Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Reading

Craven — Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on the firing of Andrew McCabe.

If you wanted to tell the story of an entire Presidency in a single tweet, you could try the one that President Trump posted after Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the F.B.I., on Friday night.

Every sentence is a lie. Every sentence violates norms established by Presidents of both parties. Every sentence displays the pettiness and the vindictiveness of a man unsuited to the job he holds.

The President has crusaded for months against McCabe, who is a crucial corroborating witness to Trump’s attempts to stymie the F.B.I.’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia. McCabe had first earned Trump’s enmity for supervising, for a time, the F.B.I.’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices, which ended without charges being filed against her. In these roles, McCabe behaved with the dignity and the ethics consistent with decades of distinguished service in law enforcement. He played by the rules. He honored his badge as a special agent. But his service threatened the President—both because of the past exoneration of Clinton and the incrimination of Trump, and for that, in our current environment, he had to be punished. Trump’s instrument in stifling McCabe was the President’s hapless Attorney General, who has been demeaning himself in various ways to try to save his own job. Sessions’s crime, in the President’s eyes, was recusing himself in the Russia investigation. (Doing the right thing, as Sessions did on that matter, is often a route to trouble with Trump.)

Sessions’s apparent ground for firing McCabe, on the eve of his retirement from the Bureau, thus perhaps depriving him of some or all of his retirement benefits, involves improper contacts with the news media. As an initial matter, this is rich, coming from an Administration that has leaked to the media with abandon. Still, the charges seem unfair on their face. After McCabe was dismissed, on Friday night, he said in a statement that the “investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. It was the type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week.” The idea that this alleged misdeed justifies such vindictive action against a distinguished public servant is laughable.

In his statement, McCabe spoke with bracing directness. “Here is the reality: I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey,” he said. In other words, McCabe was fired because he is a crucial witness in the investigation led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel. The firing of Comey is the central pillar of a possible obstruction-of-justice case against the President, either in a criminal prosecution or in an impeachment proceeding. By firing McCabe, Trump (through Sessions) has attempted to neuter an important witness; if and when McCabe testifies against Trump, he will now be dismissed by the President’s supporters as an ex-employee embittered by his firing. How this kind of attack on McCabe plays out in a courtroom, or just in the court of public opinion, remains to be seen.

What’s clear, though, is the depth of the President’s determination to prevent Mueller from taking his inquiries to their conclusion, as his personal attorney, John Dowd, made clear. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Dowd said, “I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.” Of course, notwithstanding Dowd’s caveat that he was speaking only for himself, Rosenstein is on notice that his failure to fire Mueller might lead to his own departure. And Sessions, too, must know that his craven act in firing McCabe will guarantee him nothing. Trump believes that loyalty goes only one way; the Attorney General may still be fired at any moment.

To spin matters out further, Sessions could be replaced with someone already confirmed by the Senate—perhaps Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the E.P.A.—who could take office in an acting capacity. At the moment, Mueller’s investigation is supervised by Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General, but presumably a new Attorney General, without Sessions’s conflict of interest, would take over that role. And that new Attorney General could fire Mueller. Such scenarios once seemed like the stuff of conspiracy theories. Now they look like the stuff of tomorrow’s news.

Andrew McCabe, who turns fifty on Sunday, will be fine as he moves to the next stop in his career. The demeaning and unfair act that ended his law-enforcement career will be seen, properly, as a badge of honor. Still, this is far from a great day for the men and women of the F.B.I., who now know that they serve at the sufferance of unethical men who think that telling the truth amounts to “sanctimony.” The lies in this story are about the F.B.I., not from the F.B.I. The firing of McCabe, and Trump’s reaction to it, has moved even such ordinarily restrained figures as John O. Brennan, the former director of Central Intelligence, to remarkable heights of outrage. Brennan tweeted on Saturday:

The haunting question, still very much unresolved, is whether Brennan’s confidence in America’s ultimate triumph is justified.

Look For The Union Label — John Nichols in The Nation on Conor Lamb’s message to Democrats.

Paul Ryan and Donald Trump are running scared. After the Republican candidate who ran with the ardent backing of the Republican Speaker of the House and the Republican president lost a special election for a Pennsylvania congressional seat in a district that was so Republican-friendly that Donald Trump won it by 20 points and the former GOP congressman regularly ran without opposition, the men who define the Republican Party as it now exists had to explain their loss.

So they announced that the Democrat who beat them was, more or less, a Republican. Ryan claimed that the victor in Tuesday’s special election, Conor Lamb, ran as a “conservative.” Trump claimed that Lamb leaned so far to the right that, the president mused, “Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.”

