Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Reading

Divide and Conquer — From The Economist, the reason Donald Trump is rallying the base of the GOP.

Because America’s electoral system all but guarantees the irrelevance of small parties, there’s no point to an American version of the Green Party or, for that matter, of UKIP or the National Front, which would absorb the country’s most rabidly anti-immigration white voters. The Republican Party is therefore a very big tent, covering tolerantly wealthy Chamber of Commerce types and upbeat religious conservatives, as well as working- and middle-class whites anxious about their dwindling majority and declining status in an increasingly multicultural America. When it was possible for Republicans to win national elections with only a smattering of support from non-white voters, the occasional venting of xenophobic paranoia about the criminality and infectiousness of immigrants might have helped as much as it hurt. But those days appear to be gone for good. If a Republican is to win the White House in 2016, he or she really must put a serious dent in the Democrats’ advantage with black, Hispanic and Asian voters—which poses a serious problem for the GOP. They’ve got to somehow pack both non-whites and bigots, immigrants and xenophobes, into the same big tent. Mr Trump is now exploiting this tension to his advantage.

A viably inclusive Republican presidential campaign will have to mute the coded and not-so-coded messages of white cultural superiority that have turned Americans of colour into reliable Democrats. But many conservative whites are still twitchy about their waning dominance. And they still matter in Republican politics, and have the power to decide primaries in many states. Perhaps the wariness of their party’s leading lights to cater to them as conspicuously as they once did leaves them feeling jilted. And that spells opportunity for an enterprising Republican candidate who is willing to damage the GOP’s brand, and his own, among Hispanics in order to steal some spotlight and, possibly, an early primary. Presidential politics is the ultimate reality show and, like it or not, Mr Trump knows how to play.

A famous billionaire may seem an unlikely populist champion, but Donald Trump is brilliantly suited to the role. The gaudy Mr Trump has always been a poor-man’s idea of a rich man, cunningly embodying America’s by-the-bootstraps cult of can-do capitalist success. Mr Trump has spent decades assiduously cultivating a public image as an unabashedly prosperous, fearlessly candid, hard-nosed negotiator. He is to millions of Americans more a figure of admiration than ridicule. For conservative whites who also feel that their relative position is slipping in an increasingly multicultural nation, such an unflappably indomitable fighter and audaciously authoritative voice makes a most welcome standard bearer.

Although Mr Trump’s divisive primary strategy, and seemingly inevitable presence on the GOP primary debate stage, is a headache to his more inclusive Republican rivals, it also presents them with an opportunity to prove their political chops and run away from the pack. If a candidate emerges from the Republican field who can manage to win over Hispanics by persuasively denouncing the Donald, all the while maintaining the loyalty of conservative xenophobes, he or she is a unique, high-wire-walking coalition-building talent who deserves to, and very well might, win it all.

You Call It Hypocrisy, They Call It Legislating — Steven I. Weiss in The Atlantic on the deal-making that runs our lives.

Political hypocrisy is so pervasive that it calls to mind Gregg Allman’s objection to the term “Southern rock.” The one has so much to do with the other, Allman said, that one might as well say, “rock rock.” To many voters, the seeming lack of ideological consistency in our elected officials smacks of corruption.

But hypocrisy, suggests recently retired Representative Barney Frank, is less evidence of corruption than evidence of its absence. It is what makes Congress function. It is the only tool legislators have after they’ve rooted out real corruption.

“Legislators do not pay each other for votes, and every member of a parliament in a democratic society is legally equal to every member,” Frank writes in his new memoir, Frank:A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. For legislators, cooperation is a form of political currency. They act in concert with other legislators, even at the expense of their own beliefs, in order to bank capital or settle accounts: “Because parliamentary bodies have to arrive at binding decisions on the full range of human activity in an atmosphere lacking the structure provided by either money or hierarchy, members have to find ways to bring some order out of what could be chaos,” Frank writes. So trading votes is how the business of politics is conducted. “Once you have promised another member that you will do something—vote a certain way, sponsor a particular bill, or conduct a hearing—you are committed to do it.”

