U.S. presidents have decried horror abroad as an affront to values shared among liberal democratic allies, but Trump has made no major address to mourn those gunned down last week as they worshiped at mosques in New Zealand. He has not condemned the professed white-supremacist motives of the accused killer.

Instead, Trump has spent the past few days, including the hours before and after the church service, rallying his most loyal supporters around his nationalist agenda against illegal immigration, attacking a familiar list of perceived enemies and adding new ones, all while casting himself as a victim of unfair attacks.

It was a weekend of nonstop grievances from the leader of the free world.

“It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side,’ ” Trump tweeted just before 8 a.m. Sunday. “Like an advertisement without consequences. Same with Late Night Shows.”

SNL had rerun an episode Saturday that opened with a sketch lampooning Trump as a bitter and bewildered George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The president suggested the federal government should target the show. “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this? There must be Collusion with the Democrats and, of course, Russia! Such one sided media coverage, most of it Fake News. Hard to believe I won and am winning. Approval Rating 52 percent, 93% with Republicans. Sorry! #MAGA.”

Okay, stop right there.  The federal government can’t target the show; the FCC has no control over the networks.  And it sounds like he’s calling for the return of the Fairness Doctrine, which was abolished during the Reagan administration because gas bags like Rush Limbaugh complained that they were under the mistaken impression that they had to give equal time to opposite points of view.  You really want that back?  (Actually, it wouldn’t make any difference.  Most, if not all, of the news, fake or otherwise, comes via cable, and that’s not regulated by the FCC either.)

The point is that with all the shit going down in the world, we have an obsessed narcissist and coward in the White House who seems to think the only thing that matters is what other people think of him.  That’s not how you run a democracy.  It is, however, how you run a dictatorship.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick’s Day

If you’re Irish and it means something to you, then best wishes on St. Patrick’s Day. Here in America it’s another excuse to party, drink way too much, and contribute more to the stereotypes that the Irish all sound like Barry Fitzgerald (“Faith ‘n’ begorah, Father O’Malley!”).

According to my sources, St. Patrick’s Day is a much bigger deal here than it is in Ireland, and they treat it the same way we do when the French go nuts over Jerry Lewis; it’s an inexplicable cultural phenomenon more than the celebration of a saint. But if it’s all fun and games and no one gets hurt, hey, have fun.

Sunday Reading

John Cassidy in The New Yorker on confronting the rise of right-wing terrorism.

Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the twenty-eight-year-old Australian who allegedly carried out a racially motivated gun massacre, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, appeared in court on Saturday morning and was charged with one count of murder. According to a report from the New Zealand Herald, Tarrant “appeared in white prison clothing, with manacled hands, and barefoot. He smirked when media photographed him in the dock, flanked by two police officers.” He didn’t enter a plea and was remanded in custody. The court hearing, at the Christchurch district court, was closed to the public, but the judge allowed some members of the media to report on the proceedings.

As they were taking place, surgeons were still operating on some of the victims of the shootings, which occurred at two mosques, and the confirmed death toll rose to forty-nine. More horrifying eyewitness accounts emerged, and the whole of New Zealand, a remote island nation of about 4.9 million people that had only thirty-five murders in all of 2017, was in a state of deep shock. “I honestly thought somebody was carrying a water pistol—this is New Zealand, you know—or a showing of a pellet gun or something,” Omar Nabi, a Christchurch man whose father was shot dead at one of the two mosques that were attacked, told reporters. “We feel safe here because it’s multicultural. We’re accepted no matter who we are.” Tragically, it took just one heavily armed fanatic to upset this equilibrium.

Tarrant grew up more than fourteen hundred miles away from Christchurch, in Grafton, New South Wales, a small city located about three hundred and eighty miles north of Sydney. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, when Tarrant lived in Grafton, he was known “as someone who was dedicated to fitness and ran free athletic programs for children.” He lived in a modest home, and, after leaving high school, in 2009, he got a job at a local gym. “He never showed any extremist tendencies in conversations I had with him,” Tracey Gray, the owner of the gym, told the Herald. In social-media posts, Tarrant said that he quit his job in 2011 and set off to travel the world.