This is the carefully crafted spin that politicians peddle after they have suffered a setback.

Lamb’s narrow victory, which could still be challenged with a recount demand, unsettled top Republicans for good reason. It suggests, as the 2018 midterm-election season takes off, that Democrats could win almost anywhere. According to the Cook Political Report, there are 118 Republican-held seats in the US House that are less Republican-friendly than Pennsylvania’s District 18. This vulnerability explains why Ryan and Trump want pundits and pols to imagine that Lamb embraced their policies and simply ran with a “D” after his name. They want that to be the “lesson” that pundits and pols take away from Tuesday’s election result.

The real lesson, the one that Democrats need to recognize, is precisely the opposite. Lamb isn’t exactly a progressive Democrat. But Ryan’s being absurd when he tries to identify the Pennsylvanian as a conservative. Lamb campaigned as a sharp critic of corporate influence on American politics, someone who criticized Trump’s tax policies and aggressively defended the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs that Ryan seeks to dismantle. Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, says: “Lamb’s victory is a repudiation of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the American people’s earned benefits.”

There’s no question that Lamb adopted cautious language—and cautious stances—on several issues of consequence. Even as he supported abortion rights, the Democrat described himself as “personally pro-life.” Though he backed background checks for gun purchases and was explicitly opposed by the National Rifle Association, Lamb’s response to gun-violence issues was disappointingly tepid. The same goes for his vapid statements on immigration. And Lamb’s digs at House Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi were political gimmickry at its most drab.

But on the essential issue of labor rights, Lamb ran a far more militant campaign than most prominent Democrats have in recent decades. The candidate sought labor endorsements, as Democrats usually do, and he called his Republican rival out for taking anti-labor positions. But Lamb went much further than that. Instead of treating organized labor as a special-interest group, he embraced unions like the Pennsylvania-based United Steelworkers as a vital piece of the infrastructure for a healthy civil society.

On the short list of priorities that he made the focus of his campaign, Lamb listed “Unions” and declared: “I support unions, and I’m proud to be endorsed by the AFL-CIO. I believe that all workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and working conditions. And I know that when unions do the work, it gets done on time and on budget. Union members in our district can count on me to be the most effective ally they have in fighting to protect their rights, support prevailing wages and Project Labor Agreements, and defeat the ideological extremists who want to put unions out of existence.”

Go search the websites of prominent Democrats for similar sentiments. Rarely, if ever, will you find this sort of explicit pro-labor message. Listen to the speeches of Democratic winners (and losers) in recent races for lines like these from Lamb’s election-night address:

Side by side with us at each step of the way were the men and women in organized labor.

Organized labor built Western Pennsylvania. Let me tell you something: Tonight, they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future. These unions have fought for decades for wages, benefits, working conditions, basic dignity, and social justice. Thank you! Thank you!

You have brought me into your ranks to fight with you. Let me tell you something else: I am proud to be right there with you.

National media outlets have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the reality of what Americans think about unions and labor rights. They have, for the most part, failed to communicate the significance of Conor Lamb’s bold embrace of a labor movement that has been the target of a brutal assault by billionaire donors like the Koch brothers and political tools like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Lamb put organized labor at the center of his campaign. That was smart politics. As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka explained: “Conor Lamb won this race because he proudly stood with unions, shared our agenda and spoke out for our members.” That is the lesson Democrats should take from this special election. And it’s not just a lesson about western Pennsylvania or the embattled Great Lakes states.

Americans like unions. The Gallup polling organization has for 80 years asked voters: “Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?” The current approval rating, 61 percent, rivals the high rates of 50 years ago—when leaders of both major parties pledged their allegiance to organized labor.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, perhaps because unions were so popular, even Republicans were supportive of them. There was an understanding that former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was on to something when he explained: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt [a wealthy political donor of the era], a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Ronald Reagan, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, ran for governor of California in 1966 as a foe of Republican assaults on labor rights. “Reagan recalled with pride his years as a labor-union president,” Time magazine reported at the time. “As a result of that experience, he has taken a strong pro-labor position on right-to-work laws.” Several years earlier, Richard Nixon was an outspoken opponent of an attempt to undermine labor rights in California and make it a so-called right-to-work state.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans turned hard against labor, and too many top Democrats imagined that unions were a thing of the past.

That was always false, and it remains so to this day.

At precisely the point when strong unions are needed to address mounting inequality and injustice, Republicans like Ryan and Walker have positioned their party on the side of the virulently anti-labor extremism of the Koch brothers. Unfortunately, too many Democrats have continued to mount only lukewarm defenses of unions. That’s a mistake that has cost the party politically.