In other words, constituents might not find their representative’s vote on an environmental bill to be consistent with their ideology, or might think that their senator’s take on the filibuster is dependent almost entirely on which party is in the majority—and they’re probably right. What Frank is revealing is that elected officials understand their votes in the same way, but that there’s no shame in that. As Frank has it, legislators have to act in ideologically inconsistent ways in the short run if they want to advance their larger objectives in the long run, as those larger objectives can only be achieved with teamwork. And the other members of their legislative team are only going to play ball with them if they know that they’ll take one for the team, that they’ll vote for something they don’t like because the team needs it.

And Frank goes further: Instead of seeing political flip-flopping as a necessary evil, he suggests it is inherent to democracy. In an interview for the TV show I host on The Jewish Channel, Up Close, he explained that, “Any legislator is in an essentially compromised position, given the nature of democracy, because your decision about how to vote inevitably is a compromise—our system wouldn’t work otherwise—between your own views and your voters’.” Frank argues that observing a legislator in any single moment or vote can give a false perspective on that legislator. Votes cast in support of apparently contradictory measures on several different occasions offer a more accurate view of a particular representative than any single vote held up to exemplify their approach to legislating.

As legislators are pulled this way and that by public opinion and by their commitments to fellow legislators, there’s also another force at play: the passage of time. Legislatures have a “strong bias against relitigating an issue that has been legitimately decided,” Frank writes. So legislators are left to choose among the available options at the time of the initial vote, and then often unable to revisit the issue later, even as opinions shift. “If every issue is always on the active agenda, if an issue that was already disposed of by a majority can be reopened whenever the side that lost regains and advantage, instability infects not just the body that made that decision but also the society that it is governed by.”


This is how Frank, the first gay member of Congress to come out voluntarily, ended up as an early architect of the policy that would eventually become “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” To head off the prospect of gays being entirely banned from the military in 1993, Frank advocated a middle path that he felt was the best achievable result at the time. Even though Bill Clinton ultimately took the plan in a harsher direction than Frank had hoped for, Frank knew he couldn’t introduce a bill to remove it at every subsequent congressional session. But choosing not to revisit “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at every opportunity didn’t say anything about his desire to see it end, in the same way that the initial proposal didn’t say anything about his desire to see gays serve openly in the military.

Frank’s view of hypocrisy is a self-serving narrative, to be sure, but it’s also a very rare example of a legislator choosing to actually explain such behavior, rather than pretending that such behavior does not exist.

The Perils of Snorkeling — Colin Stokes in The New Yorker explains why it’s better to stay on shore when you come down to the Keys.


When you are in the ocean, you are exposing yourself to the extremely likely possibility that you will be attacked and subsequently eaten by a shark. All fish that are not brightly colored look like they could be sharks, especially against a backdrop of murky water, which is terrifying.

Non-Shark Fish

Fish swim in ways that will make you anxious. If they are swimming toward you, they must logically be swimming away from something that you should swim away from, like a shark. If they are swimming with you, they are probably escaping from a shark that is pursuing you. And the fish are much faster swimmers than you. They are also visibly defecating in the water near your face, possibly out of spite.


This is the thing that you are meant to swim near, but which is apparently lethal if you touch it.

Other Snorkelers

They will be sure to abandon you as they swim on ahead, pretending not to be paralyzed by the fear of being eaten by a shark, leaving you vulnerable to an attack. If they are not too far away, they will be too close, and they will either scare you to death by touching your leg with a shark-like fin or will swim directly in front of you, giving you a perfect view up their swim shorts.


It is extremely salty, unlike the water that comes out of the tap in your apartment in the city, where you are comfortable and things are safe. The water will seep into your mask and make it extremely hard to see where the sharks are in the water. It will also fill your snorkel, giving you a glimpse of what it is like to be waterboarded while you are on holiday, which was not on the itinerary.

The Sun

You will be burned horribly on your exposed back as you snorkel. The only solution is to wear a T-shirt in the water and feel like the fat child at a pool that is filled with sharks who like to eat fat children.


You drank four beers and a Sex on the Beach before making the decision to get in the ocean, and you are now sobering up underwater, worrying about what will happen if you throw up into your snorkel.


You could observe all the tropical fish and coral that you are seeing now from the comfort of an air-conditioned room in Coney Island, with the added bonus of not having to pay the airfare to go to the Caribbean. Plus, there’s a roller coaster. But, on second thought, that might be something you should not do either.

Doonesbury — Through the lens, dimly.