It’s not known yet when he settled in New Zealand, but recently he had been living in Dunedin, a coastal city about two hundred and twenty miles south of Christchurch. “This individual has travelled the world with sporadic periods of time spent in New Zealand,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, on Saturday. “This individual was not on the radar of either the New Zealand intelligence agencies or the Australian agencies.”

Somewhere along the line, Tarrant got radicalized and became a hateful racist who was consumed by alt-right conspiracy theories and historical nonsense. The manifesto he posted online showed that he was consumed with Australia’s European heritage, and it made reference to incidents that European white nationalists cite to vilify Islam and Muslims, including the long-running child-sexual-abuse scandal in Rotherham, England, and the sexual assaults in Germany, in 2015 and 2016. “It was not immediately clear whether Tarrant was involved in far-right neo-Nazi groups in Australia,” the Herald’s Michael Koziol wrote. “However, imagery from Tarrant’s now-removed Twitter profile bears striking similarity to those used by an extreme-right, anti-immigration group called The Dingoes. In his writing, Tarrant echoed views expressed by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people with a van bomb and gun massacre in Norway in 2011. He specifically mentioned Breivik by name, claiming he had ‘brief contact’ with the mass murderer and had received a ‘blessing’ for his actions from Breivik’s associates.”

So much for Donald Trump’s absurd response, on Friday, when he was asked whether he thought that white nationalism was a rising threat around the world. “I don’t really,” Trump said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.” Of course, Trump had good reason to try to minimize the threat from the extreme right. In his manifesto, Tarrant praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” while also criticizing his leadership skills. “As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no,” Tarrant wrote.

Of course, right-wing terrorism is now a very real and deadly threat in many Western countries, the United States included. Last October, Robert Bowers, a forty-six-year-old Pittsburgh man who ranted online about the threats presented by “illegals” and “the overwhelming Jew problem,” allegedly gunned down and killed eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. Just last month, federal agents arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard who had called for “focussed violence” to “establish a white homeland.” Like Tarrant, Hasson had been inspired by the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, and, according to the prosecutors, he was intending “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”

These are just the most visible recent examples of the ongoing violence perpetrated by white supremacists and other right-wing nuts. “Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018, making them responsible for more deaths than in any year since 1995,” the Anti-Defamation League noted in January. Even the Trump Administration’s own report, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” which was published last year, acknowledged that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise,” and it cited “racially motivated extremism” as one of the causes.

Another factor, undoubtedly, is the role that social media plays in cultivating the growth and amplifying the impact of extremist groups. In this case, Tarrant not only inhaled hatred and bigotry from the online world: he also live-streamed his murderous attack on Facebook, and the giant social network didn’t even know about it until they were informed by the police in New Zealand. By that stage, the gruesome video had gone viral. “The attack was teased on Twitter, announced on the online message board 8chan and broadcast live on Facebook,” Kevin Roose, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote. “The footage was then replayed endlessly on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, as the platforms scrambled to take down the clips nearly as fast as new copies popped up to replace them.”

What can we do about all this? In the face of all the hatred, the violence, and the enabling digital technology, it is easy to feel helpless. But some things can be done. To begin with, as Simon Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argued in a recent analysis, politicians from all parties, the President included, need to openly acknowledge the scale of the threat represented by right-wing terrorism, and to commit to tackling it in a number of different ways. One obvious step is to beef up the law-enforcement resources devoted to tracking right-wing extremism and investigating possible plots to carry out threats. In addition, the Trump Administration “needs to understand how overheated rhetoric—including the president’s own words—can lead to violence,” Clark wrote.

In addition, the Republican Party must face up to the responsibility it bears for refusing to accept that lax gun laws are another enabling factor for domestic terrorists of all ideological stripes. When Australia tightened its gun laws some years ago, following a gun massacre, New Zealand chose not to follow suit. That was a terrible error. On Saturday, New Zealand’s Attorney General, David Parker, said that the government would now ban semi-automatic weapons of the type that were used in Friday’s attack.