Americans of all backgrounds have experienced jarring economic and social shifts— globalization, a digital revolution, a revolution in automation and robotics—that are making them feel insecure about their future. Just as unions addressed the insecurities of the past, they are needed to address the insecurities of our own time.

Conor Lamb recognized this reality, made common cause with the labor movement, and won. His fellow Democrats would be wise to do the same.

Stephen Hawking Lived Beyond His Body — An appreciation by Héléne Mialet.

Midnight. As I was browsing the internet, I saw, like shooting stars, emails suddenly appear and disappear from the right-hand corner of my computer screen. The first from CNN announcing the death of Stephen Hawking, the second from an editor at TheAtlantic asking me to write about him.

I had written about the man for 10 years—as a biographer of some sort, or an anthropologist of science to be more precise, studying the traces of Hawking’s presence. But now I felt a powerless inertia, unable to write anything. I didn’t think I would be affected by his death, but it touched me deeply. I was overwhelmed by the numerous articles that started to appear all over the world doing precisely what I had studied for so long and so carefully: recycling over and over again the same stories about him. Born 300 years after the death of Galileo Galilei, holder of Cambridge’s Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (once held by Isaac Newton), and now … died on the same day Albert Einstein was born. The life paths of history’s most iconic scientists intersected in weird ways. The puzzle seemed complete: Hawking had fully entered the pantheon of the great.

Because of him, I too had been in the eyes of the press. After I wrote an article in Wired magazine about his reliance on technology, I received an incendiary message on my answering machine accusing me of desacralizing his iconic status by transforming him into a robot. My picture circulated in the Daily Mail with Darth Vader at my side. I even received death threats. But I was arguing not that he was more machine than human, but rather that he was like all of us: all too human, and always dependent on others, whether humans or machines.Hawking fascinates. He has always done and he will always do. He fascinated me as an anthropologist curious to understand the ins and outs of modernity: science, technology, and, at its core, the central role of genius and individuality. Hawking was at once a “beautiful mind” in the public eye, and a beautiful counter-example to those like me who argue that science is socially, collectively and materially made.

So what to make of Hawking then—this iconic genius, who had lost the capacity to talk, and the use of his hands, and seemed to live only in his head? Was it really “all in his head”? This is the question I explored in my book: incredulous, but curious; interested in the myth, but thinking like a social scientist; respectful of the man, but ready to understand what allows him to think and produce theoretical work as a cosmologist. It is then that I started to reconstruct, one by one, what I call his “extended bodies.”

Unable to do anything by himself, Hawking had to delegate his competences to machines and humans who were doing for him what he couldn’t do alone. His disability was thus making visible what we normally don’t see and take for granted: the complex support without which not only Hawking—but anyone—would not be able to be and to think. The question was becoming then, not who he was, but where he was in these multiple collectives, in his extended bodies. And he was definitely there.Someone who can walk, when asked to give a lecture, can just jump on a train and go. For Hawking it typically took months of preparation before he could travel from one point of the planet to another. Even the questions that he would be asked had to be prepared in advance. Despite this orchestration, made possible by his many human and mechanical assistants—the people and things which in a sense choreographed his genius—the man would always surprise his audiences, making them, for example, wait for 15 minutes, only to respond to an elaborate question with a simple “yes” or “no”.

Writing an article for him was often the product of a close collaboration with his students. But more than once, though his students had spent months doing complex calculations, they would often underplay their own contributions and give credit instead to Hawking’s amazing intuition. Intuition? Thinking, you mean? Yes, of course, he was a master at thinking, but his thinking was aided by intellectual tools, such as diagrams, that were carefully crafted by his students who had learned his diagrammatic way of thinking. He would learn these diagrams, memorize them and think with them, as he couldn’t draw them by himself.

Yes, he was definitely there, resisting his entourage when they tried to convince him to change his software, his old program, Equalizer, that was painfully slow, but had become an extension of himself; or to change his American accent, which had become, as he liked to recall, part of his identity.

There was the Hawking who played with his audience by making them wait for 15 minutes to only say “yes” or “no.” The one who surprised me the first time I met him by telling me he would print our interviews directly from his computer, no need to record. The one who protested the white studio used in the documentary called TheHawking Paradox, because he thought it made him look dead.

But more than all of this, the image that will remain forever in my memory is Berlin. Hawking had flown from Cambridge with his assistants and a few students for an international gathering on string theory. The last night, after the meeting, we went to a fancy restaurant in Potsdam, where Churchill, Stalin, and Truman met to establish order on the world after the war. Stephen decided we should all go to a nightclub after dinner. Nobody really wanted to go; we were all tired. He was not, and so we went, dancing together till late in the night.

 Doonesbury — Dress for success.