Parker also pointed a finger at the U.S. technology giants, saying, “How can it be right for this atrocity to be filmed by the murderer using a go-pro and live-streamed across the world by social media companies? How can that be right? Who should be held accountable for that?” At the very least, the big tech enterprises—such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter—must redouble their efforts to monitor hate speech on their platforms, take it down rapidly, and ban the people and groups who are spreading it. But, at this stage, it is too dangerous to leave this task to the companies, which, ultimately, are motivated by the desire to maximize traffic on their platforms. It is time for some collective action, also.

Perhaps, as my colleague Evan Osnos suggests, part of this could be a collective decision on the part of all of us to deny the terrorists the publicity and attention they crave. But how would that work in practice? Like it or not, it is big news when some embittered human shell goes out and kills fifty or a hundred innocents. People demand to hear about it. Perhaps refusing to name the shooter and blacking out his or her face in news photographs will discourage some future attackers, but that seems like a lot to hope for. Even if it had some effect, there would still be an urgent need to crack down on racial incitement and right-wing extremism generally. Only governments have the power to do this effectively.

Around the world, we are being confronted with the rise of a murderous and hateful ideology that targets minorities, glorifies violence, and thrives on modern communications technology. The response needs to be commensurate with the threat, which is spreading ominously, and to the most unlikely of places. Even bucolic New Zealand, a place where Silicon Valley billionaires are buying personal retreats in case it all comes down closer to home, couldn’t escape the plague.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. on money and morality in college admissions.

If you think you’re angry now, wait till you read the court documents.

Not that the summaries of a college cheating scandal so massive it briefly bumped Donald Trump from the “Breaking News” chyrons were not enough to make a nun cuss. Indeed, the story offered a perfect storm of outrage: the wealthy, well-known and well-connected gaming the system, lying, fixing tests and paying bribes to get their kids into prestigious colleges. It didn’t hurt that two of those arrested were famous actors: Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” fame and Lori Loughlin, who played “Aunt Becky” in that masterwork of saccharine banality, “Full House.”

But there is something about the tawdry details found in the affidavit by FBI agent Laura Smith that is truly infuriating. In its 204 pages, you get William “Rick” Singer, the scam’s mastermind, coaching his clients on lies they can tell to get a different ACT or SAT test site or some accommodation the testing services reserve for kids with learning disabilities. You get him soothing parents whose kids have entered school as purported athletic standouts and now worry that those kids will be asked to actually do something athletic. You get him scheming with parents who want their kids to think they did well on tests, when actually, one of Singer’s confederates secretly substituted his correct answers for their wrong ones.

And you get attorney Gordon Caplan, as captured on an FBI wiretap, fretting about what might happen if his daughter gets caught. “To be honest,” he says, “I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”

Ahem.

I am an alumnus of the University of Southern California, one of the schools — Harvard, Yale and Georgetown are among the others — Singer helped people like Caplan cheat their children into. Me, I got in because my mom and my counselor, Mr. Isaacs, moved Heaven, Earth and all the precincts in between to get my application approved and my tuition paid.

So forgive me if I am unable to dismiss “the moral issue here” as airily as Caplan does. Forgive me if I find these people and their scheme disgusting. But there is an object lesson here beyond disgust.

We live in a nation where equality is the official creed, but hardly the lived reality. To the contrary, people are jailed here because they cannot afford justice, ignorant here because they cannot afford learning, hungry here because they cannot afford food, dead here because they cannot afford health.

And the worst thing is, we accept that as somehow preordained, beyond our capacity to fix. Meantime, Forbes reported last year that the average CEO pulls down a salary 361 times more than his workers. In the 1950s, he earned “only” about 20 times more. How well do you live on your salary? How well could you live on your salary, times 20?

Yet when working-class people demand a wage large enough to simply sustain themselves — $15 an hour — it’s regarded as a radical idea and an existential threat. As perhaps it must be in a nation where poverty is structural, where the routes up and out are increasingly constricted and workers are kept distracted from their own plight by fights over race, religion and sexuality.

So this should be a wake-up call. While poor people fight internecine wars, while they choose between lights and food, while their services are cut and their industries disappear, rich people — some, at least — are writing large checks to lie their children into college. Every advantage in the world, and they take more.

If that’s not a moral issue we all should worry about, I don’t know what is.

Doonesbury — Building.

Saturday, March 16, 2019